Friday, 11 November 2016

Drinking with joy from the wells of salvation

In the past I might have suggested that the disciples looked upon the stones of the temple like a bunch of wide eyed country bumpkins.  I might have pointed out their naivety and incredulity but if I had done this it would have been inaccurate.

As first century Jews I have little doubt that the disciples would have travelled to Jerusalem and the temple on a regular basis to celebrate the great festivals of their faith: the Passover; Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement; maybe the festival of Weeks or First Fruits.  The temple was physically and symbolically the centre piece of their faith.  God dwelt in the Temple, behind a great curtain, in a place known as the Holy of Holies.

Whether this particular scene ever actually occurred has been questioned.  Most scholars suggest that Luke wrote his gospel somewhere between the years 75 and 85.  We know that the Emperor Nero despatched his General Vespian to Jerusalem in the year 70 and Vespian destroyed the Temple.

It could be that the disciple’s wide-eyed wonder is a reminder for Luke’s audience of the splendour of the Temple and that Jesus’ prophetic words are included as a further affirmation of his identity as the Messiah.  In much ancient writing whether something actually happened or not is secondary to the core message that the writer is trying to convey.

Regardless of what we can and cannot prove about the event, and how accurately it portrays an interaction Jesus may have had with his disciples, there is a message of hope in the face of adversity for early Christians. A message of hope that we can hear as pertinent to us as well.  Faith in God transcends, and possibly even supersedes, the physicality of the beautiful stones of the Temple and endurance in the face of suffering leads to life.

Whilst the Temple stood at heart of the Jewish religion, by the time Jesus and his disciples were wandering the dusty streets of Jerusalem there was that great and foreboding occupying power: the Roman Empire and its Emperors who styled themselves as gods.

Surrounding the walls of the Temple the might of Rome crowded in and as the story goes eventual crashed down on the Jewish people and their Temple in the year 70.

Jesus’ words gave his disciples and no doubt the members of Luke’s community some comfort in the fact that God and God’s concern for them was not in any way limited to the physical presence of the Temple.  Destroying the central symbol of their faith did not and could to destroy God.  More than that, even though suffering might come and was part of their experience, Jesus promise was that on the other side of that suffering Jesus’ followers would find life!  Neither the culture that intruded on their Holy Space nor the destruction of the Temple, as heartbreaking as these things may have been, were of ultimate importance.

Just as this story gave hope to the early community of Christians that Luke write it for so too it is a story that has given the church hope and can continue to give us hope now.   The church exists, in a multitude of locations across the globe surrounded by and embedded within cultures that are often antagonistic towards it.

Sometimes those cultures are intruding in upon us and shaping our life as followers of Jesus more than any of us would like to admit.  Just as the Roman Empire loomed large around the Temple. Cultures through history and across the world loom large around us.

Almost 17 centuries ago when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian, rather than simply looming large around the Temple the Empire walked in the door of the church, and the relationship between the Church and the prevailing political culture changed significantly.  Only in recent decades has the Church, begun to really disentangle itself, ourselves, from the political systems and regimes of the European era of Christendom.

In some ways some of the beautiful stones of our faith are being knocked down as we rediscover what it means to follow Jesus through a time of great tumult and change.

It was interesting this week to reflect on this as the US election unfolded and as Donald Trump was elected.  I read a range of quite disturbing articles about the possibilities of what kind of ideology this man will bring to one of the most powerful positions in the world and the potential for great harm. 

A colleague quoted from the Luke reading on Facebook suggesting the fertile ground for preaching to be made from connections between the mid-to-late 1st century and the early 21st century:

"There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven"

We must always be wary of reading ourselves too closely into prophetic words within the scriptures but there can be no doubt there is a sense of destabilisation in world politics at the moment.

With this in mind I responded to his words that I was being drawn to preaching on Isaiah 12 - "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

There are significant and warranted global concerns around the Trump victory so as we look into the well of salvation how do we do what Jesus says in Luke, “Endure so that we will gain our lives,” at the same time as hearing the hopeful words of Isaiah, "With joy drawing water from the wells of salvation."

This paradoxical tension has always been an aspect of our faith enduring in the face of difficult times, whilst also finding joy and hope in our faith.

So, as I looked to the future this week, I was struck by a new thing that I learnt from my friend Father Anastasios from the Greek Orthodox Church.  Father Anastasios is always wearing long black robes and this week I asked him what they symbolised.  He said that the black robes are a sign that he is one of the living dead, he has died to this world.

He told me that the balance to this symbol of death in, his black robes, are the ornate and beautiful robes that he wears when he leads worship.  These robes symbolise his new relationship with God in Christ: new life sharing in the coming kingdom.

Maybe we as Christians we need to recover something of the dying to this life a bit more seriously, wearing the black robes, as we seek to find the joy and draw from the wells of salvation.

The endurance that Jesus’ speaks of suggests a discipline is required if we are to live our risen life now.  And the hope, for me, is that as we pursue living the risen life more earnestly we will discover joy as we draw the water from the wells of salvation.

I suspect many people who voted, for either Trump or Clinton, thought that they were voting for their salvation, by which I mean that they were voting for a better life for themselves. 

We live in a society that has elevated individual rights and an assumption about personal entitlement to an unhealthy level.  We are consummate consumers – this is our culture looming large into our faith and life.

But the prophecy of Isaiah and I believe the coming of Jesus whilst having a personal element ultimately aims at a corporate salvation.  Isaiah declares that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth.  In his letter to the Colossians Paul says of Jesus that he is reconciling all things to himself.

So, here are a five thoughts for you to ponder as we hear the sounds of the crumbling stones of our Temple of faith, ways that we might both endure to gain our lives and draw from the wells of salvation.  These five points are based in four sentences from our readings today:

The first trust: to have faith in God’s grace no matter what is happening.  Isaiah declares, “I will trust, and will not be afraid.”  Deepen your relationship with God through prayer, spiritual reading and spiritual direction.

Second, hope: “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”  Participate in the life of the worshipping community.  Not simply by coming on a Sunday but by building relationships with the people here.  Care for one another, encourage one another, uphold one another in prayer.

Third, gratefulness: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name.”  Contemplate with gratitude what you do have and considering carefully how to live more simply in an age of consumption.  Say grace when you share a meal, give thanks for what you do have rather than lament for what you do not have.

Fourth, share the faith: Isaiah instructs that the people “make known God’s deeds.”  This is about a deep conviction that what we believe and experience in God’s love is for everyone.  Jesus sent the disciples to make disciples of all nations.  Share your faith

And finally, generosity and justice: “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” The scriptures are constantly expressing concern for the widow, and the orphan.  We might extrapolate and extend that to the disenfranchised, the refugee, the sick, the suffering, the poor, the persecuted, the mourning and the list could go on.  To do what is right is to see the problems of the world and of people’s lives and respond in love and generosity.

Drinking joyfully at the well of salvation gives us refreshment in our faith and as we enter into the spiritual disciples of prayer, worship, community, faith sharing and service we are prepared for our endurance and discover what it means to live, to really live.

At the centre of our faith is not a building, not an institution, but a person – the person of Jesus who is, as Paul says the pioneer and perfector of our faith.  We do not save ourselves but rather we drink at the wells of salvation.  In the challenging days of this age, as with every age that has gone before, whatever is happening, whatever we are encountering or experiencing trust in God and with joy and endurance follow Jesus who lead us into life.   

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