Lenten Blogging – day 2

(In case you’re wondering how day 1 and day 2 can appear on the same day, I’ve not gone mad (or at least not for that reason), nor have I fallen into a TARDIS.  Day 1 should’ve appeared yesterday but, er, didn’t.  So hopefully after this we’ll be back up to date and on track and everybody will be happy.  Or something like that…).

Today’s passage is Mark 1:21-45, with a specific focus on vv21-28.  I’ve recently been preaching on these passages as they’ve been the Lectionary passages, so much of this has probably been blatantly cribbed from those sermons.

(SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: You can read more about these on my Greenfield Minister’s blog – please go and have a look!)

Anyway, the passage that Tom Wright suggests we particularly focus on is Jesus’ awesome demonstrations of His authority, both in His written teaching and His driving out of the evil spirit in the Temple in Capernaum.  By the end of all that, the crowds’ jaws are on the ground: “What is this?  It’s like nothing we’ve seen before!!  Incredible!”  And it’s Jesus authority that has them eyes wide open, mouths agog, babbling like our one year old.

Which can seem odd to us.  Authority can be a bit of a dirty word.  We don’t like being told what to do.  “The Authorities” are, in many people’s eyes, not to be trusted, sticking their nose in where it’s not wanted at the best of times.  At the worst of times, “the Authorities” are the governments of countries like Syria, using sheer brute, murderous, blood-shedding force to try and impose their will.  Authority down the barrel of a gun, with no regards for the people they’re supposed to be protecting.

Authority sucks, apparently.  And it’s not just teenagers who think that.

But here, authority doesn’t suck.  I doubt the people of Capernaum liked being bossed around any more than anyone else does.  Yet they’re amazed at Jesus’ authority!  It seems to put Him much higher in their estimations than the religious teachers who’ve gone before.

Huh?  What gives?

Firstly, of course, there’s something unique about Jesus’ authority in His teaching.  It’s authentic, it’s real.  It surely comes from His unique relationship with His Father.  And perhaps it touched the people in ways they’d not known before, in ways that even the wisest, most learned, most pastorally-hearted teacher could not touch them.

But not just that.  Jesus’ authority here brings freedom.  Jesus most dramatically displays His authority over the evil spirit that’s possessing the man who interrupts so violently Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus is “stern” the NIV says, in His dealings with the spirit.  He silences it, then orders it to come out.  You can imagine how dramatic that coming out must have been, how frightening for the people watching it.

Yet it worked.  The spirit did come out.  The man was free – free at last!  Jesus spoke and set this man free from what had been possessing and controlling Him for all that time!  You can imagine the slow dawn of realisation on his face, then the look of speechless gratitude to Jesus, before he dashes out in excitement and wonder, almost not knowing what to do with himself now that he can do something with himself and for himself.

Jesus’ authority here doesn’t put down the man, doesn’t seek to control him.  In fact, those are the very things Jesus frees him from.  Jesus’ authority is exercised over all those things that control this man, that over-ride his own hopes and dreams and desires.  Jesus’ authority sets him free.

Too often, religion is seen as controlling,  Us religious leaders are seen as people who want to tell others what to do, how to live and so on.  We’re seen as people on a power trip, insecurely working out our need to control and manipulate others.  Jesus shows a different way: authority that liberates, that sets free, that allows people to become all they want to be.  Authority that is as far as it’s possible to get from the dictators and authoritarian leaders of our world, secular or sacred.

What controls us?  What stops us from being all that God wants us to be?  What comes disguised as freedom, but is in fact killing us as it takes control of our lives?  Doesn’t have to be “dramatic” – almost anything can have that power over us.  Whatever it is, Jesus longs to free us from it, longs to show His power and authority to bring true freedom and true life.

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Lenten Blogging – day 1

As you no doubt know, we’re into Lent now (day 2) in fact. Now, I’m normally rubbish at Lent, I have some vague idea that I’m going to do “something”, but it never amounts to anything more than that. I’m also (you can’t fail to have noticed!) that I’m not so hot at blogging regularly, either.

So, my plan is to try and blog at least once a day throughout the Lent period (I have no idea whether this includes the Sundays or not – I’m just going to go for it and see where we end up by Easter).

But I also figured that just seeking to to blog about “anything” won’t do me much good. So, instead I’m going to combine this with my Bible readings for Lent, which are based on the Big Read 2012, using Tom Wright’s divisions of the book of Mark.  These posts based on the readings aren’t supposed to be deep, profound thoughts, nor will they come laden with huge scholarly insights (I wish I had the learning to do that!).  They will just be my reflections on the reading in question for you to take or leave as you wish.

So, here we go!

The first reading is Mark 1:1-20, focussing especially on vv.1-9.  Here we have the opening of Mark’s Gospel, his account of how this all began.  And already we’re in full-on mode here, Mark wasting no time in getting going and getting us into the thick of the story as soon as possible.  In the first 20 verses, we’ve covered John the Baptist, Jesus’ arrival on the scene, His baptism & temptation, the beginning of His ministry and His calling the first disciples.  Phew!

But what grabbed me about this was more than just the speed with which Mark moves us around the story.  He seems quite happy to play with our expectations and, rather than confirming our preconceptions of Jesus, he almost seems to want us to be left scratching our heads and saying “Oh… right… hang on… so he’s going to… nope, no he’s not… oh…”.

Jesus, apparently, is vastly superior to John the baptiser – He has the power to baptise with the Holy Spirit.  Yet here He comes, asking John to baptise Him with a baptism of repentance.  Huh?

When He comes up out of the water, Jesus’ unique status as God’s own Son is confirmed (and conferred?) in the most public way possible.  We’re all set for a glorious beginning to Jesus’ ministry.  Then suddenly, we’re in the desert – at the Spirit’s insistence – facing temptation and wild animals!  Sorry, Mark, did you get this right?

Yet this, it seems, is the way it has to be.  Whatever the specific reasons why these things had to take place, Mark seems to want to throw us on to the wrong foot straight away.  Whatever else this good news is, he seems to be saying, it’s not going to make everything straight-forward and easy.  Jesus is coming with His and His Father’s way of doing things and these are not our ways.  The Kingdom of Heaven has come profoundly near in Jesus.  But if we want to enter it, then it’s going to mean reconsidering all our preconceptions of what life’s about, about what’s important.  We’re going to have to allow God to turn everything upside-down in order that, just maybe, we can begin to see things the right way up again.

Cover to Cover Complete: Through the Bible as It Happened

I’ve just posted a review of this on Amazon (though it’s not shown up yet).  I tried reading it for 6 months (which I think is long enough to give something a proper go), but have, after much debating in my head, given up on it.  Not on the Bible, oh no! – just on this.

Why?

Well, firstly because of the way it treats the Bible and what’s in it: not as texts and stories to be read in their wholeness, but as verses to be chopped up and moved around to fit in with the extreme "chronological" approach the editors decided to take.  So, for example, not just chapters but whole verses appear out of place and sometimes follow verses they’re supposed to immediately precede.  The stories of Samuel and Samson are mingled up together, meaning you lose the plot of both of them (also, how chronological is that?).  It’s quite easy to lose the thread of a story and have to go back and pick it up again when the editors decide to re-visit it. I don’t, actually, think this respects the Bible at all.  I think it’s part of a modern view of the text that we can just chop it up, take verses out of context and do what we will with them, losing all sense of why they were there in the first place.  It’s why proof-texts get thrown around all over the place to support people’s particular views on anything from the meaning of Christ’s death, through abortion to whether the UK should be in the EU (according to one letter-writer in the Baptist Times a few years ago, we should leave because the Bible clearly shows that a small country should seek God as its protection – huh?).  It’s a poor way of treating the Bible,pays no respect to those who, under God’s inspiration, wrote these texts and makes for a frustrating reading experience. (Plus, it means that where parallel passages are put together, it’s easy to skip over the second passage as "I’ve already read that").

Secondly, the end-of-the-day comments for "thought and contemplation" really, really annoyed me.  They rely on catchphrases and cliches, make no attempt to engage with the texts in any way and offer no illumination or any real food for thought.  Some really rather tenuous links are made to Christ which do no justice to the OT texts themselves.  The stories of Israel in the desert are nearly all accompanied by messages that can be reduced to "obey God – or else": is that really the God we serve?  What might have been better was some kind of explanation of what was going on, especially for tricky books such as Leviticus.

Thirdly, the chronological approach means you have to wait for ages to get to the New Testament.  Now I appreciate that most people’s knowledge and appreciation of the Old Testament (including my own) is not what it should be and a lot of people treat it merely as the bit before Jesus, trying to interpret everything as point to Him (which this book doesn’t help with).  But as a different BT letter writer said, we follow Christ, who is found primarily in the New Testament.  So in a way it’s natural that we should tend towards that part of the Bible.  Many other Bible in the year plans pair OT and NT readings each day; this seems a much better way of doing it.  I missed reading the New Testament (apart from my sermon preparation). Finally, I’m not sure about the whole concept of reading the Bible in a year.  Yes, it’s good discipline and can help to bring to light parts of the Bible we’re unfamiliar with (which my 6 months in this book certainly did).  But it can become almost a virility test, as if there’s something better about you for having done it.  Plus, it can reduce the Bible to being the same as any other book, which we read from beginning to end.

But the Bible isn’t like that: it’s a book, not just to be read, but to be listened to.  It’s a book to be savoured, like great food or wine.  It’s a book to think about, ponder on, meditate on, argue with (!).  We don’t just read it: we take it in, we make it part of our lives.  We allow God to speak to us through it, something which can mean reading the same bit over and over again, for several days or even longer.  The Bible-in-a-year format can work against that: in the pressure to get through the book within the time scale (particularly when the book concerned encourages you to catch up of you’re behind), you can easily read a passage just to tick it off; it’s easier to not spend time with the passage and really think about it as you’ve got to get on to the next bit.

There is a lot to be said for broadening our knowledge of the Bible and reading the bits we don’t know or don’t like.  But this isn’t the best way of doing it (in fact, it provides a perfect excuse for skipping over those bits or only giving them a cursory glance, as you’ve got to "keep up").  God doesn’t judge us on how much of the Bible we’ve read, though I’m sure He’s disappointed that we don’t treasure it more.  But treasuring it means more than reading it in a year; it means making it the very centre of our lives and living out its message.  I don’t think this way of reading it helps do that at all. It took me a while to make the decision to stop reading it and it’s meant I’m left trying to find a new way of doing my daily devotions.  But I’m glad – and relieved – I did stop!