40FP(20): Numbers 12

(NLT translation, which is my favourite at the moment)
1 While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman.
2 They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them.
3 (Now Moses was very humble — more humble than any other person on earth.)
4 So immediately the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and said, “Go out to the Tabernacle, all three of you!” So the three of them went to the Tabernacle.
5 Then the Lord descended in the pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle. “Aaron and Miriam!” he called, and they stepped forward.
6 And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say:
“If there were prophets among you,
I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions.
I would speak to them in dreams.
7 But not with my servant Moses.
Of all my house, he is the one I trust.
8 I speak to him face to face,
clearly, and not in riddles!
He sees the Lord as he is.
So why were you not afraid
to criticize my servant Moses?”
9 The Lord was very angry with them, and he departed.
10 As the cloud moved from above the Tabernacle, there stood Miriam, her skin as white as snow from leprosy. When Aaron saw what had happened to her,
11 he cried out to Moses, “Oh, my master! Please don’t punish us for this sin we have so foolishly committed.
12 Don’t let her be like a stillborn baby, already decayed at birth.”
13 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “O God, I beg you, please heal her!”
14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn’t she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, and after that she may be accepted back.”
15 So Miriam was kept outside the camp for seven days, and the people waited until she was brought back before they traveled again.
16 Then they left Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

Why is this a favourite passage?
There is much worth pondering in this passage. A few thoughts:
1) Like many in authority, Moses arouses resentment in those around him. It is as if Miriam and Aaron (brother and sister to Moses, remember) resent the admission into Moses’ inner circle of someone new. This is rivalrous desire.
2) Unlike most people, Moses does not play their game – he is genuinely humble – but the Lord then acts on his behalf. Moses does not assert himself – the Lord defends Moses from what his relatives are doing. Something of a theme with Moses (‘you have only to stand and watch…’)
3) Moses intercedes for his sister – there is no anger on display. Moses doesn’t try to stand in God’s place of judgement.
4) The people wait for Miriam.

I just find this a very human vignette, and a story which says a great deal about Moses’ character.

40FP(19): 1 Peter 1.3-9

Resuming this Lenten series; hopefully it’ll be finished before next Lent!

1 Peter 1.3-9 (from the NLT)
3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation,
4 and we have a priceless inheritance — an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.
5 And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.
6 So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while.
7 These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold — though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.
8 You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy.
9 The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls.

Why is this a favourite passage?
The simple answer is that it was set in our Morning Prayer lectionary for Monday May 11 and was one of many examples at that time of feeling that God was talking directly to me (the fact that the previous day’s Gospel lesson was John 15.1-8 was another one). I wouldn’t have considered this a favourite passage before that moment; as it is, the message is now engraved on my heart. It has many applications for when people are suffering in all sorts of circumstances; for me, one key part of the reassurance that the passage contains is that these things happen in order for the faith to be shared more widely. God peels away all those things in our lives that are not built from a genuine faith, in order that the more genuine faith can be seen. We are called to trust that vindication will come, in God’s good time.

40FP(18): John 12.44-46

44 Then Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.
45 When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.
46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

Why is this a favourite passage?
I see this as the basic claim of Christianity – in Jesus we see God.

As will become clear as this series goes on, John is my favourite gospel (even though I accept it is less historically ‘straight’ than the others). This passage comes at what is effectively the mid-point of the book, the turning point of the gospel as a whole. Up until this time John has been describing Jesus’ public ministry – the signs of power that Christ accomplished to give a witness to his nature, so, the turning of water into wine, overturning the tables in the temple, the feeding of five thousand, the raising of Lazarus and so on. From this point Jesus’ public ministry is complete, and the remainder of the gospel has two elements – Jesus teaching the disciples in what is called the ‘farewell discourse’, and then the story of Holy Week. So this text is a hinge – it looks back to Christ’s public ministry, and forward to his teaching of the disciples.

I would pick out three elements from the text. The first is that there is continuity between the Father and the Son – Christ is the way to the Father. If this wasn’t true then Christianity would be idolatrous – the raising up of a creature to the rank of creator.

The second is verse 45 which underlies the theology of icons, as used in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Think of looking through Christ, as you look through a window – for Christ is wholly transparent to God, when you look at him, you look at the one who sent him.

Finally we have the ‘mission statement’ from Christ – I have come into the world as light, that no-one who believes in me should stay in darkness. Christ illuminates our lives; he shows us the nature of God and of humanity – and so our own nature becomes clearer as a result. Our way becomes clearer, a way which Christ shows to us in his own life. The question is whether we turn towards the light or away from the light. The Christian calling as disciples is to trust in the light so that we might become children of light – and then we will be transparent to God too; living icons of the Father.

40FP(17): Jeremiah 20.7-9

7 O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long; everyone mocks me.
8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
9 If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Why is this a favourite passage?
Simply because I identify with it so strongly! The English translations tend to minimise the shocking language being used here – I understand that the language is actually that used to describe seduction and rape, a complete overpowering of the person’s own choices. That is certainly how I experienced my own vocation. It becomes a compulsion – a word that must be spoken, that fidgets under the skin until it is released; and then, when it is, the world mocks (and I end up being known as the Vicar who hates Tesco, or – and this is more accurate – the one who is worried about Peak Oil and all that it implies). Which is fair enough, you don’t become a clergyman unless you are prepared to put up with being a figure of ridicule. It just means that passages like this one speak directly to how I experience God and my present condition – and that’s why it’s a favourite passage.

40FP(16): Psalm 127

I’m way behind with these!

1 Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.
2 In vain you rise early and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.

3 Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.
4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.

Why is this a favourite passage?
Although the second half of the psalm might seem to run against it, I see this as one of the most explicit and practical psalms describing what it means to trust in God. The first two clauses emphasise a common Psalmic theme of trusting only in God rather than our own strength (or the strength of a horse, or princes or anything else). This is the practical outworking of idolatry – whenever we put our final trust in something other than God it ends up not just failing but betraying that trust. The next clause is one that challenges me often when we read this psalm in the Daily Office, and it is a more personal attack on idolatry – the idolatry of autonomy (a very common one today). Those who believe in God need to allow him to be God, to actually be in charge of heaven and earth – and therefore believers need to worry less (as Jesus taught).

The Psalm then seems to change gear with its recommendation of having children young, with the very practical consequence of having able bodied men to support you if – as a middle aged man – you end up in an argument ‘at the gate’. I can recognise the practicality of this, but how it links with the foregoing is not yet clear to me.

Great psalm though.

40FP(15): Romans 8.13-19

13 If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’
16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.

Why is this a favourite passage?
Romans 8 has all sorts of wonderful things within it, not least the conclusion, but this passage has probably exercised a hold on me longer than anything else that Paul wrote.

V13: I don’t read this in a gnostic fashion, whereby anything physical is suspect, and only the ethereal/spiritual/mental is good. I read it (and I think what Paul had in mind was) that our appetites need to be structured around a higher good, and suborned to that higher good, not that the appetites are in themselves sinful. This I see as a call to live with integrity – to bring our lives into an order structured by what we most desire, which, in Augustinian fashion, I see as the love of God.
V14: A manifesto claim: those in whom God lives are his children, and there are certain rights and duties consequent to that fact.
V15: Unpacking things further, being a child of God means that we are not to be afraid of God – our relationship to God is not that of quivering supplicant to violent dictator, rather it is that of beloved child to affirming parent, one who delights in our very existence. So much spiritual energy is wasted trying to please – appease – the monster, when the monster doesn’t exist. To be a child of God is to realise that God is on our side and likes us. Hence the ‘Abba’ (“Daddy”).
V16 & 17: When we gain the confidence to treat with God in this way, leaving the fear aside and embracing the love, this is the Spirit working within us. The world being what it is, walking freely with the Lord is liable to get us crucified – but our sufferings that follow from this are what show us sharing in Christ’s life, and being his brothers and fellow heirs to the Kingdom.
V18: This world is broken both in human relationships and between humans and the environment and we suffer as a result. Yet the Spirit is the assurance that the suffering does not have the final word: one day things will be put right.
V19: The eventual restoration is cosmic; it is not a privatised accounting of moral failure, it is a renewal of earth and heaven. Humanity has its place within creation as God’s children playing in the Garden and not only do we as human beings suffer because of our sin, so too does the rest of creation. As we enter into the life of Christ and the Spirit breathes through us, the creation is healed through our activity – that is our purpose on this earth, to tend the garden. So the creation is waiting for us to enter into our inheritance – a marvellous image.

40FP(14): Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Why is this a favourite passage?
The Psalms are wonderful, and this is the first of the psalms – if not pride of place, certainly a prominent place. It sets out two paths – those things which are not to be done, and those things which are to be done. More than this, it sets out the consequences – if we walk in the way of the Lord, pondering his Law (which is one particular embodiment of the Word) then we shall prosper. Obviously there are lots of caveats and explanations needed to put flesh on those stark bones, but here it is portrayed very simply. If we cleave to the Lord, then we gain life.

40FP(13): Matthew 25.31-46

As I’m on a roll with this theme….

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Why is this a favourite passage?
This summarises some of the principal themes which I take from my reading of Scripture, and I see it as a summation of the message of the Old Testament: it’s not about what you call Jesus, it’s about how you live, and in the end we will be judged on how we have lived – this is simply what it means to be righteous. As it happens, I don’t think this completely undermines the priority of grace, nor does it render faith irrelevant, but I’ll save the explanation of that for another post.

40FP(12): James 2.14-26

This is a text I refer to, more or less explicitly, on a regular basis (from the NRSV this time)

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.
20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren?
21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.
23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God.
24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?
26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

Why is this a favourite passage?
The short answer is that it is a key text preventing ‘faith’ from turning into an idol. A faith which does not bear fruit in good work is a meaningless faith – practice gives the words their sense, to use Wittgenstein’s pithy aphorism. So often religious debate gets tangled up in words when ultimately it is not the words that are important. Nor, ultimately, is it a question of beliefs about matters of fact – even the demons believe! – but only of beliefs which guide our actions. A belief which has no consequence for how we live is completely irrelevant, it is simply decoration upon our mental furniture. Verse 24 is a particularly entertaining one to quote when in discussion with extreme Protestants! (It is why Luther wanted this taken out of the Bible, and called it an ‘Epistle of Straw’.)