Revelation, Rules, Roles, Relationships
Rev Simon Walkling
We are continuing to think about how God is revealed to us, and how we know where God is leading us. That’s difficult in these times when our normality has been disrupted and we don’t know how soon we can make plans with confidence. Such times can make us anxious and deaf to God, but they can also free us from the constraints of business as usual and open us up to revelation. It’s with this in mind, that I’ve been thinking about the readings we will hear, which lots of churches will be using.
The first is from Isaiah 40. It’s the start of 15 chapters which capture something of the mood and thought around the time of the return of the exiles from Babylon five centuries before the time of Jesus. You may remember that the Babylonians had invaded Judah, destroyed the temple and taken the leaders off to Babylon. These chapters of Isaiah capture the time 70 years later, when Babylon has been taken over by Persia and Cyrus the king says the Jews can return. Hear the words of encouragement echo down the years: God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
Reading Isaiah 40: 27-31
Words that can give us comfort and encouragement today. I wonder if you also heard, ‘The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth’? When you see ‘LORD’ in capitals in translations of the Bible, it translates the name of God that was revealed to Moses, the name that was too holy to say, the name Yahweh or ‘Being’; the saviour God who led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. One of the results of wondering how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, was the insight that their tribal god was in fact the God of everything and everyone, whose influence stretched to the ends of the earth and who could use Cyrus as ‘an anointed one’ (a messiah) to free them. When most cultures thought that disaster meant their god was too weak or uninterested or asleep, the Exiles expanded their understanding of God and the revelation brought them comfort and new direction. They rooted their hope in God and that’s expressed in this hymn:
All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown, he alone
calls my heart to be his own.
Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
what with care and toil is builded,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power hour by hour
is my temple and my tower.
Still from earth to God eternal
sacrifice of praise be done,
high above all praises praising
for the gift of Christ his Son.
Christ doth call one and all;
ye who follow shall not fall.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) based on Joachim Neander (1640-80)
When you look at the stories before the Exile, it looks like the Jews remembered Yahweh as their saving warrior God, but they weren’t averse to sacrificing to the fertility gods if the harvest needed it, or accommodating foreign gods if a political marriage required it. Now after returning, with the revelation that God was creator and saviour, their minds started working. If it wasn’t a deficiency in God that led to the destruction of the Temple and the disaster of the Exile, then it must have been the failure of them as God’s people. God expected high standards and they had fallen short. The way to prevent future disasters was to impose the rules God had previously revealed and root out the influence of foreign gods.
Where the revelation of the Creating Saviour could give comfort that the disaster would pass and be overtaken by God’s eternal purpose, the human logic that followed it was to rewrite their history to see the whole experience as punishment.
Where the revelation of God who was God of everywhere and everyone could be expansive and inclusive, the rules that followed it narrowed down to those who identified as Yahweh’s people and excluded others. And the Temple that followed as a connecting place between heaven and earth, turned out to reinforce this separation of people and restricted access to God.
Adherence to rules which were intended to keep them in right relationship with God, had the potential to replace their relationship with the Creative Saviour. Let’s hold that thought and listen to our reading about a day in the life of Jesus, evening and morning.
Reading: Mark 1:29-39
In the evening, miracles follow miracle: people are healed, and demons are cast out. This doesn’t happen in the Temple or synagogue, but in a home in a fishing village. My tendency is to skip over the miracles and demons, and think of them as part of a different time and way of seeing the world. We can’t just not know about modern medicine or our understanding of psychological disturbance. But I can sympathise why some people look at a passage like this and ask, ‘Why God can’t make a miracle for me?’ I see Jesus providing signs that God is at work: giving signs of God’s grace that makes people whole, for a few people on an evening in Capernaum, as a sign of what God wants for all people. Others want to find a way to reproduce the healing and deliverance here and now, to find the mechanism to make God fix things, to put things right. I find suggestions in the passage that Jesus doesn’t want to get boxed into this way of thinking. He doesn’t settle for being a miracle machine. He doesn’t want the demons to disclose his true identity; maybe he doesn’t want irrefutable proof of that he is God’s Son, or people won’t have to decide for themselves. And after praying the next day, he doesn’t return to the same place to perform more miracles, he wants to move on, to proclaim the message in other places. He goes beyond what we would settle for.
So, let’s look at the next morning. In the dark he goes to a deserted place and prays. Perhaps he is wondering whether the ‘success’ of the previous evening is worth building on, perhaps he needs to reconnect with his calling that he worked out in the desert. Is there a temptation to stay and heal more people? Surely God is revealed in healing and deliverance? Is that the same as turning stones into bread? Has he been here before? How do we know what God wants? (Is it presumptuous to wonder what was in the mind of Jesus?). He withdraws from distraction to pray.
But the disciples hunt for him. Everyone is searching for him. ‘Come and solve more problems…’ Jesus responds, ‘Let’s go on… proclaim the message… that’s why I came out.’ Healing and deliverance are a sign of God at work, a sign of the wholeness God gives, but they are not an end in themselves: they are to turn people to God, to become friends of God and partners in God’s work. They are a way of communicating the message, but the message has to be proclaimed: God’s Kingdom is near, turn to God and trust in God, revealed in Jesus, God saves, God’s agent on earth (the messiah), the Son of God, as Mark flagged right at the beginning of his telling of this good news. Jesus role is not to be the fixer that people want, but to bring close the God they need, and to model a relationship with God that carries us through life and death to be with God forever.
Isaiah offers a revelation of God one God for the world, who creates and saves, born out of reflection on bitter experience. Some turned that into rules, which did not deliver on a liberating relationship with the living God. Jesus offers a revelation of God at work in the world. Some wanted to keep him in the role of miracle worker and people fixer, rather than a Kingdom bringer creating relationships which would help those touched by God to change the world.
Which bring us back to our here and now. We are sharing in anxious times and bitter experiences, longing for something or someone to fix everything. We are out of our buildings with our status quo disrupted. As God’s people and followers of Jesus, how are we to reveal God and know where he is leading us? From what I see in Isaiah and Mark, I suggest we need to reflect on our experience and make the most of the time away from the things that normally scaffold our religious life. We can connect with the God who is creator and saviour of all, and cultivate our relationship with God and other people rather than obscuring God with rules or buildings. We will need to continue following COVID related rules in churches for months, even with increasing numbers vaccinated, because those rules are in place to adjust for people have different understanding of, and relationship to, the risks of spreading and catching the virus. Other rules that keep us safe are similar. But we can see that positively: we can use some of this time out of routine to pray; spending time in relationship with God to shape our future, reconnecting with our calling to be God’s people involved in God’s work. We do not need to settle for religious rules or fixed roles, we are looking for revelations that lead to relationship with the living God, which will overflow in showing and sharing God’s love in the world. May it be so. Amen.
We now join in the singing of Carol R Ikeler’s hymn: It can be found on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XqtUIlR9zs
The Church is wherever God’s people are praising
singing their thanks for his goodness this day.
© 1963 WL Jenkins Westminster/John Knox Press CCL 67004
Prayers of Intercession
Let us pray…
Loving God, when you walked on dusty roads or sat by glistening waters, you met people where they were.
When you bent down low to touch the ill, or raised your eyes in prayer, heaven and earth were met.
And so our prayer today is that our world will know your healing touch and your forgiving heart. That those who have been hurt by insincere actions and damning words will hear your healing voice. That those whose lives are filled with dark thoughts, or unimaginable fears, will know your peace.
Walk beside those who are close to giving up hope and where lockdown life feels like a constant struggle. May those suffering from illness and isolation feel something of your presence, comfort and strength.
May all who weep and mourn, or feel abandoned and unloved turn towards your voice,
move towards your arms and hear the whisper of your presence in the long hours of night.
Inspire us and encourage us to bend down low; to care for those for whom society has little time or patience. Raise our eyes upwards to see the struggling patient and the exhausted care giver.
Where young and old stumble and fall, may we be there to offer support. Give us rest when life’s pace overwhelms us and bless us that we might be a blessing to others.
And because words can never be enough, we bring you the people and places on our hearts in a time of stillness…
Living God, you are the maker of all that is; you are the source of love itself; and so we bring these prayers to you, in the name of Jesus, our brother and saviour, saying together the prayer he taught us,
Our Father Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever, Amen