When you were a child, who or what did you want to be when you grew up? As a child, I dreaded the Christmas visits to aunts and uncles. Every year they would ask me the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hadn’t a clue. In many societies, you are expected to join the family trade or you may become an apprentice to a master craftsman. That’s how my grandfather Lewis learnt his trade. My great-grandmother paid a local carpenter to take Lewis on as a young boy and teach him carpentry skills. I still have his articles of indenture. My grandfather became his pupil, a learner. Then when he too became a master craftsman, he took on my father who became his disciple. I broke the family tradition although I’m pretty good at putting Ikea furniture together. The greatest tragedy in life is not death, but life without meaning, without purpose. Many people go through life without ever discovering God’s purpose for their lives. We are not an accident. We were created for a purpose. We were made to have meaning.
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” (Luke 2:15-21)
There is one word that best describes the night the Lord Jesus was born – ordinary. The sky was ordinary. An occasional gust stirred the leaves and chilled the air. The stars were like diamonds sparkling on black velvet. Fleets of clouds floated in front of the moon. It was a beautiful night – a night worth peeking out of your bedroom window to admire – but not an unusual one. No reason to expect a surprise. Nothing to keep you awake. An ordinary night with an ordinary sky. The sheep were ordinary too. Some fat. Some scrawny. Some with barrel bellies. Some with twig legs. Common animals. No fleece made of gold. No history makers. No blue-ribbon winners. They were simply sheep – sleeping silhouettes on a hillside. And the shepherds? Peasants they were. Ancestors of today’s Bedouin. Wearing all the clothes they owned. Smelling like sheep and looking just as woolly. True they were conscientious, and hardy as well, to spend every night outside guarding their flocks. But you won’t find their staffs in a museum. You won’t find their writings in a library. No one asked for their opinion on social justice or the meaning of the Torah. They were anonymous, simple, ordinary people.
I was recently invited to give a series of lectures in a dozen or so universities across Iran and dialogued with Islamic scholars in Qom. The Q&A session after each presentation was a lively affair – longer in fact than my presentations. The most frequently asked question concerned the reliability of the Bible. What did I think about Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code? Apparently more than a billion people worldwide believe the views popularized in the Da Vinci Code.
They believe the message of the Bible has been corrupted and distorted, that Jesus is not the Son of God, but a prophet and that he did not die on the cross or rise from the dead.
They believe that in 325AD the Emperor Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament we now have which portrays Jesus as a divine figure. Dozens of other “gospels” were censored or destroyed. Constantine actually summoned the Council of Nicaea to end disunity caused by the Arian controversy. Arius taught that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was less than the Father. The Council was attended by around 300 bishops. The Arian Creed was soundly rejected. The Nicene Creed was accepted by 298 Bishops. 2 were against. (i.e., over 99% in favour). The Council of Nicaea recognized Jesus as “begotten not made, of the same substance (homousios) as the Father.”
Israel, Palestine, the Promised Land, the Holy Land, the very name we use says as much about us and our presuppositions and aspirations as about this inscrutable, hypnotic, exotic location. Historically the birthplace of the Judeo-Christian heritage, it is today claimed by two peoples, the Jews and Palestinians, its holy sites shared, at times uneasily, by three religions, Jewish, Christian and Moslem, often in close proximity as at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem. Baraba Tuchman summarises some of the reasons why this place holds such fascination to so many,
More blood has been shed for Palestine than for any other spot on earth. To Protestant England it was not only, as Lord Curzon said, “the holiest space of ground on the face of the globe,” the land of the Scriptures, the land of the Crusades, the land “to which all our faces are turned when we are finally laid in our graves in the churchyard.” It was also the geographical junction between East and West, the bridge-head between three continents, the focal point in the strategy of empire…
Few countries attract so much media coverage, or arouse such intense religious feeling and political controversy. Yet it has been the same for countless generations. Why have people for millennia, longed to live here, or make a pilgrimage to this land? What is the fascination this land has over so many people around the world?
The term Jihad tends to be associated with Islam – indeed for some, the two words are synonymous. But the fact is violent extremism is found in all religions. I could easily quote Islamic or Jewish leaders who justify the use of violence in the name of God, but I will give you one example from a well-known Christian. Following the tragedy of 9/11 and destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, multi-bestselling author and Christian journalist Anne Coulter, wrote,
“We don’t need long investigations of the forensic evidence to determine with scientific accuracy the person or persons who ordered this specific attack. We don’t need an “international coalition.” We don’t need a study on “terrorism.” … We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
In my opinion, too many evangelical leaders have also been quick to endorse Mr Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” Thankfully, many Christians in the USA as well as Europe and Asia repudiate views such as these as a gross distortion of Christianity and grave insult to the teachings of Jesus the Christ.
In his short but passionate little book, Chosen? Walter Brueggemann addresses some of the important questions regarding God’s purposes for Israel and the Church. For example, are contemporary Israeli citizens the descendants of the Israelites in the Bible whom God called chosen? Was the promise of land to Abraham permanent and irrevocable? What about others living in the promised land? Who are the Zionists, and what do they believe? The subtitle of the book tells us where he intends to look for answers, “Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” His publisher, Westminster John Knox, promises,
“The reader will get answers to their key questions about how to understand God’s promises to the biblical people often called Israel and the conflict between Israel and Palestine today.”
Chosen? comprises 59 pages of scripture commentary in four short chapters, a Q&A with the author, a glossary and 20-page study guide to facilitate group discussion around each of the chapters. The four chapters are:
- Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
- God’s Chosen People, Claim and Problem
- Holy Land?
- Zionism and Israel
The book also contains very helpful guidelines for respectful dialogue first published by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1992. Significantly, the title includes a question mark. I added a question mark to the titles of two of my own books: Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? and Zion’s Christian Soldiers? The Bible, Israel and the Church.[i] Walter is recognising, as I did, that views differ on whether the Jews are God’s chosen people, even though, unlike me, he personally concludes that they are.
When you find yourself in deep trouble, when the rubber has hit the fan, it really does not matter whose fault it was or what caused it. All you really want is someone to help, someone to understand, someone to get you out of trouble. You see dying people, broken people, hurt people, used and abused people, don’t need theological explanations, or self-help tutorials, they need practical help, not next month, not next week, but today, right now, this very minute.
In Matthew 15 we meet a mother. A desperate mother. A mother with a sick child. Imagine that you’ve carried this baby in your womb for nine long months. You’ve been through the excruciating pain of childbirth. You’ve nursed her, fed her, washed her, changed her. Watched her grow, take her first step, say her first word. You can still remember her first day of school. How pretty she looked in that dress. The first time you let her out of your sight. She’s your little girl. Your little girl. And this was her little girl. Maybe she had been sick before. A cold here. A headache there, maybe a bruise or bump from time to time. But nothing ever like this before. In the daytime she screams and shouts constantly. You can’t put clothes on her because she’ll tear them off. Her hair is no longer washed and tidy with sweet little pig-tails. Her hair is all pulled out at the roots and the remaining ones are left sticking up. Strange voices come out of her mouth. She can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t play. But one thing is constant, those eyes. There’s a strange look in her eyes. Eyes that tell you that this is no ordinary sickness, no ordinary problem, no ordinary trouble. She is …. and you don’t want to even say the word… possessed.
On my first visit to Palestine, about 25 years ago, our tour guide was a Messianic Jew called Zvi. One day, someone in the group asked him a question about the Palestinians. He was prepared. He gave each of us a piece of paper with a quote by Golda Meir,
“It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
We didn’t ask any more questions until we got to Nazareth and met one of the local pastors. He gave us a short talk about why he was an Arab, a Palestinian, an Israeli and a Christian. I learnt that day that it was wiser and safer to let people self-identify and not presume to tell them who they are or are not.
Who am I? The world out there has plenty of ideas. Some would say I am who I was – the quest to trace our family tree, to know who are ancestors were can define us. My ancestors were here before yours were. Others insist I am what I achieve. What university did you go to? For others, I am what I drive. For some it is all about where I live. In a Settlement or an unregistered village? For some I am what I eat. For many I am what I do. For some I am who I love. For some I am what I know. For others I am who I know. For lots of people I am what I possess. But many people just don’t know. They are searching for meaning and purpose. They are trapped not knowing who they really are. Who am I? The Bible says, we will never know who we are until we decide who Jesus is. Because Jesus says, “I am who I follow”.
1 Corinthians 13 is probably the most widely read passage at weddings. True, it’s the most beautiful description there is in Scripture about love – yet the context of the passage is not about marriage. It is about serving one another and when you think about it, that is what marriage is really all about.
I’d like us to examine this passage under three headings:
The motive is Love (12:31-13:3)
The quality is Divine (13:4-8)
The purpose is maturity (13:9-13).
- The Motive is Love
“And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3)
Do you see how important love is? The gifts of prophecy, knowledge, faith, giving, mentioned here are valuable or worthless depending on one thing: Motive. Listen to how these verses are translated in the Message translation.
“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
The question I must ask myself therefore is this: Why am I serving? Why am I not serving? What is my motive? Our motive must be love. Continue reading
At 4 a.m. on May 27 — some 90 minutes before the start of Ramadan — a hunger strike by nearly 1500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails came to an end, exactly 40 days after it was declared. They had refused food in protest at the denial of their human rights. The demands of the strike for freedom and dignity were straightforward – for the right to family visits, the ability to speak to their family by telephone, to receive medical care, not to be subject to isolation or to imprisonment without charge or trial under administrative detention.
Two prominent Christian leaders, Gregory Lahham III, former Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, and Archbishop Atallah Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, joined in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners as did many other people of faith around the world. Patriarch Gregory, who is 83 years old, said in an interview with Al-Mayadeen TV, “I say to the prisoners, we are with you in your sacrifice for Palestine.” Archbishop Atallah, said the prisoners’ cause is the “issue of all Palestinian people,” stressing his support for the prisoners’ just demands. He went on to say, “We belong to this land and we belong to this people who fights for freedom. We will always remain biased to the just Palestinian cause.” The Patriarch and Archbishop joined social activists and supporters all over the world in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Continue reading