Monthly Archives: August 2012

Journey to the centre of heartbreak (Luke 7:11-17)

Let me tell you a story, an old old story.About a brave warrior from Sweden. His name was Beowulf.  One day Beowulf sails across the sea.  He’s on a mission to help his friend, the king of the Danes.

Why does the Danish king need help? A vicious outcast, a demonic beast called Grendel is terrorizing the king’s hall.  He’s coming in at night and killing and devouring the king’s men. 

Beowulf, the great warrior, fights with his bare strength against the monster.  He pulls off Grendel’s arm and the monster goes away to die. 

Then Grendel’s vicious mother emerges from her horrible swampy home.  She wants revenge for her son’s death.  She kills one of the king’s men.  Beowulf is the only person brave enough to swim to the depths of the swamp to confront this sea hag. He kills Grendel’s mother with his sword.  Peace is restored to the land of the Danes.

Beowulf sails home.  He is a hero.  He becomes king of his own land.  A popular, wise king.  He rules for many years. 

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Let me tell you another old, old story.  About another king.  In fact, this man is known as the King of all kings. 

This man did not fight monsters with his bare hands.  He did not wield a sword or battle anyone.  He did not travel the high seas.  In the part of his story we are looking at he is travelling through the countryside, approaching a tiny, obscure village called Nain.  How could a man like this be the King of all kings?

Let us meet this man, this would-be king…his name is Jesus.

 

On the road with Jesus (Luke 4-7)

Jesus is on the road.  He’s finished recruiting twelve men to be his special students and ambassadors.  His twelve disciples.  He’s just given the disciples a long pep talk about the kind of people he expects them to be.  They are not to judge others.  They are to love and forgive their enemies.  These aren’t fighting words.  These are not the words of a warrior who wants to fight to obtain freedom.  The disciples must have been wondering: Who is this man? What is his agenda?

But there’s a lot of buzz about Jesus.  It’s spreading.  This man is amazing.  He’s healed demon-possessed people.  He’s made lepers clean and well again.  He’s restored, someone’s twisted, withered hand. He’s given a paralytic man walking legs.  What will he do next?  It’s not just Jesus and his disciples on the road now.  A large crowd has come to join them.

 

Collision with heartbreak (Luke 7:11-12)

Jesus and his followers come to Nain, a small town.  And all the buzz, and all the excitement fades in a second.  Because they collide with a funeral procession at the town gate.  Somebody’s dead child is being carried out.  It’s a boy, and he’s the only son of a widow. 

So, it seems like the party might be over.  The crowd must be thinking: It’s been great to see so many people healed, but they were alive to start with.  This widow’s son is dead.  There’s nothing to be done, except to join the procession, express some sympathy to the widow.  Or is there?

Jesus goes to the child’s coffin.  We are in a small country town.  But we have also travelled to the centre of our human heartbreak.  Our heartbreak that we will all die.  All our loved ones will die.  Jesus has collided with our biggest heartbreak.

 

Compassion (Luke 7:13-14)

The story says that Jesus’ heart went out to the widow. 

Jesus tells her not to cry.  Which might have made people in the crowd a bit angry.  Surely this woman should be allowed to cry?  She has already lost her husband, and now she has lost her only son.  She will be lonely, probably destitute. 

Then Jesus goes up to the coffin, touches it.  The people carrying the coffin stand still.  What Jesus does is very surprising.  Touching an open coffin makes him ritually unclean.  Not something a mourner would usually do.  He is not shying away from the situation.  He’s sharing the grief of the widow in a very intimate way.  But what can he do?  The boy is dead! Perhaps it would be best just to move on to the next town and see if there are any sick people who can be healed. 

 

Power (Luke 7:14-15)

But Jesus’ compassion is more than a symbolic gesture.  The crowd don’t know it yet, but he has the power to reverse death.  And his power is in his words.   All he has to say is “Young man I say to you, get up.”  And the boy gets up. 

 There is a beautiful description of what Jesus does next- he gives the boy back to his mother.  This miracle does not simply show Jesus’ amazing power over death. It shows that Jesus’ mission here on earth has a point.  He is showing what his agenda is as King over all the earth.  It is to restore everything, to make everything new again.  To fling away despair and death.  The miracles show Jesus’ infinite compassion breaking into the sadness and brokenness of our world. 

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Who are you? (Luke 7:16-17 and Luke 7:18-23)

The crowd is quiet.  They are awed.  Then there is noise, everyone is joyful, praising Jesus. 

But there is still confusion about who Jesus is.  Some people say, ” God has come to help his people” and others say ” A great prophet has appeared among us”.  Is Jesus a prophet, a messenger from God, or is he something more? 

John the Baptist is confused, too.  In the next passage he sends word to Jesus.  He asks “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  Is Jesus really the Christ?  Is he really God’s King?

Jesus says:

“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.  Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

Jesus does not give himself a title here.  He doesn’t declare himself to be King.  But all the things he lists are what the prophets of long ago predicted that the Messiah, God’s King, would do.  Jesus knows who he is.

What about you?  Who do you think Jesus is?  Do you think Jesus is irrelevant to you?  Do you think he is some teacher from long ago, interesting but slightly embarrassing and outdated?  Do you think that it’s time for society to move on, to move past the idea that Jesus is God’s King?  Who worships kings in this day and age, anyway?

 

The end of a story, and everything begins again (Revelation 21:3-5)

I didn’t tell you how Beowulf’s story ends.  We know he rules for many years.  A popular, wise king. 

But all this time there is a dragon lurking deep under his land.  The dragon is disturbed, and begins a campaign of fiery terror against Beowulf’s people.  Beowulf fights the dragon.  He manages to stab and kill the dragon, but not before the dragon has scratched him with his evil talons.  Dragon poison enters  Beowulf’s blood, and Beowulf dies.  Beowulf, the beloved king, dead.  His people are bereft. They wail, they are inconsolable as the funeral pyre of their king goes up in smoke.

The people are scared.  They have lost their security, they have lost their warrior king, the one who protected them.  Now it is inevitable that old feuds will boil up again, that they will be invaded by other peoples.  A lady stands by the funeral pyre, prophesying about their bleak, bleak future.  A wild prophesy of nightmare and lament.  Her nation will be invaded, there will be enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, slavery and abasement.

How different it is in Jesus’ kingdom.  At the end of the Bible his kingdom is described like this:

Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live among them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
(Revelation 21:3-5)

Jesus is looking forward to the time when he can walk among us and we can be his people, and he can be our King. He is looking forward to showing his people his sparkling new kingdom, washed free of every heartbreak and sorrow. Jesus has beaten death.  Jesus has travelled to the centre of our heartbreak.

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Book balm

I have just finished two books and the stories from both are spinning round my head.  I’m hoping a bit of writing will help the dizziness to pass, but enjoying the overwhelming-ness of it at the same time. 

 The books have made me wonder about the end of my life: Will death be a panicky full stop to everything I hold dear? Or will my road to the end be paved with such grace that I don’t fear that final jolt?

The rest is jungle and other stories by Mario Benedetti

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This is a collection of stories by a writer from Uruguay.  The stories were published  over 50 years (1949-1999). There is a lot of political and social upheaval caught up in this period (torture, corruption, imprisonment, exile), and this upheaval forms a sketchy, but ominous backdrop to the stories.  Many take surprising, abrupt twists after a person encounters someone (a visitor, a voice on the phone, a man on the street, an Alter Ego, a ghost) and this encounter forces the person to confront who they have become, or who they once were. 

In Death a man’s doctor advises him that “It’s advisable that you prepare for the worst.” The man confronts his own death, for the first time, head on. Knowledge of his impending death brings the man intense fear, as well as a strange exhilaration. It brings a sudden, harrowing appreciation that some of the routine, everyday things pegged throughout his life are actually finite and extraordinary- not perfect but still precious. He takes a kind of stocktake of his life and death:

Without his children, without his wife, without his lover.  But also without the sun, this sun; without those thin clouds, emaciated, in accord with the country; without the routine (blessed, loved, sweet, aphrodisiac, sheltered, perfect) of Cashier Desk No. 3 and it’s audits and lengthy searches for discrepancies that were always found; without his thorough reading of the newspaper in the cafe, next to the large window facing the Andes; without his exchange of jokes with the waiter; without the episodes of pleasant giddiness which suddenly occur when looking at the sea and especially when looking at the sky; without these hurried people, happy because they don’t know anything about themselves, who hasten to lie to themselves, to secure their armchair in eternity or to talk about the captivating heroism of the others; without the balm-like repose; without the books as intoxication; without the alcohol as an expedient; without sleep as death; without life as a vigil; simply without life.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson    

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The Reverend John Ames is given similar news by his doctor.  His response is to write a long letter to his young son.  This letter picks up the many threads in the Reverend’s life, such as his relationship with his father and grandfather, who were also preachers.  Rev Ames is by no means perfect, but the beauty of this book lies in the perspective of a man who has walked in the presence of the Lord all his days, so that his whole life becomes a sort of prayer.  The everyday is baptized by awe and wonder:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glisteining and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exhuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water cam pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasnt.  It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth.  I dont know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.  I wish I had paid attention to it.  My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really.  This is an interesting planet.  It deserves all the attention you can give it. 

This awe and wonder can be found even in dark and lonely times:

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life.  And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light… But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply.  Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see.  Only, who could have the courage to see it?

Short story or long letter?

No matter what length of time I have left to live, I would like my life to be a long letter home  rather than a short story.  I do not wish to have the truth of my life flash before me at the last instant.  I hope instead that I will be able to walk a slow and reflective life in the presence of the Lord, and that He will let me rest and dream even before the wagon hits the final jolt.

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Ruth

Naomi, your family came to Moab
You were hungry-
But were you also excited, exhilarated?
You had snuck out from under God’s blanket during
Israel’s night- so many judges, so few law keepers.

The hunger went away with your first Moabite harvest
But what had you really reaped?
Not excitement or exhilaration-
Gone, pitched away into the air,
Far from the graves of father and sons.

And me, I am not sure who I am
I was once a daughter, a wife
What am I now? A daughter- in- law?
I am foreign to myself, perhaps to others.
I am not sure where I should be
But I can’t rest here
I’ll take your slipstream, Naomi, to Bethlehem
And I’ll wonder all the way-
Am I going home, or into exile?

Naomi, you and I were a tiny knot,
Pulled tight, tighter
At the point where loss and bitterness meet.
Now we are beautifully undone,
Hope stretches out
And is rolled back into a ball of
Family, close family.
Thank you Boaz.

Boaz, you know the letter of the law,
And you’ve filed it away, carefully.
You know all the regulations
You’re the CEO of a kind harvest
A harvest certifiably kind to widows and their mothers.

I know it was more than Naomi’s slipstream
That drew me here.
Sometimes I dream that I am still making my way
Somewhere on the way to Bethlehem
Wondering whether I should start searching for memories-
Of my parents, of Orpah, of the husband of my youth.
There are no signposts here, in my dream
And each time I think- next time I’m here
I’ll plant a signpost, because I know
Others will make this trip too.

There is always the donkey at my side,
Nudging me home
And then there is always the cry of a baby
My baby, waking me
Ready to be fed.

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Painting is “Ruth Gleaning” (James Tissot, 1896)

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