Matthew 4

From where you are, towards God.

These chapters are so jam packed.

We have Christ’s temptation, starting to preach (“repent, the kingdom is near”), calling disciples, and establishing his public program: teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick.

He starts to get fame.

The temptation setting is so weird and extreme. In the desert, starving, zooming here and there being shown visions by the devil. But the temptations are so ordinary.

They are how I’d run his ministry of global salvation.

Self care, get a good salary. You don’t need to be distracted thinking about where your next meal is coming from.

Networking. Make contacts, find influencers who will help your mission. Your people need to talk to their people, fundraising, professionalism, structure… Lobbyists, voting blocks.

Show us the power. You’re God, we’ve got to get the message out there with some concrete demonstrations. PR events.

Stability, influence, fame.

Instead he lives a small life. He networks with… err, calls with little introduction… some fishermen, just the random people where he is. He limps through on charity and community support, couch surfing, to sustain his ministry.

He gets fame as a healer as well as itinerant preacher. But he deliberately undermines it and slows it down at first, because he knows any fame without power and connections will lead to the confrontation that will have him killed. He starts away from the populated centres.

His top line message is such a short form gospel: repent, the kingdom is near.

We’ve seen so many places in the old testament where simply responding, recognising God’s voice and moving towards it, wanting to hear it, welcoming it with positivity; is all God wants. The gospel has variable theological content.

I think again of Rahab, who was of Jesus’ line, mentioned as a hero in Hebrews. Saved because she recognised God, somehow, in her brush with the kingdom, the Jewish spies. She responded by helping them.

And those disciples. Was their gospel presentation simply “follow me”? Were they the only ones called or the only ones who responded?

You may end up being Billy Graham, you may end up being Joe Blogs. That isn’t the point.

Small lives, advancing the kingdom in words and in deeds.

Ezekiel 2

After a dazzling vision of God arrives last chapter God speaks and appoints Ezekiel to be a prophet.

At the end of the chapter, God will give Ezekiel his sermon, his message. A scroll of lament, mourning and woe. Not an easy script.

It’s instructive how he prepares Ezekiel for this awkward message. In contrast with the burning splendor of the vision, there is a big dose of pragmatism and expectation management.

First preparation is to fill him with the holy spirit.

I’m actually running prayers at work today, it’s a half hour session each Thursday. I remember St Paul wrote of preachers with bad motives that, well, at least the gospel was peached. So the preacher doesn’t have to be perfect, not at all. But what a great starting point to be asked to be filled with the spirit.

Then God tells him to expect the people to be stubborn and not listen; and to carry on regardless. It is enough that they will know a prophet has been among them… Low expectations.

How lame is your church sometimes? Well, sometimes it’s enough that it just there.

He tells him he’ll be surrounded by thorns, briars and scorpions, not to be afraid. Expect fear, tune out to it. Keep listening to God, more than the rising panic.

Then God hands him his poison pill message.

God understands what he is asking of us. Not many are called to be Ezekiel, but it’s on the cards. And that’s why we have the spirit.

I pray that prayers go well, fill me with the spirit.

Ezekiel 1

The Lord the creator, understands drama and contrast. This is a great bit of stage setting.

Ezekiel, a priest in exile in Babylon, is next to a river among other exiles.

I only read psalm 137 short while ago, probably written in the same settlement, “by the rivers of Babylon.. how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

That is a song of abandonment and despair. Instead of songs of praise, their thoughts run to the prophesy that enemies of Babylon would dish out to their captors the same horrific violence against their children as the Israelites suffered from them.

This is a vision of a fiery glory of four, four-faced creatures in flame, shooting lighting, with thunderous-sounding wings that spread each time they move. Above them a heavenly vault, above that a throne on which sits a half molten metal, half fire figure of a man. Below the creatures are wheels that rise and move over the land … In any direction, that’s very important: they freely go where the Holy Spirit goes.

Into the song of despair comes a vision of the full glory of God. Father son and spirit. Turns out God isn’t stuck in the temple in Jerusalem.

It recalls.. from my time perspective.. Pentecost. The fire that transformed the disciple’s despair into passion and boldness.

And of course, exodus: God in a fiery pillar, his glory on mountains, making Moses’ face shine, the tabernacle, the portable presence of God, going where the spirit goes, transforming slaves into his chosen nation,

What is God doing in Babylon, in exile? The same thing God’s still doing in my heart, this very day: transformation.

Dragged unenthusiasticaly, somewhat kicking and screaming, into Ezekiel (Really? Another huge old testament book?) … I’ll admit I’m enchanted, praise God!

Song of Songs 8

The blaze in every soul.

This is the chapter I return to the most.

I was moved, I always am, by the culminating praise of love itself:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Followed by the wonderful ownership of her person and her sexuality by the girl: “my own vineyard is mine to give”. I love that passage, it’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It says it all about who and what God created us to be. About the nature of his love for us.

It’s one of two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. There’s so many things it barely mentions.

It only incidentally refers to marriage, but it is all about monogamy. Passion is jealous, and the giving to each other is absolute, it has no place for casual sex.

It’s not prudish, no sir-ee… but it’s prudent. It acknowledges what unique greatness is unleashed, and what is at stake, when one loves deeply and completely.

And it has more in common in some ways with God’s love than earthly relationships. How often is he described as a jealous God? We’re told to “love him with all your heart, mind and soul”.

This book is all about young love: the blaze of romantic obsession, the power of attraction, delight in the newness and overpowering nature of it all; the yearning.

It doesn’t talk about the different beauty of long marriages: that survive hardship and changes, that bring up children and learn to adapt as life throws u-turns, that forgive failure and weakness, and face getting old, undesirable and sick together.

It made me sad and conflicted. I had to force myself to read it. I’ve loved it, but I had to take it slow, in doses. It’s made me feel inadequate, second best. I haven’t been in the mood, so to speak.

What does it mean for my relationship, which is at a very different phase? It’s a bit like the crummy feeling other people’s perfect lives on Instagram can give you.

I’ve had lot of valuable thoughts about God’s love, but maybe just as valuable is remembering and rekindling some of the intensity of that first love with my life partner. It’s certainly made me think about that. Complex feelings at the intersection of spirituality and physicality.

The open ended invitation at the very end, to come away and be like a gazelle and a young stag on the spice laden mountains… Maybe the whole thing has been a remembrance? Maybe that invitation is for us who need reminding of what it is to be young.

Psalm 87

A psalm about Zion, the city, the metaphor for salvation. It inspired the hymn ‘glorious things of thee are spoken’.

I took from it consolation that salvation extends to anyone who becomes a citizen of the holy city – Augustine was also inspired by this surprisingly short psalm when he wrote his most significant work, ‘The city of God’.

Feeling a bit bleak, they told me I didn’t get the manager job today, but in other news, no one got it.  They are rethinking and making an adjustment to the structure and they are saying hold on, they will probably create a new job I will be interested in… what talk is that!  Its good that they seem to want me around and are working on some plan about which they are not at liberty to divulge.  I’m grateful really… about as grateful as you can be for, so far, a handful of actually nothing. I’m feeling either keep me or let me go, but get on with it!

But I did get the citizenship of Zion, and I feel less worthy of that than I did of the manager position I applied for, yet its a better position.

The weather is hot, the family are miserable and the funds are low, its all a bit much. ‘Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know…’

Psalm 86

‘I will praise you Lord my God with all my heart’

Deep in praise. I can imagine its the sort of thing king David was saying during those stories of where he spent days and nights in the sanctuary of the Lord, lost in praise,

I had to read the psalm a few times to make anything stand out, because it’s such a pile of praise phrases.

There is a spine of supplication through it. He’s in a pickle and he wants God to help, every stanza refers to it.

But in the presence of God, his mind gets so attuned to God’s mind that his problems fade and go into the background, while God’s character overwhelms everything in the foreground.

It’s like I came to you to butter you up for a favour by flattering you, but then the flattery became an end in itself ‘you’re a helpful guy, can I borrow five dollars? You’ve always lent me money in the past. You’re generous, you’re the best friend a guy ever had. You’re so amazing, you’re actually incredible…’

I’ve had a bit of this. Being very engaged with my church, reading here each day, working for a Christian organisation. I’m so Christian! It’s a deep dive. I’ll observe two things.

The human will is incredibly resislient against the promptings of the holy spirit.

It’s good brain washing. The closer I align my mind to God’s, the more I find my own identity and my humanness. Christianity is a massive process of finding out what’s wrong with you and setting yourself free from it.

‘Great is your love towards me’

Job 34

Elihu continues to speak, and will for several chapters.

He seems here to be saying exactly the same argument as the friends have made thus far.

He’s highly critical of Job. He devotes a stanza to each of these concepts: God is all powerful. He is just. He knows and sees all.

So if he has seen fit to bring down misfortune on Job, it is deserved. And if Job continues to say it is unfair, then Job is unrepentant.

‘To his sin he adds rebellion’ he concludes. Everything Job says in his defence just multiplies his sin.

It’s a bit of a yawn. He’s a bit like a younger, more black and white version of the older friends. Like a kid fresh out of theological college, full of zeal but knowing more of theology than the world.

Great at loving God, more to learn about loving his neighbour.

The thing that struck me most was when he talked about the contradiction of suffering. He really knows God and talks about the spirit a lot. He understands God as the sustainer. If he withdrew his spirit, we would be nothing. I visualised it as the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel in reverse.

That’s his reason for rejecting the idea that God would allow random suffering for good people. It’s contradictory because God is the author and sustainer of life. And he’s right, in pure logic.

But all we have to return to is that pure logic is not wisdom, the fear of the Lord is.

I’ve got to concentrate until Wednesday. I have a second interview then for the job managing my department! I’m in contention! But I have to do a 15 minute presentation on what I would do in the first 90 days running the department.

I make a pact now to quote that verse from Job about the fear of the Lord at least once in that interview. Because you can’t run a faith based organisation on logic alone!

Joel 2

I should have known. The last chapter set a scene of urgent practical disaster that leaves you throwing yourself on God. Where does he go?

Cosmic, takes us out of the moment and deeper into it. Breaks the paradigm with talk of spiritual reckoning more dreadful, time scales more blurry, blessing: abundant, physical and spiritual, beyond borders and beyond time, beyond expectation.

God!  This is urgent isn’t it?

First the narrative bit retells the locust attack from the last chapter, from a perspective of heavenly judgement. Described like cinema, the shadow of a flying army darkening the sky, an army of judgement sweeping in unstoppably, it’s intense writing And god is at the helm. This dreadful day is gods. It ends with the question “who can endure it?”. Reminds me of Jesus teaching of judgement coming as a shock, or the rich fool who counts his wealth, goes to bed happy and dies. Who can endure?

Revelation 9 returns to this way of describing a locust plague as an army of gods judgement.

Then a reminder that this is not gods preference for us. He wants to love. It gets back to hearts. Don’t just wail and tear your clothes in grief as in chapter 1, rend your hearts. Change.

Everything is spiritual. Time is spiritual. there is still enough of it to know gods mercy. That is more urgent than anything.

Cue the locust horde sent into the sea, the land blessed, abundant rain, plentiful crops. I’m not close to doing the language justice, it’s beautifully written.

But it doesn’t stop at practical blessing, a good harvest, God will pour out his spirit. The bit about the effect of the spirit, women prophesying, young men seeing visions and old men dreaming, is quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost. It speaks of a far greater judgement and a far greater blessing of which this experience is just a hint.