Posts Tagged ‘openness’

If we truly trust God, we can trust God with our doubts

January 13, 2018

Epiphany 2 – 2018

John 1:43-51 (Some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose shoulders are broad and who will not turn a doubter away. Amen.

My father did not tell many jokes and those he did tell, he told over and over again. One that I particularly remember was about an Irishman named Paddy. Paddy was a Council worker who was working with a group of men on a road outside a village. It was a hot day and at lunchtime the group sent Paddy into the village to buy some beer. Paddy got to the pub and ordered the beer. The publican asked where he was going to put it. Paddy thought for a minute, took off his hat and said: “Put it in here.” The publican filled the hat, but there was not enough room for all the beer. He asked Paddy where he would put the rest. “No problems,” said Paddy as he swiftly turned the hat over so that the remaining beer could be poured into the crown of the hat. Walking very carefully so as not to spill the beer, Paddy made his way back to his workmates. Seeing the beer in the crown of Paddy’s hat, his astonished workmates asked him if that was all that he got for the money they had given him. “Of course not,” said Paddy, as he turned his hat over once again.

Of course, today we are careful not to cause offense and we avoid making jokes that are based on country of origin, gender and hair colour or any other stereotype. In the past though every nation and subgroup had their jokes about other cultures or sub-cultures. (Apparently if you were in France you would tell my Father’s joke but substitute a Belgian for an Irishman and so.) One of the ways that we use to set ourselves apart or distinguish ourselves from others is to demean or to make jokes about them. If Irishmen/Belgians/New Zealanders are foolish then by inference the person telling the joke is not.

In first century Palestine, a person might tell jokes about the Galileans – those unsophisticated yokels from up north who knew little to nothing of the real world. That helps us to understand Nathanael’s response to Philip. Nathanael reports that: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” To which Nathanael replies: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathaniel can be forgiven his skepticism. Nazareth was, archeologists think, a village of 2-300 people (and no I didn’t leave off a zero). Nazareth consisted of 40-60 families at the most. These families lived in limestone caves that dotted the hillsides (and which form warrens under modern-day Nazareth). It was extremely unlikely that anyone of any note would emerge from such an environment – let alone the long-expected Christ. Nazareth was close to many significant Roman cities including Sepharis. Nathaniel came from Bethsaida which like Capernaum was a fishing village whose residents lived in stone homes, not holes in the ground. From his point of view Nazareth, and anyone who came from Nazareth was not deserving of any attention.

Undeterred by Nathaniel’s disbelief, Philip insists that Nathaniel come and see Jesus for himself. Instead of berating Nathaniel for his doubt, Jesus commends him for his honesty – “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

There is a tendency among some Christians to believe that doubt is the antithesis of faith, that doubt suggests disbelief or a failure to truly trust in God. Those who doubt sometimes feel guilty or are made to feel guilty by those who claim certainty. Others (afraid that any form of doubt will bring the castle of belief tumbling down) hold on to their certainty in the face of evidence that contradicts all that they hold dear. They dare not ask questions or allow others to ask questions for fear that that will lead to other questions. Their confidence in God and in themselves seems to be insufficient to allow even the smallest doubt to put a chink in their armour.

The results of a closed, unquestioning faith are manifold. People who cannot or will not ask questions are sometimes left holding conflicting ideas in tension, are forced to defend positions that science has proved to be untenable or are placed in a situation that can both stultifying and stagnant. Their faith cannot grow in part because it is too weak to withstand the rigor of challenge.

Perhaps what is worst of all is that those who are too anxious to question their faith demonstrate, not their trust in God, but their fear of God. They hold on to a belief that God demands unquestioning loyalty and obedience. They are afraid that at any sign of doubt God will cast them out of God’s presence. This attitude leads to an unhealthy and often dishonest relationship with God. Someone who is afraid to question God may bury his or her discontent (because one can’t question what God does or doesn’t do), accept the unacceptable without demur (because it is God’s will) and explain away any inconsistencies with platitudes that may or may not provide real satisfaction (because everything has to be accepted on faith). This attitude can lead to a relationship with God that is constrained and limited and which, as a result, fails to benefit from the sort of relationship that benefits from honesty, from robust discussion and seeking to grow through exploration.

Jesus’ reaction to Nathaniel’s doubt demonstrates that rather than dismissing those who ask questions, Jesus/God embraces and responds to them. From the time of Adam and Eve, through Abraham, Moses and the prophets, God has made it clear that God seeks to be in a strong, honest and real relationship with God’s people. God has broad shoulders and is not easily offended or put out – certainly not to the extent of casting people off. Nathaniel’s reaction to Jesus’ acceptance was to recognise Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus’ reaction to Thomas’s doubt was to provide him with the answer that he sought. Thomas’s reaction was to worship Jesus as: “Lord and God”.

Like human relationships, our relationship with God must be built on mutual trust, a willingness to say what we think and the sort of confidence in each other that allows us to work through any difficulties.

If we truly trust God, then we must know that we can trust God with our doubts.




Not up to our expectations?

July 8, 2017

Pentecost 5 -2017

Matthew 11:15-19, 25-30

Marian Free

 In the name of God who defies and exceeds our expectations. Amen.

Some things just don’t live up to our expectations. For example, I found the musical: “Phantom of the Opera” truly disappointing. I had gone with high expectations, but the show left me feeling that something was lacking. “Les Miserables” on the other hand, has never failed to impress whether it be musical or not, stage or film.

The same is true of people. We build up a picture in our mind of someone we have never met, only to find when we meet them or come to know more about them our ideas were quite wrong. A week or so ago the TV programme Compass featured the controversial Anglican priest from Gosford. Rod Bower is known for the sign outside his church that sometimes makes it into

Example of Sign at Gosford Anglican Church

the national news and frequently features in my Facebook feeds. With no information other than Rod’s slogans, I had formed the idea that he had to be something of an extrovert. Compass began with a clip of him setting up the sign and clips of him leading and speaking at demonstrations – both of which suggested to me that he was happy to put himself out there, to engage with people and to be a public figure. However when the journalist interviewed him, he revealed himself to be intensely introverted – to the extent that he found joining parishioners for coffee after church difficult. In reality, Rod was the complete opposite of what I had expected.

It is human nature to create expectations about people and events. By and large we don’t like to be caught by surprise so we prepare ourselves. If we are traveling or attending an expensive show, we do a certain amount of research to ensure that our money is well spent and that we won’t be disappointed. If we are inviting a speaker to a conference we do a certain amount of background research to ensure that they will deliver. In the case of someone whom we have never met, we use the information to hand to create a picture in our imagination. If the person is very different from our expectations we might find ourselves either disappointed or pleasantly surprised.

Jesus found himself in a lose/lose situation. He did’t seem to fit any existing expectation. If he had behaved like John the Baptist – neither eating nor drinking – he would have been rejected as a “wowser” or a “party-pooper”. On the other hand, if he came eating and drinking, he would have been accused of being a party-animal or libertine. At this distance, we have no really clear idea what the first century Judeans expected of one sent by God. Some, it appears, thought that John the Baptist really did fit the bill. He was an ascetic, a prophet who challenged the status quo. People flocked to hear him and to be baptised by him, but the establishment who found both his message and his life-style too confronting did not accept him. Jesus on the other hand appeared to be too ordinary, too much “one of the people” to be the “holy one of God”. It is not that he couldn’t please some, Jesus felt as though he couldn’t please anyone.

Even though Paul and our gospel writers have done a great job of combing through the Old Testament looking for texts that demonstrate that Jesus does conform to the expectations of the anointed of God, their efforts demonstrate never-the-less that it is impossible to find an exact fit for Jesus. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say explicitly what the people of Israel should be looking for. In fact, some of the expectations contradict each other – the suffering Servant of Isaiah for example, is the opposite of a king of the line of David. As a result of the confusion, by the beginning of the first century there were a variety of expectations. These are evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls or other inter-testamental writings. People variously thought that God might send a king or a prophet or a priest or perhaps that Elijah would return to save the people. Even so, given their rejection of Jesus, it does seem that above all the people of Judah expected a king or at least a soldier – someone who would free them from the foreign oppressors – the Romans.

Despite what our gospels imply, there was at that time no one, fixed, expectation of the “one who was to come”. It was no wonder that Jesus was not universally accepted as the Christ, no wonder that the crowds found it so easy to turn against him when it seemed that it was all going sour.

Jesus simply didn’t fit. He was not a king, or a soldier or a priest. He was not convincing enough to gain the approval of the leaders of the faith and as a result was ultimately unable to maintain the loyalty of the ordinary citizens.

I am sometimes asked: “Why didn’t the Jews believe that Jesus was the Messiah?” The answer lies in today’s gospel – Jesus was not what they expected him to be. Despite everything – his teaching, the healings, the miracles – Jesus did not live up to their expectations or their hopes. He didn’t gather the nation together as a united front against Rome, against the Gentiles, against the hypocritical leaders or even against those who failed to keep the law in its entirety. As a Messiah Jesus was nothing short of disappointing and, to cap it off, his mission ended with his ignominious death.

Expectations – we all have them. What if our expectations of Jesus are the wrong ones? Would we do any better than the first century Jews if Jesus were to come again today or tomorrow?

Our task is to let go of our expectations and to develop a sense of openness to whatever God might do next, whenever and wherever that may be.





Abundance not sacrifice – Lent is God’s gift to us, our gift to ourselves

March 12, 2016

Lent 5 – 2016

John 12:1-8

Marian Free

In the name of God whose outpouring of love is more than we can ever imagine.  Amen.

It is just possible that I am turning into a grumpy old woman or it may be that I am by nature someone who tends to take the world and faith seriously. Whatever it is, I have found myself being irritated or disappointed by the attitude that some people (particularly via social media) have taken towards Lent. There have been posts on Facebook by people bemoaning the fact that they are saying “goodbye” to beer or wine or some other treat for forty days as if Lent is a burden imposed upon them rather than something taken up freely. Other people have posted cartoons, which again make it seem that Lent is at worst some interminable punishment or at best a trial that has to be endured. To be fair, I am sure that most of the posts are from people who do take Lent seriously and who assume that their friends will understand that they are simply making light of it not expressing how they really feel.

It does concern me however that the negative messages about Lent, give the wrong idea – not only about the practice of Lent but about the Christian faith – to the non-Christians who hear or read them. Those who are not in on the secret could be forgiven for thinking that Lent is a period of misery expected by an exacting and demanding God instead of seeing it as a time of self-imposed abstinence that will liberate us to know more fully an indulgent and affirming deity.

The readings for the first four weeks of Lent have encouraged us to turn our lives around and to remove the barriers that separate us from the overwhelming abundance of God’s love. John the Baptist urged us to “repent” (literally – turn around), the parable of the fig tree reminded us that we share with all of humanity its frailty and imperfections, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem gave us an insight into the sorrow experienced by God because of our refusal to accept God’s love and the parable of the two sons demonstrated God’s utter refusal to exclude us from that love and at the same time reminded us of the ways in which we place ourselves beyond the reach of God’s affection.

Today, as we approach the end of our forty days, we are confronted by a description of an act of intimacy, extravagance and tenderness – not of God towards us, but of Mary towards God. At first the gospel seems out of place an action of such beauty and lavishness seems to conflict with a time of fasting and self-denial.  But today’s gospel is a perfect fit – not only with the gospel readings that have preceded it, but also with the central purpose of Lent. In conjunction with the gospels of the past four weeks, today’s gospel sums up what Lent is about and what we can hope to achieve.

We discover, if we plumb the lectionary offerings, that Lent is primarily about ensuring that we are in the best condition possible to accept God’s love for us. We allow ourselves a period of prayer and self-examination to reflect on our lives and in particular to consider whether or not we are truly open to the love that God is constantly pouring out on us. Fasting and self-denial are not intended to be a way of  “mortifying” or denying the flesh” but a means of identifying and ridding ourselves of the obstacles that we place between ourselves and God – obstacles which are just as likely to be emotional and psychological as they are to be physical.

When we strip ourselves bare, when we purge ourselves of all the things that prevent us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love, we will be simply overwhelmed by the outpouring God’s grace and the generosity and the bounty of God’s affection. We will be astounded that God could love us so much and we will be acutely aware of our little we deserve that love.

Lent is a lesson of love, God’s extravagant, unconditional and boundless love, which is ours for the taking. The disciplines of Lent are not intended to weigh us down, but to prepare us to receive God’s love without question and without hesitation.

This is where Mary fits in. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, responds to God’s love with an extravagance that matches Jesus’ own. Mary is the perfect example of someone who has allowed herself to be stripped bare, who has opened herself completely and unreservedly to God’s scrutiny and in so doing has discovered not judgement but compassion, not condemnation but understanding, not rejection, but complete and total acceptance. Mary responds in the only way possible – with a demonstration of her deep and humble gratitude.

Even by today’s standards, Mary’s actions open her to disapproval – the loose hair, the public and intimate display of affection, the extravagance and waste. Yet for Mary there is no other response that will adequately express her reaction to God’s love for her. Mary throws caution, propriety and decorum to the wind. She has no thought of what others might think of her only that she must express her own love in a way that matches her experience of the love of God.

Lent then, is not so much about sacrifice as it is about abundance, not so much about self-denial as it is about self-acceptance, not so much about being unable to measure up, but about realizing that there is nothing against which to measure ourselves. Lent is less about sacrifice and more about abundance – about discovering the abundance that emanates from God and not from the world. Lent is less about will power and more about letting go – for it is only when we truly let go that we are able open ourselves to the wealth that is ours for the taking.

During Lent we identify and shed the obstacles that separate us from the love of God – a love so overwhelmingly abundant that it calls for a response that is extravagant, intimate and tender a response like that of Mary sister of Lazarus.

Forty days is not much to ask – in fact it almost seems far too little to give when we gain so much in return.

Open to God’s future

December 27, 2014

Christmas 1 – 2014

Luke 1:21-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who is beyond all we can conceive or imagine. Amen.

It is not unusual for parents to keep records of their children’s birth, growth and development. At the very least, many will keep the band that identified their child in the hospital, the records of immunisations and the growth chart from routine visits to child health centres. Others go further and record in a book designed for the purpose, the date of the baby’s first smile, first tooth, first step, first word. If the child is the first born, there will be ample photos to accompany the time-line. Over time stories will be told and re-told about events in the child’s life or signs that foretold the sort of person the child would grow to be.

No such records exist for Jesus. If his parents had stories to tell, they are lost to us and if the gospel writers knew any such stories they considered them irrelevant to the account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Mark and John are singularly uninterested in any aspect of Jesus’ life before his public ministry. Matthew and Luke do record Jesus’ birth, but they do so in ways that serve their particular purpose and that make it difficult to tell truth from fiction.

Of all the gospel writers, it is only the author of Luke’s gospel who shows any interest at all in the events of Jesus’ childhood and even then, his interest serves to make a theological point rather than to create an accurate record. In the gospel of Luke, accounts of Jesus’ childhood firmly embed and ground him in the traditions of his faith – circumcised on the eighth day and redeemed by an offering of two turtledoves in the Temple. In this way, Luke establishes Jesus’ credibility and makes it clear that he indeed is the one expected by Israel – despite the fact that he will turn out to be very different from what had been expected.

Jesus’ status both as the one who fulfils the promise to Israel and the one who confounds all expectation is established by two unlikely figures – Simeon and Anna. Both are old and wise and, by all accounts, model Jews. Simeon we are told is righteous and devout and Anna has spent the better part of her life in prayer and fasting. Their presence in the Temple links them to the past, to the traditions of their people and to what God has done. Their recognition of the child Jesus points to the future and to what God is about to do.

Past and future are juxtaposed throughout this narrative – life and death, youth and age, old and new, law and Spirit. We, the readers, get the sense that the world is on the brink of something new. The past and all the traditions represented by the Temple are about to give way to something radically different and unexpected. The exclusivity of Israel is about to be shattered by the inclusion of the Gentiles and the law and all that it represented is about to give way to the precedence of the Holy Spirit.

Simeon can see that the much-anticipated salvation of Israel will cause disquiet among the people and that not all will welcome the child with as much joy and excitement as does Anna. His hymn and the prophecy that follow exemplify just how divisive this child of Mary and Joseph will be. “he is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Jesus’ life and ministry will shatter all preconceptions about a Saviour for Israel and his very presence will demand a response and expose the nature of a person’s relationship to and understanding of God.

Those who accept Jesus will demonstrate their openness to God and those who do not will reveal their self-absorption, their narrowness of heart and mind. There will be many who think that they know the law yet their very adherence to the law will result in their inability to recognise the one sent to fulfil the law. Jesus’ failure to conform to their expectations and their subsequent rejection of him, will disclose their narrow and limited understanding of the law and of God’s promises. Conversely there will be many – especially those on the fringes of the faith – who will recognise Jesus’ divinity and embrace his presence despite or perhaps because he challenges the established view and refuses to be bound by a limited view of what the Christ should be.

Simeon understands that nothing is at it seems and that everything will be turned upside down and thrown into apparent disarray. Only those who are truly open to God and to the presence of God’s Spirit within them, will, with Simeon and Anna welcome the Christ among them.

We are all creatures of habit. We become comfortable with what we know and suspicious of what we do not. Change can be unsettling and disquieting and it is tempting to resist it believing that the ways things are is the way that they should always be. This is as true for our relationship with God as it is with other aspects of our lives. We are sometimes guilty of making God conform to our own image of God, of assuming that because we worship God in one particular way that that is the only way to worship because, that because our faith is expressed in certain words and forms, that that is the only way that it can be expressed. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that the past was right and the future must be wrong. In our desire to retain our comfort levels we struggle to maintain the status quo and we become closed and cautious, unwilling to accept that things could be any different or better.

What makes Anna and Simeon distinct from those around them is that they are actively waiting for God’s intervention in the world, and they have not predetermined how that intervention will occur. Because their eyes and minds are open, they see Israel’s Saviour where others see an ordinary child of an equally ordinary family. They are not at all perturbed that God has entered the world in such an extraordinary fashion – just the opposite – they are joyful and filled with praise for God.

God cannot and will not be bound by the limits of our imagination. It remains for us to develop an attitude of anticipation and expectation such that will we recognise God’s presence in the world in the ordinary and extraordinary, the expected and the unexpected and that our thoughts – when they are exposed for all to see – will not be found wanting.

Keeping up

December 14, 2013

Advent 3 – 2013

Matthew 11:2-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who breaks into our lives and changes them forever.  Amen.

There are some events that irrevocably change the course of history, some ideas that change our lives in a way that is irreversible and some experiences from which it is impossible to recover. When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-nine theses to a church door, he had no idea that the church of which he was a part would never be the same. He had no thought that after his death his followers would break away from Rome and form their own church and no notion that the ensuing Reformation would divide the church in a way which continues to have repercussions today. Much later, Darwin’s Origin of the Species shook the world and the church causing people to revisit the stories of their beginnings and to reconsider the nature of humanity. For many of us, our concept of who we are and where we came from changed forever. There are many such events or discoveries that interrupt the direction in which the world is travelling and sends humanity on a completely different and often unexpected path.

The same is true on an individual level. Our view of the world and of ourselves changes – sometimes radically – as we grow and learn and have both positive and negative experiences. Over time we learn for example, that our parents do not know everything, that clouds are not made of cotton wool, that there is no “man in the moon”. Sadly, there are more sinister ways in which our world is changed. A child who is abused by someone whom they trust loses their innocence, their sense of themselves and their ability to trust – often forever.

In the first century, this who came to faith in Jesus, believed that his life, death and resurrection formed one such seminal event. From their point of view the stream of history had been irreversibly interrupted, the time space continuum disturbed. They believed that God in Jesus had broken into history shattering the connection between past and present.

It is this attitude to the world that explains Jesus’ apparently dismissive words regarding John the Baptist. “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” How can Jesus say that? It was John who called people to repentance, John who drew “all Jerusalem” to him, John who announced Jesus and John from whom Jesus sought baptism. It seems an extraordinary claim that John rates lower than the least in the kingdom of heaven. How can this be?

For the gospel writers it is clear – history has been divided into two – before Jesus and after Jesus. From their point of view, John does not belong to the new dispensation, he belongs to the time before Jesus, a time that had not been affected by Jesus’ breaking into the world. No matter what John the Baptist had contributed to Jesus’ ministry, he was not a part of this new world order. He had not made the transition from one time period to another. John belonged in the past as the last of the prophets, firmly situated in the Old Testament culture and experience and cannot bridge this dramatic disruption in time.

It is possible that John was relegated to the past simply because he did not live to see what was happening.  He was executed at about the same time that Jesus began his ministry so it was impossible for him to participate in what was happening. However, it is also possible that John was stuck in the past because even while he lived he was unable to see and join in what was going on. John’s announcement of Jesus indicates that he expected something different from what actually happened.  He predicted a fiery Saviour who would come to judge the world. Let me remind you what he said: “His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”  (Matt 3:12).

As we know, the reality of Jesus was vastly different. John’s question from prison demonstrates that it is not clear to him that Jesus is the “one who is to come”. He remains open to the possibility that they might have to “look for another”.

John was not confident that Jesus was the one sent by God because his vision was clouded by the image that he (and many of his compatriots) had developed of a Saviour or Redeemer.  On the basis of some prophetic ideas he and they, it seems, had built up a picture of someone who would come with power to judge the earth, who would separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. In the process he and they had failed to take note of other prophetic ideas – those from Isaiah in particular – which spoke of a “suffering Servant” whose programme would be to heal and liberate rather than to condemn. They were unprepared for a Jesus who did not fit the image that they had created.

There is a warning for us here. It is very tempting for us to give in to our need for certainty, to scour our Bibles and to try to draw conclusions about the nature of God and the nature of God’s future. However, God is always doing surprising things, the most surprising of which was Jesus who did not conform to any preconceptions and who suffered a shameful, God-abandoned death. For this reason, we should not try to second-guess God, to read into our scriptures things that may and may not be there or to try to tie God down to something someone wrote two thousand years ago.

If we do this not only will we fail in our attempt to define and categorise God but we are in danger of blinding ourselves to who and what God is and we will  – like John – be unable able to see the new things that God is doing in our time.

A vulnerable child, a crucified Saviour – what will God do next and will our eyes be open and our hearts ready for whatever it is that God will reveal? Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting, of preparing ourselves for God’s coming. Let it be a time in which we let go of all our expectations so that we are ready for God, no matter how God comes.

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