BE PREPARED TO FORGIVE AND BE FORGIVEN: a narrative sermon based on Genesis 32 and 33
Into middle age I had reached what you might call the crossroads of my life. I remember it well. Let me tell you the story…
Twenty years or more before I had left home under the cover of darkness – my mother had helped me escape from a home life which was in turmoil, and from my twin brother who had sworn he would tear me limb from limb; he wanted to kill me.
All these years later, I think, who could blame him?!
From the day we were born I had been lying and stealing and cheating. Deceiver was my name.
I had cheated my (older) brother out of what was rightfully his, and I had dreadfully deceived my aged - and almost blind - father by stealing his blessing. I had made a fool out of my brother, a mockery of brotherhood, and a sham of family.
Such actions really summed up everything about me: anything to get ahead, the means justified the end; I would plan and scheme and lie: anything to get my God-given desserts. I swore oaths to my father’s God. I would never keep them…
I would neither wait nor pray...
I had expected that the dust would settle; that my mother would get word to me that that brother of mine was no longer hot with anger and had forgotten the horrible things I had done to him, and the disgrace I had brought to the family. But the years wore on and there was no word, no relief; no chance of getting home.
Every day I would scan the wilderness around me in fear of that moment when my brother, the outdoorsman/hunter, would find me at last and take his revenge. Every day I feared the arrival of my brother.
I was still afraid, of course, but 20 years does a lot to change a man. I had found work, though I have to say that it was really hard labour. My boss, my father-in-law was a hard task-master and in him I had found someone who was an ever bigger cheat and liar than me!
Still, I knew that the Lord God (the God of my ancestors) had really prospered me; my flocks had grown and so had my family. After all, he had promised me wealth. I was still frightened of my brother, but strange things had happened in my life, things that made me more aware of God, more fearful of God even than of my brother.
God had always turned up with his angels or given me special indications of how much he loved me, especially when I was on the run – on the run from myself, my responsibilities – on the run from him, the LORD! Wherever I had pitched my tent, the angels of God were always close at hand. There are countless places across the land where I have raised rocky altars to God who helped me, only to forget him soon after…
I was beginning to realise that the LORD is quicker and stronger and wiser than I had ever given him credit for. Only days earlier I had been alone in a dark borderland and a man – a strange and strong man, an angel from God - came to me and we wrestled together all throughout the night until the sun spread its early rays over the river, illuminating the land of my birth…
I knew that the man was God, though he wouldn’t tell me his name; and yet I live to tell the tale! It left me with a curious feeling: somehow I felt stronger, but in another way, I remember feeling bruised, knowing a weakness that I had never known.
I’m not sure if I like that feeling very much, to tell you the truth!
That wrestling match left me with a torn ligament; I got it as I clung to the man for dear life. The man told me that I had prevailed against him, but I knew differently; I was left with a blessing, and a new name, and a painful, lasting reminder; he left in good shape and in his own time – and on his own terms.
It’s was not only my ligament that was torn: I was torn between a desire to avoid my older, stronger brother – wanting to run away - and an inescapable sense that one day we would have to come face-to-face again: that I would have to face up to what I had done, and who I had become. The man said he would give me his blessings if I admitted to him who I really was. There is no blessing – not without confessing!
I was beginning to acknowledge that I needed to tell my brother I was sorry, to ask my brother for forgiveness; I knew that the past would catch up with me, so I sent some gifts to my brother to soften the blow, to appease him if he was still angry.
Even though not long before I had been locked in an embrace with God, I remember the terrible fear that finally gripped me as I made out my brother in the distance coming towards me. There were hundreds of men with him – all coming to exact the revenge of an ill-treated brother. Tell me you wouldn’t have been terrified at that prospect!
Tell me that your own conscience wouldn’t have been troubling you. Tell me you wouldn’t have turned and ran for your life!
I wish I could tell you that by that time in my life (after all that exile) I had turned over a completely new leaf, but I was still up to my old tricks – plan first and pray second – ever the strategist, me!
Even when cornered as I was like an animal awaiting the predator – still thinking on my feet – so I put my favourite women and children at the back out of immediate harm. I blamed this sort of action on the family – you might call it dysfunctional or even ungodly – but in our home there were always favourites: I was the Mummy’s boy, my brother – he could do nothing wrong in the eyes of our father.
But I can see that God must have begun to wrestle some sense into me at last, because I went ahead of everyone – I did something brave and new for the first time in my life. I put others (ranked as they were) before me, their safety before my own; these women and children were not to blame for the consequences of a greedy, self-serving life.
Perhaps I was prepared to die to save them.
My sins were finding me out. I bowed to the ground, not once but seven times, as the muscular (even hairier) man came hurtling towards me, the dust concealing his face.
It’s strange what goes through your mind at times like that: would they think that my bowing down was good old Jacob pulling another one of his legendary stunts? But at that moment thoughts of the man and the wrestling match came as if to strengthen and comfort me; I recalled that I had been given the new name of Israel – the one who wrestles with God: not that I deserved the appellation! This was not me!
And now I had nowhere else to run.
And why would my brother be running? Men round our way don’t run like this, not even into battle! He must want the taste of my blood, surely! He wants to make good that promise to kill me. I crouched and flinched, my heart pounded in the driest throat – I waited for the death blow to fall on me…
But there he was: my big, simple, hairy brother reaching down and picking me up, and holding me in powerful but gentle arms (the hardened hands of a hunter) – and then weeping out the tears of 20 or more years.
Could it be that I was again wrapped in the gracious embrace of God? God was here with me again, and in this lined and sun-cracked face I not only saw Esau, but I saw the face of God – and again I had lived to tell the tale. How can it be that I can see the image of God in this worldly boy? He’s more like the God of our fathers than I’ll ever be!
The kiss of forgiveness! I am forgiven! He blesses me when I stole his blessing! He forgives me when it is I who needs his forgiveness! He must take the presents I have brought before him, even though God has given him everything and more than he ever needed.
In my shame I remembered how I had kicked and scratched and crawled my way to the top, and did all I could to prevent Esau from having what was his, and yet he didn’t need them. He was a gracious brother, for he took the gifts anyway – he knew I had to forgive him too…
As I look back, perhaps I would have done things differently: perhaps, instead of material gifts, it would have been enough to simply say, “Brother, forgive me for the things I have done!”
Forgiveness – there is no greater blessing!
Perhaps I did no more than wave the flag of submission. It would have been better to have talked, rather than to have let him go his own way again.
But that’s me, Jacob, and all the years of my life have been few and painful.
As I approach the end of that life I marvel at the kindness of God (a kindness I don’t deserve); it is a thing most wonderful that he has shown himself to me over and over again; I wonder will I ever learn to trust this God, my God and believe that all of my strength and success really comes from him ultimately?
This God, I have discovered is the God of grace. The Fear of Jacob! And the Rock of Israel!
Now I can teach my children to grapple with God, too and:
‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ (28:15)
Now I can cross the river and go into the land promised to my ancestors and promised to me!
A reflection on John 8: 1-11:
It was near the end of the harvest festival. The corn and the wine had been gathered in. This year had been more special than most. The public had been generous in their alms-giving to this Jerusalem beggar. I thanked the God of heaven for his blessing. Although my sight was not what it once was I still enjoyed the gala in this sylvan city where (for about a week) roofs and courtyards still wore their beautiful greens of myrtle, citron, willow and palm trees. Today the decorations would come down.
Beggars see many things and I had seen him earlier in the week, coming and going away quietly unseen – even as they whispered, “Where is that man?” And, for that matter, “who is that man?”
Everywhere the sound of singing of psalms, the laughter of little ones and around the temple courts little groups of people sitting and listening to the Rabbis teaching and debating about God’s law.
I had seen and heard most of the teachers and some of them were worth listening to; when I got tired I would move on. But over the last few days I had felt drawn to sit in the crowds which Jesus of Nazareth drew in such great numbers. I was not alone in being amazed at his words; we wanted to know what the authorities would do with and when they would act – perhaps after the festivities had ended. Jesus had been provoking them long enough; all this talk about being sent from God, quoting chapter and verse!
The chatter in the crowd that morning had ceased and, as usual, you could hear a pin drop.
The silence of early morning was broken and from afar we could hear, “Adulteress! We have caught her in the act! Shame on her!” We heard the woman screaming, crying out in terror and suddenly (I could not say how many they were) the sight of men dragging a woman before us, she kicking out and cursing them…
Then they hurled her with such violence to the ground, like a beast to the marketplace for slaughter. Through the dust and over the shrieks of, “Stone the woman! She is an adulteress! She must be stoned to death as the law requires!” – through all of that we saw this trembling wretch of a woman; she clung to what was left of her torn clothing; I noticed her feet without shoes, and the way the blood-stained tears had streaked her face; dark eyes barely visible from 2 sinkholes, her hair a darkened matt.
“Teacher, this woman was arrested as she was committing adultery – in the very act. In the law Moses enjoined us to stone women like this. What do you say about her?”
I have to confess to a feeling of excitement at the spectacle. This was a good way to end Tabernacles! I’m a Jew, of course, and all Jews know that a Jew must die before he will commit idolatry, murder or adultery; it was a grave sin; surely the woman she knows this herself and deserves to die, I thought - and I would be able to witness another stoning. It was a fact of life! I’m a beggar. And, after all, the Pharisees and the Scribes knew their Law so much better than the rest of us!
What would this man known for his teaching of God’s love and mercy do now? What would the friend of sinners make of this? As you say, he was on the horns of a dilemma! I remember thinking, “Rather him than me!” I was never that sure of him anyway; how could a man get such learning without having studied the Law; who was he to tell the chief priests that none of them knew how to keep the law?! He’s another dreamer taking his chance…
We waited with baited breath. We waited for the fight. The men waited eagerly, snarling with venom, teeth clenched – ready for war – ready for the young Rabbi to make his next move, ready for him to break the law he claimed to know so well. Some pointed their fingers at the woman, some at the young teacher; some (if not all) holding stones in a hand.
Instead he simply, slowly stooped down and wrote with his finger in the dust of the ground. I strained to see if I could see what he had written. Why is he doing this? Is he ignoring them, hoping they will go away? Perhaps he is trapped and doesn’t know what to say! I noticed how people in the crowd leered with lust at the woman in her near nakedness, or how they snarled in hatred - and how Jesus had alone averted his gaze from the woman. For a moment I caught myself enjoying the view!
“Come on, give us your answer! This woman was caught in the very act of adultery and we are charged as guardians of the precious Law of Moses to see that the letter of the law is obeyed! Now, should we stone the woman or not?”
I noticed the stray stones strewn on the ground. Everywhere you looked there was a stone – enough, certainly, to see that the law was done. Without thinking I picked up a small stone and felt its weight in my hand.
All eyes were fixed on Jesus as he rubbed away what he had written in the sand…
And then the Nazarene stood, unbending, to his full height, and said (with calm assurance), “Let the man among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at this woman!”
He was saying, “Alright, then, go ahead and stone her, but only if, in all conscience and in all honesty you can say you have never wanted to do the same thing yourself!”
The feast had ended there for me. Men looked at other men; and men looked at themselves, and there fell silence in the street.
In a moment which felt like an eternity, I remembered that the Law required that there be at least 2 eye-witnesses to the very act of adultery. I pictured the men gathering with glee to witness those guilty pleasures. How long did they peer through a neighbour’s window? (How long would I have peered through it?) How filled with lust were those men? Were they not as bad; were they not adulterers in their hearts? Had the act been completed before they intervened?
These grim investigators had brought the woman into our midst as an object of shame. If these men were anything like me, they left in the silence of their own shame; their own hypocrisy It is not the woman they want to bring down, I reasoned; nor was it the law they wanted to uphold. Like me, it is Jesus who they really wanted.
I looked at my own hand and noticed again the rock clenched into my fist and I dropped the stone and heard its gentle thud at my feet. I looked at my index finger (the one we point with) and saw three other fingers curled and pointed in the opposite direction – pointed at me!
The men left and, along with them, most of the crowd – some muttering, others silent and thoughtful perhaps. I saw the stones on the ground; they formed a circle around the woman who had now come to her feet and approached the teacher…
I stayed to see what happened next: I watched them as they were alone – the breaker of laws and I had to concede the maker of them; the only one who did not hold a stone in his hand, but the only one who was qualified to condemn her by throwing one! He had stood up for her: “has no-one condemned you? He asked. Timid words say, “No one sir”.
I often wonder what happened to that woman on the last day of Tabernacles…
Had she learned some of the things that I had learned that day?
That day I learned that Jesus was right all along, not only about the experts who accused him publically but about people like me who in the secret chambers of their hearts harboured thoughts of vengeance and murder and even dare I say, lust and adultery too. “Do not judge!” And I had judged: in my minds’ eye I had hurled heavy rocks at a woman whom I had never met before.
That day (and for many days afterwards) I heard the wise King saying, “Don’t pick on people, jump all over them because of their failures; and point your finger at them because of their fault: don’t do it unless, of course you want to same treatment as well! That critical spirit of yours will have a way of backfiring you!”
That day I saw the plank in my own eye; I saw how it was in the nature of men (and I am one of them) to see and discriminate in the affairs of others much better than in my own!
That day I saw what God is really like. We all know that God abhors sin but few of us really understand the depth of his grace and love;
“Neither do I condemn you, woman; go now; you are free and sin no more”. No sermon, no lesson, no stoning for her.
I think Jesus was right. The men didn’t love God; they didn’t know him. They could not see their guilt.
The woman left and she turned and looked back at Jesus; I am sure I saw her mouth the same words that were on my lips, “Thank you Jesus for saving me!” Had she learned what I had learned on that last day of the feast? I rather think that she had!
And, although we never spoke (the Rabbi and I) and, though I am confident that he had always known I was there in the crowd, I do know that he forgave me, a poor beggar who knew that day he had met with the kind wisdom and authority and the amazing grace of God…
O happy day that fixed my choice!
Peter and John heal the paralytic
We will be looking at this story today from three different points of view – that of the man who was healed, a person in the crowd and Peter and John. First we hear from the paralysed man: -
The paralysed man
“For me it started as just another day, begging by the Beautiful Gate. I was used to watching everyone going into the Temple for prayers and me being left outside. It was a good place for begging – lots of people wanting to show how pious they were, ostentatiously giving me money. It was all I could hope for having been crippled since birth. I never thought life could or would be any different for me.
I called out to the two men that I’d seen a few times going into the Temple, and they stopped and looked at me. It looked hopeful, and then the big man said that they had no silver or gold. So I lost interest in them. But then he said he did have something for me. Well they had nothing else with them so what could they give me? He looked straight into my eyes – it seemed like he looked right into my soul. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” he said. He took me by the hand and without even thinking what was happening to me I stood up. I stood for the very first time in my life; my legs weren’t bent and crippled any more, but strong. I realised that I had been healed.
How could that have happened with just those few words? I figured it could only have come straight from God. I had heard of the man Jesus going about healing people but I was always stuck in the same spot and never in the right place to get anywhere near him to be healed. But I thought people had said that he had died – been crucified by the Romans. And now here was I being healed by a man just telling me in his name to walk! I just had to praise God. A miracle had happened to me. I couldn’t stop walking and jumping around and telling anyone who would listen that I had been healed.
Somehow it felt like it was more than just my legs that had been made better. I felt like a different person somehow. I was whole now. Of course my life would be very different now – no more sitting begging at the gate. I could be a useful person now. I thought I needed money from these men, but they had given me a whole new life instead by healing me.
I wasn’t really prepared for the inquisition from the priests and authorities that followed. I mean I didn’t really understand exactly how it had happened. I just knew I had been healed and that it must have come from God. But they didn’t like it when I said that it was in the name of Jesus – that was what seemed to trouble them most.
It might have upset the priests but I wanted to know more about this Jesus whose name was powerful enough to heal me. Peter (that was the big man’s name) spoke to the crowd that gathered and told them about Jesus – that yes he had died, but he had been raised to life again, and if we wanted to follow him we should repent and be baptised. Well I certainly wanted to follow someone who could do that for me. He said that I had the faith to get up and walk when he told me to, and I wanted to put my faith in Jesus now.”
A person in the crowd
“I wasn’t really paying much attention that day; I was lost in thought. I had been in the crowds that had followed Jesus of Nazareth when he had been teaching and healing people around the area where I lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem. A lot of what he had said had made a lot of sense to me and you couldn’t deny that loads of people had been healed by him just touching them – or even sometimes if they just touched his cloak. The daughter of a friend of mine had been given her sight back by Jesus and he was sure that it must be from God. Jesus had said that we not only needed to be healed physically, but that our hearts needed to be healed too. We couldn’t earn our way to heaven by good acts and following all the law like the priests and Pharisees said we had to do. Well as a good Jew I had been trying to do all that and it seemed that wasn’t enough.
But then the Romans had crucified Jesus just before the Passover, so it seemed that would be the end of everything – maybe he was just another healer and nothing more than that. I was confused, because I was really attracted to what Jesus had been saying and had been really thinking about my life after hearing what he had said. Just the other day I people had been saying that they had heard some of Jesus’ disciples preaching about him being raised from the dead by God. And not only that, they had been preaching to lots of people from different countries in their own languages. It seemed that they had received something called the ‘Holy Spirit’ that Jesus had promised them, and that this had enabled them to speak different languages and they had been healing people just like Jesus had done.
As I got near to the Temple, there was a crowd of people and I could see a man jumping around saying that he had been healed by God. He looked like a crippled man that I had sometimes seen sitting begging at the gate. A big man was talking to the crowd about Jesus of Nazareth. Well it seemed like the ideal opportunity to find out for myself a bit more about what had happened to Jesus, so I forgot about going to the Temple for prayers and stopped to listen. He said that the man had been crippled but he had been healed by faith in the name of Jesus. The Jews had handed Jesus over to the Romans to be killed, but God had raised him from the dead and he and the other disciples had actually seen him and witnessed that he was alive again. Jesus was working through his disciples now to heal people, and we should put our faith in Jesus and repent of our sins and be baptised in the name of Jesus.
It reminded me of the things that I had heard Jesus say to the crowds and that had got me thinking so much recently about my life. I had sometimes noticed the crippled man sitting beside the gate to the Temple, so I knew that it was true that he had been healed and that miracles were happening again. The man speaking said that the prophets had foretold long ago that the Christ would have to suffer and die, and he said that Jesus had fulfilled all these prophecies. Hearing him say this, I knew that the Romans crucifying Jesus hadn’t been the end for him and I knew now with certainty that I wanted to trust what he was saying and do what he said. The man who had been healed was absolutely certain that his healing came from God and I wanted the healing in my life that Jesus had spoken about – healing in my heart.
Peter and John
(John speaks first) “This particular afternoon, we were going up to the Temple for prayers, and as we walked past, a crippled man who was sitting there begging called out to us asking us for money. Admittedly, we probably wouldn’t have given him a second look if he hadn’t called out to us. It wasn’t that we were not sorry for the poor, but we didn’t have the monetary means to help them, and of course if you helped one you really felt that you should help them all.
Anyway when he called out to us we stopped and both looked straight at him. Peter told him to look at us, which he did, obviously expecting us to give him some money. When Peter said that we didn’t have any silver or gold, the man’s face fell and he started to look away, but Peter went on to say that he did have something to give him. He perked up a bit at that, but looked puzzled as if he couldn’t think what else could possibly be of any use to a crippled beggar. Peter told him to look at us, in a voice that had a new kind of authority in it. I think Peter was the one of us that had been the most changed by what had happened after the resurrection and then so very recently at Pentecost, when we had received the Holy Spirit. He always had been the one that took charge, but this was different now. He wasn’t the brash man that he had been before, but now seemed to have a natural authority without raising his voice at all. People listened when he spoke – we had seen that when he addressed the crowds at Pentecost.
When he had the man’s full attention, Peter said simply to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” and took him by the hand and helped him to his feet. When he said this I was reminded of the time when all twelve of us had been sent out by Jesus, and given His authority to drive out evil spirits and heal every kind of disease. We had all experienced what it was like to heal people in Jesus’ name. I knew that the man would be instantly healed because Peter had said that he was doing it in the name of Jesus. I had done it myself, and we had already seen after Pentecost that we could once again heal people using Jesus’ name and in His power. Since we couldn’t give the man money, the obvious thing to do for him was to heal him so that he could earn a living instead of begging.”
Peter says “Looking at the man sitting there with his legs twisted and useless, I felt a strong sense of compassion for him. I remembered back to when we had been going around the countryside with Jesus, and how he had always had compassion on people, however tired he had felt, and had taken pity on them and healed them. Since Jesus’ resurrection, we disciples had spent a lot of time with Jesus, and he had told us how important healing was to his mission on earth. Of course a lot of people had just followed him to get healed and had not taken on board the rest of his teaching about living the kingdom life and trusting God and repenting of their sins. Jesus had explained a lot of things to us, especially the fact that healing is a whole person thing. OK so there are of course the visible signs of the person being healed – being able to walk or see or hear when they couldn’t, but there is also the spiritual side of it too. As Jesus said to the teachers of the law when he had healed a paralysed man who was lowered down through the roof on a mat, “Which is easier, to say to him ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or ‘Take up your mat and go home.’” The healing is a part of changing the whole person, and forgiveness is an important aspect of this.
Jesus had explained to us when we asked him, that a man he had healed had not been born blind because of the sin of his parents, but so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. His faith in Jesus’ ability to heal him had led to his healing. Faith is another important part of the message. Jesus had even commended a Roman centurion for his faith, when he had said that Jesus did not need to go to his home, but if Jesus only said the word he knew that his servant would be healed.
When I said to the paralysed man, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” I could see from the look on his face that he didn’t doubt that he would be able to walk if he tried. He held my hand when I offered it to him, and I knew he would be able to get up and walk straight away. What was really good to see was that the first thing he did was to give God the glory for his healing. If only more people were like him and recognised that it is God that heals them and we are just the tools that he uses. But people do need to have the faith that they can be healed.
The message that Jesus tried to get across and we are still trying to pass on is that it’s not only people’s bodies that need to be healed, it’s their minds and their souls. I tried to tell the people that crowded around us after the man had been healed, that Jesus had to die on the cross so that their sins could be forgiven. It had been foretold by the prophets long ago that the Messiah would suffer for the sins of the people, and that God would raise Him from death to life. We disciples were witnesses of the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead, and we called on the people to accept the forgiveness that comes from putting their trust in Him.”
In conclusion, Jesus still heals today, sometimes miraculously, but more usually through the use of modern medicine and the God-given skills of surgeons and doctors. I recall many years ago when my father had a heart attack and was in hospital in Miami, that the doctor was told that many people in the church back home were praying for him. The doctor said to my mother, “Well I’ve done all I can, the rest is up to God”. My father made a full recovery from that heart attack, and the doctor openly acknowledged that it was the prayers that had led to the healing. When this happens, we need to remember that just as we have prayed for a person’s healing, so we should give thanks to God for their recovery. Remember the paralytic’s first act – to praise God for his healing.
But just as there is total healing for some there is another kind of healing that is just as valuable – this is the healing of our minds. Sometimes complete healing does not come to us, but God can heal our minds and attitudes and enable us to deal with the physical symptoms that are not always taken away from us. The way we deal with illness can show a lot about our Christian life. We need to trust in the Lord’s goodness and grace to be with us in the difficult times and help us through them. Sometimes physical illness can be a symptom of what is going on in our lives in the spiritual realm, and we need to come to the Lord and ask him to show us where our attitudes need to be changed and where we need to ask for forgiveness.
God is into holistic healing – he wants our whole being to be healed and transformed by him. What we need is the faith to ask for forgiveness and cleansing from him, and the strength to cope with all that we are going through in a way that honours God through our lives. God will hear and answer these prayers in the way that He knows is best for us.
Ascension Sunday Reflection, Acts 1: 1-14…
These are the reflections of an un-named disciple during the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus Christ:
“We needed no persuading that he was dead – very dead. He had come, shone brightly for a while. And then he was gone. What they did to him, crucifying him; what most of us didn’t have the nerve to witness - was terrible indeed.
We knew grief beyond words - as if the deepest and heaviest and blackest cloud had descended upon us and would engulf us for an eternity. A feeling known to those who have lost the one they loved the most in the world, ever; the feeling known to those who are left and left behind.
But we wouldn’t forget him. How could we? After all we had spent 3 fantastic years in the company of a beautiful soul – a wonderful teacher, a friend; a King who wore his royal robes lightly and loved his ‘subjects’; a priest with whom you could share your shameful secrets and yet still feel valued and clean; the Prophet who spoke God’s words; the man who smiled God’s smile and did the things that only God could do.
We would remember the good times. Our wounds would heal in time and we would bask in the memories. The tears would dry up in time. We would collect his best sayings into a book and erect a memorial stone. We would gather on special days and hope, with the passing years that we might find some reason to carry on; and that we would remember what he looked like and still be able to hear his voice. These are the things we do for the great and good aren’t they? The things we do for kings and the ones we miss when they are gone…
These were the things we thought to ourselves behind the closed doors of the room he had filled only days before….
He was a lovely man…
I suppose that’s how it is for some people when they think about Jesus: he was…
And so words do not nor can they ever truly describe what it was like for us in those first forty days when we discovered; not that he was – but that he is…He could have simply disappeared in a puff of smoke. Instead he presented himself to us. He appeared to us…
You’ll excuse me, I’m sure; if I give voice to our doubts or admit that we worried that what we were seeing was some phantom or some figment of our fertile, fevered imaginations. We are people like you, given to fear and fright and doubt and surprise. At times we struggled to believe the evidence of our eyes – out of pure, unbridled, off-the-charts joy! Joy beyond words…
But what I can say with the benefit of hindsight and experience is that, over forty days, he gave us each what we needed – convincing proof that he was alive. Alive!!
The same Master; but more glorious than before – if such a thing were possible to imagine! He had come back to us – just as he said he would. Things that made no real sense to us back then - now we could begin to see them.
We shouldn’t have doubted his word but we did.
We shouldn’t have needed convincing proofs but we did!
And so, on that first day of the week he came to Mary and the women in the garden – and turned her tears of loss to ones of joy, then to Peter and John and then to us – out of nowhere – past locked doors, to breathe on us, to bless us and give us his peace; I touched his wrists and side; he was dead and now – here he is - he is alive - and he breathed on us and we knew…
When he was needed the master came to the companions walking on the road; they didn’t know him at first but he gradually opened their hearts and minds to the scriptures – he opened their eyes and they recognised him in the breaking of bread;
‘...I will come to you. After a while the world will behold me no more, but you will behold me. Because I live you too shall live. In that day......you shall know...experience...that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.’
‘Don’t you know that the Christ (I) had to suffer and die and on the third day enter his glory?’
He (the Risen Lord) took breakfast on the beach with our desolate Peter and restored a friend to his rightful mind; he appeared to Thomas a week later and dispelled his doubts…
‘You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy…just as the woman forgets the anguish of childbirth when the fruit of her labour comes in to the world; and no one will take away your joy…’
And we remembered his words…
I think, maybe, this is how God works: he works in us over time, revealing his purposes; piece-by-piece, day-by-day unveiling his person and his plan;
Like babies in need of a parents’ reassuring love we still needed a lot of convincing…
we ‘pinched ourselves’ a lot back then – we laughed and played and ‘whooped’ like children who had thrown off their school clothes at the end of term…and run into the world of endless possibilities…
This would be the holiday (a working holiday) where he instructed us. It didn’t take him long to start preparing us, albeit gradually, to live a life and serve in Him and in His power – but a life in which the bones and flesh of him we loved were no longer visible, touchable…
‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ Because you love me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…
He said to us, “You will Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned…”
And repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised…
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
Since you love and believe me, you’ll do as I ask. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…
Don’t worry about the future, what you are to say and do – where to find the strength…
You must wait here. Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.
As the days of spring went by- and all too quickly - we heard him say, ‘Let me go!’
We didn’t want to. But we gathered on the mount where we had been many times before. We needed no convincing that he was alive and he would be forever more; or that all he had said was the truth – that God would make good all his promises.
It didn’t make the jagged saw of goodbye any easier to bear as we watched, this time in stunned belief, as the King rose on the cloud to heaven, arms as ever stretched out in perpetual blessing, gradually going from our sight but not gone – never gone.
I needed no convincing that I would see him again. I needed no convincing that God is…
I went with my fellows - We descended, we tumbled, down the hillside to the temple where we met and gave thanks to the ascended one in the strains of a psalm:
“The Lord wears light like a royal robe;
it dazzles those who gaze upon the Lord.
The whole world is God’s royal throne;
like a sapphire, it shines in the darkness of space.
The earth has been God’s home from the beginning;
before time began, God was there.
A river in flood laughs at dykes and sandbags.
Its banks cannot contain it;
it sweeps trees and homes along like dust.
As thundering waters dominate a valley,
so God dominates this planet.
But God is greater than any flood,
greater than the surf that pounds a rocky shore into sand.
For acts of God are not at random;
God rules with justice and fairness,
and makes the whole earth holy.
Hear, oh earth!
The Lord, the Lord alone, is God.
Now, and forever”
We still (like you) had a ton of unanswered questions. But…
We need no convincing, now - that He is…
He is - Seated at the right hand of the Father, enthroned in power
He is - Interceding, giving succour, sympathizing, sending his Spirit, saving to the uttermost
That he will return on the clouds as he went – in the company of angels - with a shout and the sound of trumpets!
We would need to invitation to call out -
Hear, oh earth!
The Lord, the Lord alone, is God.
Now, and forever”
A Reflection: Nicodemus reflecting on his conversation with Jesus – based on John 3: 1-18
“I was at the very top of the tree in all matters social and religious.
A member of the esteemed council the Sanhedrin.
Regarded (with good cause) as an eminent teacher of in Israel, my opinions counted and often my vote was the casting one. My words, often quoted as law when disputes were to be settled. And how I enjoyed hearing my words when they came from the mouths of disciples, my students sitting at my feet…I even enjoyed the respect of our oppressors, the Romans…
Until that time I confess to having enjoyed the view from the top. But gradually and imperceptibly I began to feel a little disappointed; and sometimes as if I were losing my way in the world and, to my shame, in the ways of God, not that I would admit this to any man. Nicodemus - stumbling in the dark…
But I think that the Nazarene knew. We had never talked, this Jesus and I; it would have seemed unfitting for a man of my rank and reputation to confer with his sort. Although quite what sort he was I did not know. But still, I knew I needed this audience with the Nazarene…
For perhaps 3 years the young man had intrigued me with his words and the works which I knew must have had the blessing of God. Water turned into wine, God’s words fashioned to open the eyes of simple folk! How often I would test His words against those of God and find them impossible to separate. Intrigued and unnerved – I would look away in his presence, strangely, and then sneaking a sideways glance I would see a tiny smile in the eyes which said, “Nicodemus, one day soon we both know we will have to meet!”
In fact, it was one night when we met. I left the family sleeping, hid under my cloak and made my way through the backstreets to the place where I knew he was staying. I could barely hear my footsteps on the stones of Jerusalem over the pounding of my heart. I flinched nervously at the thought that I might be seen, and searched out the darker corners all the while rehearsing what I might say when finally we met.
I would like to say that my curiosity had got the better of me, but really it was my conscience. Nights without sleep - when all I could hear were his words – “…men prefer the darkness over the light; men prefer the praise of other men…"
”Yes, the world’s empty glory was costing me too dear!
And, earlier that day, he had turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple courtyard. We knew it was wrong. That took courage! “What’s good for business is good for the Temple” we reasoned together in council meetings. Buying and selling in God’s house had always bothered me - but not enough to act. I would turn a blind eye. A blind-guide! Perhaps he was right!
My heart had been turned over like one of those tables and my thoughts had flown off in every direction like the pigeons and doves that he freed. It was like seeing the cleansing wrath of God before our very eyes; exciting, terrifying; that sense that a light was here which we had all wanted to bask in one day. He called the Temple his Father’s House…he was right! Majesty.
I came to the place where he was staying. He smiled. He greeted me with warmth. He had been expecting me. He was alone, the house empty. I stood on the balcony overlooking the darkening city. I had come armed, armed with my credentials, with my great schooling, armed even in the fine garments which I wore.
I noticed a tasteful cloak hung over the back of a chair. He wore a simple tunic which did not conceal the dust of the day. I came heavily armed but he disarmed me. I thought I would engage him in a battle but in moments the battle was lost. He was the true teacher. I felt like one of my students! He offered me water, as if he knew that my tongue was tied to roof of my mouth!
He spoke the language of heaven. I couldn’t help looking to the heavens (to the stars) and then back at him; somehow I sensed he and the heavens went well together…
“Nicodemus all your privileges count for nothing unless you are born from above. You think you can see, but without this you will never see the kingdom. You must allow God to break in… You must be born again!”
I shook my head in consternation…
Then – looking to the trees…
“You know how the wind blows this way and that? You hear it even now, Nicodemus my friend; rustling in the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it is headed next. This is the way it is with everyone who is born from above, by the wind of God, by the Spirit. You must be born again!”
And then he spoke of the son of man being lifted up and that if I looked to him, that if I trusted and expected I would see the light and receive eternal life. The words of heaven, they were falling upon the dull ears of an earthly man…
Could this be Him?! Again I looked at the tunic and wondered if, when he embraced me as I left, I had touched the garment of God’s anointed one. I wondered if, feeling the calloused hands of a wood-worker, I had taken hold of the very hand of God. I wondered if I had seen heaven’s gate before me, beckoning me to walk through into the kingdom I could not quite see.
I remember another day, darker even than that first night. A rich red robe was swept away by a sudden gust of wind. Heavenly words Jesus spoke to me only months before formed in my mind, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
Joseph of Arimathea - and I - lifted his body down from the cross.
And God spoke by his Spirit the words of the prophet Isaiah:“His appearance was so disfigured, beyond that of any man, and his form marred beyond human likeness…Despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, like one from whom men hide their faces…Pierced for our transgressions…”
As we went with the body to the tomb:
“He was assigned a grave with the wicked and with the rich in his death.”
“Nicodemus, for God so loved you that he gave his one and only Son that when you believe in him you will not perish, but will have eternal life.”
The sun was going down in the garden but I knew that I could never really hide in the shadows again. Words like glowing embers that had blown onto my heart one night in Jerusalem were beginning to burn like a fire - "You must be born again!"
And on that wind I heard the prophet’s word:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will take away your stony heart and replace it with one of flesh….”
That wind Jesus had spoken of was blowing!
Nicodemus – you are born again… "