OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON

Reflections on Matthew chapter 2: 13-23

The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”     14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [Hos. 11:1]

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” [Jer. 31:15]

The Return to Nazareth

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

 

Our family, like many, has Christmas traditions. A few days before Christmas we go to the Phifer houses in a neighborhood not far from ours to view the Christmas lights – part of the Richmond Christmas Tacky Light Tour[i]. There we see Christmas lights so concentrated I am sure they can be seen from the moon, and the greatest density of plastic nativity sets anywhere in Henrico County, including the one in which Santa Claus bows down to the baby in the manger.

On a subsequent day, we go to the living nativity hosted every year at the Richmond Metro Zoo. It’s an opportunity to get closer to the real thing than anywhere else. Actors stand in for Mary and Joseph, but there is a real donkey. There are fake shepherds, but real sheep; and there are fake wise men, but real camels. Silhouetted against a night sky, with a fake star and cloud of fake angels, nothing could get closer to the childhood image of the commercially packaged Christmas card scene.

But beyond the silent, holy, night, the image does no justice to the Biblical reality. As with all things earthly, the Christmas story cannot be neatly packaged. The gospel writers who are our main sources; Matthew, writing to the Jews and Luke, for a wider audience, give us a sequence of events that ensure the shepherds and the wise men could not have been together in the same scene. They also give us the opportunity, right from the very beginning of their narratives, to marvel how every point in the life of Christ, reveals a thought about the redemptive plan of God.

In this part of the story Jesus is rejected as a baby, he becomes a refugee, and then he becomes a returnee when his family come back from Egypt. He is identified with the experience of God’s creation right from his earthly birth. Just as the writer to the Hebrews tells us: we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way.[ii] The message is clear: whatever our experience in life, Jesus has been there before us, because it was His Heavenly Father’s plan to identify him with the human experience.

Shepherds have gone out from His birthplace and told everyone of the amazing things they have witnessed. How fitting that shepherds be the first to tell the Good News of the coming of the one who would be known as the Great Shepherd of His Sheep. Jesus has been circumcised according to the Jewish law, and His parents have taken Him up to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfil the required sacrifices for purification following the birth of a child. There, wise, old Simeon has spoken over him: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel [iii]. Later, Magi from the east have sought Him out and presented Him with their gifts. Mary and Joseph have wondered at all of these amazing things but then comes the moment when the earthly parents struggle with the realities of life and the political circumstances of the world around them.

Jesus the Rejected One

In a dream, Joseph is warned of the threat to his newborn son. The neat world of this special family, preparing for their return to life in Nazareth, is suddenly disrupted.

We’ve just begun the year 2017. Americans have watched the ball go down in New York. A couple of millennia ago no one was watching a ball go down over Temple Square in Jerusalem, and certainly nobody was wishing a Happy New Year 4! BC!, to their neighbor in Israel. If anything, they were celebrating the beginning of 750 Ad Urbe Condita (from the foundation of Rome) or the Jewish New Year of 3758. Be that as it may we are presented with the intriguing idea that the events subsequent to Jesus birth are recorded for us on a calendar that seems not to exist.  For these events happen in a time which consequent to an error of historical calculation could be counted as never having existed. Because of the mistake of a sixth century monk in Rome, who was determining when Anno Domini actually began, Jesus was most probably born in 5 BC according to our modern calendar.

How fitting then, that the Jesus who was born into insignificance and rejection is also born in a moment of time as missing from the calendar as the remembrance of all those who have lived and died in complete inconsequence. Much has been made in the media recently of the lives of a few ‘stars’ who faded out in the last week of December. All of them have neatly recorded dates of birth and death – if not a tombstone, certainly in the obituaries of the news media and the details of online encyclopedias. But those who get their names in lights or on the list of Time Magazine’s most influential are few, compared to the multitudes down the years who go unremembered, unnoticed, remaining insignificant to all but a few around them and only then, for a brief moment. Apart, of course, from their unique value to the God who made them. For a moment, Jesus Christ is with every one of the unknowns, the unrecorded, the insignificant. The calendar could dictate the moment never happened, but the story tells us something else.

Jesus is the rejected Son of God right from His birth. His parents have come to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, to be recorded in a census. What better time than a census for a King to identify all the newborn baby boys? Jesus does not get the soft landing of an Isaac, longed for and awaited by Abraham and Sarah. He gets the threatened arrival of a Moses, a much earlier redeemer who also nearly fell victim to the murderous intentions of another King.

Kings in Israel in these days lived a precarious existence, threatened from above and below. They held their authority at the pleasure of the Roman Empire, and before that, under the oversight of Greece. If they did not please the empire, and ensure a flow of revenue in the direction of Rome, they suffered. At the same time, Jewish fundamentalists and revolutionaries threatened from below, seeing the kings as agencies of the alien, occupying authority.

Pretenders to Messiahship, and potential usurpers of the throne had threatened, and in turn been brutally suppressed. Any new word of one ‘born to be King of the Jews’ would arouse concern for the authorities. The authorities don’t want a pretender to the throne and so, totally involuntarily, the Christ child, this manifestation of “God with us” demonstrates from the very beginning of his life an identification with all of those whom he came to seek and save.

With faith in the words of an angel, just as Moses parents hid their boy child because they were not afraid of the King, he takes his family to Egypt.

When later they make their way back from Egypt, Jesus is rejected from Judaea again because his parents fear the intentions of Herod’s son Archelaus. Josephus, the Roman Historian, records Archelaus as being responsible for the slaughter of 3,000 Jews in the Temple, when he cancelled Passover, in an endeavor to eradicate Jewish worship[iv].

For anyone who feels rejection – Jesus was born into rejection!

Jesus the Refugee

Joseph and Mary were already away from home when they had to flee. They would have had nothing with them to take for their journey to Egypt, let alone to support them when they arrived in a strange land. Jesus becomes identified with so many who have fled along the refugee roads of history. Whether an Afghan or Syrian fleeing a modern war, or a Polish Jew fleeing a holocaust in an earlier generation, refugees have been seeking sanctuary in what we call the West. Maybe for them Europe or America are lands of opportunity, but for Joseph and Mary, Egypt was not a place of promise.

The first readers of Matthew’s words would have been aware of the significance of Egypt and of a flight there. Even before the journey of the sons of Jacob into Egypt which led to the captivity of Israel, Abraham the father of the Jewish nation had unpleasant experiences there. In the mind of the first century Jew, Egypt was the place of captivity and of slavery. Egypt was also mostly, as it is today, a desert and barren place. It was also an enemy, responsible for inflicting damage on so many towns and villages of Israel during the reign of the kings immediately following Solomon.

Western Henrico County, where we live, has become the second largest area for refugee resettlement in Virginia. Over the last twenty years we have welcomed refugees from the Yugoslav civil war, from war in Somalia and Sudan, ethnic discrimination in Myanmar, and more recently from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Church World Service and other charities, along with the Federal Government provide huge support to refugee arrivals. An Arabic Christian Ministry, has wonderful ministry to Arabs, particularly Egyptian, arriving in the city.

But we can only wonder at the divine provision that made room for the Jesus family in Egypt, providing a place of sanctuary for the months they would have been there. Could Joseph find work, contracting out his carpentry services? In a world that had no social support beyond the family – no United Nations High Commission on Refugees; no refugee resettlement services – there is no doubt that existence for this family would have been tenuous at best. Maybe gold, frankincense and myrrh were the divine provision!

For the Refugee in today’s world the message is strong. Jesus was born into the same experience, and in His experience of redemption there is hope and opportunity.

Out of Egypt Jesus is called! Just as with the Israelites many years before, God calls his own son. Just as the prophet Hosea foresaw, the experience of the Israelites was a prophetic precursor to the experience of the Christ. And so, thirdly, Jesus becomes a returnee.

Jesus the Returnee

Maybe you have seen the Arabic letter NUN or N, depicted here.

After the Islamic State took over the city of Mosul in Iraq, thrNunee years ago, they went through the city painting this symbol on the homes of all Christians, forcing Christians to flee or face death, and confiscating their property. We know some living here in Richmond whose families have had that experience. You see NUN stands for Christian, or Nasara. In the area of the Syrian and Chaldean churches Christians are identified with the Nazarene. The word is also applied to Christians in many other places in the Arab world.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ family was from Nazareth. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ family’s return to Nazareth in Galilee was so that Jesus could be known as the Nazarene. It was obviously not a significant place because Nathanael, confronted by Philip’s encouragement to come and meet the one about whom Moses and the Prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, exclaims ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’[v]

Furthermore, it sets the scene for a further rejection in the life of Jesus. Having read from the scroll in his hometown synagogue, announcing Isaiah’s good news of freedom for captives; sight for the blind and a day of the Lord’s favor[vi], and stating that these words have been fulfilled in the hearing of the assembly, the crowd only want to throw Jesus off the cliff. [vii]

It is to Nazareth that the family return. Mary’s family; parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, are all there. Presumably Joseph has a shuttered workshop. Can we imagine the rejoicing and the celebration that takes place when finally, the family get to see the new baby? Maybe they have had no news as to what has happened! Maybe they heard of Herod’s edict and the subsequent slaughter, and, not knowing whether a baby boy was born, wonder whether Mary’s child has survived.

But that is what Jesus experiences in his very young life – rejection, refugee status and then a welcome return into the arms of His earthly family! Identified from the beginning with each one of us, before ever his own volition and his own ministry can shape further that work of identification, his experience is the same as that great rejoicing which the heavenly Father offers to all who return to Him.

At Easter of 2009 I was sitting in an apartment in Cairo, Egypt with a couple of medical doctors; husband and wife. I listened as the lady told of her experience just two weeks earlier when she and a female colleague had made a return trip to one of the refugee camps in the Western Sahara in disputed land between Morocco and Mauretania. They had made trips before to provide medical care and education to Sahrawi women living there and had been well received as Christian doctors in a Muslim community. She told me of the incredible welcome they received as their taxi made its way from the airport into the desert sands of the camp. Dozens of women, their black veils flying in the wind as they ran alongside, shouting Nasara, Nasara, Nasara! Not only is the Gospel welcoming, but it is welcome Good News for all who have never before heard.

The Heavenly Father called His Son out of Egypt, having made of him a nobody in that land. Today God is calling His people out of Egypt to serve. Out of the land that is the spiritual home to the Muslim Brotherhood, missionaries are going out to serve in the nations.

I know a couple from Alexandria who are now members of a team in Turkey ministering to Syrian refugees. They have been called out of Egypt to minister in Arabic to Arabic speakers in Turkish-speaking Turkey.

Just a month ago, I was in my hometown of Luton, England. I was with long-time friends who were married in Amman, Jordan, the same day my wife and I were married in Richmond. After years of service in Spain among North African immigrants, they moved to Luton to do similar ministry. Little did I know when I left many years ago, that I would one day return, to share in the story of an Egyptian guy and his English wife, sent by a church in the Middle East to minister to the large Muslim population.

Lastly out of Egypt I’ll mention a ministry that goes by the name of Al Massira – The Journey[viii], birthed in that land and now operating worldwide. This ministry, through video, presents a narrative journey with the Old Testament Prophets to discover the Messiah. It is rich in a Middle Eastern understanding of Trinitarian theology and unashamedly presents the Good News to peoples from a Middle Eastern worldview.

Wherever you are on your personal journey; feeling rejection, wondering how you missed the party, even feeling like there’s no place to call home, this season, this scripture, this message is about the one who, whether you have known it or not, has experienced it all. Immanuel, the God with us, is with you through every circumstance; rejection, suffering, pain, grief, whether you have known it or not.

As we begin this New Year of 2017, be encouraged that Jesus, who has experienced all that life has to throw at you, who is the Immanuel, the With You God, invites you to continue on that return towards the great celebration of life

[i] http://www.richmond.com/holiday/tacky-lights/ (accessed January 1, 2017)

[ii] Hebrews 4:15

[iii] Luke 2:34

[iv] Josephus – Of the War: Book 2 Chapter 1.3

[v] John 1:46

[vi] Isaiah 61:1,2

[vii] Luke 4:29

[viii] http://www.almassira.org

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The Chef’s Challenge

It all started several years ago with the alphabet game. We get the kids working their way through the alphabet following a theme. So, one child names a fruit that begins with ‘A’ – Apricot; the next child names one that begins with ‘B’ – Blackberry, and so it goes until hopefully you complete the alphabet and move on to another category.
One day at the kitchen table one of the kids pointed out that chicken, chocolate and cheese all begin with the letters ‘CH’. I asked them to think of other foods that begin with the same letters. We compiled quite a long list, both of individual food items, and of specific dishes. As we did so it got me thinking about producing a gourmet meal in which every ingredient began with those same letters.
Every year when my mother-in-law’s birthday comes around I make a celebration meal for her. In case you wonder why I don’t do this for my own mother I’ll just say that she passed away thirty years ago. She was an excellent cook, and I think she would approve.
After nearly two decades of meals for mom, I’m always looking for new and creative ideas. So, this year the ‘CHef’s CHallenge’ is to make a five course meal using only ingredients that begin with ‘CH’ to make recipes that themselves begin with ‘CH’. Well, not quite: certain basic staples are admissible. In this case I have chosen to use cream, flour, oil, sugar, and of course, salt and pepper, and water.
the-ch-meal
The meal begins with a Chowder. I love a good New England clam chowder. The combination of clams, bacon, potato, and onion in a creamy soup, is an excellent comfort food on a cold winter day. There are of course other varieties of chowder including ham and potato, whitefish, and corn. For my chowder I have chosen to use Char, an Arctic freshwater member of the salmon family, along with Charcuterie, a fancy French term for a variety of smoked or cured pork meat. Thinking about vegetables that fit the criteria led me to Chayote, a green member of the gourd family. Chayote has a shared quality with potato in that it tends to take on the flavors of the other ingredients it is cooked with. I found a Puerto Rican seafood chowder recipe that uses Chayote as the vegetable complement to shrimp and mollusks, so I figured I could use it in my recipe. A cream sauce and Chive garnish completes the Chowder.
I continued with a Char-grilled salad. Salads are usually served cold, however there is no reason why they should not be served hot. I love Chard. This leafy green vegetable with a red stalk is not only colorful, but delicious served steamed and doused in a cream and nutmeg sauce. For this recipe I grilled the chopped stalk over a high heat with Chickpeas, Cherry tomatoes, and sliced Chestnuts, along with some very finely sliced Chorizo and Chilies. I added the shredded Chard leaves at the last moment to wilt them and give a vivid green contrast to the red. To complete the Char-grilled medley I contemplated using a champagne vinaigrette but, scouring the supermarket salad dressing aisle, I came across a Chipotle Cheddar sauce which added a smooth but tangy addition to the vegetables.
For my entree I thought about a chuck roast, but settled on Chicken Chasseur, made with Chibols, the white bulbs from scallions; Champignons, another fancy French word naming a blend of mushrooms and other edible fungi; Choncasse, or, in other words, Chopped tomato flesh; simmered together with the Chicken, in a Chardonnay cream sauce flavored with Chervil. I served the dish over Chow mein noodles to create a fusion of French and East Asian cuisine.
Dessert was easy. Going south of the border I fried up some Churros, added some Cherries and topped the dish with Chocolate Chantilly cream sauce.
Of course the meal would not be complete without a Cheese board. I put together an aged New York Cheddar with English Cheshire and French Chèvre for a hard and strong through to creamy and sour combination. I served Cheddars, the English cheese flavored crackers with the ensemble.
For bread with the meal I chose Challah, the sweet Jewish Shabbat bread, and of course to drink we had a choice of Chicory coffee and a Chamomile Chai. And lastly for those who would like some wine with their meal, Chardonnay, Chablis and anything beginning with Chateau fulfill the criteria.
If the above five courses are not enough to satisfy the appetites of your guests, you might consider some appetizers along with the Chosen wines as aperitif. Anything with Cheetos, Cheezits, Chex mix, Chips (the American potato snack), Chipstix, Choc-Chip cookies could be made available.
Of course there were plenty of ingredients remaining on our list that did not make the cut: Chalupas, Champ, Chana Dahl, Chapatis, Chat Masala, Cheeseburger, Cheesecake, Cheese curds, Cheese fries, Cheese grits, Chelsea buns, Chilchen, Chili, Chimichangas, Chimmichurri sauce, Chine of beef, Chinese leaves, Chipolatas, Chips (the English fried potato variety), Chitterlings, Chokeberries, Chop Suey, Chopped steak, Chops (pork or lamb), Choux pastry, Chow Chow, Christmas Cake, Christmas pudding (indeed, anything Christmas), Chrysanthemum leaf, Chub, & Chutney. I am sure there are others.
EnCHoy!
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THERE WERE TWO TREES IN THE GOSPEL

There were two trees in the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Our understanding of the significance of these trees is important for an understanding of God’s purpose for His creation. The first, that of the knowledge of good and evil, is the one from which Adam and Eve were not to eat lest they die[1]. They were free to eat from all of the other trees including the tree of life. Think about it. Choose life and you have all that you need. Good and evil become irrelevant. But choose good and evil and suddenly you become conscious of the law. Adam and Eve chose the law, and with it, death. Banished from the garden, they were denied the opportunity to eat of the tree of life, and sentenced to death. Thus began the long journey of mankind from the garden to that other tree of life: the cross of Calvary, where new life was bought for each one of us.

There are also two trees in the gospel which Jesus uses to illustrate the plans and purposes that he has for us in the living of the new life. Firstly there is the mustard tree, of which I wrote in a previous entry[2]. Jesus gives an illustration that likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows to be a spreading tree. The mustard tree, one of the larger, and more beautiful trees of the old Middle East, stands strong and separate. It becomes a place of attraction such that birds come and perch in its shade and even build their nests in its shelter. So, the Kingdom rises up alongside and among the systems of the world, offering a radically attractive, secure, and nourishing alternative to those systems. We, the people of the Kingdom, are encouraged to let our light so shine before men that they see our good works and worship our heavenly Father[3]. In the same way, the mustard tree illustrates the radiant Kingdom that shines in the world.

Secondly there is the fig tree and the multiple times which Jesus’ interactions with it teach us something. Jesus even says: Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.[4] He uses this illustration to encourage us that there are signs that in their precedence indicate an event is near. In this case he is speaking of his second coming, however we could equally point to the budding of the new shoots on any tree and say that they illustrate the growth of new life in our endeavors on behalf of the Kingdom of God.

It is this thought that I believe is worth connecting to the story of the call of Nathanael, found in John chapter 1. We read:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”                       “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.                                               “Come and see,” said Philip.                                                                                                                              When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”                                                                                                                                                            “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.                                                                                                  Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”[5]

A fig tree figures in this story, although it could have been any tree. Nathanael was sitting under it when Jesus first saw him. I have always been drawn to the personal nature of the call narrated here. Jesus saw Nathanael, before Nathanael knew him. And he saw enough of him to know that here was an upright man, an Israelite in whom there was no deceit. Jesus knew Nathanael just as our heavenly Father knows each one of us. It is a wonderful privilege for each one of us that God saw us before we even knew him. Just as He knew the prophet Jeremiah before he was in his mother’s womb[6]. I believe He has known each of us, and prepared works in advance for us to accomplish[7]. It becomes our responsibility to seek Him for His will for our lives, so that we may discern and then accomplish those works.

Nathanael then acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Lord has seen each one of us, and as we recognize Him, we acknowledge His Lordship over our lives and step out into the works of the Kingdom that He has prepared for us.

Jesus’ response to Nathanael indicates that he believed because Jesus first saw him. However He also tells him that he will see far greater things than that. The fig tree is a place of shade and, in season, a supply of fruit. Yet it also becomes a part of a story that illustrates the magnitude of the things that God wants to do through His people. It becomes inextricably linked to the mustard tree which illustrates the scope and size of the Kingdom.

Elsewhere, Jesus curses the fig tree[8] for not being fruitful, even out of season, but here the promise of fruitfulness in the Kingdom flows from an encounter with a future follower who was sitting under the fig tree.

May we always appreciate the lesson of the fig tree, and that of the mustard tree. May we also always choose the tree of life.

[1] Genesis 2:17

[2] https://thefullerreport.com/2016/09/09/kingdom-transformation-a-reflection/

[3] Matthew 5:16

[4] Matthew 24:32

[5] John 1:45-50

[6] Jeremiah 1:5

[7] Ephesians 2:10

[8] Matthew 21:18-22

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KINGDOM TRANSFORMATION – A REFLECTION

In Luke 17:20 we find Jesus saying: The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst, in response to a question from the Pharisees about when the Kingdom would come. Many around him, his closest disciples included, were anticipating the establishment of a kingly and earthly rule, along with an overthrow of the tyranny of Roman occupation.

Elsewhere we find Jesus likening the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows into a tree so large that birds come and nest in it, and to yeast mixed into a large quantity of flour until all of the flour is affected (Matt 13:32,33; Luke 13:18-21). The seed needs to be planted in the ground so that it will grow. The yeast needs to be worked into the flour so that the resulting dough will rise. In both cases something which is already in the midst, is activated to accomplish its purpose.

Some time ago a short animation was a popular evangelistic tool. It depicted a cartoon character going about his every day life, doing whatever he wanted and thinking that all was well with him and his world. Almost unnoticeable in the background, but visible in every frame, was an ill-defined blob. As the story progressed and its subject encounters several of life’s challenges, the blob becomes more and more an unwanted and embarrassing presence. Toward the end the cartoon character begins to realize he cannot live life without help. At that point the blob resolves into a form of the cross.

In the same way this is what the Kingdom of God is like in the world. It is the presence and power of God waiting patiently to be activated by His redeemed creation. It is also the presence and power of God intended by the power of His Spirit to convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgment. It is the presence and power of God lived out through one such as the early twentieth century Pentecostal pioneer Smith Wigglesworth who once took a seat in a railcar when a man seated across from him blurted out: Your presence convicts me of sin.[i] Wigglesworth then led him to the Lord.

Some would tell us that the Kingdom comes about because God’s people take power, redeem the institutions of state and then use them to bring the Kingdom into reality. This approach has been seen in the activity of some Christian political movements from both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Outside Christendom a present example would be the Islamic State, which through the establishment of an Islamic hegemony, exerts absolute authority over the people in an endeavor to establish Theocratic rule. But surely a top-down approach to Kingdom building like this does no more than repeat the mistake of the early church in its alliance with the State following Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Others working at grass-roots level would liken the Kingdom to a type of fifth-column.[ii] They want to found a movement, which grows to encompass and overtake diverse aspects of a society transforming them into the Kingdom of God.

Whether by imposition or by insinuation both of these approaches endeavor to change something already existing into the Kingdom of God. I don’t doubt that human institutions can be changed; indeed throughout history some have been changed. However the idea that the Kingdom of God results merely from the transformation of humanity’s corrupted history, flowing into the present shape of the nations, seems to me somewhat limiting of the power of God. Just as Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to a radically different lifestyle, not to be equated to the lifestyles of rabbinic followers of contemporary Jewish leaders, so the coming of the Kingdom of God extends a possibility radically different from the redemption of human institutions. The mustard seed grows to become a huge tree, not dependent upon the support of surrounding structures. It becomes so large, lush and fruitful that birds come and nest within its security. The tree offers a radically attractive alternative to all the other trees the forest has to offer. In the same way the yeast works through inert flour to grow fresh dough that can be used to bake bread. If the flour is corrupt to begin with the yeast will not restore it. Bad dough will result, and with it, bad bread.[iii]

Wherever we find ourselves in ministry – whether church-planting in a modern city, or sharing Jesus’ love among nomads on the edge of desert; whether growing a business that expresses the values of God’s Kingdom, or engaging a community through the power of the creative, let us remind ourselves that the Kingdom is within our midst. Let us live our lives so that through us, and through the community of believers to which we belong, the light shines strongly, people see our good Kingdom works, and they are thus drawn to praise our Father in heaven.

The Kingdom of God is present in our midst, because God is present with His people, desiring for them to offer the world the kind of alternative that is embarrassing in its simplicity, convicting through its presence, and radically secure in its demands. May His Kingdom come!

[i] Quoted in Chapter 14 of Derek Prince – Transformed for Life: How to Know God Better and Love Him More – Chosen Books 2002

[ii] The fifth column is a term originating in the Spanish Civil War and applied to those inside the siege of a city, allied to the besiegers who could bring about its downfall from within.

[iii] Research into a cause for the strange behaviors that led to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts colony explored the possibility of members of the community being poisoned by bread produced from a crop of rye contaminated with ergot. See Linnda Caporael – Ergotism, the Satan loosed in Salem – http://www.physics.smu.edu/scalise/P3333sp08/Ulcers/ergotism.html   – accessed September 5, 2016

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Divide

During a summer trip to Tennessee with the family we drove Interstate 81 down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Along the way we passed the sign which states: “Extent of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed”. I pointed out to the kids that we were passing the point at which all the rain falling behind us (as we drive Westward) should ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay and out into the Atlantic, whereas all rain falling ahead of us should flow into the Ohio river system and from there through the Mississippi River to the Gulf.

So, a few weeks later when Jill and I were in Colorado and staying near the little town of Divide my thoughts turned to the Continental Divide of the great Rocky Mountains, the back bone, if you like, of the North American continent. Divide itself is not technically the watershed; that comes a few miles further west at Hoosier Pass, however for the most part, all the precipitation east of Divide will flow either into the Gulf or through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, while everything falling to the West will flow into the Pacific. There could not be a starker difference between the directions which gravity forces one drop of water to take!IMG_3450

We were on retreat. We were taking time away from work, family and everyday Virginia life, for rest, reflection and prayer. We felt very blessed as we explored, hiked, enjoyed good food and shared fellowship with the three other couples staying at the retreat center. We were also in a land of profound differences. Our retreat was hosted in a lodge hidden away in a quiet forest of ponderosa pine and aspen while down the highway just a few thousand feet below us were the tourist hubs of Woodland Park and Manitou Springs. We enjoyed beautiful clear days with warm summer temperatures, aware that winter brings blizzards and weeks of frozen landscape. When we went to the top of the 14,000 foot (4,200 meter) Pike’s Peak we experienced the immediate transition from lush green forest to barren landscape when we emerged above the tree line. And from the top we witnessed the contrast between a clear blue sun-washed distance, and angry dark thunderheads pouring rain within the atmosphere, while little flecks of snow drifted over us.

Many of our friends and colleagues around the world are affected by strife within their nations. Even as the Olympics bring the world together in Rio, our Brazilian friends live with the impact of the impeachment process of their president. Venezuelans live with a bankrupt economy, while the French grieve over senseless violence, and our friends in Turkey are unsettled both by war to the south and the aftermath of an attempted coup. Britain’s European Union exit vote affects the whole continent and here in the USA many are pondering how an election primary process could have produced two equally unacceptable candidates for Presidential office. The divide within many communities is apparent. Surely in darker times, there is an opportunity for the church to renew Jesus’ offer to the world of the light of the gospel.

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that: The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) These words remind us of the offence of the Gospel. There is a God in heaven who is audacious enough to tell us how we are to live. No, he is not audacious, he simply IS! The I AM is the creator God. The right to tell His creation how it is to behave requires no audacity. But regrettably, we are living in a society that always wants to blur the lines; a world that does not want to admit the stark divide between the Kingdom of Light and the kingdom of darkness. Regrettably we find this not only in societies where we would expect it but also within churches that profess the truth but live a lie. Sin has become an issue for pastoral accommodation rather than pastoral care; issues of social and religious injustice are excused; and Jesus’ Great Commission to preach the gospel to every nation often remains ignored.

Divide in Colorado denotes a place from which gravity determines which way the rivers flow. However gravity does not determine the choices of the follower of Christ. His choice does not have to be subject to the prevailing social winds. The divide for him must be grounded in the unchanging and eternal word of God.

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A RESURRECTION MESSAGE

On Good Friday Jill and I took Sarah Grace on a journey to the cross. Our local church in Richmond designs a creative experience telling the story of Jesus’ last hours.

On this occasion one of the final scenes shows a series of paintings of the crucifixion from the Great Masters projected onto a white screen. As I sat in the still, quiet sanctuary viewing a sequence of work from such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Peter Rubens Christ on the Cross - small

Paul Rubens, I realized they have all seen the one whom they depict. Men, long dead, have passed beyond this world to where their relationship with God has taken them. Freed from time’s constraint they have looked upon the face of the Lord. They have seen the reality on which their earthly art could only speculate, and in a sense, they have seen the result of faith that had previously only found its form from an artist’s palette.

God speaks His word to us through the prophet Zechariah (12:10): They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. On the day of the cross we look upon Him who our own actions have slain, and we recall all that He has done for us. We also look forward to a celebration on the Sunday that we call Resurrection Day.

Resurrection from time’s perspective is all about faith. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the great men of faith who preceded the coming of the Christ, (Heb 11:13) were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. They were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40).

What are we looking for in living the Christian life that we have not yet seen? For some it may simply be the salvation of a loved one; for others it may be a strategic advance of the gospel among an unreached people group. How do we view the unseen? With a hint of wishful thinking or with impassioned desire borne of vision shaped by God’s word to us?

The painters of the cross give us glimpses of the suffering of Christ. The artists of the Resurrection present mere mortal interpretations of glory. It is for each of us to lay out a path, through prayer and action, toward what we embrace in faith. But having defined it, we live and work according to the word we have received. And as we take our life and our work to the cross we see His will accomplished through resurrection life.

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WE NEED A NEW CONTRACT WITH AMERICA – CAN WE HAVE IT IN NO TRUMPS PLEASE?

Anyone familiar with the game of Bridge knows that players can play for a contract in which clubs, diamonds, hearts or spades are trumps, ranking higher than any other cards. Or they can settle for a contract in No Trumps where all cards rank in order and no suit is higher than another.

Twenty-two years ago the Republicans gave America a Contract [1], one which they then set about fulfilling. America is in need of a new, but “No Trumps” contract, and, if we can choose another suit, let it not be the “pale blue pantsuit” of a Clinton, successor to the “dark gray three-button” of her husband!

It seems that there are many on both sides of the political spectrum who are tired of the current state of affairs in America and long for something new. The hung over effects of the recession mean that many in the middle and lower end of the earnings spectrum are frustrated by the lack of real growth in incomes. At the same time jobs lost in recent years have been replaced by many more part-time opportunities with fewer benefits. Frustration with political gridlock in Washington, combined with anger at the incumbent’s policies ranging from healthcare to gay marriage and to the impasse over immigration policy, has rallied around a political outsider and the most socialist politician ever to serve in Congress. The former is a millionaire businessman, whose news-making abilities have previously lent themselves to the entertainment tabloids; the latter is an ageing hippy. Both would serve as the oldest to be elected in the history of the American presidency.

The primary election system for the choosing of a presidential candidate appears incomprehensible to the average outsider. Each state has its own rules for the method of voting, and for the allocation of delegates to the national political conventions that choose the party candidate. Each state is free to set the date for its own voting. So, we have the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary to kick off the long season. Sometimes these predict the direction of the rest of the selection process, sometimes they do not. However, there is no doubt that they preview one of the longest of election processes anywhere.

When Donald Trump entered the race for the Republican nomination last year, the Republican establishment did not take him seriously. However there were too many other candidates to allow opposition to Mr. Trump to coalesce around an alternative. At one point there were seventeen candidates. 30% of the way through the process Mr. Trump is the frontrunner, yet his two closest rivals, Senator Cruz from Texas and Senator Rubio from Florida, have between them accumulated a greater number of delegates. More Republican primary participants have not voted for Mr. Trump than for him!

Mr. Trump, or ‘The Donald’, as the entertainer side of him has become known, is a larger than life character. His Wikipedia entry states: His branding efforts, career, outspoken manner, personal life, and wealth have made him an international celebrity.[2] His TV show, The Apprentice, running since 2004 for seven seasons in the original version and another seven in the celebrity edition, has introduced his no-nonsense business style to the American public. On the campaign trail his brutal blend of bluster and braggadocio has ensured that he can keep hitting the headlines with outrageous statements.

It is one thing to be arrogant and pompous. It is an escalation to be proud of being proud! Do we really want a major party candidate, let alone President who says such things as: I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters;[3] Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president;[4] and The wall will go up and Mexico will start behaving.[5]? Do we really want a President who has impressed his image on our national consciousness by pointing a finger across his desk and saying: “You’re fired!”? [6]

However, if we look to the other side of the aisle, what better choices do we have? I am sure that Mr. Sanders is a nice guy, but America has never been a socialist nation. President Obama came up with a great plan for ensuring everyone could get affordable healthcare. For many people the plan just increased the cost of their insurance. Bernie plans to make college free for all undergraduate students. It’s one thing to offer to make things affordable, it’s another to have courage to tackle the reasons why the building block services of our society, such as healthcare and education are so expensive!

That brings us to Mrs. Clinton. Mired in scandals that would have had the media all over a Republican candidate, she has brushed off the problems with Benghazi, and her email server, to ride a wave of misplaced popular acclaim. Let’s not forget that her husband won the Presidency with 43% of the vote in 1992. If Ross Perot had not filtered so many votes away from incumbent George Bush it is doubtful whether Mr. Clinton would have made it to the White House. His presidency was the most scandal-ridden of the last forty years culminating in his 1998 impeachment. Mrs. Clinton rode his coat-tails into political office, first as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State in the first Obama administration. It is hard to see what her route to either of those offices would have been had she not been the wife of a former President who remained popular with his own party. The history of investigations into her business affairs during her husband’s Presidency and as a result of her position as Secretary of State should, at the very least, give us all a concern about her personal judgment.

But what choice do these candidates really leave us with? The best candidates of this campaign, those who have actually held executive office as governor of a state are falling by the wayside. Scott Walker from Wisconsin for the Republicans and Martin O’Malley from Maryland for the Democrats withdrew a long time ago. We are left with Mr. Kasich of Ohio, who has served his state well, has even won his state primary, but trails far behind the Donald.

Maybe Mr. Trump really believes he can run a nation – he ran some of his businesses into bankruptcy; the United States is already bankrupt! Maybe he only got into the race because he was determined that Hilary would not be the only candidate who could have a bad hair day! At least he is right when he says: She shouldn’t be allowed to run. If that were a Republican that did what she did with the emails they would have been in jail twelve months ago. Clink! [7]

[1] The Contract with America was a document released by the United States Republican Party during the 1994 Congressional election campaign. It detailed the actions the Republicans promised to take if they became the majority party in the United States House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. See also http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/the-contract-with-america-implementing-new-ideas-in-the-us (accessed March 11, 2016)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Trump (accessed March 4, 2016)

[3] Stated at a Campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, January 23, 2016 – http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/24/donald-trump-says-he-could-shoot-somebody-and-still-not-lose-voters (accessed March 4, 2016)

[4] Speaking of Carly Fiorina, a former candidate, during an interview on September 9, 2015 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/donald-trump/11855165/Trump-on-Fiorina-Look-at-that-face.-Would-anyone-vote-for-that.html (accessed March 4, 2016)

[5] Speaking on the Bill O’Reilly Show – June 16, 2015

[6] The weekly elimination of a candidate from his show “The Apprentice!”

[7] Speaking at a rally in Norcross, Georgia, October 10, 2015 – http://www.wmur.com/politics/donald-trumps-most-provocative-quotes/34313688 (accessed March 16, 2016)

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