BIBLICAL SURMISING - CARESS AND COLLIDE

THE CASE FOR VISION AND DREAMS

Visions

Dreams and visions begin with God. In the beginning God imagined. Blue, red, green. Blue sky. Red at night. Green valleys underneath that blue sky. Shapes and textures and movement and dance. Mountains and stars and beaches of sand. Gemsbok skipping, birds in flocks throwing shapes over the city bridges at twilight and humans touching lips and hearts. All a dream, a vision, imagined and then…then created.

The entire relationship between God and humanity has been about firing that imagination, giving a vision of how people could live; a dream of how society could be. The law would put in place a visionary pattern of how a society in a land promised could be better than what slavery had been in Egypt. 

The prophets continued to dream and rant about it. Isaiah imagined a lion and lamb lying down together! Micah imagined swords turned into ploughshares! Jeremiah imagined a brand new covenant and Ezekiel imagined a new shepherd king who would do justice.

God told his people that “young men would see visions and old men would dream dreams.” It is crucial to the whole deal. Sadly the modern church seems to have sent the life of faith up blind alleys of dreamlessness. Indeed imagination and art became something to be suspicious of and even to despise. 

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann has been trying to get the imagination back into Christian thinking for sometime. His books Hopeful Imagination and Prophetic Imagination have made Old Testament theology exciting as well as showing so articulately how high on the Biblical agenda imagination sits. 

He writes, “Jesus’ way of teaching through parables was such a pastoral act of prophetic imagination in which he invited his community of listeners out beyond the visible realities of Roman law and the ways in which Jewish law had grown restrictive in his time.”

Writing about Isaiah he shows how the prophet inspires the people with his poetic utterances to believe that another way is possible. He sparks their imagination to have faith in another day. Brueggemann says;

 “The practice of such poetic imagination is the most subversive, redemptive act that a leader of a faith community can undertake in the midst of exiles. This work of poetic alternative in the long run is more crucial than one-on-one pastoral care or the careful implementation of institutional goals. That is because the work of poetic imagination holds the potential of unleashing a community of power and action that finally will not be contained by any imperial restrictions and definitions of reality.”

As the Church in the west hits the crisis of diminishing numbers  and less influential in the wider world. As I seek to be a better father than I have been until now. What needs lit is the spark of imagining. Dreaming a different world. Grasping God’s vision of a Kingdom where the last person becomes the most important, where we treat the tramp on the street like he was Jesus himself, where the poor are blessed, where the mourn rejoice, where there is dignity and love and a place of belonging for all.

It starts in the life of Jesus, the world that his life inspired us to live, that his death and resurrection won us the ability to make it a reality. The Kingdom will only ripple out as the engine of imagination fires visions and dreams. Let us dream…


THE ETERNAL & UNIVERSAL in SHORT TIME & SMALL SPACE

Big God

There is something about the wonder of Christmas that opens up the wonder of God and faith to me.

For sure this has much to do with the nativity stories, those angels, shepherds, magi and a teenage girl never mind the blowing idea that the baby is the one who sustains the universe constricted to tiniest flesh and bone.

It also seems to be a time of intense listening of music and reading. In that post Christmas Day week by the coast I seem to have a more open soul to the mystical.

It kicked off early this year. Near the end of November I came across a quotation stencilled into copper. It was an expensive bookmark art piece - “A stable once held something inside it that was bigger than the whole world”. It is CS Lewis. I preached it and was told that it was from his Narnia Chronicle, The Last Battle.

I love it. The size of this God thing. This baby in the straw is the eternal inside the shortest time, the universe in the smallest of spaces. It is a wow!

Then, so much of the art swirling around me seemed to be pointers of a boundless God, never hemmed in. 

Bono’s memoir Surrender was obvious. God all over it.

Charlie Mackesy was next. His Christmas Day film had the love of God implicit within it. As I listened to a couple of his sermons on Youtube I realise that David Bowie’s Space Oddity where Bowie sings “May God’s love be with you” was a catalyst to Charley seeking beyond the confines of rational science.

Nick Cave’s book Faith, Hope and Carnage, a conversation with journalist Sean O’Hagan, was most surprising. A story of discovery of faith with almost no church involvement reminded me that God is at work where we my least imagine.

Indeed, I am constantly fearful that we confine God to our church walls. We can also catechise, liturgise and doctrinise him into a much smaller entity than God is. 

Psalm 139 (7-8) reminds us:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

Isaiah 40 (25-26) asks:

“To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing. 

This massive mystery that is God and the incarnation of God in Jesus has been the attraction to my faith. Gazing out at the stars on a clear May evening in 1979 I was in a dilemma. Did God make these and set them up there? Or did it just happen? If there was an energy called God who became human in Jesus I would be mad not to connect with that.

I wrote it down years later, as I drove home to Antrim gazing over Lough Neagh at sunset, just a week after watching the movie Dances With Wolves:

I want to see the frontier

Before the frontier’s gone 

Miracles happen every day

At the dusk and the dawn

Visual aids of creation

Pointers to the Grand design

In the span of everlasting 

How insignificant this life of mine.

Starting the year by opening up to such a God leaves me excited to adventure into such a relationship. I am also humble that my mind is looking through a glass darkly at something so huge. That deflates my arrogance. I am keeping my eye open to an omnipresent God for what I might catch of transcendent beautiful surprise!

God, give us faith to believe the truth

And the right to ask why

Give us joy in life’s fulfilment

And the right to cry

God give us the strength to carry others

And the right to wilt

Give us grace towards holiness

And the right to confess our guilt

Father show us a bigger picture

Jesus put grace notes in our song

Holy Spirit put us on a road that’s deeper

And more eternal than the one we’re on.

AMEN


IF JESUS CAME TODAY... HE'D BE ON A CROSS

Radical Jesus

In 1966 John Lennon made a throwaway, non theological comment to journalist Maureen Cleave that his band The Beatles were "more popular than Jesus". Beatles albums became the fuel for mass bonfires across America's Bible Belt. Why I am not so sure, Christians who believe so much in truth and honesty could hardly quibble with someone accurately describing a truth that was too easily defendable.

There was no questioning the fact of the statement what I want to ask is how could it have become a fact. How could four guys from Liverpool with long hair and guitars, singing "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah" be more relevant than Jesus Christ the Son of God who came to bring us life in all it's fullness. As I read the Gospels I am more and more convinced that Jesus is as relevant if not more so today than he was in 30 AD.

Jesus once asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" I have a deep conviction that we who claim to represent Him at the beginning of the Third Millennium need to urgently ask that question again because I believe that we are a long way off revealing the real Jesus to our world. Tozer once said that "what we think about God is the most important thing about us" and I believe it to be vital that we reassess what we think about Christ.

I believe that if Jesus came back into our evangelical Churches He would end up in the same place on Good Friday. He would not be your middle class boy, nicely dressed and spending all his time at Prayer meetings. He'd tell us some crazy things in Northern Ireland like "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you." And he'd probably say it on the Sunday before the Twelfth, even with Orangemen or Residents Groups in the congregation!

He'd probably look at the dreams we have for our children. The best education so that they get a well paid career with promotion prospects, a beautiful and wealthy spouse, a house in South Belfast with two good cars. Then he'd probably tell us that the lilies of the field are better dressed than all your Credit cards can buy in Hollister and say something like, "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

He would perhaps ask perceptive and probing questions about what we live for. Does our first world decadence seek solace, sustenance and soothing in our leisure time and our vocations? Do we serve God, the Church and others when we’ve fitted in our weekend activities for ourselves first? After all, we are busy, stretched at work, under pressure. It is a stressful world in the 2000s. Would he ask us to seek first God’s kingdom and see everything else added to us. And would we?

He'd probably sit in on our Prayer Meetings and be glad that we realise that where two or three are gathered he is in the midst. He might make the meeting a little less cozy by telling us that if we don't feed him when he is hungry, give him a drink when he is thirsty, visit him when sick or in prison, invite him in when he is a stranger clothe him when he is naked then we will cursed into eternal fire. When we ask when he is like that he'll conclude, "I tell you the truth what you did not do for one of the least of these you did not do for me." Yes he may ask us when we last met him in the face of the hungry tramp or imprisoned terrorist.

Yes, Jesus would say exactly the same things today as He said back then. His message would not have changed.

His company may be much the same too. He might not have too much time to go to too many Church meetings and may indeed attract a dodgy bunch of friends rather than those we vote in as elders. You could see him walking through the inner city and seeing a rather short drug dealer perched up a tree to get a view. He'd walk through all the religious people who had the roast already on the timer and ask this social outcast to make him his lunch. Would his Zacchaeus, up a tree in Belfast, be a paramilitary from the other side? He'd probably attract all kinds of down and outs and good for nothings and he'd have little time for the religious.

Yes, Jesus would hang out with exactly the same people today as he did back then.

Prostitutes. Yes, he'd bump into a few of those. Befriend them actually. They'd maybe be the very first to get in on some important theological truth.

I lived for a very short time in the centre of Belfast in a block of flats outside which the prostitutes hung out. For a good wee Ballymena boy it was a little unnerving if a little repulsive too. Walking out past them every night I eventually longed to be able just to say hello. Give a little dignity into their day. I couldn't. Good Christian discipleship. I thought.

Then I thought again. Bad Christian discipleship. I realised that in all the discipleship classes I'd ever goneto, no one had ever told me how to speak to prostitutes. How to read my Bible twice a day, how I had to go to two services on a Sunday, the midweek and summer beach missions but no one told me how to speak to prostitutes. No one had taught me how to follow Jesus.

Another very influential songwriter Jackson Browne recently described his song "Rebel Jesus" as being written about "his allegiance to Christ but not Christianity". As a follower of Jesus Christ in 2013 and someone committed to His Church I find myself labelled as part of Christianity. My life is therefore committed to getting back to First Century Palestine to meet Jesus and to follow Him and not the Jesus that is filtered through 2000 years of circumstance, ideas, culture and traditions.

I do not want to be a reflection of a diluted Jesus, whether that comes from early Church Fathers and Creeds, monks and Popes, Reformers, Anna Baptists, Social Revolutionaries, travelling evangelists or revivals, liberal theologians or charismatic house Churches . There may be many good things to be learned from all of these but it is Jesus not these traditions that I am called to follow.

I may be wrong but I believe that to follow Jesus, undiluted, would turn my world upside down just in the same way as it did in The Acts of The Apostles. That is my daily devotion and struggle. My allegiance like, Jackson Browne's, is to Christ and not Christianity. He says to me still, "as the Father has sent me I am sending you" - now "who do you say that I am?"


HOLDING THEOLOGY GENTLY

Bullying3

I recently came across a Wendell Berry quotation that poked my surmising. Berry said, “Some Christian spokesmen give the impression that the highest Christian bliss would be to get to Heaven and find that you are the only one there -- that you were right, and all the others wrong.”

Sadly, in the Northern Ireland churches there are so many such spokesmen. There seem to be those who find the joy of their ministries in seeking error in the theology of their brothers and sisters in Christ and then going after them publicly.

I have brothers and sisters in the faith who hold to a range of theological opinion. Many are much more liberal in their views than me and many others are way more conservative. I value both. My own understanding of Scripture and lived out discipleship benefits from honing my own theology off both sides.

So, I am not against church leaders holding more conservative or liberal views. My concern is the posture by which they hold that theology. 

I have always been suspicious of those who attempt as hard as they can to exclude others from the community of faith. When they go seeking reasons to count people out.

Jesus never considered our theological understanding, never mind purity, as a means of salvation. Grace through faith in a following of Jesus is the call to be a Christian. Theological knowledge is a constant quest and there is nowhere where a theological error outweighs and therefore negates the work of Jesus incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. 

Someone else’s theological position never concerns me. The posture by which people hold their theological views concerns me greatly as I watch the spiritual damage that it has done. 

When someone believes that their theological position is infallible the arrogance that comes with that will cause them to become judgemental causing the discord, dissensions and factions that Paul describes as the acts of the flesh in Galatians 5. 

Theology held by grace and the fruit of the Spirit, on the other hand, can become a very helpful resource for spiritual formation and theological understanding. A deep love for a brother or sister has to be the only Jesus’ way to share theological difference, holding the body of Christ together at every cost.

As I put it in this benediction, carrying our faith needs the Jesus posture, a posture of gentleness and humility in its courageous conviction. 

Lord, save me from a heaven where I am isolated with a few others who believe exactly like me!

 

God, give us a confidence in you

But let grace keep us from arrogance

God, give us a strength of conviction

But let us share it humbly

God may we believe courageously

But help us carry it gently

Lord, may we go forward with vision

But help us to be careful that we do not abuse your grace to feed our own self righteousness

But use your grace to feed the world’s deepest needs.

AMEN


OUR LACK OF INNER FREEDOM

Inner freedom

 

Pope Francis suggested in his book Let Us Dream four things that we should change during “stoppages” in our lives like Coronavirus has been. The one that has tugged like a dog at my wheels is Pope Francis calling out our “lack of internal freedom”. 

 

What would those inner freedoms be? How would they be held captive?

 

The Bible uses two words to describe the inner workings of a human being. The heart and the soul. In Proverbs we are told to “guard our hearts”. In Romans we are encouraged to “transform our minds”.

 

What might take them captive? 

 

I glanced across the panorama of the Gospels and thought of three different people with three different ball and chains.

 

Zacchaeus. What might be preventing his inner freedoms? Greed… wealth… power. Zacchaeus is tied to the powers that be. A tax collector in cahoots with Rome taking more than was needed. He had created a wealthy space but had lost all his relationships. Jesus appears and invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner. Jesus seems to set Zacchaeus’s inner life free. He repents and gives back what he had stolen. He gives away his wealth. Zacchaeus is set free.

 

What about Mary caught in adultery. Dragged before Jesus to be stoned. The adulterer is nowhere to be sun and heart is this woman captive to her sin and guilt and shame. Jesus sends her judges away and forgives the woman. She has been set free.

 

Nicodemus on the other hand came with his spiritual mind made up. He was sure of how things had been that he struggled with the fresh things Jesus was saying. He knew better than God. His theology was hindering his inner freedom.

 

Me. I have no doubt so many things hindering mine but let me share one that Jesus set me free from. 

 

As a 17 year old, I discovered Jesus after being a Beatles fan. Jesus answered the questions The Beatles were asking about peace and social change. I read the Gospels and when Jesus said that we were to love our enemies that was an easy application for a boy living through The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

 

I was up for loving my Catholic neighbours but soon became captive to theologians who told me I couldn’t worship with Catholics, to community that told me I couldn’t trust Catholics. 

 

For thirty years I was merely a passive peace maker as my inner freedoms were under the ball and chain of society, family and even church. I needed God to set me free. I thank God that he did no matter what grief it might cause me.

 

Oh there are other things I need rid of to keep my heart, mind and soul free. May the Holy Spirit search deep. May Jesus set me free.

 

HOW BAD DOES YOUR THEOLOGY HAVE TO BE...

Bad-Theology-1024x576

How bad does your theology have to get before it negates the saving work of Jesus and the amazing grace of God?

What a great question.

Over the years I have become increasingly uneasy with the Theologist, that is the theological version of the racist or the sectarian. Those who would look upon someone else as something less because they judge that their theology is suspect and treat them dismissively as a result. 

From such a faulty system I had been told to dismiss fellow Christians as “dodgy” or “liberal”. Finally meeting many of those those who had been condemned as significantly less I discovered men and women, passionate for Christ and full of the spirit of God. 

Jesus never said, “By their theology you will know them”. Instead he spoke of love of one another and a oneness among his followers. These indeed would be the things that would be a witness to the world.

Shunning or casting out followers of Jesus because their theology does not meet the accuracy of your own theological mathematical formulas seems an antithesis of what Jesus was urging.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that theology is not important. Indeed I would be so bold to say that this blog is theological. I have come to believe though that over prioritising theology leads to theological error.

It was a friend who told me about a Mission Conference that he had been at. Mother Theresa was featured in the content but some were chatting about how she wouldn’t make the cut. Catholic! Universalist?

The next morning at breakfast my friend was sitting with an Anglican vicar from India. So he asked him what he thought of the judgement of Mother Theresa. “How bad does your theology have to be before it overcomes the grace of God?”

Lovely! 


DISCIPLESHIP? TALKING TO... OR WALKING AWAY FROM PROSTITUTES

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Away back in 1994 I was forced by an IRA bomb to live in an apartment block in Belfast city centre. I had no TV nor did I need one. From the window I could see the drug lift there, the prostitute rendezvous there. 

One morning I almost stepped over the night girls on my way to my office that was temporarily in the the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings. I moved quickly, no eyes connecting. And as I walked away I thought that that was a good Presbyterian boy. 

I had no more thought that when I was quickly drawn back to the Gospels. Jesus did not walk over prostitutes and scamper off all self righteous to Church headquarters. Quite the opposite. Jesus was comfortable in the presence of prostitutes. 

He would have sat down on the front step of our apartment and chatted with them. They always seemed drawn to his grace. 

It was bad not good discipleship that sent me off to some ivory tower with the inability to reach out to these women that God loves. I started asking why all those conferences and and books about discipleship hadn’t taught me how to talk to prostitutes?.

Of course had I sat with these ladies and done the Jesus thing I would have been looked on with some suspicion. My reputation might have been a tarnished (or even more tarnished than it is!!!). 

How far we have gone from following Jesus to following some middle class behavioural code that we erroneously call Christian?


IS CHRISTIANITY CRAP? CHARLIE MACKESY PREACHES...

Crap Tuna Tins

I love Charlie Mackesy. Oh his book of illustrations and succinct wise quotations, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, for sure BUT what I really have grown to love are his sermons for Alpha! He’s an amateur preacher and all the better for it. His understanding and passion for the grace of God is refreshing as is his disdain for the negative characteristics of the Church.

Mackesy has a profound belief in a Jesus that he is quick to declare was kept from him by a judgemental Church that screamed STOP STOP STOP and laid upon people guilt and shame, instead of love.

Mackesy has a simple but profound illustration. Once, while in Romania, he was offered some tuna. Outside the tin was the word CRAP. Mackesy rightfully says that the outside would put you off and as a result you might miss the glorious wonder of the taste inside.

The Church is Jesus worst PR! It seems to have been for a long time. I say that as someone who has committed his life to that Church but also as a follower of Jesus who cannot contradict the case against it.

I have become too aware of this in books and film recently. 

Kenneth Branagh has the guldering (loud angry shouting) of the preacher. It does not have a positive effect on the young Brannagh. It causes him sleepless nights and the inclusion of the this scene in his autobiographical movie suggest a long term barrier to God.

I was watching Belfast while I was reading Jan Carson’s novel The Raptures about Church in rural Northern Ireland. Again, throughout the novel, CRAP seems written all around the Church. Oh it is not all bad but neither does it draw you, welcome you or embrace you with love.

Sadly, it is not just in film and novel that CRAP is branded across the Church. A friend, whose faith in Jesus is stronger than her faith in Church, told me recently that at her very own father’s funeral she was approached and told that her dad would love it if she repented and returned to Church. Yes, read that sentence again. At a time of grief, instead of hug she got a pointed finger! That has CRAP written all around it.  

Another friend while speaking to an American College group said, “My Christian journey almost robbed me of the wonder of my humanity.” How can those who follow Jesus who spoke about bringing humanity in all its fulness have gotten it so wrong as to steal someone’s humanity.

We are in a world where everyone around us is looking for love, forgiveness, a welcome and a belonging. Jesus life gives us an invitation to all of those in abundance. Roman Centurions, Samaritan women, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and outcasts. None of them are made feel guilt or shame, just utter love and transformation. 

This is the amazing grace inside a tin with CRAP on the outside. 

It reminds me of The Proclaimers song The Light where again faith is a wonderful thing but for some bizarre reason Christians get the PR wrong:

 

But I can't put my faith in

(Your words)

Your words and demands

(I believe)

I believe in God alright

It's folk like you I just can't stand

 

In his best selling book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller wrote about how at University the Christians set up little Confessional booths all over the Campus on the most hedonist night of the year. When people went in expecting self righteous peers to listen to their sins, the Christians confessed the errors of Christianity instead!

As a minister in the Church I am happy to, if sorrowful that I have to, confess our failings. In the secular world we live in Jesus is for me the way and the truth and the life. Jesus came to bring us amaz and life in all its fulness. We need to stop hiding that behind a banner that says CRAP!

Charlie Mackesy shows slides of his garden. To get in you need to get through a gate that says BEWARE OF THE DOG. It could be frightening. Once inside if you look around you will see a bronze sculpture. Near hidden in the briars of his garden, it is the Prodigal Son being embraced by his Father, Mackesy says that it is the great truth that we are loved unconditionally in a world that is messy.

Preach it Charlie… and those of us in the Church too.


WOE (TO US) WHO ARE RICH

Eye-of-the-needle

“The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German 

Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon 

And during communion I study the people 

Threading themselves through the eye of the needle”

               - The Divine Comedy

 

The Divine Comedy have a Greatest Hits out at the moment and this their sharpest prophet strike at modern day Christendom is sadly missing. 

This line is a depth charge that explodes deep in every Church across the developed world. Divine Comedy mailman Neil Hannon was son of Anglican Bishop, Brian Hannon. Neil would have found many Church curiosities to surmise in his late agnostic teens.

This one is so accurate it is frightening. Indeed every time `I preach about money or wealth in Fitzroy I find it truly scary. A number of years ago I was preaching on Jesus’ Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man and I almost froze when I sensed the weightiness of the words in a church full of wealthy people.  

When I say wealthy, I do not mean rich. We are middle class with many leaning to the high end of that but every one of us are rich in real terms. This is the richest generation in the history of the world. What Jesus says about wealth speaks into our every ambition and decision. We are those that Neil Hannon watches at communion. There at the cross of a poor man we are trying to drag our material blessings with us through the eye of that needle that the crucified man spoke about.

This is THE issue for discipleship in my generation. Yet, we have prioritised sexual purity and correct theology and ignored the spiritual elephant in the room.

Mary sang of God: 

 

“He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.”

 

It was there long before Mary. The Old Testament prophets were regularly pointing out the “German cars” of their day. Amos:

 

“You levy a straw tax on the poor
    and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.”

 

In the text I preached in Fitzroy last Sunday Jesus is at it again:

 

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.”

 

Oh my…

So what are we going to do. Give our tithe and a wee bit more for missions and the homeless? That is all good and I would encourage it BUT I am thinking God is looking for more than charity. 

Give bigger sums of money and go out and volunteer to build schools and houses. Again, that is all good and I would encourage it BUT I am thinking God is looking for more than development.

God wants revolution. He doesn’t want us just to help poor people. He wants to eradicate poverty. There is no poverty in heaven and Jesus asked us to pray “on earth, as it is in heaven”.

This is the craziness, the upside-downess of the Kingdom. Money and wealth are the most serious of all things in the Kingdom and in our discipleship. 

I’ll close by declaring that in all our desire to follow Jesus, and I hope I can use the word desire, we need to be aware that the biggest obstacle to that following by far is that we are the wealthiest generation that ever lived. That makes it much harder than it was in Jesus day or any era since!


THAT WAS THE RIVER, THIS IS THE SEA - THE SEISMIC SHIFT OF JESUS BIRTH

That Was The River

This year’s Advent threw up theological ideas that opened up flickering ideas I have had down the years. I find that happens. Surmises on the fringes are given a more central place in a coming to clarity.

I was very taken this Christmas at the different perspective that God becoming incarnate, in the baby Jesus, gives us of God. I heard a sermon that left me quite cold. Oh it was sound in a rattling out cliches that ticked some theological bingo card phrases. As I unpacked it I realised that I was uneasy by how distant God felt during it.

The words used were all a little too Old Testament. I felt like Isaiah in the Temple as recorded in Isaiah chapter 6. I was made feel not so much in awe as frightened to be in the presence of this God. Like Isaiah I felt - ruined. 

In its juxtaposition around Christmas I realised that the baby in the manger is a different perspective on all of this. God is no longer distant. His transcendence becomes immanence to shepherds and mystical star gazers. God’s behind the veil privacy becomes intimacy to a teenager girl…. and in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus to us all! As I wrote almost 30 years ago, before Pope Francis seemed to steal it this past week, God is now close enough to whisper. 

For me the birth of Jesus is a seismic shift in God’s dealings with humanity and in the human understanding of God and how we then should live. 

In my Boxing Day (St. Stephen’s Day) sermon I was reaching to find a phrase to explain this shift. Oh the Old Testament is not over and ripped up as an early Church heretic called Marcion suggested BUT this year more than any other I was acutely aware of the shift. How can I articulate it? In the sermon I failed to find a phrase.

The next day I was listening to one of my Christmas gifts and there it was. Old words, familiar but handing me the keys to my surmise:

 

“That was the river

This is the sea”

 

I am listening to the 1989 incarnation of The Waterboys all fiddles, accordions and bodrans instead of their 1985 big music that first gave us This Is The Sea. Perhaps it’s the more mystical trad sound of 1989 but as I sang along my soul smiled. That’s it. I found it! The best description of the watershed between the Old and New Testament. 

The 39 books of the Jewish Scriptures is like the river. As Paul wrote in his letter to Galatians (v 23-25) about this watershed: 

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 

Brilliant. This guardian, Paul talks about, is like the banks of a river, holding us in until maturity comes in Jesus and eventually the Holy Spirit’s indwelling post Pentecost. From Jesus arrival, the banks are no longer needed. So we flow out of that great river of Old Testament salvation history into the sea of its New Testament fulfilment.

God comes across in a different space, reconciliation is a done deal when Christ’s cross rips the veil of the Temple in two. Jesus teaches us that a fulfilment of the law is the same water as the Old Testament river but it takes a different grace centred, law nailed to the tree, persona, behaviour and outworking. 

The invitation to follow Jesus is like being invited into the sea. The truth, now flesh and blood, sets us free. Life in all its fulness is never possible when we row back up the river to live like children under a pedagogue. 

Religion always prefers the control, the pharisaical rules and regulations of the river and strict judgmental teacher. Religion is frightened of freedom. Religion prefers the God at a distance to be appeased still by right rules.

The sea is the same but fulfilled, the same but matured, the same but almost altogether different as a human being’s relationship changes to his or her nursery teacher. The teacher was there. The teacher is not contradicted. Yet life in the sea no longer needs. The flesh and blood truth of the baby in straw has set us free.

So, for me, 2022 will be a study of other ways this seismic shift changes the spiritual life. How following Jesus out in the sea differs from that old constricted life on the river and where we have dangerously allowed ourselves to get swept back unto safety by the theologically immature who tempt us to be less than we are (Just like Eden) with words that sound so sound but are confined by the banks of that old river.

I hope to share these surmises here on Soul Surmise as well as in Sunday sermons!