John 18:15-16

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Poor old Peter. We criticise him so much for his implusiveness and his ability to put his foot in it. But have you ever noticed that of all the disciples who had been with Jesus at the Passover meal, and with him in the garden of Gethsemane, only Peter and John  even followed him to the High Priest when he was arrested (and the other gospels don’t even mention John, only Peter). Peter has gone down in history for denying Jesus, but all the other disciples seem to have run away at the first sign of trouble!

It’s like we criticise Thomas for wanting to see and touch Jesus, when the other disciples only believed because they had seen, too.

The one who speaks up is the one who gets criticised, but it’s no better to doubt and fear in silence. In fact, Peter had the experience of being explicitly forgiven and reinstated after Jesus’ resurrection, whereas none of those who simply ran and hid did. Also Thomas got to touch the risen Jesus, whereas the others had only seen him.

Our honesty might draw criticism from others, but it enables God to meet, heal and restore us in a way that our hidden sins don’t allow.

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Luke 2:25-28

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I’m writing a series of blog posts for Advent (yes, I know it’s July; my client plans ahead!). It is a challenge to find something new to say about such a familiar story, but that is forcing me to really read the text, and I’m learning just how much I have missed over the last four decades or so of hearing it!

Last year I learned that the angel who came to Zechariah announcing John the Baptist’s coming quoted to him the exact words that had been the final words of the Old Testament. The first thing that God said after 400 years of silence was to announce the fulfillment of the last thing he had said. Wow.

I also noticed for the first time the incredible, sacrificial love Joseph showed to Mary. Amazing.

This year’s big revelations have been that the Magi didn’t ‘follow’ the star all the way to Jerusalem (read more here) and, today, that Simeon wasn’t a priest.

I knew that Simeon had been waiting for the Messiah and that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would see Jesus before he died. I always assumed that meant he was very old, but that’s not really borne out by the text. I also knew that he went to the Temple on the day Jesus was brought there to be presented to the Lord, and that that was due to his paying attention to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but I was certain he was a priest. I thought he was likely to be in the general temple area, and just went out into the courtyards from wherever he had been performing his normal priestly duties. But no. He was just ‘a man in Jerusalem’ (v25).

That somehow shifts my whole perception of him and the event. This wasn’t one of the temple ‘officials’ greeting Jesus. There was no-one among the priestly class who was ready and expectant (or filled with the Holy Spirit and listening to his promptings). (I’m not sure whether Anna the prophetess had any official standing within the temple – the phrase ‘she never left the temple’ (v37) suggests to me that this was her reputation rather than her position, but that is total speculation.)

Simeon’s devoutness hadn’t resulted in him getting work in the temple. I don’t know if it worked like that anyway – perhaps he wasn’t from the right tribe to be a priest (if that was a thing?), but whatever, he was just some man, going about his daily life.

Somehow that makes it seem more impressive, to me. I think we expect those who work for the church or in ‘Christian professions’ to be listening out for God’s word to them all the time, but not just ‘ordinary Christians’ getting on with our ‘secular’ lives.

Sometimes, this story tells me, it is those who aren’t caught up with the busyness of ‘doing religion’ that are more open to the promptings of the Spirit.

1 and 2 Samuel

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Yesterday someone pointed something out to me and my mind is still reeling from it: the boy Samuel DIDN’T serve God in the Temple.

Even though the Bible translations I am most familiar with (NIV 1984, ESV) use the word ‘temple’ (eg 1 Sam 3:3: “Samuel was lying down in the temple, where the ark of God was”), it is clear from 2 Samuel 7 that the Jews were still worshipping in the temporary tabernacle tent:

All those Sunday school images of vast stone columns and marble floors are entirely false. I’ve always pictured Hannah weeping and praying for a son on a huge flight of stone steps, but she couldn’t have been.

And while we’re at it, there’s no textual evidence that Eli was sleeping in another ‘room’ or place within the tabernacle as I’ve always imagined. He could have been in the very same space as Samuel and not heard the voice of the Lord.

There’s nothing particularly deeply spiritual I have to say about this, just one of those moments where my life-long perception has been shown to be false. I wonder what else I’m picturing completely differently from how it was…?!

Isaiah 38:17

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Thanks to Amy Boucher Pye in her book The Living Cross for bringing this verse to my attention. The whole verse is powerful, isn’t it? Sermons, if not books, could be written about that first clause. But it was the underlined portion that stood out. 
We often struggle to let go of the guilt of past sins, feeling that God must be as acutely aware of them as we are. We can think he is waiting for us to slip up again, and withholding his full forgiveness until we can prove that we’re not going to repeat the same errors. 

But this imagery assures us that that is not the case. He has cast all our sins behind his back. The NIV says ‘put’, which is good enough, but ‘cast’ is even better. I picture him screwing them up and throwing them over his shoulder, like a writer with a badly-written page. All he sees is the clean sheet in front of him. Fresh and clear and ready to write on again. 

Each new sin is dealt with in the same way – I think I’m theologically correct in saying that even before we come to him in repentance the sin is scrunched up and cast away. That is my understanding of what it means to be washed by the blood of the Lamb – that all our sins, past, present and future, are removed from us as far as the East is from the West. We confess and repent so as not to create a wall of guilt in our relationship with God, but the sin itself has been dealt with, once and for all. 

This is a great mystery, but what a wonderful gift. 

Haggai 2:12-13, Mark 5:25-29

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A few weeks ago in church we had a sermon on this passage from Haggai, which made the point that unclean things make clean things dirty, not vice versa. If you have muddy hands and touch your clean, white shirt, the mud makes the shirt dirty. 

A couple of weeks later we had a guest preacher who preached on this passage from Mark 5:

The woman was unclean. She would have been separated from her community because of her illness and uncleanness, because everyone knew that if something unclean touches something clean it defiles it. 

But then she touched Jesus’ garment, and she was instantly made clean. 

A garment carrying holy food can’t make the uncleanness clean, but a garment covering a holy God can.

And it gets even better, because in Acts 19:11-12 we read that bits of cloth that Paul had touched were taken to the sick and they were healed:

Now the garments don’t even need to be touching the holy person, they can carry the holiness with them!

Jesus changed the way physics works and he left his power with us. And in the power of the Spirit we can do even greater things than he did, just as he promised. 

Jonah 1:13

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There can hardly be a more familiar story in the Bible than that of Jonah, can there? Yet the teaching series my church is in at the moment has really revealed some things to me that I’d never seen before.

I hadn’t noticed that the sailors at first refused to do what Jonah told them. It reminds me of the stories in the New Testament when people come to Jesus and ask ‘What must I do to be saved?’ He tells them, and they go away sad, because that seems too hard.

The sailors here ask ‘What must we do?’ They are given the answer, but they decide to keep rowing instead – they had given up all hope – rowing wasn’t helping, in fact, the storm had even got rougher since they had originally given up hope of a human solution (see v11) – but they decided to give it one last try anyway.

That’s fair enough when the ‘remedy’ is that you’re going to have to kill someone in cold blood (though the sermon pointed out that actually Jonah could have jumped into the sea himself – there’s no reason he had to make the sailors do it), but it’s worth pondering that so often when we ask God what to do, he tells us, and we still keep trying it in our own strength anyway.

And of course, Jonah could have just repented, asked God’s forgiveness and gone back to what he was supposed to be doing – but then we wouldn’t have had such a neat prefiguring of Jesus…

(There’s lots more good stuff in the sermon too. Well worth a listen.)

Cleansing laws 

You may have spotted that the snippet above is not actually Scripture! It’s from a book I’m reading called The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  

Haidt is a social and cultural psychologist, and his book looks at how and why humans make the kind of moral decisions they make.  It’s absolutely fascinating and I’m underlining things on almost every page, and commenting with a ‘wow’ or an ‘oh, I see!’ in the margins.  

He cites lots of experiments that have been conducted by different psychologists trying to see what factors affect our moral judgements.  We might think we consider situations completely rationally, evaluate the rights and wrongs, and come to a conclusion, but over and over and over again Haidt shows that our intuitions form the strongest basis for our decision-making. And these intuitions can be shaped by things we don’t even notice.  

A study conducted at the University of Toronto found that people who washed their hands with soap before filling out a questionnaire have more moralistic responses to questions relating to moral purity than others (p71.  The quote above also references the opposite effect, such as when Lady Macbeth obsessively tries to clean her hands after goading her husband into murdering Duncan –  immorality makes us want to clean ourselves). 

So all those laws in the Bible about cleanliness had another purpose – not only did they actually fight germs and thus preserve health, not only did they symbolise the need for purity in God’s presence, they actually made people value morality more highly, not just intellectually, but on a subconscious, visceral level.  Having clean hands makes you want a clean heart.  Fascinating.  

(He also made an aside in the early pages about biblical laws that seem really bizarre to us, like prohibitions about weaving clothes with different kinds of thread – they are about “keeping categories pure” (p15). I hope he’ll come back to that later, but it seems as though something similar is happening there – by keeping categories pure in one area of life, perhaps you ‘tune’ your moral intuition to want to keep them pure in other areas, and thus avoid intermarriage with other religions, for instance.) 

Hebrews 11:39, 10:23

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I think these are two of the most challenging verses in the Bible to hold in tension together:

… 


God’s faithfulness does not mean that we will receive the promises he has made us within our lifetime. We have to keep believing while we wait, even if it seems like it’s too late.   

And somehow my life now is part of the fulfilment of God’s promises to some of the saints from long ago.  

It’s a mystery. 

Hebrews 5:14

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This is interesting.  I’m not sure how it relates to solid food/in depth teaching (or rather, it seems to me that eating solid food is what equips you to distinguish good from evil – this seems a slightly circular argument), but I’m interested in the idea that we have to train ourselves to distinguish good from evil.  

We tend to think we know right from wrong instinctively, and there certainly are cases where things are obviously just wrong.  The moral shifts in our culture over the past decades, however – and the different responses of churches to those shifts – illustrate that this is still something we need to work at.  

The perceptions of those around us about what is right and what is wrong change all the time.  Mature Christians need to be well-served by the teachers in their churches, and need to study the scriptures for themselves to be able to learn to discern good from evil in a world that will often argue vehemently that black is white.  

1 Timothy 5:24-25

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Now here’s another of those little snippets I’ve never noticed before.  

I’m not entirely sure what the phrase ‘reaching  the place of judgement ahead of them’ means, but I love the imagery of other sins ‘trailing behind’ you.  Ditto with the positive side about good deeds. 

I’m picturing the empty cans, streamers and balloons people attach to the back of wedding cars (though the cans are very noisy and I think the imagery here is of something less obvious) – from the front it just looks like a normal car; it’s only when you get to the back that you see the clear proclamation ‘Just Married’. 

It’s challenging and comforting to know that God sees everything and that one day everything will come to light and be seen and judged for what it is. Whether we’ve been sinned against, or we’ve lived well with little recognition, one day, all will be seen and justice will be served.