On Being Happy

In one of the final chapters of his book ‘Sapiens‘, Yuval Noah Harari raises the issue of whether all the ‘progress’ the human race has made in the last few thousand years has actually increased the happiness of individual humans to any great degree (not to mention the happiness of the other sentient species on Earth).

I won’t give the game away by telling you his answer, but I would like to share a short reflection on one section of this chapter. In this section, Harari points out that happiness has a lot to do with body chemistry and temperament. Some of us just seem wired to be more cheerful than others. For example, one person might have a ‘happiness range’ (on a scale of 1-10) of 3-7, averaging out at a five. Another might have a range of 6-10, averaging out at an eight. There isn’t a great deal they can do about that, although of course upbringing and choices do have some impact on where we land up in the range.

I found this liberating.

I am well aware that I have been handed a somewhat melancholic temperament. It’s easy for me to see the dark side of any issue. I panic easily, I worry a lot, and I tend to make negative observations about situations and people.

Looking at my families of origin, I can understand this. It’s in our genes. It’s not something I need to feel guilty about.

However, I do have a choice about where in my ‘range’ (let’s call it a 3 – 7) I average out. And there are things I can do, choices I can make, habits I can form, that will increase my happiness. Gretchen Rubin wrote an excellent book on this subject called ‘The Happiness Project‘. No, I can’t flip a switch to change my emotions. But there are behaviours I can engage in which have a cheering effect on my disposition. I’m talking about things like doing acts of kindness to others, sticking with my diet and exercise disciplines and so on. I know that when I’m intentional about these things, I’m a happier guy.

And I’m also more pleasant to be around. Which is why making decisions that increase my happiness is not a selfish pursuit. Generally speaking, happier people lift up the people around them, while gloomy people drag others down. I want to lift others up.

I can’t do anything about my temperament, but I can do something about my actions. I’m going to try to remember to do that.

‘Who do you say I am?’ (a sermon on Matthew 16:13-20)

Back in 1972 a long-haired Christian rock musician named Larry Norman wrote a song about Jesus called ‘The Outlaw’. In the song, Larry explored the different categories that we use to try to understand who Jesus really is. Here are the words:

Some say he was an outlaw, that he roamed across the land
with a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen.
No one knew just where he came from or exactly what he’d done,
but they said it must be something bad that kept him on the run.

Some say he was a poet, that he’d stand upon a hill,
and his voice could calm an angry crowd or make the waves stand still;
that he spoke in many parables that few could understand,
but the people sat for hours just to listen to this man.

Some say he was a sorcerer, a man of mystery;
he could walk upon the water, he could make a blind man see.
That he conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread,
that he talked of being born again, and raised people from the dead.

Some say a politician who spoke of being free;
he was followed by the masses on the shores of Galilee.
He spoke out against corruption and he bowed to no decree,
and they feared his strength and power, so they nailed him to a tree.

Some say he was the Son of God, a man above all men,
but he came to be a servant, and to set us free from sin.
And that’s who I believe he was ‘cos that’s who I believe,
and I think we should get ready, ‘cos it’s time for us to leave.

I love the way this song captures the journey of understanding we take as we try to make sense of the person of Jesus. None of these ideas are entirely wrong, are they? Yes, Jesus did strange miraculous signs, and some people might see that as sorcery. Yes, he had a lot to say about freedom and caring for the poor and needy, and some might see that as being political. All these ideas have a grain of truth in them, but still, most of them aren’t totally adequate to describe who Jesus really is. Probably no human category is fully adequate, which is why, in the end, we have to try to understand how Jesus himself saw his mission: ‘That’s who I believe he was, because that’s who I believe’.

Even today this journey of understanding is still going on. Some people believe that Jesus is an entirely fictional character. Some see him as a crazy apocalyptic prophet who believed the world was going to end in his lifetime, and was sadly mistaken. Some see him as primarily a miracle worker, and they want him to carry on working miracles in their own lives, healing their diseases and giving them financial prosperity. Some see him as the gatekeeper to life after death: his main job is to make sure that they go to heaven when they die. Some see him as an extraordinary human figure, a wise religious teacher, a good example to follow. Some see him as a prophet, a man sent by God with a message we need to hear. And some see him as even more than that: somehow, in him, God has walked the earth and revealed himself to us.

In the first half of the gospel story, this question of the identity of Jesus has never been far from people’s minds. ‘Who is this man?’ they ask. “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27).  “Why does this fellow speak this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). People notice that he speaks with authority, as if he has a right to say things their scribes and Pharisees can’t say, because he knows what he’s talking about and they don’t! People are astounded by the fact that evil spirits have to obey his commands, and at times he even raises the dead.

What category are they going to use for him? There was a ready-made one in their culture that seemed appropriate: ‘prophet’. Today we talk about prophecy as ‘foretelling the future’, but the Old Testament prophets weren’t fortune-tellers: they were messengers from God, challenging Israel to leave behind their false gods and return to the true and living God. And sometimes prophets did extraordinary miracles as signs of their authority.

This seemed like a pretty good category for Jesus, and so in today’s gospel that’s the category the disciples use. Jesus asks them “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13) (‘The Son of Man’ is a title Jesus uses for himself, so the question simply means ‘Who do people say I am?’). The disciples are quick with their reply: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (16:14). Elijah and Jeremiah are famous prophets from Israel’s past. John the Baptist, of course, was much more recent; everyone in the disciple group remembered him and some of them had known him well.

But Jesus isn’t content with second-hand news; he wants to know what’s on their minds. Do they agree with the opinions they’ve cited? Or do they have ideas of their own? He wants to know how carefully they’ve been watching and listening and thinking and praying, so he asks “But who do you say that I am?” (v.15). Matthew doesn’t mention it, but I imagine there being a pause at this point; the disciples look down, none of them wanting to be the first to speak; they don’t mind sharing what other people have said, but they feel a bit shy about sharing their own opinions. And then finally Peter acts as their spokesman: ‘Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God”. And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”’ (vv.16-17).

You see, there is a right answer to this question. Nowadays it’s fairly common to hear people being asked the question ‘Who is Jesus for you?’ On the face of it, it’s an innocent enough question, but it does give the impression that we each get to make up our own Jesus, the one who would do the best job of meeting our particular set of ‘felt needs’. It’s as if Jesus has no reality of his own, but only the reality I create for him. I need a revolutionary to lead my armed struggle for freedom? Jesus can be my revolutionary. I need a therapist to help me with the pain of my childhood? Jesus is the best possible therapist, and his fees are very reasonable!

But Jesus isn’t asking his disciples “Who am I for you?” He asks “Who do you say that I am?” and his response to Peter’s reply shows he believes there’s a right answer to that question. He hasn’t spelled it out for them, because he would rather they figure it out for themselves – watching what he does, listening to what he says, thinking and praying and talking about it together.

What is the right answer? Let’s look briefly at these three titles used for Jesus.

‘The Son of Man’ is a figure of speech; it can mean nothing more than ‘human being’, just as in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories Aslan the Lion addresses humans as ‘sons of Adam’ and ‘daughters of Eve’. But it can mean more than that as well. In the Old Testament book of Daniel there’s a judgement scene: the various beasts that symbolize the empires that have been troubling Israel and the world are judged and condemned. But then a new figure arrives on the scene:

‘I saw one like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed’ (Daniel 7:13-14).

Who is this strange ‘son of man’? Jewish scholars see him as a personification of the nation of Israel – kicked around by so many superpowers, but now coming into its own and becoming ruler of the world! But Jesus takes this title and uses it for himself. It’s a subtle way of speaking; he might just be calling himself a ‘human being’, but what if he wasn’t? What if he was saying “I’m like that Son of Man in Daniel – the one who is presented before the throne of God and receives a kingdom, so that all the people of the earth come to serve him”? What does that tell us about how Jesus saw himself?

So the first title is ‘Son of Man. Secondly, Simon Peter uses the word ‘Messiah’, which in older translations is usually ‘Christ’ ‘Messiah’ is Hebrew and ‘Christ’ is Greek, but they both mean ‘the anointed one’. Kings of Israel were anointed with olive oil as the sign of God’s power coming down on them. So ‘Messiah’ came to mean ‘God’s anointed king’. In the time of Jesus, many people were looking for a particular kind of ‘messiah’, a king like their old King David who would lead Israel’s armies against the Romans and the corrupt leaders in Jerusalem. He would set Israel free from injustice and oppression and make it a holy nation again.

I’m sure you can imagine that ‘messiah’ would have been a dangerous word in the time of Jesus. There had been people before who claimed to be messiahs, and they’d always led rebellions. The Romans and the Jewish leaders were very wary about Messianic movements. That’s probably why, at the end of our gospel reading, Jesus ‘sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah’ (v.20). He was about to radically redefine what ‘Messiah’ meant – turning away from the violent and power-hungry versions of that word – and until he did, he didn’t want his disciples making any royal announcements in his name.

‘Son of Man’ – ‘Messiah’. ‘Son of the living God’ is the third title used for Jesus in this passage. In the Old Testament God sometimes calls Israel his ‘firstborn son’, and sometimes the king of Israel is spoken of in this way. God says to David about his son Solomon, “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7:14). So in the early stages of the New Testament, ‘Son of God’ can be just another way of saying ‘Messiah’, God’s anointed king.

But it’s already starting to mean more than that. It’s true that in the Old Testament God occasionally speaks of the king of Israel as ‘my son’. But no king of Israel ever uses the singular possessive in response: no king of Israel ever refers to God as ‘my Father’. Jesus, however, is not shy about doing that: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!” (v.17). His relationship with the God he calls ‘his Father’ is deeply personal and intimate. We’re not yet at the Christian teaching that Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity; that’s going to take a few more years to be worked out. But we’re on the way there; we might even say that the destination is coming into view.

So there is a right answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter gets it right. Jesus is a prophet – that’s not a wrong answer – but he’s more than a prophet. He’s the Son of Man – the one who will be presented before the throne of God to be given authority as Lord of all. He’s the Messiah – the king who will set us free from all that binds us, the King who announces the coming of the Kingdom of God and challenges us to follow him joyfully as his disciples. And he’s the Son of God, the one who knows the Father intimately, the one who is authorized to speak in his Father’s name, the one who reveals the Father to us as no one else: we might even say, ‘Like Father, like Son’.

So yes, there is a right answer to this question. But I also want to say this: we all have to get there for ourselves. In the past, we were perhaps too quick to quote the right answer. We’d been taught that Jesus was the Son of God, and so when someone asked us ‘Who do you say Jesus is?’ we were quick with the reply. But it wasn’t the reply we’d come to for ourselves, by our own reading of the gospels, our own thinking and praying and talking it over with others. It was a second-hand answer.

Nowadays, I think people are not so quick to give second hand answers, and I think that’s a good thing. Maybe not everyone here today can honestly say ‘amen’ to the idea that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord of all. Maybe we find that the word ‘prophet’ is the best we can do right now: “I know he was sent by God with a message for us, but I struggle with this idea of him being the son of God”.

If that’s you, there are a couple of things I’d say. First, thank you for your honesty. There’s no point in pretending we’re further along than we are. After all, God knows what’s in our hearts; we can’t fool him, and we shouldn’t try.

Second, don’t be surprised if it takes you a while to get to “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. It took the disciples a while to get there too. I expect that when they first began to follow Jesus, they weren’t clear in their own minds just who he was. They were impressed with his teaching and amazed by his miracles and healings, but they didn’t look at him and say “You must be God!” It was only as they spent time with him, watched and listened and prayed and thought, that they were led further along.

So by all means, if you need to start with “Jesus is the smartest man who ever lived”, start there. But don’t stop there. Pray for deeper understanding, pray for guidance, and meanwhile, if you truly do believe that he’s the smartest man who ever lived, then why not try putting his smart sayings into practice? Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. Live simply and be generous to the poor. Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. And all the time, pray that God would give you more light on the path.

In next week’s gospel we’re going to discover that it’s no easy thing to follow Jesus as the Messiah. Peter still thinks ‘Messiah’ means ‘conquering king like David’, and he’s shocked when Jesus starts talking about being rejected by the Jewish leaders, and being killed; he even tries to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus won’t back down: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. In Jesus’ day, if you saw someone carrying a cross you knew what it meant: the Romans thought you were a dangerous rebel, and they were about to execute you. That’s what they did to Jesus, and he responded not with anger and judgement but with nonviolent love: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 22:34).

That’s what it means to put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus spreads his kingdom not by conquest and war, but by suffering and sacrifice and nonviolent love. To follow him is to become like him. Next week we’ll think some more about what that means for us.

But for now, let me leave you with these two questions: First, who do you say Jesus is? And second, how is your answer changing your life? Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us as we seek to answer those questions – not just with our words and thoughts, but with our actions as well.

We must not forget the price young people paid

It has been a hundred years this year since Horace Arthur Thornton was killed in action in France. He died near Bullecourt on July 27th 1917 and was buried at Croisiles British cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

Horace was my great-great uncle; his mother, Emily Watts, was my great-great grandmother. After the death of my great-great grandfather, Joseph William Wood Cave, she remarried Walter Harry Thornton, and Horace was the first child of their marriage.

I meant to honour Horace this year on the centenary of his death, but sadly it slipped my mind. A parable, perhaps; it’s so easy today for us to forget the terrible price paid by millions of young men for the foolishness of the power elites of Europe in 1914. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. May we never forget.

I have no photograph of Horace, but thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves commission, I at least have a picture of his grave. Here it is.


‘God Meant it for Good’ (a sermon on Genesis chapters 37-50)

Our Old Testament reading for this morning is part of the story of Joseph – not Joseph the father of Jesus, but Joseph one of the twelve sons of Jacob, way back at the beginning of Israel’s history, probably around eighteen hundred years before Christ. The story of Joseph takes up the last 14 chapters of the book of Genesis and it’s well worth a read; I’m going to summarize it this morning and then draw some lessons from it.

Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob had two wives and two concubines, which of course was the way things were done in those days! With these four women he had a total of twelve sons and at least one daughter. Most of them were the children of his wife Leah, but she was not his favourite. The wife he loved the most was Leah’s sister Rachel, and Rachel had waited a long time for her children. Joseph was her firstborn, and she died in childbirth with her second son, Jacob’s baby, Benjamin.

Jacob apparently never learned any psychology, because not only did he have a favourite wife, but he also had a favourite son, Rachel’s son Joseph, and he let the rest of the family know it in no uncertain terms. Not surprisingly, knowing he was his father’s favourite turned young Joseph’s head a little, and he enjoyed playing on his favourite status with his brothers. He was apparently quite a dreamer, and enjoyed recounting his dreams. On one occasion he dreamt that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, and all the other eleven sheaves stood up and bowed to his sheaf. Another time he dreamt he was a star in the sky, and the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed down to his star.

Jacob was troubled by his son’s attitude but he didn’t seem to realize he was contributing to it. For instance, he spent a lot of time working on a coat for Joseph to wear. We call it ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’ although the original Hebrew word simply means ‘a long sleeved coat’. But the point is that he was the only one who got such a coat from his father. Not surprisingly, the other brothers became more and more jealous of him, and their jealousy simmered, waiting for an appropriate moment to boil over.

The moment came when ten of the brothers were away keeping their father’s sheep. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, and they seized their chance. Their first plan was to kill him, but Judah, brother number four, talked them out of it. Instead, they sold him as a slave to some slave traders. They took his coat from him, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and took it back and showed it to their father. Not surprisingly, Jacob believed his son had been killed, and he was stricken with grief.

But Joseph was not dead. The slave traders took him down to Egypt where he was sold into the household of an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar, a captain in the king’s guard. The author of Genesis tells us ‘The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man’ (Genesis 39:2). Apparently he was a hard worker, and before too long he was a sort of butler, in charge of the running of Potiphar’s house. And eventually he came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife who had something of a roving eye. She tried to seduce him, but he refused; he pointed out his master’s trust in him and said, “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (39:9).

The lady in question tried several times to get Joseph to go to bed with her, and he always refused. Eventually she got so annoyed that she told her husband Joseph had tried to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph out of his household and had him imprisoned. Here the cycle repeated itself. Once again, Joseph’s natural charm and ability asserted itself, and before too long he was the jailer’s right hand man. ‘The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper’ (39:23).

After some time, the Pharaoh – or king – of Egypt threw two of his officials into prison. One night they both had dreams, and the next morning they were troubled by them. In those days everyone accepted that dreams were significant and needed to be interpreted, and the two officials wanted someone to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph noticed their distress and said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (40:8). So Joseph interpreted their dreams and his interpretation turned out to be correct; one of the officials was pardoned and restored to his job, and the other was hanged.

One night a couple of years later the king of Egypt himself had two dreams. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows coming up out of the river. They were followed by seven scrawny cows, who proceeded to eat up the fat ones. In the second dream the king saw seven good ears of wheat on a stalk, which were immediately swallowed up by seven thin ears. The king was disturbed by this dream, and when he told the official who had been in prison with Joseph, the official remembered Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream and recommended him to the king.

So the king sent for Joseph. Joseph told him that God was informing him of the future. Egypt was about to go through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, so it would be prudent to make some preparations now for the famine. The king agreed, and proceeded to appoint Joseph to his government and put him in charge of making the preparations!

Sure enough, the land went through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but because Joseph had been storing up food, Egypt was okay. Canaan, however, was not, and Canaan was where the rest of Joseph’s family was still living. Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob sent the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to buy food. They saw Joseph there but for some reason they didn’t recognize him; we can speculate that he was twenty-two years older and shaved and dressed as an Egyptian, but we don’t know for sure what the reason was.

Joseph, however, recognized his brothers, and he proceeded to put them through a series of tests to find out if they had changed at all. He accused them of being spies, and when they denied it and told him about their family, he arrested one of them, Simeon, and told the others to go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had stayed with their father in Canaan. Then he would know that they were telling the truth. They did this; on their next trip they brought Benjamin. Joseph contrived to frame Benjamin for stealing something from him, and when he arrested him, the other brothers all protested that their father would die if he lost Benjamin too. Judah even offered to take Benjamin’s place and live as Joseph’s slave.

At that point Joseph couldn’t keep it up any more. He made himself known to his brothers and there was an emotional reconciliation. He told them to go back, get the rest of the family and bring them down to Egypt where there was plenty of food for them all. So they went and got Jacob and the rest of the family, and all of them came down to Egypt. The king gave them land in Goshen, the best part of Egypt, and so Jacob and his family were saved from starvation and the future of the people of Israel was saved too.

What does this story have to say to us today? Let me suggest three things.

First, suffering doesn’t mean God is punishing us for our sins. Now we might say that Joseph’s conduct at the beginning of the story, when he was lording it over his brothers and enjoying his favoured status, was simply asking for trouble. Nonetheless, later on, when he was thrown into jail in Egypt, it was because of his refusal to sin, rather than because of any wickedness on his part. God was not punishing Joseph, and this is very important for us to remember.

For us Christians this is even clearer than it was for Joseph, because Jesus has died for our sins. Over and over again, when Christian people go through suffering, they come to their pastors and cry out “Why is God doing this to me? I’ve tried to be a good person – why is he punishing me?” The answer is – he isn’t. Whatever else our suffering might be, it’s not a punishment for our sins. How do we know that? Because Romans 8:1 says ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. No condemnation. So whatever else our suffering may be, it’s not a punishment from God.

The second thing I see in this story is that often our lives only make sense when we look back on them. Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery; it was thirteen years before Pharaoh took him out of the prison and put him in charge of famine preparation for the whole of Egypt, and another nine years before his brothers came down to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph would have had to be superhuman not to have wondered during all those years what on earth God was up to, or even if God had forgotten about him. I’m sure that there were many times he cried out to God to deliver him, but it seemed to him that his prayers were not being answered.

And yet, God was at work during that time. Surely Joseph’s experience of suffering humbled him, and helped him learn to depend on God. By the time he was put in charge of famine preparation in Egypt he was no longer the spoiled brat who used to annoy his brothers so much. By the time he saw his brothers again, he understood what God had been up to in allowing him to go through that suffering: “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good” (50:20), he said to his brothers.

And not just good for Israel as a people – good for Joseph himself as well. The author of Hebrews says of Jesus, ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (Hebrews 2:10). I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking for people with strength and wisdom, I usually look for people who have suffered. I don’t look for people whose lives have been easy; I look for people who have learned endurance and patience by dealing with difficulty in their lives. I don’t believe that God sends suffering as a punishment, but I do believe that he uses it to mould us into wise, patient and compassionate people. I’m sure that’s what happened to Joseph. Looking back on his life, he could see what God had been up to, and that it had been good for everyone involved, including him.

The third thing I see in this story is this: our suffering can’t frustrate God’s purpose for us. We are a part of God’s plan for the human race, and he is going to bring that plan to its successful conclusion.

Throughout the story of the Bible God has been calling together a people – whether the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, or the Church of Jesus Christ in the New – a people who would model for the whole world what God’s kingdom looks like, and would take God’s message to everyone. So you and I aren’t just isolated individuals living our lives in the middle of the accidents of history. We’re a part of God’s great plan, and God isn’t going to allow evil to derail that plan. Sometimes when we suffer we forget that; we think that God’s plan is going to be somehow hindered by what’s happening to us. But the Bible gives us lots of examples of how God can even bring good out of the evil things that happen to us. This story of Joseph is one of those examples.

Suffering is a great mystery, very difficult for us to understand. Many of us have gone through intense experiences of suffering, or sat at the bedsides of friends who are suffering, which sometimes seems even worse. So I don’t say these things glibly or lightly; I’m fully aware of the dreadful – and seemingly random and senseless – pain that many people go through.

And yet, somehow, God is still able to bring about his purposes for us even when we suffer. As Paul says, ‘In all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). This is a truth that we often have to take on trust; we can’t see it when we’re going through the suffering. In many cases, I think, we won’t see it until we see God face to face and see our whole lives from his perspective.

In Romans 8:38-39 Paul says ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.  You know, it sounds terrible when I say it, but these verses are not strictly true. Let me explain what I mean. Paul is right; by themselves these things can’t separate us from God’s love in Christ – unless we let them! Unfortunately, so often when we go through suffering we do allow these things to drive us away from God; we get so wrapped up in the suffering and we allow it to make us bitter and full of hate and self-pity.

The thing that impresses me most about the story of Joseph is that he didn’t do that. Surely if anyone had an excuse to indulge in despair and to rail angrily against God, Joseph did! But that was not his response. In every negative circumstance he found himself in, he accepted it, and began to do his best to be faithful to God wherever he was – even in the deepest dungeon. And God honoured that.

Joseph’s story is inviting us to turn to God in our suffering, to be faithful to him whether we feel like it or not, and to ask for his help moment by moment. As we learn to do that, we gradually discover that Paul is right after all, and there is absolutely nothing – even death itself – that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Mystery to Me

This is a new song lyric I wrote tonight. No tune yet, but it’ll come.

Mystery to me
© 2017 by Tim Chesterton

It’s a mystery to me
When people don’t have eyes to see
that wrong’s not right and never can be
It’s a mystery to me

It’s a mystery all right
They take the dark and call it light
They say it’s day when it’s really night
It’s a mystery all right

It’s a mystery all the same
The things they’re saying in Jesus’ name
They should be hanging their heads in shame
It’s a mystery all the same

It’s a mystery indeed
How hate grows up from a poisoned seed
And turns its wrath on the ones in need
It’s a mystery indeed

It’s a mystery to me
Those men of war on a killing spree
When all are dead then no one’s free
It’s a mystery to me

It’s a mystery to me
When people don’t have eyes to see
that wrong’s not right and never can be
It’s a mystery to me


All You Need is Hate

This morning I thought about this poem by Steve Turner; it appears in his collection ‘Up to Date‘, published in 1983 and now long out of print. Somehow, it seems sadly relevant.

All You Need is Hate

Alan hated soldiers, and teachers
and politicians, policemen, and bankers.
Alan was full of hate for such people.
Poured his hate into poems.
Threw the poems at audiences
who sat bleeding in their seats,
words hanging from holes in their skin.
Hate them, he shouted, boot stomping
the boards.
Hate them. Hate them.
Alan, I said. Alan.
Hate hate, Alan, I said. Hate
It’s the only hate worth having, Alan
and it comes by another name.

More poems by Steve Turner here.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Blessing (a sermon on Genesis 32:22-31)

I’m told by people who spend a lot more time on Twitter and Facebook than I do that there’s been a rash of posts recently that use the hashtag ‘blessing’ or ‘blessed’. You’d think that these posts would be mainly from Christians or people of faith, but a lot of the people using them don’t identify as being religious. Many people, including people who have only the vaguest idea of God, often have the sense that they’ve been gifted by something or someone bigger than themselves, and they want to show their gratitude – hence, the hashtag.

Blessing was a powerful idea in the ancient world. Ancient people had a lot more confidence than we do in the power of words to actually cause things to happen. In the first chapter of Genesis God speaks – “Let there be light” – and God’s word makes something happen: light comes out of darkness. And so it continues throughout the chapter: ‘Let there be a firmament’, ‘Let there be waters’, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky’ and so on. God speaks, and it is done.

In the Old Testament, humans are sometimes given the authority to speak powerful words in the name of God. The Old Testament priests are commanded to bless the people in God’s name: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace’ (Numbers 6:24-26). We still have this tradition in the Christian church today, where a priest or pastor will speak words of blessing over a congregation or a group of people.

The idea of blessing is an important feature of the story of Jacob. You may remember that Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and so probably lived about 1800 years before Christ. Abraham’s son Isaac married Rebekah, sister of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel; Bethuel’s family lived in Haran, which is near the modern border between Turkey and Syria – so a long journey from Canaan in the ancient world. That was the country Abraham had left behind when he first moved to Canaan.

Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the oldest, but Jacob did his best to beat him to the starting line! Genesis tells us that ‘The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel, so he was named Jacob’ (25:25-26). ‘Jacob’ sounds like the Hebrew phrase ‘He takes by the heel’ or ‘He supplants’. It’s a name that’s going to mark Jacob’s life; he’s going to see life as a competition, in which he has to grab a blessing for himself, or even trick others into giving him a blessing.

We’re told that Isaac and Rebekah had favourites. Isaac was sixty when his sons were born. Esau grew up to be an outdoor kind of guy who enjoyed hunting wild game, and Isaac had a taste for that kind of thing, so he liked Esau better. Jacob, however, was a quiet kind of guy who liked hanging around the tents the family lived in, and he was closer to his mother Rebekah.

The paternal blessing was a big thing in those days. Fathers had the authority to speak God’s blessing on their children, and the blessing of the firstborn was really, really important. The time came when Isaac got old and blind, and he thought he ought to give his oldest son the blessing while he could. So he told Esau to go out and hunt him some wild game and make a stew for him and bring it to him to eat; then he would give him the blessing of the firstborn. Rebekah heard this and she tricked her husband. She took a goat from the flock, killed it and cooked a stew; she took some of the goatskins and put them on the arms and shoulders of Jacob, and then sent him in to pretend to be Esau and get his father’s blessing. It worked, and Isaac gave the blessing of the firstborn to the younger son by mistake.

Esau of course was furious and threatened to kill Jacob, and so Isaac and Rebekah told him to go away to Haran, look for their relatives there, and look for a wife from the family of his uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. So Jacob set out on the long journey to Haran.

But on the way, something unexpected happened. He was tired one night and lay down to sleep, using a stone as a pillow. As he slept, he had a dream; he saw a stairway or ladder set up between earth and heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the ladder. Then God spoke to him: “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13, 15).

Interestingly, Jacob didn’t think he could trust God to keep that promise; he felt like he had to ‘grasp his heel’ or bargain with him. The next day when he woke up he set up the stone as a memorial – he called it ‘House of God’, or ‘Bethel’ in Hebrew – and he said, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come back again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God…and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you” (28:20-22). Sounds like he was trying to do a deal with God! I don’t know if Jacob really thought that God was so hard up for cash that he’d jump at the offer of Jacob’s tithe, but it certainly sounds like it!

Anyway, Jacob made the long journey to Haran, and there the first person he met was Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban. It seems to have been love at first sight for Jacob. Rachel took him back to her father’s house, where he was welcomed, and after a month Laban took him on as one of his regular workers, helping to care for his flocks of sheep and goats. They struck a deal (why does that sound familiar?): Jacob would serve Laban for seven years if he would give him Rachel as his wife.

Laban agreed, but what Jacob didn’t realize was that in his uncle Laban he’d met a trickster and manipulator just as good as he was. Rachel had an older sister Leah, and we get the sense she wasn’t as attractive as Rachel. After seven years was over, Jacob asked for his wife, so Laban duly arranged a marriage feast. There weren’t any special ceremonies in those days, as far as we can tell – just a feast, and then the bride was taken to her husband’s room for the marriage to be consummated. Somehow – we don’t know how – Laban was able to substitute his older daughter for the younger, and when Jacob woke up in the morning (maybe with a hangover?) – there was Leah! He was furious, but when he challenged Laban about it, Laban invented some excuse about it not being the custom in their country to marry off the younger sister before the older. “Finish Leah’s bridal week”, he said, “and then we’ll give you Rachel as a second wife – in exchange for another seven years of work!” So that’s what happened.

Clearly Jacob, who had learned the art of manipulation from an expert – his mother – was now experiencing what it was like to be on the receiving end of it from her brother. But his new situation wasn’t calculated to promote family harmony. Bluntly put, he loved Rachel but not Leah. Things got worse when Leah started having children right away, but Rachel seemed unable to produce any. Leah had four sons, and then finally in desperation Rachel gave Jacob her maid Bilhah: “Go sleep with her, and she’ll have sons that will be counted as mine”. This happened, and then Leah, not to be outdone, gave Jacob her maid Zilpah to do the same thing.

And so it went on for a few years, until finally, we’re told, Yahweh heard Rachel’s prayer and had mercy on her and gave her a son, Joseph – who, as you can guess, immediately became the apple of his father’s eye, being the son of the wife he did love, Rachel. Still, the score was pretty lopsided: six sons for Leah and two for her maid Zilpah, one son for Rachel and two for her maid Bilhah. In its patriarchal way the book of Genesis doesn’t mention daughters except for one, Dinah, daughter of Leah, who will figure later on in the story.

So you can imagine the conflicts and jealousies and insecurities that will plague this family throughout the lives of these people. Having been raised in a dysfunctional family in which he was his mother’s favourite while his brother was his father’s favourite, Jacob now successfully duplicated that kind of thing in his own family.

After a few years Jacob got a little discontented; he hadn’t had a raise in a long time! He confronted Laban about this, and made a proposal: the striped, speckled and spotted sheep in the flock would be his wages, while the plain ones would be Laban’s. Laban agreed to this, but then both of them came up with plans to try to cheat the other! And so it went on until eventually, after twenty years in Haran,  Jacob decided it was time to return home to Canaan with his family.

I don’t have time to tell you about the little drama that took place between Jacob’s family and Laban at this point – you can read about it in Genesis chapter 31. Suffice it to say that Jacob had two problems: how would he get away from his father in law Laban, and how would he be welcomed by his brother Esau? The second problem began to trouble him more when he got closer to home, and so he sent messengers ahead to tell Esau he was coming and to ask if he would find favour in his brother’s eyes. The messengers, however, came back to tell him that Esau was on his way to meet him, and he had four hundred men with him! This sounded rather like an army, and Jacob was understandably quite scared.

So Jacob split his family into four groups for safety and sent them across the Jabbok stream. He stayed behind, alone, and so we come to the mysterious episode we read about in our Old Testament reading this morning. A ‘man’, we’re told, came and wrestled with Jacob all night long until daybreak.

This story is told in a masterful way, with lots of hints but few direct statements. Who is this ‘man’? Why has he attacked Jacob? We’re not told directly. What we are told about is a little dialogue that happened between them as dawn was beginning to break:

‘Then (the man) said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob”. Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”. Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name”. But he asked, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved”’ (32:26-30).

This story connects with so many earlier features in the story of Jacob. Let me close this morning by pointing them out to you.

You could say that two things shaped Jacob’s life. The first was the dysfunctional family he was raised in, and which he successfully duplicated when he came to have a family of his own. What he learned when he was growing up was that parents have favourites, and if he was going to get his father’s favour he’d have to strive for it and trick him into it. So his mother trained him to be a master manipulator and never to expect to get anything for free. But one thing he didn’t learn was to trust people, and to trust that people would give him things freely, without him tricking them into it.

I suspect that many of us are like him. We’ve learned that we can’t trust life to give us what we long for. We’ve learned that life is a competition, and that the best manipulators are the ones who win. We’ve learned that blessing doesn’t come your way by itself; it needs to be earned.

So Jacob’s life was shaped by the jaded view of the world that he learned in growing up in his dysfunctional family. But the other thing that shaped his life was his two encounters with God.

The first encounter was in his dream at Bethel, when he saw the stairway to heaven. In that encounter, God made some promises to him. God told him: “I’m the God of Abraham and Isaac; I’m going to give you this land I promised to them, and your descendants will spread through it and fill it. I’ll be with you and protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you safely back to your own country, and I’ll never leave you”.

The problem is that Jacob couldn’t quite believe those promises. He couldn’t believe that they were a gift. He felt like he needed to bargain with God for them, or promise God a payback. And so he replied, “If you’ll do all these things for me…” (and I think in Jacob’s mind that was a very big ‘if’), “then you will be my God, and I’ll give you my tithes”.

We know Jacob better now, so we can guess why he replied like that. He’d never gotten anything in his life for free. He’d always had to compete with his brother for his father’s favour, knowing that Isaac loved Esau more than him. He couldn’t bring himself to believe in a God who offered him a gift; there had to be a catch somewhere!

And then, twenty years later, Jacob has his second encounter with God – the one we’ve read about today. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the blessing he received from his father twenty years before – the one he got by manipulation – wasn’t enough for him. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for! He obviously suspects that this ‘man’ he’s been wrestling with is more than just a man, so he asks him for a blessing: “I won’t let you go unless you bless me”. And the man responds by giving him a new name: no longer Jacob (‘he supplants’) but Israel (‘The one who strives with God’). You can hear the surprise in Jacob’s voice: “I’ve seen God face to face, and I’m not dead!”

Is Jacob a different person from this point on? Not entirely. He still falls back on his old trickster ways from time to time; the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. But he’s a humbler man than he was, and he has more of a sense of God’s presence in his life. And looking ahead, he’s also learning to see God’s presence in the past, too. In chapter 35 he says to his family, “Come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me on the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (35:3).

Let me leave you with this. Like Jacob, many of us have been raised with the idea that life is a competition. Nothing comes for free. Love has to be earned. If some people get ahead, others have to be left behind. So in order to get ahead, you have to learn to manipulate people. Maybe you even have to learn to manipulate God.

But that’s not the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us of a God who loves us before we ever do anything for him. He sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike. ‘We love’, says John the apostle, ‘because he first loved us’.

At the end of the service today, I will pronounce words of blessing on you. This is not my blessing; this is God, reaching out with his love to each of us. These words are for everyone here, with no exceptions. You don’t have to pay for them, before or after. You don’t have to manipulate anyone to get them. They come to you as a gift of God’s grace. All you need to do is receive them, and enjoy them, and say “Thank you”. I don’t know if Jacob ever fully learned to believe that. But I hope you do, and I hope I do too.