Friday, 14 December 2018

St John of the Cross, again

Epiphany, by Malcolm Guite

It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.

But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,

They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

Epiphany, by Malcom Guite

Annual Covenant Service

The idea of a covenant between a Christian and God appears frequently in the Bible. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, wrote a ‘Covenant Prayer’ to be read aloud once a year at a special service. He held his first service on Monday 11 August 1755, at the French church at Spitalfields in London. It was attended by 1800 people.
  Wesley attributed it to the English puritan Joseph Alleine (1634–1668), but he wrote it through the lens of his own Churchmanship. We don’t know the words of his original Covenant Prayer, but many think its words will have been similar to those Wesley published in his 1780 pamphlet Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God.
  This idea of a covenant between a Christian and God was basic to John Wesley’s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings (both as a community and as individuals) on the one side and God in Christ on the other (cf. Ephesians 5:21–33). Later versions incorporated words from the wedding service: Christ is ‘my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death’.
  Wesley recognised that people need to grow in their relationship with God. He emphasised repeatedly that God’s grace and love prompts and seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.
  Over a number of years, Wesley gradually saw the need for some regular ceremony which would enable people to open themselves to God more fully. He looked for some means of helping them to hear God's offer and challenge ever more deeply and to allow God to prompt and enable them to respond.
Wesley’s first service came from the Puritan tradition of pastoral and spiritual guidance. He therefore insisted that his own Covenant Service be located in a framework of pastoral care, preaching and guidance.
  That framework dealt with the corporate needs of a particular society of Christian disciples and, within that, with the needs of all the individuals within that group. It therefore linked personal devotion with corporate worship.
  Although Wesley's early covenant services were not held at any particular time of year, in British Methodism the custom soon developed of holding Covenant Services near the beginning of the New Year.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

The three 'wise' men?

Consider the three wise men in the Christmas story. Or should it be the three ‘wise’ men?
      The only Gospel account to mention these men is Matthew 2:1–12. The Church has since invented vast fictional ‘biog raphies’ to flesh out the story, but we know essentially nothing about them. Indeed, we are only guessing when we say there were three of them, which has
always been assumed because the men left three gifts, of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
  But were they ‘wise’? The early Church was unanimous in calling them astrologers and magicians, that is, people who foretold the future by studying the movements of stars and planets. Astrology was always strictly forbidden within Jewish society: all references in Scriptures to astrology assume the practice was completely forbidden. Furthermore — just like today — the success of astrologers in predicting the future was pitifully bad. Isaiah 47:13–15 ridicules the ability of astrologers to predict the future, and passages in Daniel say the same (Daniel 2:4:7, 5:7). Perhaps the wise men were sometimes unwise.
  In fact Matthew’s Gospel does not use the word ‘wise’ at all, but ‘Magi’ — the meaning of which is now wholly lost. The more understandable word ‘wise’ was substituted centuries after Matthew wrote his gospel, during severe persecution of the Church by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (who reigned 284 to 305 AD).
  Some historians suggest the Church changed the word ‘Magi’ to ‘wise men’ as an act of gentle irony. Picture the scene: a blood-thirsty dictator clings to power at all costs. King Herod is known to have killed so many members of his own family that his Roman overlord Caesar Augustus once famously said he would prefer to be a pig in Herod’s household than one of Herod’s family. And then imagine someone requesting an audience with the dictator, and saying, ‘Please tell me where I can find the person who could topple you as King’! Mt 2:16–18 describes how the Magi’s actions led to one of the worst acts of persecution in the Middle East for generations: the killing of all local boys aged under two.
  Now scroll forward to the reign of Diocletian, when death was the penalty for being a Christian. When the Christians of that later century heard the story of the Magi in Matthew 2, it must have triggered a wry smile, a laugh of gentle irony, for they knew what it was like living under a foreign dictator. They would understand how misjudged were the Magi’s actions.
  So, to defuse and make safe the story of the Magi, they gently mocked their naiveté by nicknaming them ’the wise men’.

The book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth is named after its central figure, Ruth, who became the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus (Ruth 4:21–22; Matt 1:1,5). It is one of only two Biblical books bearing the name of a woman; the other is Esther.
        The author of this literary gem focuses on Ruth’s selfless devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi (1:16–17; 2:11–12; 3:10; 4:15) and her future husband Boaz’s kindness to them both (chapters 2–4). The book seeks to underscore the importance of faithful love among God’s kingdom people.
  Ruth is a history book, and is placed between Judges and 1 Samuel because it is set ‘in the days when the judges judged’. That time was characterised by moral and religious decay, oppression by foreign powers and national dis-unity. The book describes a rare time of peace between Israel and Moab.
  Before the main story commences, we learn of an Israelite family from Bethlehem — Elimelech and his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. They had emigrated to the nearby country of Moab. Elimelech’s sons married Moabite women: Mahlon married Ruth and Chilion married Orpah. Elimelech later died.
  Naomi’s two sons later died in Moab (1:4), maybe following disease or famine; the book tells us the Moabite harvest had failed.
  The books starts with Naomi returning to Bethlehem. She told her daughters-in-law to leave her and return to their respective mothers and re-marry. Orpah reluctantly left; but Ruth was defiant, and said to her mother-in-law Naomi, ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me’ (1:16–17). That a foreigner from Moab shows this amount of love shows the truth that participation in the kingdom of God is decided, not by blood or birth, but by conformity of life to the will of God. Her devotion to her mother-in-law marks her a true daughter of Israel despite being a gentile and a worthy ancestor of David. Further, her place in that ancestry shows that all nations will be represented in the kingdom of David’s greater Son.
  Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem just as the barley harvest was starting. They were by now totally destitute so, in order to support herself and her mother-in-law, Ruth went to the fields to glean. (Leviticus comes to life here, with its injunction to leave part of the harvest for the needy, and with all of its concern and compassion for the underprivileged within society.) By chance, the first field Ruth visited belonged to a local grandee called Boaz. He was kind to Ruth because he knew of her loyalty to her mother-in-law. Later, Ruth told her mother-in-law Naomi of Boaz’s kindness, and the way he let her glean in his field through the remainder of the harvest season.
  We then learn that Boaz was a close relative of Naomi’s husband and legally obliged to marry Mahlon’s widow, Ruth, in order to carry on his bloodline. He agreed to do so.
  Boaz and Ruth then married and had a son, who was named Obed. He was ‘the father of Jesse, the father of David’ (Ruth 4:13–17), that is, the grandfather of King David.
  The book of Ruth is a Hebrew short story told with considerable skill. It is unexcelled in its compactness, vividness, warmth, beauty and effectiveness. Most striking is the contrast between the two main characters, Ruth and Boaz: the one is young, foreign, destitute and a widow, while the other is middle-aged, well-to-do and an Israelite securely established in his home community.