Saturday, 13 December 2014

Meditation: THE LION AND LAMB by John de Gruchy

Revelation 5:1-5; 11-14
John 1:29-31
See, the Lion has conquered.
Worthy is the Lamb to receive power

In the final verses of the Book of Revelation we are warned that we should not take away or tamper with the words of the book for if we do we will forfeit our share in the tree of life in the holy city, the New Jerusalem!  The problem is many people find it difficult if not impossible to understand what Revelation it is all about, it all seems bizarre and grotesque.  So we generally disregard it.  This was a problem from the beginning, for there was much debate in the early church about whether or not the Revelation should be included in the New Testament.  But there it is, bringing the Bible to its conclusion with the resounding, the Advent cry, "Maranatha!" "Come, Lord Jesus!"

The Book of Revelation was not written to be read literally.  Like Tolkien's  The Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis' the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when you read Revelation you enter a world of symbol and metaphor. And necessarily so.  It is written in code language precisely because its message is subversive.  It was written to provide encouragement to Christians in their struggle to be faithful witnesses to God's kingdom at a time of intense persecution by the Roman Empire.  Revelation remains a subversive book in the ongoing struggle between people of faith who witness to God's reign of justice and peace, and those powerful empires and corporations that are corrupt and oppress the weak and the poor.   As such the Book of Revelation speaks to Christians in all times and places, for it is a call to remain faithful in bearing witness to the good news of Jesus despite opposition and persecution.   

Jesus takes centre stage in the unfolding drama described in Revelation.  But his significance is described by the use of two subversive metaphors: the Lamb and the Lion, both of which occur in the passage we read this morning.  If you think that Jesus is literally a lamb and a lion, and even more, both at the same time,  then you won't get off first base as they say in baseball, let alone understand what is going on.  You would certainly miss their subversive significance, indeed, the meaning of the Advent cry "Maranatha!"  "Come, Lord Jesus!"  Come to reign, to judge corruption and put evil to flight.

Louis de Blois, the abbot of a monastery in France in the sixteenth century, once wrote that Jesus comes to us in three ways.  He first comes at Christmas as a Lamb, he then comes at the end of the ages as a Lion, and he comes everyday as a Friend.  In his first coming he is the sacrificial Lamb who offers his life for the salvation of the world.  In the words of John the Baptist:  "Here is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world."   In his second coming Jesus is the King of kings who comes to judge the earth with righteousness and justice.  This signals the final victory of good over evil.   And between these two advents, Jesus  comes everyday as our Friend to stand in solidarity with those who stand for truth and justice or are oppressed. 

Each week as we celebrate the Eucharist together we recall the words of John the Baptist in proclaiming the significance of the first Advent: "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us."  That is, we acknowledge Jesus as the one who gives his life fully and totally for us in order to redeem and make us whole.  Of course, we know that Jesus is also referred to as the Good Shepherd,  a wonderful example of a mixed metaphor, for how can one person literally be both shepherd and sheep?  But we need to keep in mind that Shepherds in the Old Testament often refer to the rulers of Israel, and not all of them were good shepherds, some were decidedly bad,  The Good Shepherd by contrast is the one as gives his life for the sheep.  Suddenly the mixed metaphor makes sense.  The Good Shepherd identified so fully with his sheep, especially the lost, that he becomes the Lamb "that was slaughtered" on their behalf.   Shepherd becomes the sacrificial lamb, the Lord of the manor becomes the servant, God becomes a vulnerable baby, the Messiah dies a terrible death on a cross because he proclaims God's righteousness and justice against the pretensions and corruptions of the Empire.  And in doing so he "is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honour and glory and blessing."

So we turn to the metaphor of the Lion, the animal that tops the list of the Big Five and who in all mythology and poetry, as in the Bible, is the King not only of the Beasts in the Jungle, but the King of who comes to judge the earth with righteousness and justice.  Lions were common in ancient Israel, and the lion image is often used as the symbol of royalty, the one before whom we fall down in homage.  So when the three wise men or kings from the East arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the new born King, they first went to the court of king Herod, the representative of the Empire.  But they soon realised their mistake.  He was a bad, evil shepherd!  The Lion of Judah was not in Jerusalem the seat of imperial power, but in Bethlehem.  The Lion was, in fact, the Lamb!  And so it is at the Second Advent,  as the Book of Revelation describes, it is the Lamb who is on the throne, the the Lamb is the Lion King who comes again to reign and judge with righteousness and justice.

This is bad news for  those who rule unjustly, those who strut about the forest of the world like lions, and are feared by all.  But the good news is that this Lion who comes to judge the earth is at heart a Lamb, the judge who is truly a Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep and restores justice.  People fear the Second Coming of Christ who comes to judge the world because they think it means a change in Jesus' character.  The Lamb who was once our friend, has become a roaring Lion who is our adversary!   But no, the text says that it is the Lamb who sits on the throne who will judge us.  Jesus does not change character.  The One who comes in humility as the babe in Bethlehem is the One who will come to judge the world.  He will certainly judge the evil empire with justice just as he condemned those who oppressed the poor during his life. But his justice is restorative.  This is the good news, our judge is on our side, against evil but not against us.  The Lion is the Lamb who "takes away the sins of the world," not the judge who eternally condemns the lost sheep. "Maranatha!" "Come, Lord Jesus!"

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  Advent II. 

13 November 2014.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Meditation: TIME AND ETERNITY by John de Gruchy


Galatians 4:4-7
John 17:1-5
When the fullness of time had come
This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God.

When he was in prison in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted some words that a previous prisoner had written above his cell door: "In one hundred years everything will be over."  This was his attempt to cope with the frustratingly slow passing of time.  Yes, time can drag on and on, but time also passes; time is also relative as we now know.  But it boggles the mind to be told, as we were in Sutherland two weeks ago, that in five billion years our planet earth will disintegrate.  Or is it five-hundred billion years?  Or is it light years?  It does not matter, really,  as neither we nor our great-great grand children will be around to witness the event.  Our concepts and measurements of time and history are totally inadequate to help us grasp the immensity of this cosmic dimension which the Bible calls eternity. 

Time has to do with human history, the time we used to track by watching the sun and stars, but now record in seconds, minutes, hours, days and years.  And there will certainly come a time when history end whether in a bang of whimper we don't knows.  By then even Volmoed will have closed its gates and Bernhard will have retired.  But eternity is quite different.  Eternity cannot be measured according to our calendars and clocks, and is not confined by our time and space.  Time passes, but eternity always is.   Before all things came into being, before time, eternity already was and ever shall be.  When the New Testament speaks of eternal life, it is not speaking about endless life as we know it according to our time scale; but to life lived in a totally different dimension.  Eternal life is always here and now, always in time but not subject to time and therefore it cannot be destroyed by the passing of time.  Love endures forever because while it is experienced and expressed in time, it is eternal.  Everything else will pass away, St. Paul tells us, but love endures forever.

In thinking about the passing of time Bonhoeffer took great comfort from the words of the Psalmist: "my times are in your hand, O God." (Psalm 31:15)  This does not mean that everything is cast in concrete, foreordained by God before our birth.  To believe that is to believe in fate, or trusting what the stars tell us according to the signs of the zodiac.  Sometime soon I will meet a dark stranger who will fall in love with me, or find a job that I really like, because the stars tells me this will be so!  This is not much different from what a coach of a Middle Eastern football club said on TV the other night: "God willing, we will win the game!"  Really?  We can play lousy football, but if God wills we will win! Many people think like that, they believe in fate even though they call fate God.  God has it all worked out for us ahead of time irrespective of what we do -- "whatever will be will be;"  " when your number is up, you will get the bullet;"  "he was in the wrong place at the wrong time" others might add. 

But why would God decree before a child is born, indeed, before the foundation of the earth, that he or she should die in the prime of life, or marry someone from Bredasdorp, Addis Ababa, or Melbourne, or end up a tramp, movie star, president, or all four at the same time?   We pray that God's will may be done, but we know that not everything that happens does so according to God's will.  The prophets of the OT who declared God's will, were not listened to, so God's will was presumably thwarted.  Israel was taken off into captivity and exile.  If everything happened according to God's will, Israel would not have disobeyed God but instead would have lived happily ever after in Jerusalem and everything would have been just fine.  The fact that nations go to war and millions get killed is not part of a divine plan; it is the plan of politicians, arms manufacturers and generals.  

To say with the Psalmist that our time is in God's hand neither means that we should resign ourselves to fate or that there is an immutable divine plan for our lives which may include dying in a tragic accident at ther hands of a drunken driver, or getting cancer.  Nor does it mean that God decides when our time is up --  John, today you will be shot dead by a robber,; Mary, tomorrow you will fall off a ladder and break your neck.  God gives us the freedom to choose, to act, to take this fork in the road rather than that one.  Others may take away our freedom,  circumstances and accidents might curtail us,  old age will creep up on us, but we are not puppets on a divine string.  So what does it mean to say that our time is in God's hands?  It means that we are enfolded in eternity.  That underneath us, supporting us, are the "everlasting arms," a love that is eternal, to which we commit our lives. 

One of the themes of Advent which began last Sunday is  "discerning the times."  This does not mean  predicting the "times and seasons" for the second coming of Jesus based on our calendar, as if God keeps a diary like ours with everything already in it for 2015 and beyond; no,  it is about learning to recognise and identify with what God is redemptively doing in the world.  Eternity became incarnate or embodied in time in the coming of Christ.  "When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem" us.  Eternity continually breaks into our time when God's Spirit makes all things new, establishes justice and peace, brings healing and wholeness to broken people, and restores relationship.   "Today" Jesus tells the penitent thief, "you will be in paradise."  "Today," Jesus says to Zacchaeus, "salvation has come to this house."   To discern God's time, God's kairos as the NT calls it, the breaking of eternity into today, means to live our lives in alignment with what God revealed in Jesus is already doing to redeem the world. It means to live now in in response to God's eternal love which we have come to know in Jesus.  "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God."

We can't change the past; we can't predict the future, but we can redeem the time, we can place the limited time given to us, in God's hands, we can accept eternal life. Consider a gang leader who, because of his life of selling drugs and violence is in prison.  Was it God's will that he should sell drugs, or even that he should spend years in prison?  Surely not.  It was a misuse and  abuse of a life that should have been lived differently.  But let us say that in prison the gang-leader's life is turned around by the love and grace of God, and let us say that he decides that once he has been released from prison, he will spend the rest of his life helping youngsters who are trapped in lives of violence and drugs, he will, redeem the time.  The years that were lost will not be wasted forever.  He has begun to live in another dimension, the dimension of redemptive love.  Placing our time in God's hands is not living in the past or in the future, but living eternal life now.  Today we can choose eternal life by being open to God's eternal love in Jesus.  That is what it means to know God.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed, 6 December, 2014

Friday, 28 November 2014

Meditation: JADON by John de Gruchy


“Give thanks in all circumstances.”
I Thessalonians 5:12-18
Luke 7:36-50

Our niece Laura and her husband Gideon have had a baby.  They knew that the child would be a boy, but they were not forthcoming about what he would be called.  So there was much speculation about his name in the weeks before he was born.  Then we were given a clue.  His name would be from the Old Testament just like his father's.  Then another clue, it would have five letters, so Isobel and I immediately thought of David.  Then came the day of his birth, and his name was Jadon.  Not even his grandfather Ron, whose eyebrows were raised when he was told, and  who had been a minister trained in the Bible, had ever heard the name before -- "where on earth is Jadon in the Bible?" --  he asked?  So as the expert on such matters, I was brought into solve the mystery.  I, too, was confounded for once.  But after a search I found Jadon lurking in an obscure text in one of the lesser read known in the Old Testament, Nehemiah chapter 3 verse 7.  The story is about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the exile:

"Joiada son of Paseah and Meshullam son of Besodelah repaired the Old Gate, they laid its beams and set up its doors, its bolts and its bars.  Next to them repairs were made by Melatiah the Gibeonite and Jadon the Meronothite -- the men of Gibeon and Mizpah -- who were under the jurisdiction pof the governor of the province beyond the River."

Well, they could have called him Joiada or Meshullam or Melatiah, Ron, so be grateful they decided on Jadon the Meronothite!  But therein lies the clue.  For Jadon in Hebrew means "gratitude" or "thanksgiving."  Suddenly baby Jadon's name had rich meaning.  He is not only a potential builder -- useful to know that these days when plumbers, electricians and builders are in such demand -- but above all, he is a sign of gratitude. And, in addition, these days when baby names have become an industry, it is different and in another league to Sugar-Pie. Jadon has class We can not only live with that; we can rejoice with Laura and Gideon in their giving thanks to God for the gift of a son, their first-born.  Welcome Jadon into the family and the world.  One day we might need your building skills on Volmoed!

Today, being the third Thursday in November, is Thanksgiving Day in the United States.  More so than any religious festival whether it be Christmas or some other, this is the celebration nobody wants to miss. I know from experience that to catch a flight in America during Thanksgiving week, especially in weather like they are having at the moment, is to experience absolute chaos and bedlam at the airports as millions of people travel home for the celebration.  Everybody wants to be home for Thanksgiving.  It is a splendid family occasion.  We have been to several over the years as we were last November in Atlanta, and will be going this evening to Thanksgiving in  Pinelands!  In Hebrew we will be celebrating the feast of Jadon!

St. Paul encourages us to “give thanks in all circumstances.”   When all is going well and Spring is in the air; when we wake to a fresh dawn anticipating all that the new day will bring, it is difficult not to be grateful. Or when you have given birth to a newborn baby and are looking for a name,, Jadon immediately comes to mind, at least if you have been reading Nehemiah in Hebrew!  But there are times in our lives when being thankful is the last thing that spring to mind.  When we are gripped by anxiety or fear, shaken by sorrow or struck down by illness and pain, plunged into bouts of depression and melancholy, or just downright angry, we don’t normally erupt into prayers or songs of thanksgiving.   We would be a little peculiar if we oozed with gratitude when we crashed our car, or were the victim of fraud or robbery, or fell seriously ill.  And we would be surprised if the victims of famine, fire, earthquake and drought gave thanks for what has happened to them. 

Yet is it not true that people who have the most things in life are often the least grateful and the most greedy because they think they are all-sufficient.  And, by contrast, people who have very little in terms of this world’s goods are often the most grateful because they know they are dependent on the love of God and the generosity of others.   And that, of course, is what our gospel reading is about today.  Unlike those religious legalists who sat at table with Jesus, it was the woman who knew she was so dearly loved and forgiven who showed gratitude in wiping Jesus feet with her tears and costly oil.  Gratitude is a way in which we express our love.

The Christian way of life, we might say, is meant to be an expression of gratitude to God. 
That is one reason why we gather here each Thursday to celebrate this meal of thanksgiving or Eucharist, for that is what the word means. “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” we say, “… it is indeed our joy to give you thanks always and everywhere.”  Celebrating the Eucharist each week together is a way of shaping our lives into a pattern of gratitude that should be expressed in love and compassion day by day.  And saying grace or a prayer of thanksgiving at meal time is a daily reminder that this is so as we remember God's goodness but also pray for those who have far less than we have.

Thanksgiving also empowers us as we face life day by day, especially in difficult times when thanksgiving brings to mind good and helpful memories.  Writing from prison as his own future grew increasingly dark, Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his friend Eberhard Bethge: “the power of memories returns again and again through the power of gratitude.”   The power of gratitude! I find that a remarkable insight that takes us to the heart of the Christian gospel. Gratitude does not take away our pain or sorrow, but it helps us regain perspective and embark on the journey of healing and renewal.  For how do we cope with the death of a loved one except by being grateful for precious memories and thankful for the support of friends?   The awakening of a sense of gratitude likewise enables us to recognize that everything of real value is a gift from God whether life itself or the love and care we receive from others.  So today as we give thanks in remembrance of Christ, we renew our commitment to live gratefully.  Thanks Jadon for reminding us!

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  27 November 2014

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Meditation: STAR GAZING by John de Gruchy


Psalm 8
Matthew 6:25-26
When I look at your heavens...what are human beings that you are mindful of them?

If you want to get your life into perspective, think of someone who is worse off than you are, or watch Theo's Sparklekids DVD, then look at the stars in the night sky.  As an alternative, drive down Swartdam Road past all the shanties and poverty, before you admire the awesome beauty of Walker Bay from the windows of Harbour Rock restaurant.  To visit a shanty or to look into the heavens may be at opposite ends of the "getting your life into perspective" spectrum, but they complement each other and have a similar effect.  They bring us down to earth with a bump.  Today we are not forgetting the poor or suffering, or driving down Swartdam Road past shanties, but we are going star gazing in Sutherland where Isobel and I, along with her sister Elsie and brother-in-law Ron Steel, went last Thursday. 

Several of you have already been to Sutherland, so you will know the way and what awaits you at the end of the road.  From Hermanus you travel to Worcester, join the N1 and head to Matjiesfontein, that quaint colonial throw-back in the middle of nowhere famous for its hotel and Olive Schreiner's home.  We stopped for a brief visit and discovered the remarkable museum in the old railway station.  There you can see a mass of Victorian artefacts made and used by our grand and great grand-parents' generations.  We marvelled at their ingenuity and craftsmanship with limited technology by today's standards, but were thankful that technology has improved since then.  That, too, gave us some perspective on life, especially looking at the dentist's chair and the tools of his trade.  After Matjiesfontein we drove north, deeper into the Karoo, on an excellent road with little traffic, a few isolated farms, and lots of sheep.  After several hours we began the steep climb to the plateaux on which Sutherland is located, making it the coldest town in the country in winter and one of the hottest in summer.  Then we caught a glimpse of SALT (South African Large Telescope) in the distance and knew that we were reaching our destination.   

SALT along with its adjacent observatories is located 15 kms outside Sutherland on the highest section of the plateaux.  After a good introduction at the information centre and a visit to another telescopes , we went to SALT.  But we never saw any stars, it was, after all, day time, but even if it was night we could not have seen the stars through these gigantic instruments that explore the universe.  Long gone are the days when professional astronomers gazed through telescopes; now everything is reflected onto giant mirrors that track the night sky and send a stream of data to computers.  So instead of seeing stars, we marvelled at the amazing advances in technology since our ancestors made the  crude artefacts we had seen in Matjiesfontein. 

Night time came.  It was now much colder, about 5 degrees, as we arrived at Sterland, a private observatory run by a passionate amateur astronomer, Jurg Wagener.  Now we could see Mars and the constellations in the southern sky through the lens of his powerful telescope as we stood outside in the pitch-darkness beneath a magnificent display of stars.  Human technology, impressive as it was both at SALT and Sterland, paled into insignificance before such grandeur -- and so did we!  "When I look at your heavens...what are human beings?"  asked the Psalmist. Well, yes, but did we not make SALT and this fine telescope through which we were observing the night sky?  And did we not this same week land a camera on a comet in distant space after tracking it for ten years at speeds and with an accuracy that boggles the mind?  There is no need to downplay human achievements. But there is every reason to get things into perspective.  Our planet earth is just a minute speck in this vast cosmic ocean that stretches far beyond our sight, far beyond even the capacity of even SALT, and certainly beyond what the Psalmist or even our grandparents imagined.  Where in the world is this universe, with its galaxies, and the universes beyond our own?  And who are we, fragile specks alive on this equally fragile planet earth for such a brief moment in time?

But then the Psalmist makes an astounding statement of faith.  Star gazing not only cuts us down to size, but at the same time gives us a significance that defies all analysis, a value that even our technology cannot give. "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"  Of course, we might take a different tack and say that given the immensity of the universe, we are simply insignificant, here today and gone tomorrow.  That's the atheist option.  But the Psalmist thinks otherwise.  Insignificant as we may seem and cold and indifferent as the universe appears, there is a compassion, a caring at the heart of the universe that gives us significance and value as human beings.  This caring mystery we name God, inadequate as that word may be, is the good news proclaimed by Jesus.  "Look at the birds of the air...are you not of more value than they?” "You have given us glory and honour," exclaims the Psalmist in amazement, we are just a little lower than the angels!

Of course, we are also dust, star dust as it happens.  And, of course, Jesus not only gives value to us humans, he also brings down the mighty who think too much of themselves and oppress the poor.  But Jesus was not in the business of reducing us to worms as some preachers have done down the centuries.  He was in the business of enabling us to appreciate our worth as human beings and so also appreciate the worth of others as well. 
There are in fact, two alternatives, two perspectives on life and it makes a huge difference to us which one we choose.  The universe is either ultimately meaningless, or it is meaningful.  It is either simply dark matter, or it is a mystery that cares.  We are either of no significance, or we have significance as human beings.  Christian faith makes the latter choice.  Human beings matter.  At the heart of the universe there is a compassion, a caring love that is life-giving and sustaining.  And because that is so, to be in tune with the universe means being compassionate and caring ourselves -- for others and for the earth we inhabit.  This universe may be a mystery far beyond our grasp, yet we know that without compassion and caring for others everything falls apart.  The starry sky above and the moral law within us belong inseparably together as the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it.  Star gazing and compassionate concern for our fellow humans, especially those who suffer or are in need, belong together.  And both change our perspective on life, on the worth of being human, our own worth and that of others, including especially those who think they are worthless because that is how they are treated.  "What are human beings...that you care for us?"  A question we need to ask each day and each night as we look at the plight of those worse off than we are, or turn our eyes to gaze at the heavens.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  20 November 2014