Lent Day 1: Matthew 1-3

So, here it starts. At the very beginning.

Well, not the beginning. That happens much, much earlier and we’ll get an amazing glimpse of it when we move onto John’s Gospel.

This beginning is three-fold. Firstly, we see the beginning of Israel, from Abraham right through to the birth of Jesus via no less a figure than King David. Jesus’ royal pedigree and Jewish pedigree are being established right away. He is a direct descendant of David, so he meets one big criteria for being Israel’s long awaited Messiah.

The second beginning is the birth itself. Here we encounter one of my favourite Biblical figures in Jesus’ step-father, Joseph. This is a man with an unbelievably tough decision to make. His fiancee, Mary, is pregnant and it is clearly not his child. He is a “righteous man”, so he knows that the Law demands that he has nothing to do with Mary and he intends to follow that. However, there is clearly love and compassion in his actions as he resolves to divorce her on the quiet, to avoid any public disgrace to her. Even though, as far as he knows at this point, she has betrayed him, he still wants to protect her rather than gain revenge by humiliating her.

Then, a dream. Joseph is told that the child is God’s own son and he needs to trust in God that things will be ok. And he does. As far as we can see there are no quibbles or arguments, but Joseph trusts God unconditionally, despite what the repercussions are for him and Mary.

I love that. What Joseph does demonstrates respect for God’s law, love for Mary and complete trust in God all in one event. All of which probably went against his own desires and instincts. There’s an example for us all to follow.

The final beginning is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In a few verses we’ve jumped about 30 years, but this is where the action begins.

It starts with a wild man in John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, declaring that the Kingdom of God is near. Not far off. Nor in a box. Not separated from us by a curtain in the Temple. It’s near to us, almost with us.

He’s seen at the start preparing the Pharisees and Sadducees for the many times Jesus’ brings their narrow views down to earth (“nest of course” is such a cracking insult!). He then, though, echoes Isaiah’ s prophecy which is mentioned in chapter 1,

“Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” (Isaiah 7:13-15 NIV)

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”” (Matthew 3:7-12 NIV)

The whole theme of separating the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, is prevalent here. Both are aimed squarely at Israel and those who reject God. In John’s case, however, it is specifically aimed at those who will, in time come to reject Jesus. Not even their Jewish heritage will save them as God can fashion sons of Abraham from the stones (an early sign that textiles are being saved too?).

After all of this examination and hellfire, though, we finally see Jesus. Not the “Baby Jesus, meek and mild” of our Nativity stories and childhood prayers. This is a man who has come to carry out the most incredible ministry, followed by an act of remarkable love and amazing grace.

John recognises this and protests that he isn’t worthy to baptize Jesus, it should be the other way round. He does it anyway.

Cue the sky opening and that voice,

“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”” (Matthew 3:17 NIV)

It’s begun.

So, here it starts. It’s going to be some ride!

Another man’s shoes

In July 2005 my family and I moved from Swanage in Dorset, a lovely seaside town on the south coast with quite a tight knit community, to Larbert, a town just outside Falkirk in central Scotland. I had been married for 10 years at that stage to a woman who was born in Falkirk, moved to England when she was 3, and always fancied moving back again. So, on holiday, I went past a branch in Edinburgh of the bank I was working for at the time, popped in to enquire whether they had any jobs going and, six weeks later, we moved with our three young children.

It was an exciting time. I love Scotland. Its culture, its scenery, its history, its people and its incredibly strong sense of identity (as well as its haggis and Irn Bru!) are all so inviting and friendly. There was, for me, one concern, though. How would the Scots take to me, an Englishman, living and working here.

I knew that there was a strong rivalry, especially where sport was concerned, and that there was an increasing level of support for independence. All of the views which were presented to me, some by members of my wife’s family, suggested that there was a large anti-English feeling in Scotland. Most of this was media inflicted, either by a nationalistic Scottish media or an aloof, condescending English media, but it was evidently there. It worried me that, as soon as people heard my accent, I would be the subject of vitriol for some. I was scared that I may not be allowed to settle comfortably and that maybe my children would be the target of anti-English bullying at school.

In the end, these fears were totally unfounded. The people I live and work with, the children my kids went to school with, and everyone else we’ve encountered here could not be friendlier, more welcoming and more inclusive. Yes, the rivalry is there, but it’s friendly rivalry. Yes, the anti-English media sentiment is there, but it doesn’t extend to a dislike of the English people. In fact, I have found myself joining in with critical ism of many quarters of the UK media who don’t seem to see north of Hadrian’s Wall or, in most cases, the Watford Gap. This country is home to me now. I have many Scottish phrases in my own speech, hold a season ticket to my local football team, Stenhousemuir, I’m a Church of Scotland member and refer to the people of Scotland as “we”. I love it here.

It took me living and working here for me to appreciate the people and the reasons any rivalry may be there. I can even see why many want independence, something I couldn’t even fathom 9 years ago.

This is the case for all of us. There are many people living in situations we can’t begin to fathom. People living in poverty, abusive households, living with addiction, different political views, different nationalities, different religions, social isolation, different social class, different pressures and expectations to our own. We find it all too easy to view these lives through the prisms of our own circumstances and experiences. This can all too easily lead to lack of understanding, fundamentalism and fear.

What do we think of the 45 year old drug addict, squatting in an empty flat? Do we look down on him for getting himself I to that situation, or do we ask what drove him to drugs and what could help him back off them? What about the 19 year old single mother of 3 who lives off benefits in a council house? Is she just an irresponsible scrounge, having kids to sponge off the state? Or is she a caring, loving mother, raising her children in the best way she can so they have a better chance in life? What about the public schoolboy with convictions for driving under the influence of drink and drugs? A spoilt brat with no sense of responsibility, or a young man who finds it impossible to live up to the expectations placed upon him and has found the wrong outlet for his frustrations and insecurities?

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote this,

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Few things are more true than this. We cannot hope to understand until we have made the effort to do so, until we have taken the time to step into the shoes of people in situations different to ourselves. We need to listen and talk, to visit and, if called to do so, live in places alien to us. Only when we break down the barriers which exist in society and within our own heads will we start to understand, empathise and make a positive difference.

Jesus did this all of the time. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, beggars, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, adulterers and even (shock, horror!) women. He did this to set us all the ultimate example. He didn’t say that He condoned people’s life choices, but He did this to understand so that He could show them a better way. THE better Way.

One of the most famous examples happened in Luke’s gospel, and Jesus explained why He did this,

“Then Levi had a big feast in his house for Jesus, and among the guests was a large number of tax collectors and other people.  Some Pharisees and some teachers of the Law who belonged to their group complained to Jesus’ disciples. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and other outcasts?” they asked.
Jesus answered them, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick.  I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but outcasts.”” (Luke 5:29-32 GNT)

We are all outcasts, in one form or another, and Jesus comes to call us. He also comes to call all those who we may see as outcasts. Shall we condemn and fear them, or do we take up Jesus’ call to show them the way, the truth and the life He brings. It is understanding and love we must show. To all. It’s not just what Jesus would do, it’s what He did. What He does. What He asks us to do.

Tongue tied

In my last few posts I have been very open about my Christian faith. This has come as a surprise to some. Not because they didn’t know, but because I hardly ever talk about it, if ever at all.

Paul, in 2 Timothy 1:8, tells us not to be ashamed of the Gospel. That’s what I worry that my reticence in sharing my faith verbally comes across as, but it really isn’t. The fact is that I am just really rubbish at it. I mean terrible. I want to talk about Jesus, but when I try I just come out with something which is so weak that it does no justice to Him whatsoever. I stumble over my words, can’t find the right thing to say and sound almost half hearted. I may as well be talking about leather exports from Paraguay and the socio-economic impact of declining cow populations in South America for all the knowledge I show about the subject.

I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, I have a fear of coming across like, well, a weirdo. I mean more of one than I already do. Not that the subject matter is weird to me, it is far from that. It’s more that I don’t feel confident in my ability to strike the right balance between passion and beating people around the head with a Bible until they either submit or run away (metaphorically, not literally. Assault isn’t really my style). I have a real desire to share my faith and what I believe Jesus has done for us, but I am so conscious that many are not too interested, or even hostile to the Gospel, that I am terrified of saying too much or something really stupid and putting people off. This seems to hold my tongue back from managing to say anything at all.

The other reason is that I actually feel more comfortable writing about stuff which I find important or personal than I do talking about it. My post where I mentioned my depression was the first time nearly everyone who knows me had heard about it, because I’m happier communicating in this way, and the same goes with my faith. I can talk easily to people, but usually about trivial stuff, work stuff or other people’s issues rather than my own. This is a really good outlet for me and I’m finding unloading things I find important on this blog to be very therapeutic.

I have a lot of sympathy with Peter. Yes, He was the “rock” who Jesus built His Church on and he preached some wonderful sermons after Jesus’ resurrection as well as writing two wonderful letters which were included in the New Testament, but he was seriously clumsy with his words, especially around Jesus. He was a man with a knack of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but God used what he had, built on it and enabled Peter to shape something amazing.

So I’ll use what I’ve been given. I’m not the writer or public speaker Peter was, but they’re where I’m most comfortable and most eloquent (I think!), so that’s what I’ll do. If God wants me for more He’ll let me know and equip me to do it.