Behold the Man

‘Behold the man!’, was Pilate’s opening remark as he presented the sorry figure of Jesus whipped to within an inch of his life. It was good theology, even if Pilate did not appreciate it, but it caused many to struggle, trying to equate this image with God. Some even argued that was only an illusion. Jesus just appeared like a man. It was, of course, a heretical idea. Yet, I wonder how many of us still carry distant echoes of that view? Jesus was, after all, quite exceptional. He drew people towards him, healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed storms as well as many other things. In short, not much like me. If this isn’t evidence for him being God, then what is? Yet, the Bible seems to want to paint a different picture.

Philippians 2, often regarded as the centrepiece of Paul’s theology, does not say that God almost emptied himself, holding something back so that he could perform miracles. In fact, it says he became lower yet. Elsewhere, Isaiah 53 says, ‘he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.’ That does not seem to tie up with a highly charismatic miracle worker. He even came from Nazareth. (Think Slough: Can anything good come from Slough?) The Bible seems to be at pains to point out that God chose not only to become human, but a very unexceptional one at that. Just a manual worker born in a stable. We loose site of this at our peril, as I’ll explain later.

Changing tack for a moment. The four minute mile was for a long time thought to be unachievable, yet in 1954 Roger Banister removed that barrier and changed the way people imagined what was possible. Today the record stands at three minutes forty-three seconds.

So, here is my point. Jesus does not present us an unattainable standard, but, like Roger Bannister, he enables us to imagine a new reality. He has broken a barrier as to what we can imagine as possible. Once we grasp the fact that Jesus came as an ordinary man, we realise that we can, not only do what Jesus did, but do even greater things, just as runners have done with the four minute mile. For sure, Jesus had the Holy Spirit to help him, but then, isn’t that the same Spirit that the New Testament promises us? The more we imagine Jesus as extraordinary, the more it lets us off the hook. If the miracles demonstrate that Jesus was God, then what hope is there for me?.But, if Jesus were very ordinary, then I no longer have any excuses, for I am ordinary too.

The more I imagine Jesus as ordinary, the more it is causing a shift in my thinking. What once seemed only remotely possible, now seems imaginable. There is no constraint on me that Jesus did not also impose on himself. Jesus is no longer just someone to aspire towards, but shows me – and all of us – what can be achieved, even surpassed. After all, Jesus never moved a mountain. Perhaps that is one he has left for us.






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The Reality we Imagine

Martin Luther King imagined a reality that he never lived to see. It was an impossible dream – more than a little dangerous. Some thought it the delusions of a mad man. Yet he could imagine its reality and he clung to it. He died before other could see it, but it is no longer a dream.

Our imagination is powerful. Many leading sociologists use our ‘social imaginary’ to describe us, rather than our ‘worldview’. I am no sociologist, but I am increasingly convinced by the importance of what we can imagine. Our imagination defines not just who we are, but who we become: an important difference.

Of course, if you begin to imagine impossible things then some might begin to consider you mad. That happened to Jesus, even by his own family, so we’d be in good company. He was imagining a heaven on earth, while the best anyone else could imagine was getting rid of the Roman occupation. No wonder people questioned his sanity. Perhaps I should be worrying more about why I am not accused of being insane. In fact, I am too sane by far, which is the trouble with many of us. We are all too sane. Too rational to imagine more than we can see.

I have been reminded about the importance of this recently through looking into the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. I had hoped to be stirred by it. Instead, I found it more than a little depressing. It is all true, but it also seems so small and inadequate once placed in its neat little theological boxes. The only description that I have grown to appreciate most wasn’t from any theological work, but, of all things, from a children’s story book. In C.S. Lewis’ “The lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” he describes the sacrifice at the stone table as a ‘deep magic that goes back before the dawn of time’. I have come to like this, not because of what it says (which is very little), but for what it leaves unsaid. It opens up the mystery to the imagination, and perhaps it is only in my imagination that I can begin to grasp the smallest fragment of the breadth, depth and height, that is the cross.

Now, I am not arguing that we park our minds at the door of the church, there are, regrettably, too many who have already done that – rarely with positive results. However, I do believe that we have allowed ourselves to become too closely entwined with the Enlightenment and its ideals. We have over-thought the gospel and under-imagined it’s power – myself included, if not especially. If we are to begin to impact this world, then perhaps we may need to engage our imaginations and dream big dreams.

My God!

You would think that Jesus his final words to count, which makes his exclamation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” something of a puzzle. It is, of course, a reference to Psalm 22.

I have to confess to being moved by this psalm. I felt the despair of abandonment. God is not doubted, but he is strangely silent. We have all been there where our prayers seem to bounce back, as though God has gone on holiday and not left a forwarding address or note to say when he intends to return. Perhaps it is this identification that makes it so moving for me. Yet, is this really what Jesus wanted his last words to convey? Or is there something else going on? The more I look the more I wonder. If despair and desolation are the theme, then what causes the switch to praise at the end? Unless, of course, it has been praise all along.

Bad things are happening and God does not appear to be doing anything about it, yet there is no complaint, only a question. Those around him watch his suffering and assume that it is a sign of God rejecting him. After all, who is he, if not a worm? He might praise God. He might put his trust in God, but to all appearances, God has abandoned him. Which is maybe why this is the psalm Jesus alludes to while hanging on the cross. The appearance is of one abandoned with dogs howling at his feet. Yet God remains. With brutal honesty, amidst the pain and suffering, this is a psalm of praise. Not pretending that all is ok, when they are not. Not pretending to understand all that is going on, but declaring its trust anyway. Which is perhaps why the psalm ends on such a high. By this point his accusers have been left behind and his praise flows freely. A praise that will flow out to generations not yet born. Including, I realise, me.


Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
will worship him;
all who are descending to the dust
will kneel before him;
my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
to those not yet born,
telling them what God has done. (Ps 22:29-31, CEB)

Daily Bread

Life is full of distractions and I’ve had more than my fair share recently, what with Christmas and various projects. To be honest, most of the time I enjoy the distractions, although, on this occasion, I’ve layered one distraction on another, leaving an over-active mind that has begun to interfere with my sleep. Not good. In the midst of all this noise it is all too easy to loose sight of what is important.

The psalmist, in psalm 16, finds his refuge in God, his only source of good. He rejects that path of others who appear holy and doing well for themselves, but who find their good outside of God. All the psalmist can do is hope that they learn their mistake – even if it is by the hard way of sorrow.

It reminded me of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: give us this day our daily bread. I have said these words many times, but never really taken them in. After all, if I need bread, I go to the Supermarket. While I have a job, I easily have the money for bread. Even if I lost my job, the State promises to step in – at least to a point. Granted, some fall between the cracks, but that is someone else’s experience, not mine. I find I have no need to ask for bread. Which is precisely the problem.

My refuge, my source of good, seems to be out of alignment. I look to the Supermarket. I look to my bank balance. I look to the State and the economic system of the world. Which is all a bit foolish really, given the not-so-long-ago financial crisis. It is in my very comfort and security that I have made a mis-step. My refuge needs to be in God – even for my bread. Even though I know, as the apostle Paul testifies, this may mean that at times I need to do without. Yet, in spite of this, we know that God has our best interests at heart, which is more than can be said for the supermarket or my bank.

Not all distractions are bad. Some are expressions of who God made me to be, yet they are still distractions. Sometimes, it is helpful to be reminded of where our refuge should be and to, perhaps for the first time, pray: give us this day our bread.

 

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Small Beginnings

My journey has taken an unexpected turn. Although, with hindsight, I should have seen it coming.

I have been marinating myself in the psalms as I try to reshape my view of reality around the Kingdom. I’m unsure of my progress, but I reassured myself that, that if drops of water can impact rock, change must be happening. In spite of this, I was becoming frustrated at the lack of visible progress when I felt God say to look at the small things.

It was the idea of small things that seemed unexpected. After all, the view from the Kingdom should be radically different from the view of the world and so I was expecting big shifts. This left me puzzled, until I remembered Jesus speaking about the Kingdom being like a grain of mustard seed. So, rather than look for the radical shifts, that were not seemingly happening, I felt I needed to focus on the small shifts that were. Now, the Kingdom has always been marked by love and unity and, while strained at times, it is also clearly in evidence amongst God’s people. And, if the Gospel of John is to be believed, this is a mark of the Kingdom.

Looking for the small things sounded so incredibly simple, yet it proved harder in practice. Being small, it is often difficult to see. It is also difficult to distinguish from, say, worthy deeds done by the godless. How is my loving any different from a good hearted atheist who is also helping their neighbour? The deeds can look remarkably similar. Yet, perhaps, this is to be expected as we had been warned that the wheat and tares would be hard to tell apart. It is only as the deeds grow and bear fruit that the differences become clear, for they come from a different source. The Spirit is our source (or should be), and our deeds flow from within and bring life with them. They are not some external standard of right and wrong, imposing its rules on us like a straightjacket, strangling life, rather than bringing it.

So, I’ve needed to pause. To allow myself to dwell on what God was saying. It is, I am aware, only another small step, but I also feel that I’ve been given a new lens with which to see.

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