Friday, March 22, 2013

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 

Of our five senses, our sense of smell is the most underrated, the one we think of the least.
Yet it is one that when we lose it, we really notice.
Think about winter when you have a cold.
You can’t smell anything, and you can’t taste anything.

Think about the change of seasons.
That first smell of spring.
The smell of rain of warm concrete.
Think of the smell of a crisp frosty morning.

Think too of the power of smell in regards to bringing back memories. Or rather, how a certain smell can take you back to a place instantaneously.

The other week, I visited a family who were smokers and they had many dogs. I haven’t smelt that particular combination since visiting my grandparents when I was a child. Straight away, I was in their lounge. In my mind I could see how the sun used to hit the wall above my granny’s couch. I could feel the texture of their leather chairs. I could hear the classical radio station. All of this in a split second by smelling stale cigarette smoke and dog.

And think of dogs. Their sense of smell is 100 times more powerful than ours. Yet they love the smell of revolting things. Yet it is through their sense of smell that dogs work out whether someone is ok or not, whether to trust them or not. They can smell fear, joy, and sadness.

Our sense of smell is a remarkable thing.

Our sense of smell bypasses our intellect and our understanding.
It is primal and it gives us information that none of our other senses can.

In the Bible, smell is recorded in mainly two types of occasions:
love and death.
The Song of Songs repeatedly speaks of fragrances and scents in terms of love, and incidentally is the only other place in the bible where nard, or spikenard, what Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with, is mentioned.

But it is mentioned in terms of death, most often in terms of corpses.
It is not the fragrance of death, but rather the stench of death.

John in his gospel uses the sense of smell only twice:
once in today’s reading and the other in the section that immediately precedes it.
He uses the sense of smell to convey information to us that goes beyond our initial reading, goes beyond our intellect, and taps into our primal instincts.

John places two smells side by side.
The stench of death and the fragrance of love.
And he places them together.

At the raising of Lazarus, it is Mary’s sister who speaks of the sense of smell.

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."

This is Martha who busied herself in the kitchen, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.
When Martha complained to Jesus, he said:

"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
Lk 10:41-42

There, Jesus is telling her she is missing the point.
And at the raising of Lazarus, she has made the same mistake.
She is concerned about the smell of death, how the situation is hopeless. Jesus reminds her:

 "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 

She is focused on the death, not the promise of resurrection.

John uses the sense of smell to link this to the next scene.
The type of smell has changed.
It is not a stench, but a fragrance.
The sister has changed; it is Mary instead of Martha.
Mary, who chose the better part.

Instead of the stench of death, now the smell is nard.
This smell is associated with love.

Martha speaking about the stench shows us her not getting it.

"Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 

The smell of the nard that fills the room shows how Mary has got it; she has chosen the best part.

Mary’s gesture of anointing is an act of adoration. It is an act of overwhelming devotion. It is an act of abundance and extravagance. It is an act of love.

If our lives are filled with love for Christ, a love that is full of adoration and worship, we like Mary, have chosen the best part.

It is then that our lives will be filled with the fragrance of love of Christ, and fragrance that will permeate all aspects of our life. It is the fragrance of faith. It is the fragrance of love.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I am no longer worthy to be called your son

I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
But when this son of yours came back
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours
This parable is mainly known as “The Prodigal Son.”
While there is nothing wrong with that title, it doesn’t really do justice to the whole of the story.
The story is not just about the son.
It is about the father.
It is about the older brother.

 It is about the relationships between all three:
father and younger son, father and eldest son. It is about the relationship between the two brothers.

I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

This is how the youngest son feels when he comes to himself after his journey into dissolute living.

Why does this mean he is no longer worthy to be called his father’s son?

His behaviour is one reason, but we need to remember that he asked his father for his share of the inheritance.
This was due to him, yes, but not until his father died.
By asking for it early, he is saying that his father is dead to him.
There is great pain here. Yes his behaviour and squandering the money is selfish and short sighted, but his desire to get it before his father’s death is difficult.

 But when this son of yours came back

The son has returned back home, and his father has welcomed him back with an overwhelming joy.

The speech he has prepared in his mind

"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son;
treat me like one of your hired hands."

He does not get to finish: he is cut off by his father’s extravagant overwhelming love.
He doesn’t get to say: treat me like one of your hired hands.

He does repent, but he does not need to degrade himself.

But the speech when compared what the elder son says reveals much:

'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you,
and I have never disobeyed your command;
yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes,
you killed the fatted calf for him!' 

Where the younger brother felt he was no longer worthy of being called a son, the elder brother feels he has been treated like a slave.

Both siblings feel in some way they are no longer sons.
One feels he is not worthy, the other that he has not been treated like a son.

Furthermore, the elder son no longer feels kinship with his brother:

But when this son of yours came back

He has disowned his brother, and feels he has been treated like a slave by his father.
Note, he must have been feeling this resentment before his brother returned home.

So, who really is lost?
The younger son left, misbehaved, repents and returns.
The elder son stays, works hard, and feels mistreated.

Who is the lost son?
Who has the father really lost?

The elder son feels he has lost his brother and his father.
His resentment at his father’s forgiveness means he is removed from both his father and his brother.

God’s forgiveness and love for us is confronting and reassuring.
Like the younger son we sometimes go far away, selfishly doing what we want, not thinking of what God or those closest to us want and need from us.

Like the younger son, we also come to ourselves.
We realise how far we have gone, and make our way back.

Always, God is there. He only needs to feel our sorrow in what we have done.
He does not need us to denigrate ourselves.

But I can’t help but feel that those of us in the church are a bit more like the elder son.
We are always here.
We are the ones who keep the place going.
We are the ones who pray for everyone.
We are the ones who will help the dying.
We are the ones who deserve God’s love.

We feel like we have worked like slaves, keeping our noses clean, doing everything right.

We see those outside of us.
We may say they are as deserving of God’s love as we are, but do we really mean it?
Are we not a bit like the elder son?

But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him.

Sometimes it is very difficult to accept how forgiving God is.
It can feel like we have been ripped off

I have never disobeyed your command;
yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.

We do not earn God’s love.
We do not earn God’s forgiveness.
It is by God’s grace that we receive his love and forgiveness.

And God asks us to do the same to others.

Forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us

The father says to the elder son:

'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 
He is saying:
I love you.
I have always loved you.
I am with you to the end of the age.
My love is big enough for everyone there has ever been and ever will be.
It does not mean I love you any less, or my love is worth any less.

God forgives us all we do wrong.
He asks us to do the same for others he loves.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 

With these words, Jesus speaks of the endless love God has for his people.
The imagery of wings comes straight from the psalms and the prophets.
Nothing new is being said about God.
What is different is the context it is being said in and to.
What is different is the person who is saying it,
and what he is about to do to show how much God means it.

It is important to understand what Jesus is saying here.
It is likely he is quoting a lament, one which was likely uttered by God.
It sounds ancient, like a long lost refrain of lament,
one that has been repeated and repeated over centuries.
It aches with yearning, it hangs like a heavy cloud with sorrow.
When Jesus says it, the past times it references become tangible,
all the sorrow felt by God is present.
It has broken through into the now.
Now that it is present, now Jesus must act.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! 

God sends his prophets to turn his people back to him.
When the people err, God does not punish,
but gently sends someone to tell them how to get back with God

We read in the Second book of Chronicles that the people had become unfaithful, following the ways of other nations. But:

The LORD, the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words,
and scoffing at his prophets, 

And the Book of Nehemiah:
Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. 

But even with such responses, such rejection of his ways, God does not give up.

Jesus follows his lament of what has been,
with a lament of what God,
what He has longed to do,
what he wishes he could.
What he will do, and do that very thing in Jerusalem

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 

This is a remarkable image. Jesus uses feminine imagery to describe the love and unrelenting forgiveness of God.

as a hen gathers her brood under her wings

The Prophet Isaiah expressed God in feminine terms.

For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (49:13-16)

Both Jesus and Isaiah use feminine imagery when describing the overwhelming compassion of God for his people.

Imagery of God as a bird, with wings protecting is quite common in the Old Testament:

Throughout the psalms we hear this:

Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings. (61:4)

And the prophet Isaiah:

Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it. (31:5)

And in Deuteronomy:
As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions (32:11-12)

Jesus uses these two images: that of the feminine, and that of a bird,
and he combines them into one of motherly love and protection.
The image of the wings stretching to gather rather shielding works when we think what will happen to Jesus when he finally goes to Jerusalem.

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 

But the wings will become arms.
They will be stretched to gather,
but they will be stretched and nailed onto a cross.
It is in this that he will gather his people.
It is in this that God will show his endless love.
Not in protection by wings, but in the outstretched arms of Jesus upon the cross. Not soaring high above, but lifted up from the earth,
drawing all men to himself, gathering all people to God.

It is in Jesus arms stretched in the ultimate sacrifice that God will show how a hen gathers her brood. It is in Jesus arms wide open upon the cross that God will show his unrelenting love for his people.

If you are the Son of God...

Over this Epiphanytide, we have heard about who Jesus is, how his true nature was revealed to the world, from his Baptism by John, through to his revealing of his divinity in the Transfiguration.

The point of today’s  gospel is another revealing, but more about how than who.

We also meet another character, the devil.
He too reveals himself as he really is.
Not as evil personified, but more a tempter, a giver of options.

The way the two interact over these three scenes reveals much about Jesus Messiahship, and the devil’s methods and role in the divine economy.
The conversation between these two also reveals much to us about both their roles in our lives.

Jesus has just been baptised by John, and now led by the Spirit, goes out into the wilderness. We have to assume that this time is one of great contemplation and meditation for Jesus. He has been in deep communion with the Father. He has been learning of his mission.

He is tempted by the devil.
In the three temptations, he offers Jesus choices.
All of the choices actually seem ok, if not downright reasonable.
But the way Jesus deals with them shows what his communion with the father in the wilderness had taught him about his mission.

The devil said to him,
"If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 

If you are the Son of God.


 The devil is trying to just break in the tiniest amount of doubt. It is all he needs. He can’t work with 100% certainty here, but he only needs 0.1% to wriggle his way into consciousness. His starting point is self doubt.

command this stone to become a loaf of bread

Now this is not unreasonable. Jesus has been starving for 40 days. He would be very hungry.
And we know that Jesus will multiply loaves of bread to feed 5000 later on.
 If Jesus were to do this, people would gather around him, he would have an instant following.
"It is written,
'One does not live by bread alone.'" 

It is not the time for eating.
 Jesus time in the wilderness is to hear the will of the Father.
When Jesus does provide food as a miracle, it is not for himself, but for others.
It is done in compassion for those others who are hungry, not for his own cause.

The temptation to “do” a miracle is rejected.
 It would have been an easy way to gain followers, but Jesus’ time in communion with the Father has shown him that love is the way of the mission.

Then the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.
He says he can give all of these to Jesus, he has the authority to do so, but only if Jesus will worship him.

What the devil is offering Jesus is the Kingdom of David, but as the whole world.
This is what the Messiah was supposed to achieve.
Scripture had told the Israelites this is what would occur.

The devil is crafty.
He is offering Jesus exactly what everyone expected of him.
This was surely his mission, and here it was, his for the taking.

But Jesus has heard otherwise.
What he has heard is that this is not the will of the Father, but the will of the people.

The temptation here can be seen as “the old way.”
That was the will of God, but since the incarnation, things have changed.
What was expected will now happen in a different way.

Then the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem, to the top of the Temple.
He quotes scripture to Jesus about how God will protect him if were to throw himself from the top.

'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

If he is truly the Messiah, there is no way he will fall to the ground.
God will save him.
The temple would be filled with people, all would witness this divine miracle, and Jesus would have an easy time of securing a devoted following.
Glory and recognition.

But Jesus knows his mission will end differently.
His time in Jerusalem is not one of glory and recognition.
In his passion, he will experience rejection, shame, and humiliation.
This is the way of the Messiah.

These temptations show us how Jesus will go about his mission, about what the Messiah will be.

But they also show us how the devil works. They show us how temptation works in our lives.
The temptations Jesus faces aren’t evil in themselves.
But they are easy way out options. They are quick fix.

All of them would get the job done. All of them would reveal Jesus as the Messiah of expectation. They would all give him an instant following. But, they all do it in a way that is not right.

This is how the devil works. He tempts with an option that will get the desired result, but ultimately will go against what we are trying to achieve.

Most temptation works in this way. It is the easy way. it is the way that lets something get passed as “good enough.”  Once done, it is easier to do again. And so on.

This is how the devil and temptation work most often.
By offering an easy way, a way of cutting corners.

The way to avoid such a temptation is the same way Jesus did. By listening to God’s will in our lives, we can hear the temptations for what they are.

And if we are strong, prayerful, and filled with the spirit, we can almost be grateful for them.
Because it is often by seeing the wrong way that the right way becomes clear.