Tuesday, 27 March 2018

God's Style Statement

Projecting the right image is sometimes important. Some of us spend longer standing in front of our wardrobes than others, but all of us know that at certain times we need to take control of how others see us. Jesus had one of those moments on the day he arrived in Jerusalem, five days before his death.
The city was awash with rumours and theories about the unconventional rabbi from Nazareth. Some were saying that he was sent by God; others believed he was inspired by the devil. The more energetically the first group dreamed of making Jesus their king, the more carefully the latter group planned his execution. Jesus needed to make a statement that would direct people’s minds away from their pre-set fears and fantasies, and focus their attention on the priorities of God.
Jesus had spent a few years trying to tell people, and show them, what God is like, but they had consistently failed to shift from their deeply ingrained assumptions. It was time for a different approach. Rather than talk to people, he decided to show them the kind of Messiah that God had raised up. To achieve this, he chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
I highly recommend doing an internet image search for “man riding donkey” (there is a small sample in the attached picture). Apart from the occasional paying tourist or comedy stunt, there is a certain consistency of style among the donkey riders of the world. Again and again you see low status, hard working people going about the dull routines of their lives. This was Jesus’ style statement. This is the kind of man he was, and that he intended to be. If Jesus was indeed God’s Messiah, God’s anointed one, then this is the kind of God Jesus represented.
A second internet image search for “religious leaders” brings a very different set of images, featuring a remarkable array of long robes and strange hats, with the occasional tailored suit. It would have been much the same in Jesus’ day, and Jesus deliberately chose a strongly contrasting image.
He decided to make a style statement - a message without words. He was the one appointed and anointed by God to reveal to the world what God is really like. He chose to do that by riding a donkey.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Good Instincts

We all know the experience of going about our business - coping with the familiar stresses and strains of life - when something unexpected happens, which pressurises and challenges us. At moments like that we tend to reveal our true colours. The usual internal mechanisms that strive to project a positive image to the world do not have the chance to adapt. Caught off balance, our deeper instincts take over, and the world gets a glimpse of what we are really like under the surface.
This happened to Jesus one day when he was travelling with his followers. Unexpectedly, a man with leprosy came right up to him and begged him to make him better.
In those days leprosy was thought to be highly contagious; it was also understood to be a divine punishment for sin. Someone who had leprosy was not permitted to enter a town or village for fear of physical contact. Anyone who touched someone with leprosy immediately became ritually unclean, and could not return to normal life until they had performed a complex set of religious cleansing rituals. No wonder leprosy was greatly feared!
Most people, guided by social convention, would have backed off from the infected man. They would do so to protect themselves, claiming - in their defence - that they were following the requirements of law and custom. Jesus was not that sort of a person.
In that off-guard moment when Jesus reacted on instinct, his instinct was to reach out and to care. He touched the untouchable man. That’s the kind of person Jesus was. His impulse was not directed by personal fear, social habit or religious law, but by pity (arguably even anger) for the wretched circumstance that society had put the man in.
In the 21st century we also have our own social conventions that make us shy away from people in real need. We easily justify our lack of compassion citing something that we have seen on television, or been told by some expert of the other.
Jesus demonstrates that humanity can be better than that. We can become people whose primary instinct - like his - is to care and to help.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Found in the Crowd

Crowds are powerful things. Whether it is travelling at rush hour, shopping in the sales, enjoying a festival, or attending a demonstration, crowds affect us. They undermine our individuality. They suck us into communal behaviour. When we are in a crowd, whether we like it of not, we become part of that crowd. This can be a wonderful experience (at a party, a concert or a festival); it can also be terrifying.
Jesus, it seems, had a remarkable resistance to the draw of mob mentality. Even when jostled and shoved by those tightly packed around him in ancient Palestine’s narrow streets, he was able to maintain his own focus and be attentive to unique individuals around him.
On one notable day, Jesus was approaching the city of Jericho with a crowd of excited Galileans, who wrongly believed that their hero was travelling to Jerusalem to proclaim himself as king of the Jewish people. Just as this animated crowd were squeezing their way through the city gates, Jesus stopped. Above all the noise of the crowd he had heard a voice calling out for help. The voice belonged to a blind beggar called Bartimaeus. Jesus talked with him, cured him of his blindness, reassured him of the high value of his faith in God, and then resumed his journey.
A few minutes later, when the same crowd was squashed into the tightly packed streets of the city, Jesus stopped for another needy individual in the crowd. This wasn’t a handicapped beggar, but one of the richest (and possibly loneliest) individuals in Jericho: the chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus - a man famous for his finances, not his faith - was so keen to see Jesus that he climbed a tree to get a better look. Nobody else cared, but Jesus noticed, and invited himself to eat at Zacchaeus’ home.
I don’t know how Jesus picked out those two, contrasting, yet equally needy individuals from all the noise and bustle of that excited crowd. But he did. That’s the kind of person he was. That is what God is like.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Making Life Easier

When Jesus thought about the role that religion played in the lives of the people around him, he came up with the image of an ox, fitted with a cumbersome wooden yoke, trudging along, pulling a heavy load behind it. It is not an inspiring image.
We live in an age which is increasingly sceptical of organised religion. Many of the people around us would share Jesus’ impression. All too often, religion weighs people down and ties them up them up in its rules. What should be a liberating influence in their lives, becomes an additional complication, an additional expense - an additional burden to carry.
What Jesus observed was that for all the extra demand that religion put on people’s lives, it still didn’t bring them any closer to God. His life’s work was to show people that they could come to God and experience his love without any of the paraphernalia of religion, and without the heavy load of guilt that a law-based faith imposed on anyone who tried to follow it.
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Sadly, the Christian religion has repeatedly failed to follow Jesus’ lead. Christianity has defined its own laws, and established its own set of religious rituals; it has repeatedly made heavy demands on people’s finances, and imposed tight controls on their personal lives. Christianity has placed on its followers the very same burdens of guilt and fear that Jesus was seeking to alleviate.
We need to follow Jesus’ lead. Our role, as carriers of his beautiful message, is to lighten the load of people who feel weighed down by the complications of life, and assure them that close relationship with God is easy, not difficult. Our role is to release people from guilt, and remind them that the only law that matters is the call to love God and neighbour.
If we are not making life easier for people, if our yoke is not easy and our burden not light, then we are not doing the work of Jesus.