Exodus Explored #1

History is essential to Christian faith. If the history narrated in the Bible didn’t happen, then faith is not even a comforting story – it is a cruel deception. In times such as we are living through now, we need to know whether God acts in history or not. If he doesn’t, then prayer counts for nothing and we are on our own.

In my previous post I explored Matthew’s account of the star of Bethlehem, pointing to astronomical evidence that the star was a real celestial event at the time of Jesus’ birth.

That was the New Testament. Here, now, is an example from the Old Testament where historical truth is contested: the exodus of Israel from Egypt. Many scholars don’t believe that it happened as the Bible tells it, or even that it happened at all. One reason for this is that archaeologists can’t find evidence in the ground for the conquest of Canaan described in the book of Joshua. The book of Joshua describes the wholesale destruction of Canaanite cities within a fairly short period. But, according to the experts, there is no evidence of this.

At least, there’s no evidence for this destruction at the time presumed by the conventional dating system. But supposing the conventional dating system is wrong? There are scholars – Egyptologists and others – who believe the conventional dating system for the ancient world is wrong by two or three hundred years. This is highly controversial. But looking at a different time for evidence of the exodus produces some interesting results.

Tim Mahoney is an American film-maker who has made several films exploring the historical truth or otherwise of the exodus account in the Bible. One of his key sources is an Egyptologist named David Rohl. Rohl is one of a number of scholars (see here and here) who question the conventional chronology of the ancient world. Rohl is an agnostic – he has no religious axe to grind. But, in the light of his research into ancient world chronology, he has come to believe the Old Testament should be taken much more seriously as history than many scholars do.

Looking at the account of the exodus and its sequel in the Old Testament, Mahoney develops the following framework as the key sequence of events. He calls it a “pattern of evidence”. He asks: does this “pattern of evidence” show up somewhere else in the history of Egypt? If it does, should this not be taken seriously as possible evidence of the exodus?

Here is the framework:

  1. Arrival of the family of Jacob in Egypt (a Semitic people who can be distinguished from native Egyptians in culture and appearance)
  2. Multiplication of these Semites to the point where they become a threat to the Egyptians
  3. Slavery: a sudden decline in the health and wealth of this Semitic population
  4. Judgment: the Egyptian state overcome by sudden catastrophe
  5. Exodus: sudden departure of the Semitic population
  6. Conquest: destruction of several Canaanite cities (Jericho, Hazor etc) in a short time frame

Arrival

Rohl and others cite the following evidence of the arrival of a Semitic population with the consent of the Egyptian government, one of whose number is a very high official in the state apparatus:

Exodus film screengrab: excavation
  • Excavations in the area of Goshen (where the Bible locates Jacob’s family) reveal (among many things of interest) a burial ground with twelve tombs (remember Jacob’s twelve sons), one of which is a pyramid tomb (an honour otherwise granted only to Pharaohs), containing the remains of a statue twice life-size depicting a Northerner (identified by pale skin, red hair and distinctive hairstyle) with a throw-stick (symbol of authority) over his shoulder and the remains of paint suggesting a striped multi-coloured coat.
  • Preparing for the famine predicted by Joseph’s dreams would require regulation of the Nile: there is a canal, which is still in use today, called “the Waterway of Joseph”, linking the Nile with the Fayum basin. Its construction is dated to the same period as the settlement described above.
  • By the end of the seven prosperous years predicted in Joseph’s dreams, the strategy adopted by Joseph meant that Pharaoh now owned everything in the nation. There is a time in Egypt’s history, during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, when power and wealth shift, without explanation, from the regional governors (known as “Nomes”) to Pharaoh. Statues of Amenemhat III depict him with worry lines, ears turned out to listen to the concerns of the people, and a generally miserable countenance. This is not how Pharaohs were normally represented. Amenemhat built his tomb next to the Waterway of Joseph.
  • The tomb of “Joseph” contains nothing but fragments of smashed statue: no bones and no coffin wood. Grave robbers don’t take bones, which are of no intrinsic value. Bones would only be removed by people treating the body with reverence – perhaps those who remembered Joseph’s instructions to his brothers to take his bones with them when they left Egypt (Genesis 50.25).
Exodus film screengrab: head of statue

Multiplication

Rohl says that the excavation we’ve been considering revealed an initial settlement of around twelve dwellings, housing about 70-100 people (Acts 7.14). Over the next three or four generations the settlement became a large city – one of the largest, according to Rohl, in the ancient world. Over time the inhabitants became quite wealthy. Dr John Bimson (formerly Tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol) says there are twenty or so such sites in Goshen, many of which have not yet been fully excavated.

Slavery

According to Rohl, the excavation reveals that the population experienced prosperity but then fell into poverty and malnutrition (the latter as evidenced by Harris lines on bones in the burial pits). People were dying typically aged 32-34. Why? The obvious answer is slavery. There was a massive increase in infant burials. A normal percentage of infant burials for this period would be 25%. The dig reports indicate nearly 50% of children under 10 died in the first three months of life. Significantly more women than men reached adulthood.

More on the “pattern of evidence” in my next post.

Where the conflict really lies

We’ve all heard of the conflict between science and faith: Darwin supposedly disproved creation, the Bible is full of supposedly unscientific statements, Yuri Gagarin went into space and found there was no god/God and so on.

Writing a sermon on the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus I wondered if Matthew’s account of the Magi being led by a star to Bethlehem could be a test case for the science/faith conflict. Is this “star” scientifically credible? Or is it a fairy story?

On the face of it the case for scientific credibility doesn’t look good. The thing about stars is that they don’t move. They appear to us to move across the night sky but that’s only because the Earth itself is moving. Relative to each other, they don’t move. Their place in the heavens is fixed.

The first key to unravelling this mystery is to realise that the Bible speaks in ordinary rather than scientific language. It speaks – as we do still – of the sun rising and setting. The sun doesn’t rise or set but that’s how it looks to us. So maybe the “star” looked to the Earth-bound observer like a star but was in fact something else?

Johannes Kepler formulated the laws of planetary motion, which are still used today by astronomers, space scientists and engineers. Kepler was also a committed Christian. In the hope of finding some celestial phenomenon which could explain the star of Bethlehem he used his prodigious mathematical ability to work backwards to how the heavens would have looked around the birth of Christ. But he found nothing.

Kepler’s problem was that he was looking at the wrong dates. Until very recently scholars have believed that Herod died in 4 BC, which would mean that Jesus must have been born before that date. Kepler searched the heavens in the years prior to 4 BC and found nothing. However, the case is now made by some scholars that Herod in fact died in 1 BC. So Jesus would have been born in 3 or 2 BC.

Kepler was a mathematical genius. But now, thanks to modern computer software, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to do in a moment what would have cost Kepler a great deal of time and effort. With this software you can locate what the night sky looked like at any point in past history and from wherever on the planet you want to be. You can go back to Babylon or Jerusalem or Bethlehem in the years around the time of the birth of Jesus and see what there was to be seen.

The key player is the planet Jupiter. Planets are “wandering stars” – our word “planet” derives from a Greek word meaning “to wander”. Jupiter is by far the largest planet in our solar system and has always been known as the King Planet. In the night sky in 3 and 2 BC amazing things were happening involving the King Planet Jupiter, the King Star Regulus, and the planet Venus (a symbol of fertility and motherhood), all in the constellation of Leo the Lion, which is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, the tribe to which Jesus belonged. The conjunction of these heavenly bodies revealed by the software would have resulted in something which would appear to be a “star” and would have been the brightest thing in the sky at the time.

This would certainly have caught the attention of the star-gazing Magi in Babylon. The details are complex but fascinating to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncoC9ZX2C6Y.

Stars don’t move, but planets do – they orbit the sun. But sometimes planets appear to stand still for a time. This is an optical illusion caused by what astronomers call “retrograde motion”. For the Magi looking south towards Bethlehem, Jupiter would have appeared to stand still over Bethlehem, precisely on 25th December 2 BC.

Maybe that’s where our date for Christmas comes from: not so much the birth of Jesus as the visit of the Magi? At any rate, it’s a neat tie-up between science and faith, and perhaps the subsequent history of celebrating Christmas as well. Matthew wasn’t inventing a fairy story; he was reporting history, which seems to fit perfectly with science. The Bible doesn’t teach science, but it does teach history.

The science/faith conflict is not supported by Matthew’s account of the Bethlehem star. If anything, rather the reverse: science and faith are seen to tell the same story.

Matthew’s account of the star and the Magi reminds us who God is: he is the one who guides even the motion of the heavenly bodies. If he can do that, we can trust him to take us through the pandemic to a better place. But we do need, like the Magi, to follow his lead.

There is, however, a real conflict in the story Matthew tells. This is the clash, not of two kinds of knowledge (science and faith) but of two kingdoms: the kingdom of worldly power represented by Herod, who is thrown into turmoil by the news of a new king, versus the Kingdom of God, which comes in gentleness and hiddenness but will in time overthrow the sometimes ruthless, murderous tyranny of this world’s kingdoms. The end of oppression is good news but it’s a long time coming: we’re not there yet and won’t be until the consummation of the Kingdom when Jesus returns.

In the meantime the clash of kingdoms continues in the human heart: the clash between the angry, fearful rejection of divine authority over our lives represented by Herod and the glad submission of worship represented by the Magi. To some extent that battle rages in all our hearts. Will we resist God or surrender to him in loving worship and obedience?

Agenda for a new normal

When will things get back to normal? Opinions differ widely. The optimists say everything will be fine by Easter and the pessimists reckon we’ll be wearing masks and social distancing for years. In between there is only uncertainty: who knows?

There is more consensus about what kind of new normal we’d like: a fairer, kinder world. Is that a genuine possibility?

I return to Paul’s letter to the Philippian church: Paul is in prison, facing the possibility of imminent execution and entirely dependent on his friends for even the basic necessities of life. Not a comfortable place – his words deserve a hearing.

He talks about being happy with what he has:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Philippians 4.11-12).

We don’t hear much about contentment. Our economy depends on stimulating ever-increasing demand; we are encouraged to want more; politicians promise endless economic growth. Maybe also there is a suspicion about people who call for others to be content with their lot: is this the rich telling the poor to keep quiet? Certainly not in Paul’s case. He speaks from privation rather than privilege, from below rather than from above.

We don’t like the idea a life without feasting or celebration. But Paul is not advocating that either. He doesn’t wear a hair shirt; he knows how to live it up as well as how to cope with lack. We fear that contentment will shrink our enjoyment of life. In fact, contentment by definition means the opposite, expanding our capacity for happiness. Being content you can enjoy today rather than dreaming of tomorrow.

One of the fringe benefits of lockdown in this country was cleaner air. Being satisfied with what we’ve got would help us to care for the planet and share with the poor. Contentment could be just the good news we need.

I’ve already mentioned Paul’s dependence on his friends for food and other necessities while in prison. I think that might be another fringe benefit of the pandemic – discovering a bit more about supporting each other and sharing with those in need.

Is this kind of new normal a real possibility? For Paul these things were not a mere possibility; they were his daily reality. He learned contentment “through him who strengthens me”. His friends were able to give him generous material and financial support because they could trust that Paul’s God would generously meet their needs too – “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”.

The best hope for a new normal is a rediscovery of Christian faith. For the last two hundred years Western civilisation has experimented with banishing faith from the public square. We’ve flattened out the world to two dimensions. We’ve sought to exclude the third dimension, where God comes to meet us. Only in a small private space are we allowed to “do God”. The history of the twentieth century suggests we might do better if we worked in all three dimensions.

There are modest signs of young people turning to faith in God.

But will Covid-19 kick-start real change? Will the church rise to the challenge?

No worries?

I’ve been reading Christmas letters. Most begin by remarking on the strange, uncertain times we live in and then express a hope for better things in 2021. We can all agree with that. Meanwhile, can we learn to live well with things as they are?

The advice I heard on the radio the other day was: get enough physical exercise (which apparently helps us grow new brain cells); get enough sleep; and make to-do lists so that you can tick them off and get a dopamine rush of satisfaction at having achieved something. All good stuff.

Thinking about this I remembered Paul’s words to the church in Philippi. He is writing from prison. He doesn’t know whether he is about to be executed or to be set free. He is dependent on his friends for basic necessities like food (in the ancient world the prison authorities didn’t feed the inmates). So he is worth listening to on how to live in uncertain times.

He begins by talking about prayer: “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”. The “Don’t worry” bit I’ve heard described as the hardest saying in the whole New Testament. What are we to make of it?

Paul did worry about things. He worried about the condition of the churches he’d founded. Were the new Christians persevering in faith? Were they able to withstand hostility from the authorities and from their neighbours? Were they being undermined by heresy? Were they still open to his teaching and guidance? He also worried about his friends, particularly if they were ill or under pressure. Paul was no Stoic. He needed people. He had a rich emotional life full of love and affection.

What, then, of “Don’t worry about anything”? I think he meant the kind of things Jesus talked about. Jesus also told people not to worry – about food, clothing or any of the necessities of life. He pointed out that worry achieves nothing: it won’t even add an hour to your life. As somebody has said more recently: “Worry is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.” Worry gives us the illusion of being in control of the situation we’re bothered about. We aren’t in control… but worry keeps alive the illusion that we are.

The evidence of the letter to the Philippian church is that Paul didn’t worry about physical provision and he didn’t worry about how long he had to live. He had learnt to trust God about such things. Neither Paul nor Jesus is asking us to become emotional neuters, without feelings or concerns about anything. They are both telling us that God can be trusted to provide for us, and he is ultimately in charge of how long we have to live. He is generous and he is good.

Can we learn to trust God about the necessities of life, and about life itself? Both are significant challenges in the era of Covid-19, whether it’s the loss of livelihood because of the economic effect of successive lockdowns or the ongoing concern about getting the virus.

Paul says prayer should be mixed with thanksgiving. Prayer without thanksgiving can be just another form of worry. Our prayers can go round in an anxious loop just like our worries. Thanksgiving breaks that cycle because it reminds us of what God has done for us and given to us. Worry is a form of delusion. Thanksgiving puts us back in touch with reality.

From prayer Paul moves on to our thought life:

… whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4.8).

We need to monitor and control what we feed our minds with – just as we need to do the same with how we feed our bodies. The issue is specially pressing in a time of crisis. Too much news about the pandemic (or Brexit or climate change) can seriously damage our mental health, particularly when the media fight for our attention by selecting what is most shocking and sensational. We’re not to become ostriches, failing to care or to contribute positively to the issues of the day. But we are called to steward our internal resources.

This is not just about the pandemic. Paul’s advice relates to everything we read, listen to, watch on screens, or fill our heads with when we’ve got nothing else to distract us.

In 1934 the BBC governors decided to change the Corporation’s motto to the single word “Quaecunque”, which is Latin for “Whatever things…”. It’s a cryptic reference to Paul’s words in Philippians. However, in 1948 the BBC reverted to its previous motto, based on words from the prophets Isaiah and Micah: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”. It’s a noble aspiration. But so too is “Quaecunque”. I don’t know why the change was made. And who knows whether the BBC’s output might have been different if “Quaecunque” had been retained?

Paul makes two promises in his final advice to the Philippians. Follow my prescription for prayer, he says, “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. And secondly: if you do what I tell you and copy what you see me doing, “the God of peace will be with you”. The peace of God and the God of peace. We all want to know peace. Following Paul’s advice will certainly make us more peaceful people. But even greater than knowing the peace of God is to know that the God of peace is with us. Jesus is “God with us” – not just at Christmas but forever. Our job is to receive him and the peace that he both is and gives.

No room at the inn?

For the first time in years I haven’t seen a nativity play, but I presume they’ve been following the usual formula. Joseph arrives in Bethlehem from Nazareth with his weary and heavily-pregnant wife, knocks on the door of the local pub and asks for a room. The answer is a firm “No” (except on one occasion when the child playing the innkeeper decided to subvert the whole event by saying in a loud voice with a big smile: “Of course, come on in!”).

Almost certainly, it didn’t happen like that. Luke clearly implies that the birth didn’t happen immediately on their arrival in Bethlehem, but “while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child”. And it probably wasn’t the local pub where they looked for a room. The word katalyma, traditionally translated “inn”, almost certainly means “guest room”. For example, when Jesus wants to celebrate the Passover, he sends Peter and John to meet someone in the city. He instructs them to say:

The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room [katalyma], where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished (Luke 22.11).

Luke knows the normal word for “inn” and uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan. All the reference works I’ve been able to consult are agreed that katalyma here means “guest room” not “inn”.

So what really happened in Bethlehem?

Kenneth Bailey spent forty years teaching theology in the Middle East. For ten years he lived on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes he reconstructs the nativity story in a rather different way to what we’re used to. This is his reconstruction:

Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes

Palestinian peasant families lived together in one room. They also had space for the animals, indoors, but usually on a lower level. This kept the animals safe at night from thieves and provided some central heating in the winter. There were no stables (apologies to the nativity plays). The family room would often have a manger or two at the end where the animals lived. The floor of the family room might slope a little in this direction to facilitate sweeping away rubbish. So the manger could – with some crushed hay in it – double up as a crib for a baby. Some families would also have a guest room (katalyma), either attached at the side of the house or on the roof.

Joseph and Mary have come to Bethlehem for the census because Joseph is of the house and lineage of King David. He is royalty, and this is his ancestral home. So he doesn’t try to sign on at the local pub; he goes to the family. The family are ordinary people but they do have a guest room. However – presumably because of the crush caused by the census – the guest room is already full. What does the family do? Send them away? Banish them to where the animals are? No!! The sacred duty of Eastern hospitality, the duty to family (specially the royal family) and Mary’s pregnancy make this unthinkable. The family and the village would never recover from the shame. So they take Joseph and Mary into the family room (at some inconvenience to themselves). And when the baby is born he sleeps in the manger at the end of the room – kept warm by the animals.

Does it matter? What real difference does it make exactly what happened in Bethlehem?

I like Bailey’s reconstruction of the story for three reasons: it fits with the linguistic evidence about the meaning of katalyma, it is based on his intimate knowledge of Palestinian peasant households, and it shows that Jesus is not rejected by the poor (as the traditional nativity story implies); he is welcomed by the poor. His identity is made known first to the poor. When he grows up he announces good news for the poor and pronounces a blessing on the poor: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”. The poor are the natural heirs of the Kingdom. Not because poverty is in itself a good thing but because being poor tends to put people in a place of openness to God.

It matters because it explains why the sign of the manger is so important. The manger is important (mentioned three times by Luke) because it is the sign given by the angel to the shepherds to help them find the baby. Shepherds were despised by those in authority, regarded as pretty much the lowest of the low. How would they get the confidence to visit this child, who is “the Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord”? Surely such a child would be born in a palace, or at least a home of the well-to-do? The angel’s message tells them that the child is in fact living in a peasant home, the kind of home where babies are cradled in a manger – just the kind of home they know about and feel comfortable in.

What about those who aren’t poor, in Luke’s sense of “poor”?

Jesus has a blessing for them/us too: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.3), or as the New English Bible puts it: “How blest are those who know their need of God…” How do we come to know our need of God? It might be a longing for truth, a hunger for forgiveness or love, a thirst for justice or meaning, a sudden or catastrophic loss, the search for identity or purpose, perhaps a realization of the majesty of God or the marvel of Jesus. We have to be brought low, to a place which can be called “poverty of spirit”, where we are ready, alongside the shepherds, to seek Jesus.

For me it was the experience of spending five months in an Austrian village looking after children and adults with severe physical and mental disabilities. There came a day when I sat down on a step in the middle of the morning, exhausted, realizing that I had come to the end of what I could give: I was surrounded by people whose greatest need was love, and my very small store of love was, like me, exhausted.

The pandemic is likely to bring many people low: to actual material poverty, or poverty of spirit, or both. I hope that tweaking our understanding of what really happened at Bethlehem underlines that Jesus is good news for the poor, even if the tweaking is not such good news for nativity plays.

The Return of Gabriel

Have you ever seen an angel? No, I haven’t either… at least, as far as I know I haven’t. (The Bible says it’s possible to meet an angel without knowing it’s an angel.) But I know someone who has. A small boy in one of the congregations we served told his parents that he’d seen an angel high up in the roof of the church. He was quite matter-of-fact about it, as if this was routine. He wasn’t particularly pious, nor was he boasting (as if seeing an angel would give him extra street cred or Brownie points). Jesus said the Kingdom belongs to children, so maybe a child can see an angel not visible to anybody else.

A lot of the time we have the wrong idea about angels. In the Bible, an angel’s first words to a human being are nearly always “Don’t be afraid”. These are awesome spiritual beings. They are not the chubby babies of Western art nor the pretty children dressed in white and crowned with tinsel of our nativity plays. They tend to scare people. Unless they come incognito to perform acts of service to human beings in need, as documented by Hope Price in her book Angels.

Angels don’t usually reveal their names. The Bible knows only two exceptions, one of which is the appearance of Gabriel in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, first to Zechariah who is an elderly priest serving in the Temple at Jerusalem, and then to Mary.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that his prayers have been answered, his wife will bear a son and the child will have a special role in preparing people for the arrival of the Messiah. Zechariah begins to argue, asking how this is possible, since his wife is so old. The angel replies: “I am Gabriel…” Note: he doesn’t say “My name is Gabriel”, but “I am Gabriel”.

Why does Gabriel answer Zechariah’s doubts by announcing his name? Zechariah needs to know Gabriel’s name because the name “Gabriel” is itself the answer to his questions. Zechariah knows about Gabriel. He knows that it was Gabriel who prophesied to Daniel hundreds of years previously that a time was coming when God would fulfil his promises and finally launch his plan for dealing with the sin which ravages his world. Everybody knows about Gabriel.

When the angel says to Zechariah “I am Gabriel” he is telling Zechariah that the time of fulfilment is at hand, that God is on the move: things are going to change. Gabriel delivered the original prophecy; now he has returned to announce its fulfilment.

Gabriel also appears to Mary to tell her that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. Luke doesn’t say whether Mary knew it was Gabriel but he makes sure that we know.

What can we learn from the return of Gabriel?

The Bible is a narrative of God’s dealings with his world. It takes us from pre-history through history to the future beyond history – what Jesus called “the renewal of all things”. It is a varied collection of writings, some of which are quite difficult for us to appreciate or understand, which nevertheless tell a single story. That single story has meaning, purpose and direction, because it is overseen by the loving providence of God. The return of Gabriel is a reminder that God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t, and he keeps his promises even when their fulfilment seems very long delayed. And it’s worth reading the whole book, including the difficult bits, because that way we get a sense of the faithfulness of God

The return of Gabriel also shows us some of the ways God takes our personal stories, including the pain of those stories, and weaves them into the big story of his purpose for the world.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are childless, which is for them both a personal tragedy and a source of social shame. Gabriel reveals to them that God plans to give them a child, against all the normal rules of child-bearing, as a sign of his power to do new things, to overturn conventional expectations. Not just that, but the child will have a special role in preparing the nation for Jesus’ coming. Through their years of grief and prayer, God was preparing for them an answer that would far exceed anything they could have dreamed of.

Mary too is told that her personal story is to become part of God’s story. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for a child and therefore Gabriel’s revelation is an answer to their prayers; Mary had not. She was simply looking forward (we assume) to getting married and living a normal life. Now her life will be anything but normal. She will pay a high price for her high privilege.

For Zechariah and Elizabeth and for Mary, there will be both joy and pain: the joy of playing a part in the drama of God’s purpose for the world – expressed in the songs which they sing in Luke’s Gospel; and the pain of seeing their sons suffer and die for their faithfulness to God.

I wonder if Gabriel’s two appearances in Luke give us a kind of paradigm of how God works in our lives. Some of us are called, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, to continue in the role and position in life which is natural to us, and to serve God there. Some of us, like Mary, are called out of what is familiar and pitched into something that is quite different. Whether we are called to follow the paradigm of Zechariah and Elizabeth or that of Mary, there will be for us, like them, both joy and pain.

Wait and see

Waiting, like Advent, is future-orientated. Just as during Advent we prepare for Christmas and, beyond Christmas, for the second coming of Christ, so in waiting we are looking forward to the next thing in our lives. It may be just a cup of tea or getting married in the morning. We may be filled with excitement or foreboding; either way, the waiting can consume all our attention. We have no time or energy to focus on what is happening now. The present moment is swallowed up in anxiety or anticipation of the future.

We wait but we don’t see. Could we learn to do both?

Jesus is approached by the ruler of a local synagogue. His name is Jairus and his daughter is desperately ill, at the point of death. Would Jesus come and heal her? Jesus agrees and sets off with Jairus to see the girl. This is clearly an emergency; faced with an emergency the thing to do is focus ruthlessly on getting to the scene and dealing with it. Surely?

Apparently not. Jesus is now surrounded by a large crowd pressing in on him. Suddenly he stops, turns round and asks: “Who touched my clothes?” The disciples point out that in the circumstances this is a stupid question. But he still wants to know. Eventually a woman comes forward to tell her story. She has been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years; she has spent all she has on doctors but got no better. But, hearing about Jesus, she decides to mingle with the crowd and surreptitiously reach out and touch his clothes. She’s convinced even this minimal contact will be enough to get her healed. Jesus responds: “Daughter, your faith has made you well”. While he is still speaking a message comes from Jairus’s house to say that the girl is dead so no need to bother coming to see her. Undeterred, Jesus persists in going to see the girl. Arriving at the house, he takes her by the hand and raises her back to life again.

Why did Jesus stop and ask his apparently stupid question? Imagine for a moment how things might have panned out if he hadn’t. The woman still gets healed, she is spared the embarrassment of having to tell her story, and presumably Jesus arrives at Jairus’s house in time to heal the sick girl without putting the parents through the trauma of seeing her die. Why waste time dragging the truth out of this unfortunate woman? Why not just get on with the job?

Jesus is not consumed by the future; he is acutely attuned to what is happening in the present moment. He not only waits but he sees. He proceeds to “waste time” getting the woman to reveal herself. Because this is part of her healing. Being subject to haemorrhages she will have been ritually unclean, excluded from normal social interaction. By calling her out he restores her to full membership of society. She gets more than she asked for because what she asked for was not enough.

Jairus also gets more than he asked for. His daughter is not merely healed but raised from the dead. The family have a share in revealing who Jesus is: not just a healer but the one who has authority over death itself.

God meets us now, today, in this encounter, this experience. Tomorrow doesn’t exist. Later today doesn’t exist. How much do we miss of what God has for us because we’re not attending to his presence with us in this moment, this time, this place?

What are you waiting for?

Waiting is a normal human experience: for the kettle to boil, for the holidays, for exam results, for an end to the pandemic… The British are supposed to be good at waiting – we’re famous for queuing. We’re not the only ones: the Russians too have historically been good at waiting (and queuing):

 A Soviet citizen goes to a garage hoping to buy a car. 
 The salesperson says:
 'No problem. But there's a fifteen-year waiting list'.
 'You mean, if I come back fifteen years today, 
 I can have a car?'
 'That's right'.
 'Morning or afternoon?'
 'Does it matter?'
 'Yes, I've got the plumber coming in the morning'.  

Waiting is a traditional theme of Advent. Paul talks about waiting for Jesus to come again to this world to put everything right; another New Testament writer speaks of “waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which justice will be at home”.

Why do we have to wait? Why doesn’t God deliver justice now? People are suffering, the planet is suffering, his reputation suffers.

God delays delivering justice because he is patient. He too is waiting: waiting for us to acknowledge our part in what’s wrong with the world, our alienation from him which makes us less than we are meant to be and prevents us fulfilling our God-given destiny.

We were created to share with God himself in the government of the universe. That may sound absurdly grand but that’s what the Bible means by saying that we are created in his image. The plan only works if we acknowledge that he is God and work with him rather than against him or apart from him. In the Garden of Eden humanity said No to that plan and we’ve lived with the consequences ever since. (People differ about how you should take that story: as literal historical truth or truth communicated in the form of narrative. What matters is its truth.) Jesus came to get the plan back on track and enable us to be fit for purpose. We have to stop saying No to God and say Yes instead. Jesus and the Bible call that “repentance”. God waits for our repentance.

Repentance is just the beginning. God is also waiting as, little by little, we learn to be ready for the end of the story. The end of the story (which is also the beginning of the real story) is this:

“they will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22.5).

God’s purpose is to prepare us for rule, for sharing with him in the shape and direction of the universe itself. We have a lot to learn. This life is our chance to do the learning: to trust him, to listen to him, to wait for him, to learn his way of doing things which is different from ours, to learn to love, to learn patience like his patience, and much else besides.

Dallas Willard was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. Here he is writing about prayer, but what he says applies to our whole life with God:

Prayer.. is an arrangement explicitly instituted by God in order that we as individuals may count, and count for much, as we learn step by step how to govern, to reign with him in his kingdom… This high calling also explains why prayer frequently requires much effort, continuous effort, and on some matters possibly years and years of effort. Prayer is, above all, a means of forming character. It combines freedom and power with service and love. What God gets out of our lives – and, indeed, what we get out of our lives – is simply the person we become. It is God’s intention that we should grow into the kind of person he could empower to do what we want to do. Then we are ready to ‘reign for ever and ever’.

Dallas willard, The Divine Conspiracy: rediscovering our hidden life in God

What are we waiting for? A future which is unimaginably glorious and fulfilling. Meanwhile, we are involved in a lifelong adventure of learning.

Pandemic Journey 4

The Pandemic has brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. Among the worst is the bizarre claim by some that it’s all a hoax.

Writing about Paul’s journey to Rome, I have been conscious that some twentieth-century scholars have claimed that this too was a hoax. The allegation takes two main forms: that Luke borrowed the account of a real journey and simply inserted Paul into it; or that, even if the journey was real, then Paul the prisoner couldn’t possibly have played the decisive role in it portrayed by Luke.

James Smith of Jordanhill, Glasgow, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, an authority on ancient shipbuilding and navigation, a geologist, a biblical scholar, and a yachtsman of thirty years’ experience. In 1848 Smith published The Voyage and Shipwreck of St Paul (available here), in which he investigates in great detail the accuracy and credibility of Luke’s account in the book of Acts.

Building on his knowledge of ancient shipbuilding and navigation, he spent a winter in Malta exploring the locations mentioned in Luke’s narrative and interviewing seamen experienced in sailing the eastern Mediterranean. The following summer he spent in the museums and libraries of Naples, Florence, Lausanne, Paris and London doing more research. Finally, he retraced the voyage itself in his own yacht. The book is a fascinating account of his journey which leaves the reader in awe at Luke’s extraordinary accuracy and attention to detail as a historian. Smith’s conclusion is worth quoting:

A searching comparison of the narrative, with the localities where the events so circumstantially related are said to have taken place, with the aids which recent advances in our knowledge of the geography and the navigation of the eastern part of the Mediterranean supply, accounts for every transaction – clears up every difficulty – and exhibits an agreement so perfect in all its parts as to admit but of one explanation, namely, that it is a narrative of real events, written by one personally engaged in them.

The twentieth-century German scholars who cast doubt on the authenticity of Luke’s narrative were writing more than half a century after Smith had proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Luke was telling the truth – presumably in ignorance of his work. The motive for doubting Luke’s account seems to have been in large part a belief that what mattered to Luke (and therefore what should matter to us) is the significance of the story rather than its historical truth. In other words, they wanted us to believe that Acts should be read much as we read the parables of Jesus, as stories with a powerful meaning but no claim to be based in fact.

This leads me to some conclusions:

1. History (facts, events, narratives) and theology (meaning, significance, value, application to contemporary experience) belong together. What God has joined we should not try to pull apart. This is a mistake, a basic misunderstanding of the Christian faith, which is grounded in the meaning of events in history: the word became flesh, Christ died for our sins, he was raised on the third day… When it comes to history and theology, you really can have your cake and eat it.

2. The unity of history and theology applies to our lives too. What we do, the choices we make, the lives we live: they matter. We make a difference. Sometimes the difference only emerges much later, perhaps only after we’re long gone. As we walk with God, he is working out his purposes. We are partners with him in making history.

3. It is unwise to rubbish the historical basis of biblical history. Sooner or later the truth tends to emerge. In the case of Paul’s voyage to Rome, the credibility of Luke’s account had been established long before the attempt was made to discredit it.

4. God calls us to faith and patience. That means being willing to wait for answers to our questions and to live without them if necessary. I first encountered radical scepticism about the historical value of Acts as a theological student. I was sceptical about the sceptics but had no means of proving they were wrong – until, some ten years later, I discovered James Smith. There will be times when we don’t have answers to our critics or the critics of our faith. The psalms tell us to wait for the Lord. Life will set us many puzzles as people of faith. Waiting for God (to point the way, to reveal the truth, to show his hand) is a vital spiritual lesson. The season of Advent reminds us to wait in hope.

Pandemic Journey 3

The Pandemic has put us all in the same boat. Whether we realise it or not, we are “all in this together”. In April this year UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that we are caught up in a global public health emergency, which is also an economic crisis, a social crisis and a developing human rights crisis.

The two hundred and seventy-five people adrift in the Mediterranean with the apostle Paul were likewise “all in this together”. At one point the sailors tried to jump ship by lowering a boat into the sea in the hope of escaping and leaving the rest to their fate. But Paul quickly put a stop to that, telling the centurion:

Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved (Acts 27.31).

The soldiers cut the ropes and set the boat adrift.

Attempting to escape the restrictions imposed by being “all in this together” – whether now in the Pandemic or then on the boat with Paul – puts everyone at risk.

Like all the best stories, this one functions on several levels at the same time. It is first of all a straightforward account of people being saved from drowning at sea. Paul, despite being technically a prisoner under guard, effectively takes charge of the ship and saves the passengers. Before his intervention they had given up hope and were waiting to die.

The root word for “saved”/”salvation” crops up seven times in the narrative of Acts 27 and 28 (in various forms which are not always obvious in the English translations). In the Bible, seven is the number of completeness (think seven days of creation). This is a story of rescue from death, not just of some of those on board, but everybody. It’s total rescue.

Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

Paul was a preacher of the gospel, of “good news”. In this instance, he is being good news. In the same way, we are called not only to proclaim good news but to be it.

Like Jesus himself, we are to do as much good as we can, particularly in a time of emergency. We are not supposed to sit back passively and let events take their course; we are supposed to do something to help.

Total rescue is the heart of God for his world, not just from the coronavirus, but from all the effects of human foolishness, selfishness and alienation from God. Paul’s companions were rescued from death by trusting him – believing what he told them and acting on it. So it is with rescue (“salvation”) from our bad choices and the ingrained selfishness which the Bible calls sin. Salvation is “by faith”: taking Jesus at his word and putting our lives in his hands.

People are still taking Jesus at his word and discovering his rescue.

More on Paul’s voyage in my next post.