getting rid of the goat

pexels-photo-58914.jpeg

A fragment of papyrus has recently been found in the Sinai Desert. It appears to be part of a Hebrew Priest’s diary…

Day 3874 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Moses has told us that God has given us a new way of dealing with our sin: a Scapegoat. After he’d made himself pure Aaron placed his hands on a goat’s head and confessed all our sin, transferring it to the goat. The goat was then sent off into the wilderness as an atonement sacrifice and we were back in favour with God. Good news.

Day 3875 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Rather alarmingly the goat came back to the camp during the night. Clearly it was hungry and thirsty and as we’d looked after it all its life it decided that being with us was better than the wilderness. Aaron was not sure what to do as God didn’t give him any instructions for what to do if the scapegoat came back. He commissioned me to drive the goat away again so I shooed it far away.

Day 3876 Still not made it to the Promised Land. That pesky goat came back during the night again. I was rather relieved that Aaron didn’t notice so this time I took it a long way away from the camp and tied it to a bush. Glad to have got away with that one.

Day 3877 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Guess what. The goat came back again last night, dragging a half-eaten bush behind it. It must be part homing-pigeon as it keeps coming back home. This time I took it off to the middle of the wilderness and tied it to a rock. I made the mistake of looking it in the eyes as I left – I feel really sorry for it.

Day 3878 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Unbelievably the goat came back again last night. It chewed its way through the rope. I think we have bonded so I have decided to keep it. I will hide it in my tent and try to disguise it so that Aaron doesn’t find out. If anyone asks me about the bleating sounds and I will tell them that I have allergy issues that are making me sneeze.

[The next part of the parchment is missing and looks like it has been chewed by a goat]

Day 3891 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Scapey (the goat) has been chewing everything in my tent. It’s becoming really difficult to keep him hidden and he won’t stop bleating, even when I’m not in the tent. I find it difficult to do my priestly duties while hiding my guilty secret. Every time I see Aaron I can feel my face reddening and I am sure he suspects something. Got to stop writing now as someone is coming.

[The fragment of parchment ends here].

I wrote this parable following my morning bible study on the subject of ‘scapegoat’ from Leviticus. I wondered why the goats didn’t come back to the place where they were fed and given water, and what would happen if they did… the rest is in my imagination! It’s a parable we have shared with our churches to help them think missionally, but it also made me reflect personally…

  • The idea of a scapegoat is one with which many people (especially Christians are familiar). The Bible says that the scapegoat atonement has now been fulfilled in Jesus. Why do you think God wanted the scapegoat to take the sin away into the wilderness?
  • What could the priest have done differently? Why do you think he decided to try to deal with the goat on his own?When we confess to God what we need to be forgiven do we do so with the hope that we will be set free from them or are we just glad that we can be continually forgiven as we continue to do the same things?
  • How often do we seek forgiveness for our sins and then find that they have made their way back into our life? Is there an alternative to trying to deal with them on our own? Do we sometimes try to keep them secret instead of dealing with them?How does our attitude to forgiveness, failure and finding freedom affect our participation in God’s mission?
  • New Christians often make the most enthusiastic evangelists. Is it time for us to seek to rediscover the joy of our salvation?

Be blessed, be a blessing

a love story

This Sunday morning in my sermon I will be exploring Hosea (the whole book). Every time I come to Hosea I find myself thinking, “What would I do if I was in Hosea’s position?” How would I feel? How would I cope?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hosea’s story is a love story… of sorts. The narrative is fascinating: Hosea set aside his personal preferences and on God’s instruction married a woman, Gomer, who was of dubious reputation (to say the least). This was to be a prophetic symbol to the nation of Israel about how God saw them – promiscuously pursuing other gods. He even named his children with names that spoke prophetically – how would I feel if God told me to name my daughter ‘Not Loved’?! And then there’s the emotional pain and heartache of Gomer’s further unfaithfulness and prostitution.

God not only told Hosea to take her back but he actually BOUGHT her back – perhaps paying off her pimp! Again, this was to be a prophetic sign of how God was going to treat Israel for a season (Hosea bought Gomer back but they were to abstain from sexual intimacy for many days and in the same way Israel’s return would be gradual). It’s only 14 chapters into the book (the final chapter) that there is a glimmer of hope for Israel as Hosea the prophet finishes denouncing them and instead announces the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him. Hosea went through an emotional and reputational wringer in order to give the people God’s message. Some of you may be empathising with him a little! But he was willing to allow his whole life to be a message from God, not only his words. It’s a love story where we are Gomer and God is Hosea.

Ministers can feel a pressure (it may come from within or from outside us) to be a shining example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and not admit to any weakness. We can present ‘supercope’ to our people: nothing fazes us and we are as close to Jesus as it is possible to be this side of heaven (I exaggerate for comedic effect) (I think). But do we really want people to look at us and see a message from God that it’s wrong to admit weakness and that we never struggle? That’s not a message we find in the Bible: read Romans 7 if you doubt me!

It is important for people to know that we are trying our best with God’s Spirit’s help, they need to see leadership from their clergy, and the qualities of a leader are clear in the Bible. But I believe that we also need to admit that we are fallible, that we are not perfect, and that we don’t have it all together. I’m not talking about airing all of our dirty laundry – we have to be sensible about what we share. But how often are we prepared to be vulnerable about our own doubts, failings and struggles? Can we admit to people that we make mistakes – even Ministers who have trained, studied and are set apart for ministry? Do we dare allow the admission of our mistakes to be a message from God  – that no follower of Jesus is perfect but when we struggle, fail or even doubt there is hope because his Spirit is in us? Does admitting our struggles strengthen or weaken the message that there is the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him?

What message from God do people get when they look at you?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the man in the seat next to me

Our flights to and from Sweden were fairly uneventful. Apart from one moment. Remember that this was only a matter of days since the Egypt Air plane crashed in the Mediterranean, possibly (probably?) caused by a bomb.

aircraft interiorWe were seated in a row of three, and in the seat next to us was a man who didn’t really make eye contact with me. He was not in a chatty mood. During the flight he looked a bit anxious and then, rather alarmingly, on a couple of occasions he leant forward and laid his head on his knees. If I mention that he looked to be of North African descent and that he looked like he was praying then you might understand how uneasy it made me. The thought did cross my mind that he might have somehow got a bomb on board the plane and was waiting for it to go off.

It’s not that I am afraid of dying – I have absolute faith in Jesus about my eternal destiny. But the fleeting thought crossed my mind in the moment of anxiety that I don’t really want to die in a painful way. And I thought that I would rather not die yet as I have lots I would like to do. And I thought of the impact on those whom I love and might miss me and I didn’t want them to be upset.

It may be that if there had not been an apparent terrorist bombing of a plane the week before I might not have been so anxious. I can’t say. But what that moment revealed about me troubles me.

Call me untrusting.

Call me suspicious.

Call me paranoid.

Perhaps even call me racist.

Those things might be true of me in that moment. I hope and pray that they are not. I need to work through with myself and God whether any of them are, and if my thoughts were unfair or unjustified. I have sought forgiveness for them and asked for God’s Spirit’s help to change me so that I am not like that in future.

In that moment I did pray. I prayed for safety. But, thank God, I did at least also pray for the man next to me – that his stress and anxiety would diminish.

As I reflect on the events from the comfort of my study I also pray the following prayer…

“Please God, cleanse me from all of the taints and tarnish of suspicion or even racism that cling to me because of what I hear on the news and events that go on around the world. Forgive me when I act and react because of them rather than because of you. Please God help me always to think the best of people, because you do. Please God help me to be like Jesus on the cross when I am in situations where I am anxious – and think of the welfare of others before myself. “

Be blessed, be a blessing

plank-eye

Some things are so blindingly obvious that we miss them. Jesus had worked in Joseph’s carpenter’s workshop for 20 years. He knew about wood. He knew too how much it hurt when you got a speck of sawdust in your eye. It would have been a regular occurrence as there were no safety glasses in those days. It was highly unlikely that there would have been any mirrors so he would have been reliant on someone else to look in his eye and help him get the speck out.

cutting woodSo he knew what he was talking about when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he said:

‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7)

It’s comical isn’t it. Someone trying to help another person with a speck of sawdust in their eye whilst ignoring the plank in their own eye! How would the plank-eyed person see to help the other one? Would the plank poke the other one’s eye? I think this is another example of Jesus’ sense of humour. But he was also making a serious point. And it wasn’t about the difficulty of trying to help the person with the speck of sawdust… it was about the hypocrisy of the plank-eyed person.

How could they ignore the glaringly obvious problem in their own life and concentrate on someone else’s smaller problem? That this is the meaning becomes much clearer when you realise that, like this bloggage follows yesterday’s, Jesus’ speck/plank observation comes immediately after he had be talking about the error of judgement in judging others. Here’s a reminder if you don’t want to look back to yesterday’s bloggage:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Ah.

Yes.

Awkward isn’t it?

Not so funny.

It’s up there with “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone” (John 4).

It saddens me immensely when I come across Christians who are judgemental of others. I feel a deep sense of disappointment. Not because I am perfect. Not because I am judging them (or at least I try not to). But because Jesus seems to have been so strongly against people judging one another.

You see I reckon we all suffer from plank-eye. None of us is perfect (we know that too well, don’t we). All of us struggle. All of us have areas of weakness in which we stumble more frequently than others.

Those who are tempted to look for where others fall short of God’s standards should pause and look in a spiritual mirror. And if they think they are perfect they should beware of pride!

Those who feel they have the right to condemn others should feel the weight of the stone in their hands and the weight of Jesus’ words.

That does not mean that we should not speak about God’s standards, but when we do we do so as those who recognise the truth that “all have fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23) and that all of us are entirely dependent on his grace and forgiveness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

what God has got wrong

I think God has got something wrong. Before I go any further I should warn you that this bloggage could be interrupted by a bolt of lightning as I explain my heresy, so if there is an unanticipated interruption you will know what has happened.

So, gulp, here goes.

I think that God has got this whole ‘grace’ thing wrong. I mean, it’s just too easy isn’t it? If / when we stuff things up / make a mistake / fall from grace / backslide / stumble* (*or insert whatever euphemism for ‘sin’ you like) all we have to do is go back to God, say “sorry” (and mean it) and ask for forgiveness and a fresh start.

And he does it!

Every time!

And there is no cost on our part. Because of Jesus’ death he’s done it all.

And that’s his mistake I think he has made it too easy. If we had to do something, anything,  to earn our forgiveness I think we would take it a bit more seriously, wouldn’t we? What if we had to pay a penance in order to seal the deal, or even just to show him how really sorry we are? What if we had to do something positive or we had to suffer something bad to redress the karmic balance of the Universe? That would be fair, and it might make us think twice before we fell off the wagon* (*or insert whatever euphemism for ‘sin’ you like – in fact do that every time you see a *).

Because he’s done all of the hard work to achieve our forgiveness, because his grace is so lavish and generous, we take it for granted like a spoilt child who knows that if they get into debt millionaire daddy’s credit card will always come to the rescue and get them out of troub…

lightning

Zzzzaaapow!

Fsszt!

Actually, that’s a bit more like it, isn’t it? Isn’t it easier for us if God is sitting at his computer with his finger poised over the ‘smite’ key when we get things wrong? At least that way we know we will get our just desserts. And that might make us pause a bit longer and perhaps think before our next moral failure*.

So, and I may be being a bit presumptuous here, hasn’t God got it wrong with this grace, unlimited forgiveness, limitless love thing? Hasn’t he heard of ‘tough love’ or ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’?

At this point some of you may be expecting me to stop the rant and say something that turns it all on its head. But I am not going to. Because God has got this wrong. It’s too easy. It’s unfair. None of the other religions in the world make it this easy, do they? They have lots of penance, sacrifice, karmic retribution and good works to balance out the scales and make it more likely that we will be accepted into heaven / reincarnate as a better being / achieve Nirvana (or whatever they say happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil). At least with them we have something to do. At least we can contribute to our own redemption.

And that’s the crazy thing about this little thing called ‘love’. God loved the world (aka you and me) so much that he gave… Jesus’ death has not so much improved things for us on the balance of probabilities, he has blazed the trail and made our forgiveness, restoration and acceptance by God a nailed on certainty (literally!). Perhaps it’s not so much that God has made it too easy. Perhaps it’s more that without Jesus it’s too hard for us. We can’t do enough to absolve ourselves of our slip ups*, That would be like being a billion pounds in debt and going to the bank with your piggy bank and asking if they will take that instead, or perhaps even asking if you can write them a cheque from that account.

And when we realise that while it’s easy for us it was not easy for Jesus, when we grasp the extent of God’s love, when we sense how seriously he takes our lapses in judgement* and the lengths he has gone to in order to deal with them, then perhaps we look at things from a different perspective.

Then grace does not look so cheap. Then our blunders* become less trivial. Then we realise that it’s easy for us because God loves us. Then we recognise that God has accepted the inequity of the situation. Then we understand that to trivialise and take forgiveness and grace for granted is probably more to do with our own self-centredness*. Then we understand that the attitude with which I began this bloggage is to do with my own ability to trivialise the significance of what I say / do / think and an unwillingness to think about the bigger picture. Then we start “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)

That is the sort of thing that can drive you to your knees.

Which is a good place to start again.

Be blessed, be a blessing

I can see clearly now…

If you don’t wear glasses you may not fully empathise with this bloggage, but give it a go anyway (you could try spraying cleaning spray on a mirror and having a look at it before you clean it to get the similar effect).

Embed from Getty Images

Glasses-wearers among you will know that during the day glasses accumulate gunk, dust, smudges and other unwanted gubbins. It just happens. (It makes you wonder about how much gubbins our skin accumulates in a day). But the thing is that it happens gradually. Glasses-wearers will be unaware of the build-up (unless it’s an obvious glob of gloop in the middle of the lens or a big smear) until they take off the glasses and have a look at them. Then we realise just how much has accumulated and we clean them. We may ‘huff’ on them with our breath or use a specialist cleaning fluid along with either a designated cleaning cloth, a handkerchief (hopefully clean), the corner of a shirt or jumper, or any piece of rag we can find).

And when we put the glasses back on suddenly we realise how dirty the lenses had become. We can see clearly now the gunk has gone.

And I think there’s an element of that for all of us. In our daily living we accumulate grime – the little lie, the unkind thought, the angry word, the selfish act… and we don’t realise how grimy we are until we stop and take a look at ourselves. One of the reasons why it’s good to be in regular contact with God and consciously to spend time with him is that it is good to ask him to clean us up regularly rather than allowing these things to accumulate. Why? Well they separate us from him and they can tarnish and diminish our positive experience of life: guilt, shame, hurt and upset all detract and diminish us as people. They don’t come from God, they come from our failure to live in the way that he designed us to live.

The good news is that he is always ready to clean us up – in Jesus he’s done all that’s necessary, all we need to do is ask.

Be blessed, be a blessing

fingerpoints

DESCRIPTION: Man with eyepatch pointing excitedly at other man's eye CAPTION: YES, I HAD THE PLANK REMOVED FROM MY EYE AND NOW I CAN FINALLY TELL YOU THAT YOU HAVE A SPECK IN YOURS THAT’S BEEN DRIVING ME NUTS!This cartoon is both funny and disturbing at the the same time. It’s funny in the same way that it was funny when Jesus gave the original teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

It’s absurd to think that someone would ignore a plank in their own eye and focus on the speck of sawdust in someone else’s… as much as anything else, how would you see the speck if you have a plank in yours? And how could you ignore a plank in your eye?

But the problem is that he hit the nail on the head. We do. We focus on the faults that others have and ignore our own. We are very keen to point the finger at others while forgetting that three other fingers are pointing at us (try it).

It disturbs me that nearly 2000 years after Jesus gave that teaching we still have not taken it to heart. And by ‘we’ I mean Christians. And by ‘we’ I include myself.

How can it be possible that churches that follow the teaching of the Source of Grace and which is full of people who have received forgiveness that was achieved at the ultimate cost (see Easter for details) can be also people who judge others, who are willing to exclude people on that basis, and who are quicker to condemn than we are to forgive?

Let me update one of Jesus’ parables to illustrate (Matthew 18:21ff if you want to read it in the original form).

Simon was in a state of panic that left him in a cold sweat. He was a broker and that morning had bought some stock in the expectation that it would rise in value but instead it had plummeted. In order to try to cover his losses he used his firm’s money to make riskier and riskier (and shadier) investments which had higher and higher possible yields but which had instead lost more and more money. And now, at the end of the day, he had made losses that amounted to millions of pounds.

His activity had alerted his boss, who summoned him to his office. His boss had a print out of the day’s activities and Simon’s were highlighted in red. There was no denying what he had done. His boss spoke calmly (which scared Simon even more) as he set out the situation: Simon’s activities had tarnished the firm’s reputation, would cost them a fortune, and could land him in trouble with the law. Simon had no way of repaying the money and his boss told him that he was going to fire him, he would make sure that Simon never worked again in the stockbroking business and that the firm would be suing him to recover anything they could from him to cover their losses, considering the massive bonuses he had had in the past.

Simon realised that not only would he lose his job, but he would lose his house and perhaps even his family. He pleaded with his boss to allow him to give him another chance and allow him to try to work (legally and sensibly) under supervision to recover the losses.

His boss saw how sorry Simon was and decided to give him that second chance. Simon breathed a huge sigh of relief. With tears in his eyes he left his boss’s office, determined to do better.

As he wandered back to his office he saw one of his colleagues, Julie, who asked him if he was going to join the rest of them for a drink. Simon remembered that Julie owed him £25 he had lent her for the cab fare home last week, and she had not made any attempt to repay it.

How could Julie forget that she owed Simon £25? He had lent it out of the kindness of his heart so she didn’t have to walk home alone but she had forgotten all about it. Simon decided to tell Julie how it was in front of the whole office – he wanted everyone to know what had happened.

“Listen, everyone,” Simon said loudly so everyone could hear. “Last week I lent Julie £25 for a cab fare home and she hasn’t repaid me yet.”

Everyone was listening now, looking forward to the public humiliation that was to follow.

“But just now our boss gave me a second chance after I had blown a fortune today. So how can I worry about £25? Julie, consider it a gift – I am glad you got home safely.”

When Jesus told the story the major debtor did not forgive the minor one. The injustice of the situation was obvious because the lack of mercy of the major debtor clashed with the boss’s mercy. I have changed the ending because I fear that nowadays the clash is between Simon’s mercy and our expectation that he would not be merciful because we know Jesus’ story and because we like …

My concern is that the way we Christians behave sometimes suggests that we have we taken the unmerciful servant’s actions in Jesus’ version as an example to follow rather than a lesson to learn. Surely we should be ‘grace-rich’ environments?

Be blessed, be a blessing