The Good Samaritan

Sermon preached at St James’ Church, Bolton, Bradford on 30 August 2015

Luke 10:25-37

Words are strange things aren’t they? Little bundles of sound that are right now leaving my mouth and floating through the air to enter your ears where, hopefully, they have the same meaning for you as they have for me as I’m speaking them. Unfortunately, though, they don’t always do that, do they? Words that are spoken, or written, can mean one thing to the person who speaks or writes them and something entirely different to the person who hears or reads them …

Anyone seen that delightful film ‘Paddington’? Yes? Then you’ll recall the hilarious moment where the little bear from the Andes, still adapting to life in Britain, is about to descend into the London Underground when he suddenly spots a sign saying “Dogs Must Be Carried on the Escalator.” Oh no! He doesn’t have a dog! What is he to do? Well he rushes off and finds one, doesn’t he, so that he will not be breaking the law by going down to the platform empty-handed.

But even when the sense is clear, a word can have different meanings, can’t it? At Crown Court recently, there was a young chap on trial, charged with dangerous driving. ‘Will you tell the Court what gear you were in at the time of the collision?’ asked the barrister. ‘Just the usual,’ said the young man, ‘jeans, trainers and a sweat-shirt’. ‘Gear’, you see, has more than one meaning. And so, of course, do lots of other words.

As some of you know, before I retired (long time ago now) I was a tax specialist – an expert in tax law. Which meant I had to spend a great deal of time ferreting out from tax cases and Hansard and so forth precisely what particular words and phrases used in the various Finance Acts actually meant: what they included … and, usually more to the point, what they didn’t include. The law said something or other was taxable … but what exactly was that something or other? My job was to find out.

One of the more famous tax cases I remember concerned the humble Jaffa cake. Was it cake – as its name suggested – or was it a biscuit? Huge sums of money were at stake. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs claimed it was a biscuit and so should attract VAT at the standard rate. McVities – who I understand still produce 2,000 Jaffa cakes a minute – argued no, it was indeed a cake and should therefore be zero-rated. The Tribunal who heard the case weighed up the pros and cons. The product’s name was, they thought, neither here nor there. But it was a fact that, if you went shopping for Jaffa cakes, you would find them on the biscuit counter and not on the cake counter. However, a Jaffa cake was, they discovered, made from a thin batter rather than the thicker dough usually used for biscuits; and because of its spongy texture it could be bent, whereas a biscuit was usually crisp and could be snapped. Not only that, but they found that when Jaffa cakes went stale they became hard like a cake rather than going soft like a biscuit. So what were they? All things considered, the Tribunal decided a Jaffa cake was indeed a cake after all. Result … McVities 1, Revenue 0. And it all came down to definition.

Definition and law belong together. Wherever there are laws there are people and things to which the law applies and people and things to which it doesn’t apply. But which are which? You need definitions to decide. And that applied just as much to the Law which God had given the Jews as it did to any other kind of law. God’s law said, for instance, that you mustn’t work on the Sabbath. But what was work? The law itself didn’t say. So the Jews had legal specialists – experts in the law who were known as scribes – who tried to interpret the law and set the definitions. The law was the law and had to be obeyed. If you were a Jew, your relationship with God depended on it. Obey it and God loved you; break it and you were out in the cold … or down in the heat perhaps. But you had to know what the law was if you were going to obey it or break it – and that’s where these lawyers came in. Their business was to tell you. And it was one of those lawyers who popped up in this morning’s reading. He was there in the crowd around Jesus.

Now it says he was wanting to test Jesus but that doesn’t mean we must think of him as a bad man or as someone out to get Jesus. No, not at all. He would have been passionate about the law and it was no doubt his passion that took him to Jesus that day. Knowing that Jesus was claiming to speak on behalf of God himself, he had a very important question to put to him. One to which he genuinely wanted God’s own answer. ‘What,’ he asked Jesus, ‘must I do to inherit eternal life?’ In other words: ‘Which parts of God’s law are so essential that they encompass all the rest of the law and will, if obeyed, unlock the very gate to God’s kingdom?’

‘Well … you tell me,’ says Jesus. ‘You’re the lawyer. What do you think?’

‘Hmn. Well, first must be the command we recite every morning and evening – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,’ says the lawyer. ‘And I would add to that the command: Love your neighbour as yourself.’

‘Couldn’t agree more,’ says Jesus. ‘So … why not go and do it?!’

Maybe there was a little laughter from the crowd at this point. They liked to see a lawyer being put in his place, and that’s what Jesus – in the nicest way possible – had just done. The lawyer was beginning to look rather foolish. So ‘seeking to justify himself’ the Bible says … in other words, seeking to show that he wasn’t being quite as stupid as the crowd seemed to think he was … the lawyer whacks the ball back into Jesus’ court with another question – a question of definition. ‘That’s all well and good,’ he says. ‘But who is my neighbour?’

He knows (as does everyone else) that ‘a neighbour’ includes one’s family and presumably the people one shares a pew with in the synagogue on Saturday; but who else? It’s not an easy question to answer. The Hebrew word for neighbour, you see, had a wide range of meanings. One of them was ‘friend’, another was ‘workmate’, but yet another was ‘fellow citizen’. So, the scribe is saying to Jesus: ‘When God commands me to love my neighbour, who is it exactly that he’s commanding me to love. Is it just my family and friends? Or does it extend to my workmates whether I’m friends with them or not. Or might it even extend to all other Jews? And if it does extend to all other Jews, is it only ‘good’ Jews or all Jews? It’s an important question, Jesus. I really want to know. Loving can be costly. I don’t want to go spending love on people who don’t fall within the definition. Where do I draw the line? What are the limits? Where are the boundaries?’

So Jesus tells him – and the crowd around him – a story. A parable. You know what a parable is, don’t you It’s just a story; but a story with a twist in the tale. A story that’s designed to make a point and to make it in a memorable and unexpected and even shocking way. So Jesus tells this parable, this story, of a man who sets off from Jerusalem on his donkey to travel the long and winding road to Jericho in the Jordan valley bottom far below. Seventeen rocky and very dangerous miles that – despite the pictures in Bible Stories for children – nobody in their right mind would ever travel on foot. If you valued your life, you went down the Jericho road on a donkey as fast as you possibly could. That’s because it was notorious in Jesus’ day for the bands of robbers that lurked in its nooks and crannies and behind its rock-falls, just waiting to set upon anyone who turned the corner and strayed within their range. And in Jesus’ story it was just such a band that fell upon the man the story seems to be about – beating him up, stripping him of his clothes, stealing his money, his donkey – everything he had – and leaving him there at the roadside, slowly bleeding to death.

By now the crowd are hooked. They’ve heard such tales. They know all about that road. They dread ever having to travel on it themselves. The poor devil! What’s going to happen to him now?

‘Well, what happens,’ says Jesus, ‘is that there’s a clip-clop in the distance, getting closer and closer, and around the corner comes … a priest!’

‘A priest, eh? Well thank goodness for that. Let’s hope he’s in time. Let’s hope he can do something to save the poor guy lying at the roadside.’

‘Alas, no,’ says Jesus … ‘The priest could help but he doesn’t. He takes one look at the dying man, digs his heels in the donkey’s side and gallops off. I mean, who knows? The robbers might still be around! Self-preservation! You’ve got to save your own skin while you’ve got the chance.’

The crowd shake their heads in disgust. ‘Cor. Typical!’ says someone.

‘Ah, but wait,’ says Jesus. ‘There’s someone else coming. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. It’s a Levite on his donkey.’ (You can think of Levites as being like church wardens or readers. They’re not Priests but they’re still very religious and do a lot of stuff in the temple.) So here round the corner comes a Levite.

‘Oh, thank heavens for that. So he stops, does he?’

‘No. Not a bit of it. He takes a look, but then he too takes off in a cloud of dust, galloping down the road after the priest.’

‘Oh, heck. So is that it? Is the man in the gutter doomed to die?’

‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Can you hear? Clip-clop, clip-clop. There’s someone else coming.’

‘Ah …’ The crowd have got the hang of it now. They can see where this is going. It’s an ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman’ story isn’t it? They’ve had the priest – the religious professional. They’ve had the Levite – the half-and-half. And now they’re expecting the real ordinary bloke, salt of the earth – just like one of themselves, coming round the corner; and at last there’ll be someone to do something for the poor devil lying in the pool of blood with the vultures circling overhead.

‘But no,’ says Jesus, ‘Coming round the corner is a … wait for it … clip-clop, clip-clop … a SAMARITAN!

‘Nooo! Samaritans are the pits. They something you scrape off the bottom of your sandal. The only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. What’s a Samaritan doing in the story?’

‘Well,’ says Jesus, ‘this one is coming to do what the priest and Levite failed to do. Having come round the corner he sees the half-dead Jew and in an instant, without a thought for his own safety, he’s off his donkey and running to help him. Moved with compassion, he applies first aid – uses oil and wine to clean and sterilise the wounds – bandages him up (presumably by tearing his turban or some of his own garments into strips) – puts him on his donkey and gets him to the nearest inn on the outskirts of Jericho. Not only that, but he gives the inn-keeper enough money to look after the man for over three weeks. “And don’t worry if it costs more,” he says, “I’ll sort it out when I return.”’

The crowd are silent. Stunned. Speechless. Jesus turns to the lawyer. ‘So,’ he says, ‘the question I want to ask you is not whether the man who fell among thieves falls within the legal definition of “neighbour” for any of those who encountered him on the Jericho road; but which of those who encountered him on that road him showed a true spirit of neighbourliness towards him?’

There can, of course, be only one answer and the lawyer gives it. ‘The one who showed him mercy,’ he says, grudgingly. He cannot even bring himself to utter the word ‘Samaritan’.

‘Yes,’ says Jesus. ‘So now you go and do the same.’

Notice that Jesus never spells out for the lawyer who a ‘neighbour’ is. He never actually answers the lawyer’s question. Nor will he answer our question today if we’re asking him whether, for example, those refugees and asylum seekers stacked up now in ‘the Jungle’ in Calais and longing to get into Britain, are our ‘neighbours’. And that’s for the very good reason that the question is unanswerable, and should never be asked. It should never be asked because love doesn’t define neighbours, it discovers them. If you are looking for limits before you start to show love, you have no love in your heart to show and it’s impossible for you to love your neighbour anyway. If you do have love in your heart, it will show you who your neighbours are without your ever having to define them. That’s why one newspaper got it absolutely right when it said this last week that Britain doesn’t have a problem with immigrants, it has a problem with compassion. The Samaritan was ‘moved with compassion’ and that’s what caused him to recognise the injured Jew as his neighbour.

Now I suppose we could leave it there. We’ve discovered the point of Jesus’ parable. That love discovers neighbours; it doesn’t define them. That they’re just there – the people, whoever they are, who fall within the circle of mercy and compassion that is created by our love. That the bigger our love, the wider the circle and the more ‘neighbours’ we shall find it to include.

But I cannot leave it there without pointing out something that you may not yet have realised. That on a very deep and meaningful and personal level, this story is actually about Jesus himself … and us. A great many of Jesus’ stories are.

In the Gospel of John – chapter 8 – the religious leaders come to Jesus and set about insulting him in the worst way they know how. ‘Are you not a Samaritan,’ they say, ‘and demon-possessed?’

‘No, I am not demon-possessed,’ Jesus replies. But please note, he doesn’t say, ‘I am not a Samaritan.’ Why? Because he’s happy to be called a Samaritan. He’s happy to be the Good Samaritan. He’s happy to be the one who – though despised and rejected of men – becomes their saviour and the saviour of all the world.

And we, of course – you and I – each one of us – is the man at the roadside. We have all fallen among thieves. We have all been robbed of the riches that were our birth-right as children of God. We have all been beaten up by the circumstances and traumas of our lives. We have all been left for dead at one time or another. And indeed there are perhaps those of you here who are feeling half-dead and abandoned even now.

Not that you’re going to let anyone see it, of course. No more than I am. Because we cover up, don’t we? It’s what we do – we’re British. Stiff upper lip and all that. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. Put on a brave face. Big boys don’t cry.

But none of it fools Jesus, thank God. He is on his donkey – he likes riding donkeys – and he’s coming down your Jericho road and mine; just as he has been for the last two thousand years. He is the Good Samaritan after all – so where else would he be. He’s looking for beaten up people like you and me. And when he sees us, he stops and moved with compassion* he comes to us. He comes to us this morning. This is a healing service and, if we are willing, Jesus will come to us right here, in this place, to bind up our wounds; to put us on his donkey; and to carry us to safety. His love is so great that the circle of his mercy and compassion is without limit, so there is no-one here who is not his neighbour. And he loves his neighbour. He loves you. The only question is: Will you let him be your good Samaritan this morning?

In a moment we’re going to play some gentle music and I’m going to invite you to come to the Communion rail here, if you wish to do so, and receive an anointing with oil – just as the man at the roadside was anointed with oil by the good Samaritan. You can come for yourself or for another. It’s all very simple … just come, be anointed, go back, and pray. But before we do that, let me pray for all of us …

Lord Jesus, Good Samaritan to us all. Draw close to each one of us now in your mercy and compassion. Stoop to bind up our wounds of body, mind and spirit. Heal us by your grace; and to take us to the inn of your abiding presence where we can find comfort, sustenance, shelter and peace, and be made whole again. For your kingdom’s sake. Amen.

*  The Greek verb for ‘to be moved with compassion’ is splagchnizomai and, apart from here, is only ever used of Jesus himself in the Gospels.

A poem which may be sung as a hymn to the tune Westminster or any other ‘My God how wonderful thou art’ tune.

Not to appease an angry God
Nor satisfy his wrath
Did Jesus Cross-ward set his face
And tread his lonely path.

His sacrifice – like that of lambs
Slain in the temple court –
Was not of penalty but praise,
And no forgiveness bought.

Forgiveness from his Father flowed,
As ever, full and free;
But that we might its sweetness taste
He brought us to the Tree.

Repentance there – the Father’s gift
To every love-washed soul –
Unstops our hearts and ushers in
The life that makes us whole.

Christ died to carry into God
Our fear and pain and woe
That God in Christ hung on the Cross
Humanity might know.

Christ’s heart in God thus ever beats
With understanding grace
So naught but arms of welcome can
Await the human race.

One day, within those loving arms,
All stumbling souls will find
The Father of their heart’s desire,
All merciful and kind.

Then – when God’s love has had it’s way –
And all the lost are found,
We’ll join together in his feast
And joy will know no bounds.

(c) Neil D Booth 2014

Always Enough of Everything

The point is this:the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9.6-8.

On British television, the BBC regularly shows repeats of Dad’s Army – a sitcom first broadcast from 1968 to 1977 about the Home Guard (local defence volunteers) during the Second World War. An episode that I watched last night had a scene in which we saw Corporal Jones going about his daily business as the local butcher in Walmington-on-Sea. There was a long queue of women in his shop and the woman at the front handed over her ration books.

jones‘Oh dear, Mrs Peters,’ says Jones, ‘You haven’t got much there. Only a shilling on each.’

‘Is that all I’ve got?’ she asks.

‘I’m afraid so,’ says Jones. ‘I can let you have three little lamb chops and a bit of corned beef.’

Mrs Fox, the lady next in the queue, fares a little better, but none of them get all that they need, for those were days of great hardship and austerity. Food was in short supply and by 1942 almost everything apart from vegetables and bread was being rationed.

Back then, in the UK, you lived out of the insufficiency of your ration book.

Well that little episode must still have been in my mind this morning, I suppose, when I read the passage set out above from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians; for its last sentence really made me sit up with a jolt. What was it that Paul was saying? God is able to provide me with every blessing in abundance? He can see to it that I always have enough of everything? Really? Well if that is so, why do I so often live out of what I see as the insufficiency of my ration book?

I began to think of the kind of things I say that betray my ‘poverty’ mentality:

I’m running out of sympathy.
My patience is exhausted.
It’s way beyond my means.
My compassion’s wearing a bit thin.
I simply don’t have the time.
I’ve nothing left to give.

The trouble is that in church on Sunday I pay lip service to a very different way of going on. I happily sing Don Moen’s lovely song (based on Joel 3.10 KJV) ‘Give thanks with a grateful heart’ and bellow out along with the rest:

And now let the weak say “I am strong.”
Let the poor say “I am rich
because of what the Lord has done for us.”

But the reality is that I live as if I am weak and poor and incapable of meeting most of the needs I would encounter if I truly engaged with those around me. If what Paul says is true, however, then I can afford to be generous with time, with money, with grace, mercy, compassion, patience … everything.

There really is no ration book. I’m not going to run out of anything.

For the fact is that I am no longer living in the pig sty of the far country where I have nothing. I am now in the Father’s house. I have the best robe on me. I have a ring on my finger and shoes on my feet. And my Father is rich beyond all imagining. Psalm 50.10 says he owns the cattle on a thousand hills (so forget about meat rationing, Mr Jones.) And the promise is that he will ‘fully satisfy every need’ of mine according to those riches – ‘his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4.9).

It has ever been so for those who belong to God and recognise his ownership. ‘The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want,’ said David. Or as the hymn puts it:

The King of Love my shepherd is;
his goodness faileth never.
I nothing lack if I am his
and he is mine for ever.

That is the truth. The truth I need to be living in and living out of today. The truth that I will ‘always have enough of everything.’ Wow!

And this, of course, finally makes sense of a verse that has often puzzled me: Luke 8.18 ‘For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.’ In other words; when I recognise the abundance that is mine in Christ and begin to live out of that abundance, the well will never run dry. The five loaves and two fishes will continue to multiply. But if I choose to deny the abundance I have and resolve to live as one who has nothing to spare and nothing to give, the abundance itself that truly was mine will, sadly, be lost to me.

Night Vision

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John 1.35-51.

I find it quite astonishing how sometimes the Spirit will throw things together (Greek: paraballō!) so that we are suddenly able to grasp some truth that has remained hidden from us before. This has happened for me just now – during last 24 hours – and I’d like to share the experience in this post.

First, yesterday morning, I just ‘came across’ a few lines in a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that so captivated me that I decided to commit them to memory. They are from ‘Aurora Leigh’ and they are these:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes …

Second, early yesterday evening, there ‘happened to be’ a natural history feature on the BBC One Show where the nocturnal activities of stag beetles were being monitored using an infra red camera that made the invisible visible.

Third, last night, I ‘chanced upon’ a podcast of a short homily by the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr in which he made this startling comment: ‘Spiritual seeing is always a participation in the eyes of God.‘ In other words, we only see truly – see things as they really are – when we see through God’s eyes and not our own.

Then, fourthly, I read this passage from John this morning and found certain words leaping out at me. Here it is again with those words bolded:

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

What a lot of looking and seeing is going on in this passage – by John, by the disciples and by Jesus himself.

Jesus always sees with the eyes of God and it is with those eyes that he ‘sees’ Andrew and another disciple (John) begin to follow him. That is what makes him turn to see with his physical eyes what he has already seen with the eyes of God. But seeing them with his human eyes, he then sees into their hearts with the eyes of God and observes the spiritual search that is going on there. That is why he asks them what they are looking for – what they are trying to see but are unable to see. They don’t know how to answer his question, so they say the first thing that pops into their heads: ‘Where are you staying?’ And, at that, Jesus appears to answer their question, but in reality says something far more profound. ‘Come and see,’ he says. But it is not ‘come and see where I am staying;’ it is ‘come and really see.’ ‘Come and see with my eyes. Come and see the world and everything in it in a completely different way. Come and see the hidden reality. Come and see with the eyes of God.’

All true seeing takes place as a result of coming to Jesus. All true seeing is through his eyes, and his eyes only – the eyes of God.

On a superficial level, Andrew and John came and saw where Jesus was staying; but immediately, in starting to follow Jesus, they began to see so much more. Andrew tells his brother: ‘We have found the Messiah.’ What insight! In coming to Jesus, Andrew had begun to see with the eyes of God.

It is a similar story with Nathanael. Jesus sees him on two levels – with the eyes of man and with the eyes of God – and then Nathanael, in coming to Jesus and beginning to follow him, begins to see with the eyes of God too. ‘You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ he exclaims. Again, what insight!

And, at that, Jesus promises Nathanael something wonderful – something that I believe he promises to you and me too … That we will see greater things than these. That we will see heaven opened.

jacobsladderWhat does Jesus mean by that? Well, the story to which he refers is that of Jacob in Genesis 28. Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau whom he has cheated out of their father’s blessing. Stranded in the middle of nowhere one night, he decides to sleep rough. But he dreams and sees a ladder set up between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending. And at the top of the ladder is the Lord, who speaks to Jacob and blesses him and promises always to be with him. When he wakes, Jacob looks at the unremarkable barren bit of land on which he has slept and at the stone that he has used as a pillow and he says: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it’ (v 16).

Suddenly Jacob is aware, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush is afire with God. Suddenly Jacob, like the naturalist on the One Show, has (literally) got night vision and things that were invisible are visible. Suddenly Jacob is seeing with the eyes of God.

‘And so will you,’ says Jesus to Nathanael. ‘And so will you,’ he says to me. ‘It is simply a matter of coming to me, following me, and being prepared to look out at the world and everything in it through my eyes. Then, it will be for you as for the man who once said. “I was blind, but now I see” (John 9.25). You too will really see. You will have night vision.’

The Night Will End

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30.5b.

Because of the medication I take, I often suffer from an extremely dry mouth at night which causes my tongue to stick to the roof of my mouth and makes breathing so difficult that it wakes me from my sleep. One night on holiday it was so bad that I was awake fourteen times, attempting to ‘unglue’ my tongue. Each time I looked at the clock, hoping that it was almost morning; but for the greater part of the night it was not and there was still a lot of discomfort to be endured.

Once morning had arrived and I was out on the patio with a mug of tea in my hand, listening to the birdsong, and watching as dawn broke over the mountains, I got to thinking of all those poor souls for whom nights are endless because of things far worse than my dry mouth; and with the above verse from Psalm 30 in my mind I suppose, I found myself writing this poem …

IMG_2335The night will end.
However deep the pain,
However much the praying
seems in vain,
The night will end.

The night will end.
However memory dims,
However strong the ache
in heart and limbs,
The night will end.

The night will end.
However sore the eyes,
However anguished are the unheard cries,
The night will end.

The night will end,
Somewhere a bird will trill
And joy-filled dawn will break beyond the hill,
And night will end.

I hope it might help someone for whom the nights are always far too dark and far too long.

By Their Fruits

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. John 15.1-6.

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, and that is because I have been on holiday in Crete and working on a new book. However, while on holiday and sitting in the little shady corner where I did my writing each day, something caught my eye from the very start, and I feel the need to write about it this morning.

IMG_3364I’d like to begin by asking you to look closely at this photograph I took of my writing corner and see if you can see what it was that I saw. Start in the bottom left-hand corner and work up towards the top-right.

Bunches of grapes? Yes – there are several of them, hanging there, half-hidden among the foliage that has draped itself over the patio wall.

Now I don’t know about you, but whenever I see a bunch of grapes my mind immediately jumps to the passage from John 15 that I have set out above; but when I saw these grapes on holiday I suddenly began to see that passage in a new light.

Until then, you see, I had started (as does John 15) with Jesus. ‘Do I know him as the True Vine?’ I would ask myself. The answer would be, ‘Yes;’ so, OK, I would then move on to me, a branch, and ask myself ‘Am I abiding in Jesus?’ Again I would answer,’Yes;’ and at that point I would conclude, ‘OK, so I have no need to worry about the fruit – the promise is right there in John 15 that there’ll be “much” of it – whether I can see it or not. I mean, I’m aware that I’m not always loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful or self-controlled; but I try to keep those deficiencies well-hidden and others presumably don’t notice them.’


Seeing the grapes on holiday turned my approach on it’s head. I started with the grapes. Yes, they were real – I picked one and tasted it. Full of pips (which I’m not used to in supermarket grapes) but quite sweet. Not perfect (I’ll come back to that) but real or ‘true’ grapes. So there must be a branch. I pulled the foliage aside until I found it; and there it was, coming over the wall from the adjoining property. But where was the vine? I still don’t know. Presumably, it was somewhere on the property to which I had no access, or even the property beyond that – I just don’t know. But what I do know is that, even though I couldn’t see it, the true vine was there somewhere because there were true grapes on the branch that had crept into the little courtyard where I was doing my writing.

And it began to dawn on me, looking at those grapes each day, that they are the proof of the branch ‘abiding’ in the vine. And they point to the reality of the vine itself. Do I want others to know that Jesus is real? Then I need to be bearing much fruit. Am I bearing much fruit? No? Then I need to get real – I’m kidding myself about my abiding in the vine.

IMG_3450I said earlier that the grapes were not perfect – you can see that for yourself from the second image. But they are recognisably grapes. They are not cherries or apples or bananas or figs. Jesus said: ‘You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?’ (Matthew 7.16).

Only when I am a branch abiding in the True Vine will I bear the true fruit – the fruit of the Spirit – and bear it in abundance; and Paul tells me what that fruit is: Jesus-like ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Galatians 5.22-23).

Moreover, he tells me it is a single fruit, not nine fruits – it is a bunch of nine grapes, if you like. And this morning, every morning, I need to be asking myself: Are there such bunches hanging in abundance all over my life?

If not, then I really do need to question and to re-assess the nature of my abiding in Christ.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14.8-9 NRSV

Poor Philip! He and the other disciples have arrived at the very last evening before Jesus goes to the Cross and it still hasn’t dawned on them that everything they have seen in Jesus over the past three years, everything they have heard him say and watched him do – has been a revelation of the Almighty and Everlasting God. More than that; nothing they have seen and heard has NOT been a revelation of God. In other words, you could not say of one aspect of Jesus: ‘Of course, God is not quite like that’ while saying of another aspect: ‘But God is just like that.’ Everything reveals the Father; nothing does not reveal the Father. ‘God is Christlike and in Him is no un-Christlikeness at all’ (A M Ramsey).

‘If, instead of having me with you, the Father had been with you for the last three years,’ Jesus is telling Philip; ‘you would not have noticed the slightest difference because there is no difference. None whatsoever. I and the Father are one.’

Yes, yes, I know … this is a persistent theme of mine (see Spitting Image); but I have to keep repeating it because so many Christians refuse to grasp it. Just the other day, a prominent US evangelical, Ray Ortlund, tweeted a quote from Don Carson: ‘The Bible speaks of the wrath of God more than 600 times;’ and commented ‘No way round that – except the cross.’ What was he trying to say? That God the Father is an angry God and needed to satisfy his anger by directing it at someone else if not us – namely, Jesus? It is hard to see what other interpretation one can put on that tweet. And that being so, can Ortlund not see that, if his is a true understanding of the wrath of God, those who see Jesus have NOT seen the Father. Ortlund’s Father is angry and violent and needs to punish; whereas the Son is loving and non-violent and is free to forgive. Ortlund’s Father and Son have different natures, different personalities … and that is, well, heresy.

The truth is, I believe, that Ray Ortlund’s misunderstands the concept of wrath (see The Wrath of God) and because of that he misunderstands what happened at the cross. As the great William Temple once wrote:

All real thought about the Atonement, about the meaning of the Cross of Christ, must of course start from the love of God. There have been some crude kinds of statement suggesting that it starts with His anger, which needs to be appeased. You must never start from there … It does not begin with his anger; it begins with His love, the love that must desire always to restore the old relationship we have broken, or lead us into the true relationship of children to their Father upon which we have never entered … Once there is love, forgiveness does not mean remission of penalty. Penalty does not come in. Forgiveness means restoration to intimacy … The cancellation of the alienation and the bringing us into true fellowship and communion … At the heart of the Gospel is the promise of free forgiveness on condition of repentance, of which the exquisite expression is the parable of the Prodigal Son. (Christian Life and Faith).

So much of our distorted, wrong thinking about God would disappear if we would only grasp what Philip and the others finally grasped on the evening of the Last Supper: that anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the Father; that he and his Father are one.

Let’s embrace this glorious truth: for thirty or so years, the Father walked this earth – hidden in plain sight. He was here, hidden in Jesus.


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