I’ve never heard these two before, but I love this kind of music.
They are playing at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival this summer.
We’ve been looking at the story of God’s involvement with us as being like a play in six acts. We looked at the first ‘Act’, the creation of all that exists, and the second ‘Act’, in which the human characters rebel against the Author of the Story. Today we go on to Acts 3 and 4.
Act 3: Israel
I began to learn to play the guitar by myself with the help of an instructional book. This book taught me some basic chords and techniques, but my progress was slow and difficult. This changed, however, after I met some more experienced guitarists and was able to watch and listen to them. They were my models, and by imitating them I was able to make much better progress.
God wants a group of people who will learn a different way of living and will model it for the world around them, so that everyone can see that God’s will is good. God wants a countercultural community. And so, as Act 3 begins, God chooses one elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, calling them to leave their family and go to a new land. They are told that God is going to bless them and make their name great, and that through them God is going to bless all the families on the face of the earth (see Genesis 12:1-3). Although they are too old to have children, God gives them a miracle child, Isaac. Isaac becomes the father of Jacob, and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the ancestors of the famous ‘twelve tribes of Israel’.
The story goes on to tell us how, many years later, God led those tribes out of slavery in Egypt back into their own land of Israel. Through all the hundreds of years that followed, God was patiently teaching them. Here are some of the lessons they learned:
Over the hundreds of years of their story, these people were often unfaithful and disobedient to God. God was patient with them, welcoming them back whenever they turned from their disobedience.
Act 4: Jesus
In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken mentions how, although every author starts writing a book with some kind of plan in mind for the plot, it often happens that the characters run away with the plot and start behaving in ways the author did not intend at the beginning. This, says Vanauken, is what happened to God’s world. He goes on to say that perhaps there was only one way for the Divine author to bring the story back to its original purpose. That way was for God to enter the story as a character and actually meet the other characters on their own level, talk with them, and invite them back to the original plan.
Incredible though it may sound, that is exactly what God did. In Act 4 God stepped onto the stage, as one of the characters in the story of Earth, Jesus of Nazareth. You can be sure that if the Creator of the universe has actually visited this planet in Jesus, then the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has to be the most important story ever told in human history.
That story was recorded for us in the biblical documents we call the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They tell of how Jesus was born in unusual circumstances in Bethlehem, and grew up in Nazareth near the Lake of Galilee. At the age of thirty he left his home and began a travelling ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. The basic them of his teaching was “The kingdom of God is at hand!” which meant that the time had come when God’s kingly rule was going to be extended over this broken and spoiled world. God was going to defeat evil and restore creation to its original purpose. Jesus believed that this was happening through his ministry.
Early in his ministry Jesus began to gather apprentices who could carry on his work; traditionally, we have called them ‘disciples’ or ‘apostles’. A lot of the material in the gospel accounts comes from them. In those days Jewish rabbis taught their disciples by making them memorize their teaching, and we have no reason to believe that Jesus was any different. Gradually as these apprentices progressed in their training, Jesus sent them out on teaching and healing missions of their own.
But Jesus also aroused considerable opposition from the religious establishment, and this led to the strangest part of the whole story. It sounds like a defeat, but the New Testament tells us that it is in fact a victory. We are told that toward the end of his ministry (we don’t know exactly how long this lasted, but it seems likely that it was about three years) Jesus was arrested by the authorities in Jerusalem, given a mock trial before the ruling council of Israel, and then handed over to the Romans, who executed him by crucifixion. This presented a problem for his followers. They had believed him to be the ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek), ‘the anointed One’, the King sent by God to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. But would God have allowed the Messiah to be arrested and executed? That was not in the script they had read in the old prophecies!
However, on the third day strange things began to happen. Some of the women went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Followers of Jesus began to see him alive again. He met with them over the next six weeks and taught them the true significance of what had happened. Gradually, as they looked back and reflected on all of this, they came to understand that, through his death and resurrection, Jesus had somehow healed the great breach between God and humanity, which was opened up when the first human beings rebelled against God. The story goes on to tell us how, before he ascended into heaven, Jesus sent out his first apprentices to tell the story to others and invite them to be a part of it as well. And so the church was born.
In the next instalment, we are going to skip Act 5 for a moment, look at Act 6, and then reflect on what we have learned so far about God and his story.
This song is obviously related to ‘Barrack Street’ which I first heard on Nic Jones’ ‘Penguin Eggs’ album but it has travelled quite far!
By the way, folks, this is how you play a bouzouki!
I first heard this wonderful old folk song on a ‘Planxty’ recording from the 1970s, with Andy singing the lead. Here he is giving us a recent solo performance of this great song.
I am so looking forward to hearing Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny in Alberta this summer!
In the previous section we introduced the idea of the story of God’s involvement with us as like a play in six acts. We also looked at the first ‘Act’, the creation of all that exists. Now we go on to Act 2: ‘Rebellion’.
God decided to give human beings the terrifying gift of free will. We can understand why God would do that. If we created an android and programmed it with a microchip requiring it to love us, that might be an enjoyable experience for us for a while, but eventually it would come to seem hollow, because we would know that our android had no choice in the matter. In the same way, if God had simply created human beings with no choice about whether or not they would love God, their love would not be real, because real love requires freedom of choice.
In Genesis chapter 3 we read about how the first human beings we tempted by a snake – an obvious symbol for the forces of evil – to step outside God’s will for them and choose their own road instead. They were told that if they did this, “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, all quotes from NIV 2011). They gave way to this temptation, and as a result, sin and brokenness entered their lives.
Not only was their relationship of trust and love with God broken, but also their relationships with each other and with the world around them were disrupted. They were evicted from their beautiful garden home, a symbolic way of saying that paradise was lost to them as a result of their choice to rebel against God. Their sin had an effect on the natural world around them as well; God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Genesis 3:17-18).
This story teaches that the world as we see it now is not the world as God intended it to be. It has been infected with evil. This evil is not just a force external to us as human beings. Jesus told us that it is in us as well, in our ‘hearts’. He said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, from a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).
A good way of summing up what we have learned from Acts 1 and 2 is a scene from the old Robin Williams movie Good Morning Vietnam. In this scene Louis Armstrong is singing his song ‘What a Wonderful World’. It paints a lovely picture of green trees and red roses, blue skies with white clouds, and friends shaking hands. But as Rico Tice points out in Christianity Explored, the song says one thing but the pictures in the movie say another. They are pictures of war in Vietnam. As we are told that the roses ‘bloom for me and you’, we see a child in the foreground and a bomb going off in the background. As we hear the words, ‘the colours of the rainbow so pretty in the sky’, we see protesters being beaten up and a young man being shot. And, most poignant of all, the chorus, “‘I say to myself, what a wonderful world’ is accompanied by images of the bloodied sandal of a little child.
This is the world as we see it today. It is a place that was made by a good and loving God, and it still contains many signs of God’s goodness and love. Yet we know that it is also infested with evil and sin. Evil has infected God’s good creation and spoiled God’s beautiful plan for the world. Instead of binding the world together, the loudest voices are often those of self-centredness and anger.
But God has not given up on creation. God intends to delve fit from its captivity to evil. And so, stay tuned for Act 3…
In one of C.S. Lewis’ published letters (I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t give the reference) he says something like this: “I’d rather pray for God’s mercy than His justice on my friends, my enemies, and myself”.
These days, by contrast, there is a strong movement to make justice, not mercy, the centre of the Christian faith. I have to say that I can totally understand this. There are millions (billions?) of people in the world who are victims of monstrous injustice, and the God we read about in the Bible has compassion for them and wants to change their situation. I have never been paid at a lower rate because of my gender, been denied rental accommodation because of my sexual preferences, or been forced to leave my country because of oppression and violence. If I had been through this sort of thing, I’m sure the cry of my heart would be for God’s justice – which, in my fallen sinfulness, would probably include God’s punitive justice on the perpetrators of these evils.
Nonetheless, despite all this, I still argue that the heart of the gospel is mercy, not justice.
James says, ‘Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who have not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgement’ (James 1:12-13, NIV 2011).
The heart of the gospel is the story of a God who does not give us what we deserve, but what we need. The gospel tells a story of human beings – us – who rebelled against their Creator, chose their own way rather than the Creator’s way, and acted as if the whole earth belonged to them rather than to God. I continue to do this, even though I am trying to follow the Way of Christ. Far too often, I still act as if I am the main character in the story of the world, and everyone else in the story is a supporting actor, in the story for my benefit. I make myself in a host of ways the centre of the universe, rebelling against the true Centre of the Universe, the eternal God.
Justice would require that I be punished for my sins, but God has chosen not to demand justice. Instead, God came and lived as one of us, revealing himself to us in Jesus as a friend of sinners, as one who reaches out to undeserving people and loves them into the Kingdom. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32 NIV 2011), says Jesus. In love, he reaches out to tax collectors and prostitutes, to Roman soldiers and fishermen, to women and to children – and also to Pharisees like Nicodemus who were hungry for God, and to apparently wealthy people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus who were happy to welcome him into their homes. When Paul was searching for a word to describe the essential character of Jesus, he used the phrase ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 13:13 NIV 2011). ‘Grace’ is a Bible word that means love that you don’t have to earn or deserve; it comes to you as a free gift, not because you are loveable but because God is love.
Christians are essentially people who know their need of this grace. We are deeply conscious – or should be – of how far we have fallen short and continue to fall short. So we come to God each day with the cry, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and we are assured that God will give a favourable answer to that prayer. “Your sins are forgiven you” is one of the most characteristic phrases on the lips of Jesus in the gospels, and since Jesus also said “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, we can be confident that this is a defining characteristic of God as well.
But what is the defining characteristic of a person who has received this grace from God? I would argue that it is a gentle attitude toward the sins and failings of others. We who have been forgiven so much ourselves know that we do not have the moral high ground here; we are ‘debtors to grace’, as the old phrase has it, so we need to extend that same grace to others. ‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you’, says Paul (Ephesians 4:31-32 NIV 2011). And we remember also Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), in which the servant who had been forgiven a huge debt by his king refused to extend that same forgiveness to the small amount he was owed by a fellow-servant. That story did not have a happy ending for the unmerciful servant.
I have learned over the years to look out for the signs of judgementalism and impatience with the failings of others in myself. When I find myself acting in that way, I have learned to ask myself whether I am truly believing the gospel of grace. Often, I’m not; in my head, I believe that God forgives my sins, but in my heart, I have slipped back into thinking that I have to achieve some sort of standard of goodness before I can be acceptable to God. And so I need a fresh touch of God’s healing grace to remind me that there is absolutely nothing I can do to make God love me more, and absolutely nothing I can do to make God love me less; God already loves me infinitely, and nothing is going to change that (as Philip Yancey puts it).
This is the story of God’s amazing grace; when I truly believe it, right down to the core of my being, then I can extend that same grace to others. When I don’t believe it – when I am impatience with the failings of others, judgemental toward them, perhaps even crying out for God to judge them, then I need to go back to what we used to call ‘the throne of grace’ and remind myself of my own deep need.
I’ll finish with a famous quote from Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The words that are often quoted on this subject are the famous ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’, but the words I want to refer to come a few lines later in that speech:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this –
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same mercy doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. (Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1).
Or, as James put it, ‘Mercy triumphs over judgement’. Therefore mercy is the heart of the Gospel and the heart of the Christian message.
Here’s a nice take on St. Patrick’s Breastplate by Steve Bell.
Steve’s website is here.
Andy and Donal will be making some appearances in Alberta this summer, and rumour has it that this will include a certain Folk Festival in a city where I live (which Andy’s website would appear to confirm).
Here’s an example of their brilliant musical artistry.
Andy Irvine‘s website
Andy and Donal were once members of a little Irish folk supergroup called Planxty.