Wrestling Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 31-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. I’m sorry this message is so long, but today’s reading is a seriously difficult passage and requires careful work. I do encourage you to watch the video and learn some profound lessons about Jesus and about faith.

Our reading today is from Matthew 15:21-28. The following translation is by Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew. I’m using this because he keeps closely to the sentence structure in the Greek, which I will show is important for making sense of this passage:

21. And Jesus left there and withdrew into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.
22. And look! a Canaanite woman from that region approached and was crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is horribly possessed by a demon!”
23. But he did not respond to her with a single word.
And his disciples came up to him and repeatedly asked him, “Get rid of her, will you; she keeps screaming at us!”
24. But he responded and said, “I was not sent to anyone except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25. But she came up, bowed down worshipfully before him, and said, “Lord, help me!”
26. But he responded and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
27. But she said, “Oh yes, Lord! Yet even the house dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
28. Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific; let it be done for you exactly as you want.” And her daughter was healed that very moment.

This is such a difficult passage, because Jesus expresses what appears to be deeply disrespectful, pejorative, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist views towards the Canaanite woman. In our contemporary society, which is so riddled with racism and hostility to all who are other (including immigrants, LGBTQI+, women, etc.). It reads like (what we would today call) hate speech.

So, I have titled this message Wrestling Jesus because there are three layers of wrestling taking place here.

First, I and we have to wrestle with Jesus. His words are very hard to understand and swallow. We have to engage honestly, thoughtfully, carefully with Jesus words. We have to avoid sanitising his words, while also making sense of his words.

Second, I suggest what we are reading is Jesus wrestling with himself. I suggest what we reading is like a Shakespearean soliloquy, in which Jesus speaks out loud his internal grappling or wrestling. I’ve done some colour coding to emphasise the structure:

  1. All of the sentences (except the last) start with ‘and’ or ‘but’. I suggest that what this does is to suspend time, to create a pocket of timelessness in which something can emerge. This continues until the last verse which finally has a ‘then’ – and then the story moves forward. We have a similar event in John 8:1-11, where Jesus kneels down and doodles in the same, while the men accuse the woman of adultery.
  2. Jesus’ name is not mentioned except in the first and last verse. In the middle verses it is just ‘he’. This depersonalisation contributes to the timelessness of the narrative.
  3. In two of the three ‘responded and said’, we are not told who he responded to. It is not clear who he is speaking to. It seems he may be just speaking, to himself; saying out loud what he is thinking in his mind.
  4. v24 suggests that Jesus’ wrestling is between his mission to the people of Israel (and they would subsequently have the mission of bringing the Gospel to the nations) and the needs of this individual woman in front of him who is not an Israelite.
  5. v26 has the terrible words that seems to say that Canaanites are dogs. In my view and that of some commentators, this is a well-known racist expression that was commonly used in those days, much as we have racist expressions for groups of people today. That Jesus would say these words in the presence of this woman is hard to swallow – it is painful and anti-pastoral. But perhaps Jesus is saying out loud what people say about women like her. And perhaps this is his wrestling.
  6. What he seems to come to through all this is that PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MISSION (or law or religion or sexual orientation or politics or nationality, etc, etc, etc.). PEOPLE MATTER! Jesus seems to learn this from her.
  7. And then, in the final verse, we get a Then! Now time starts again and the story moves forward. “Then Jesus responded and said to her.” This is the first time he speaks to her directly. Everything before this, I suggest, is soliloquy. He is wrestling with his role and he learns from her what is most important, that people matter.

We see Jesus grow and learn. We see him rediscovering the truth that people matter. More than anything – including our theology, doctrine, denomination, politics, nationality, race, sexual orientation – people matter!

Third, the Canaanite woman wrestles with Jesus. She has a great need – her daughter is horribly possessed by a demon – and she is desperate for Jesus’ help. Even though she is not Jewish, she recognises who he is: Lord (the Messiahs, the Christ), Son of David (the culmination of Jewish prophecy about the line of David). Her faith, perhaps fuelled by her desperation, helps her to hear between the lines.

  • After her first appeal to him in v22, Jesus does not respond. He is silent. What she hears is not a disinterest, but “He’s not chased me away. He’s still here. I still have a chance.” And so she persists.
  • The disciples want Jesus to send her away, but Jesus says that he was sent to the house of Israel. What she hears is not that she is not part of the house of Israel, but that he has not said ‘no’ to her. There is still a chance. And so he persists. She grovels in front of him and cries out, “Lord, help me!”
  • Then Jesus quotes this racist expression. What she hears is not that she is trash, but that she can be a pet dog at his table, who is eligible to eat the scraps that fall from it. There is still a chance. And so she persists. She takes ownership of the label ‘dog’.
  • Now she is brilliant! She takes the expression that Jesus spoke out loud and turns it to her advantage. She turns his words against him. She wrestles him to the ground. She makes it impossible for him to say ‘No’.
  • Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific!” He sees her, speaks to her, recognises her, acknowledges her, yields to her. He uses the word ‘you‘ or ‘your‘ three times in v28. He recognises her as a person who matters, and he gives her what she has asked for with such faith and tenacity.

This woman teaches us to never, never, never give up prayer. Pray without ceasing. Do not lose hope. Wrestle God to the ground until he gives you what you are asking for.

Featured image: The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly. Downloaded from https://www.friendsjournal.org/woman-refused-take-no-answer/

He heard my cry

I encourage you to listen to this message. I have the strongest sense that this may be a Word from God for you. It is from Psalm 31:21-22

Praise be to the Lord,
for he showed me the wonders of his love
when I was in a city under siege.
In my alarm I said,
“I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.

Click here to listen to the 16-minute audio. Or watch the YouTube video below.

 

Featured image from here.

Why Jesus would say ‘Black Lives Matter’

Click here to listen to the audio of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the very brief textual summary that follows.

I appreciate that this topic will be controversial for many. I really encourage you to watch this message please and not just read it, particularly if you find the title problematic. At least, just listen to what I have to say, even if you decide you don’t agree with it.

But, very briefly, the main points are:

  1. Jesus died for ALL of humanity – for the whole world – and would thus say, without equivocation, ‘All lives matter‘.
  2. But Jesus would also confront us, saying that we do not live our lives as if all lives mattered.
  3. Jesus’ ministry consistently and deliberately positions himself with those who are vulnerable, oppressed, poor, or marginalised: women, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, the dead.
  4. Throughout his ministry – throughout the Gospels – Jesus enacts the message that Black lives matter, Women’s lives matter, Immigrants’ lives matter, Children’s lives matter, etc.
  5. Jesus is not saying the lives of the poor matter more than other people’s lives; but that their lives do not matter less than other people’s lives.
  6. Jesus is sensitive to power differentials and deliberately chooses to stand with those who are disempowered and often against those who are powerful. The story of the woman caught in adultery is a good example.
  7. Jesus sometimes engages with the powerful, but does so in a way that helps them to recognise and challenge their privilege. The story of Zacchaeus is a good example example.
  8. Jesus’ ministry is consistently one of bringing down the powerful and raising up the powerless – a reversal of fortunes. Mary’s Magnificat is a good sermon on this.
  9. In the new heaven and the new earth, all lives will actually matter in people’s lives experience. But in today’s society, this is not true. Today, all lives are not equal and not equally valued. And in this times, Jesus would be saying: Women’s lives matter, Children’s lives matter, Immigrant lives matter, LGBTQI lives matter, Black lives matter.

True North

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows.

John 15:18-19 reads,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

Jesus acknowledges that sometimes the world will hate us for our faith and teaches two things about this:

  1. He comforts us by sharing that the world hated him first, so we’re in good company, we’re not alone, we’re not the first.
  2. He explains that the world hates us because we don’t belong to the world, we don’t conform. The word ‘belong’ is what he uses in John 17:16, where he says “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” The Greek for ‘belong’ or ‘of’ is ‘up out of’, like a plant or a tree grows up and out of the ground. Jesus is saying that we do not come up out of the world, and that this can lead to tension with the world – that the world hates us when we speak the Truth of God.

Our capacity to speak the Truth of God requires us to have a kind of spiritual and moral compass that shows us the Truth of God. A compass that helps us discern the mind of God.

The verse just before our passage (John 15:17) reads:

This is my command: Love one another.

And this verse is the tail end of a longer passage about the vine and branches, in which Jesus calls us to ‘remain’ rooted in him and in his love (John 15:1-17). So our understanding of the world hating us is the context of loving others and remaining in the love of Christ and thus of God. This love – the command to love – is the frame around our experience of being hated by the world.

On the basis of that, I suggest two learnings about our relationship with the world and its possible hatred of us:

First, Jesus calls us to be thoughtful about HOW we speak to the world. Our words need to be saturated in the love of God. In truth, the Church has often been – and continues today often to be – hateful in the way it speaks to the world. Even if what Christians and the church says is True, it is often said in a hateful, unloving, judgemental, diminishing way. This is the not the way of Christ. Jesus was challenging and direct, but he was never hateful in the way he spoke. We need to model our way of engaging the world on Jesus.

Second, WHAT we speak out on is also important. It is not only about how we speak, but also about what we speak. Let’s return to the metaphor of the compass. A compass points to the magnetic north, but this is not the True north. In fact, they are about 500km apart – similar, but not the same. We need to ensure that our words point to the True north, not the some off-centre north.

How do we know what to speak up for and what to speak out against? How do we know what is True? Again, we must look to Jesus. In Jesus’ ministry, he almost always spoke up for sinners and marginalised people, and out against those in power. We seldom hear Jesus speaking out against sinners and marginalised peoples. And the people Jesus usually speaks out against are the powerful – the powerful of the world and of politics and the powerful of the church.

Christians today have tended to invert this, speaking up for the rich and powerful, and against those who sin and those who are marginalised. They have lost their True North. They are not following in the way of Christ. They are not remaining in Christ and not adhering to his command to love one another.

We must go back to the Gospels and model our lives on Christ, in the ways he spoke truth to power, on the issues that he spoke up for and on the issues he spoke out against.

Jesus is our True North.

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Featured image from https://www.euro-academy.com/euroacademy-blog/2018/2/18/pujof0xh909ihjovyuusrkvzsym4pl

Love & Justice

Click here to listen the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

Even though I emphasise God’s love as the central essence of God’s being, we see God behaving in angry, wrathful and violent ways. How are we to make sense of this? This message defines justice as follows

Justice is God’s love working to protect those who are vulnerable

As much as God stands up against those who harm God’s loved-ones, God also reaches out a hand of reconciliation, rooted in repentance and contrition. And God desires reconciliation between people, rooted in forgiveness. We call this restorative justice – love and justice.

Featured image adapted from https://metro.co.uk/2015/03/05/this-is-the-real-reason-why-people-shake-hands-5089999/

To work

Click here to listen to this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

One of the impacts of COVID-19 has been to dramatically increase unemployment rates. We see this in both the developed world (e.g., the USA) and the developing world (e.g., South Africa). By ‘work’ I don’t necessarily mean employment (in the sense of being employed and paid by someone else) or even to have a job (in the sense of doing something that generates an income). ‘Work’ includes productive activities, such as volunteering or raising a family. So, I am using ‘work’ in an inclusive and flexible way.

Our current challenging context should prompt us to think about work from a Christian perspective. I suggest three key points about work.

  1. We were created to work. The creation story in Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 emphasises work. God created humankind to work. Specifically, to work as labourers, gardeners, farm workers. Work is thus bound up in the DNA of humanity, and when we cannot work, this can create difficulties for us. This is part of the threat of the COVID lockdowns – it is not good for people not to work.
  2. Work is about caring for (stewarding) the things of God. Genesis 2:15 emphasises that Adam was placed into the garden (probably the Garden of Eden, which can be thought of as the jewel of God’s natural creation) to tend and work it. We often refer to this as ‘stewardship’ – that the things of God are entrusted to us to (on loan) to care for. And to make productive. The garden is intended to be a well-cared for, creative and productive space.
  3. We work for God, not people. In Ephesians 6:7, Paul says to workers, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” To be a Christian at work is not so much to publicise your faith, to hold prayer meetings or to evangelise, as much as it is to do your job with the exceptional devotion and energy that comes form working for God.

I encourage us to think about work at this present time and to:

  1. Consider how we help people who are out of work to have work.
  2. Do our own work – if we are blessed to be able to work – as if for God.

There is so much more I want to say about Christian perspectives on work! One day I will write a book!

Featured image from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/23/world-ploughing-championships-no-till-farming

Standing in the gap

Click here to listen to this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text after the video.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘standing in the gap’ and its relevance during this rolling COVID-19 crisis. The levels of human and social vulnerability are staggering. Many people are hungry, struggling financially, lonely, anxious, depressed, experiencing domestic violence and so on. In such times, we need people who are willing to stand in the gap – people who are willing to advocate and intercede for those who are suffering and sometimes to stand up against those who use power in oppressive and exploitative ways.

We read about this in Ezekiel 22:30 where God is looking for someone to stand in the gap of the wall of Jerusalem to protect them against God’s wrath for Israel’s sin. And we read it in Psalm 106:23, which refers to a story about Moses standing in the gap for the people of Israel after they made the golden calf (Exodus 32:12-14). In both stories, people (Moses and Ezekiel) are asked to stand in the gap between people and God, to protect the people from God’s wrath. This is ‘speaking truth to power’ at its highest level! Standing up to God!!

But we in our daily lives can stand in the gap in much more accessible and manageable ways. Standing in the gap is about standing between those who are vulnerable and those who are powerful. It is not a comfortable space – it takes some courage.

It requires us to:

  1. Recognise the vulnerabilities of people around us and to see the ways in which they need advocacy, intercession or support.
  2. Use the gifts and resources that God has given us through the Spirit in the service of others, by standing in the gap for them.

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Featured image from https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5401039

At the Foot of the Cross

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text that follows.

It is sometimes easy (and more comfortable) to gloss over the death of Jesus on Good Friday. I grew up in a church that didn’t have a Good Friday service, and so for years I’d hop from the happiness of Palm Sunday to joy of Easter Sunday. For sure, on Easter Day, we’d get a gruesome account of Jesus death, but the sermon would end with “but he has risen from the dead, hallelujah”.

I believe that it is important and good for our faith to position ourselves with the disciples and particularly with Jesus’ mother Mary, who did not (like us) know the happy ending to the story. As they stood at the foot of the cross watching Jesus’ life ebb away on that Friday afternoon, they could not foresee his resurrection. Imagine the pain and horror they experienced, the utter loss of hope, the grief at seeing someone so beautiful and innocent dying in such a dreadful and slow way. Their hope for a better society was shattered and their own sense of having a part to play in the transformation of the world was in pieces.

And this experience persisted through Friday and Saturday until Easter Sunday.

During this time of crisis, they did what needed to be done. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with the authorities to claim Jesus body, placed him in a tomb he owned and wrapped Jesus temporarily in a burial shroud. He sealed the tomb to protect Jesus body. The disciples and Jesus’ family went home to observe the sabbath and remained at home until dawn on Sunday, when they went back to prepare his body properly for burial. In their shock and dismay, they continued to do what needed to be done.

I encourage you to stay with it. To stay in the midst of the distress and the heaviness of Jesus death over the coming days.

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Featured image “Calvary” by Edward Munch (1900), from https://arthive.com/edvardmunch/works/269172~Calvary

Following Jesus’ Example

Click here to listen to this 14-minute message. Or watch the video below. Or read the text after that.

Today is Palm Sunday. Many churches on this day will start their service outside with the blessing of palm crosses and then process around the church or community, shouting or singing: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:1-11). This is commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of donkey or colt and people’s recognition that he is king or messiah.

And then some churches will also read the whole passion story (Matthew 26:14-27:66). This is a long reading that can take 20 or more minutes (click here to listen to a recording of the passion narrative, from Luke). The juxtaposition of these two stories – one of triumph and glory and the other of suffering and death – is a stark and shocking contrast.

In today’s message, I suggest three main lessons we can learn from Jesus’ experience of suffering and challenge in life:

  1. Jesus does not rush towards suffering. He does not revel in it. Christianity has tended to glorify suffering, often encouraging people (such as women in abusive marriages) to endure their suffering as their sharing in the suffering of Christ. However, Jesus is not a masochist. He does not relish or rush towards or celebrate suffering. During this passion week, he appears to appreciate the recognition of the crowd as he enters Jerusalem, he enjoys supper with his friends and he spends time in prayer with his Father – he enjoys life. Of course, we do suffer, and some suffer more than others. But Jesus does not appear to enjoy or celebrate suffering.
  2. However, Jesus also does not run away from or avoid suffering. Instead, he moves into difficult places, and in the passion narrative, he walks towards his inevitable suffering and death. Jesus is a realist. He is not naive. He does not avoid difficulty; instead, he faces the truth. And he speaks the truth, challenging injustice, exclusion and poverty. He calls people out when they lie. He champions integrity. He faces the world as it is, without sugar-coating anything.
  3. Yet, Jesus is an idealist. Despite knowing that he will soon die, he continues to believe that God can use his suffering and death for good. He persists in believing that God can redeem humanity and the cosmos. He insists that people can participate in this salvific work of God. He remains steadfastly optimistic, hopeful and confident about the future.

There are many people whose example we can follow during difficult times, including this time of the Coronavirus and the lockdown that many countries are experiencing. I think Jesus provides a good, balanced and sensible example for us. Blessings.

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Featured image from https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/1264981/palm-sunday-messages-best-quotes-greetings-to-mark-palm-sunday-2020

Where is God?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 11-minute message. Or watch the video below.

During difficult times, such as we experiencing now with the Coronavirus, many of us find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” And even, “How can God allow such suffering in the world?”

This question is formally called ‘theodicy’ – the doctrine of how a good God can allow evil in the world. Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries. Augustine generated a solution that is widely accepted by the church, illustrated in the graphic below (from https://www.slideshare.net/SharanpreetKaur/augustines-theodicy).

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But such answers provide little comfort when we are in the midst of suffering. These are intellectual and theological answers, not pastoral answers. Over the years, as I have grappled with this question in my own sufferings and particularly in responding to the suffering of others, I have reached two main conclusions:

First, God is always immanently present in our suffering. When God the Son incarnated into the human named Jesus of Nazareth, God fully entered into the human experience, with all its ups and downs. Ultimately, God experienced even death, on the cross, an experience God had not had until this moment. We read in John 11 of Jesus’ grief at the grave of Lazarus – he was genuinely distressed and saddened by the death of his friend and by his witnessing of the grief of Lazarus’ family.

Jesus was then, and always is, present in the midst of suffering. Where is God? He is right here, sharing our grief and pain, standing with us in the darkest of times. He is by no means far off and emotionally disengaged.

Second, while this is usually of little comfort in the midst of suffering, God repeatedly shows the capacity for bringing good out of bad. This does not make the bad good. No! The bad remains bad. But god has the capacity to give birth to good through bad. Paul assures of this in Romans 8:28, when he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We this most dramatically on the cross. Humanity murdered, executed God the Son. This was a fundamentally bad and depraved thing we did. And yet through this, God gave birth to salvation for humankind, reconciliation and forgiveness for all who would seize it.

God is always working to bring good out of bad, giving us the capacity to transform darkness into light. This is not about persuading ourselves that a bad thing is actually good, but rather about being open to something good emerging out of the bad.

As we continue to journey through the crisis of COVID-19, which looks set to get worse before it gets better, I encourage you to keep turning towards God. I encourage you to ask the “Where is God?” question, because God wants to engage us honestly and sincerely with this tough question.

May God journey closely with you during this difficult time.

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