Relentless Love

Like most 5-

Like most 5-year-olds, my daughter has an amazing ability to bring chaos in her wake. A tidy room dissolves into disorder and confusion in a matter of moments. Yet at the center of this chaos is great joy and creativity. The mess she makes is nearly always in the service of a new game or of making something.

For me this is a parable of the kingdom. Most of the readings this month speak of the way in which God’s kingdom turns our world upside-down. We cannot help but be influenced by what things look like on the outside, but God cares about what goes on in our hearts. We are impressed by power, status, and wealth, but God’s kingdom is ruled by humility and gentleness. We often live lives of deep despair, but God yearns to bring us joy and hope.

The message of Passiontide and Easter is at the same time joyful and unsettling. The resurrection points us beyond despair to hope, but it can do so only if we are prepared to surrender ourselves to the chaotic, joyful presence of God. If we let it, God’s kingdom will whirl into our tidy, ordered lives, wrecking our expectations but bringing joy. This season reminds us of how much God’s kingdom can cost us - but also how much it can reward us.

Paula Gooder is a lecturer at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, England, and a freelance biblical lecturer and writer.

March 6
A Divine Beauty Contest
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

The temptations of Jesus, which we explored at the start of Lent, spoke of the importance of seeing to the heart of things. This week’s readings return to this theme. First Samuel 16 presents the almost comic story of Samuel going to anoint a successor to Saul. When Samuel arrived at Jesse’s house, he saw Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse, and quickly concluded that Eliab was God’s chosen because of what he looked like. Something akin to a beauty contest ensued, as seven of Jesse’s eight sons were paraded before him. As it happened, David, the "winner," was also handsome, but this wasn’t why he was chosen. A divine beauty contest, of course, has different criteria. What matters to God is the beauty of our hearts, not our bodies.

A connected, but opposite, case is presented in John’s gospel. Here we meet a man who was blind from birth. His outward appearance caused all who knew him to assume that he or his parents were sinful. Again Jesus reminded them that this was not true: "[H]e was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him" (John 9:3).

It is tempting to feel superior when we read these stories - of course we would react differently. But would we? How often have we made snap judgments about people based on their appearance? Our culture, just as much as Samuel’s and Jesus’ (and perhaps even more so), judges people on their outward appearances. God sees who we really are and acts on that, calling us to do the same.

March 13
The God of Abundance
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

When is "rising from the dead" not "resurrection"? If Lazarus’ rising from the dead had been a resurrection, then what happened to Jesus on Easter day wouldn’t have been unique; it would have been one of a number of events - such as the raising of the widow of Nain’s son in Luke 7:11-16 - that, though rare, happened on more than one occasion. Although Lazarus was raised from the dead, we know that he will die again. His is only a temporary reprieve from death, whereas Jesus’ resurrection is permanent. On Easter, Jesus arrives on the other side of death, where there is no more dying.

What is more, unlike Lazarus, Jesus’ resurrection affects not just him but the whole of the world. Consequently, as Romans 8:10-11 tells us, if Christ is in us, the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will give us life. If the risen Christ is in us then we are a part of the new world order, a world order in which there is abundant life given by one who created the world and who re-created it in Christ.

It is, of course, no surprise that the God who raised Lazarus from the dead and who breathes new life into dry bones (Ezekiel 37) is a God who also raises Jesus from the dead. The God in whom we believe gives life and renews creation. Raising Jesus from the dead was not a change of character on God’s behalf, simply an extension of what God has always done. This God yearns to see abundant life flowing through the whole of the world and calls us to live out this vision in the world.

March 20
Mutual Service
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

Today’s readings focus on the topsy-turvy values of a life lived in God’s service. It seems to be a natural part of being human that we yearn for prestige, recognition, and status. Yet God’s call on us is to renounce this and instead live a life of humility and gentleness.

This call is summed up in Isaiah 50:4-9, a passage that, like others in this part of Isaiah, talks of God’s servant. Here Isaiah speaks of the mutuality involved in service: The servants teach in the same way as they are taught. Just as they hear God’s voice, so they also teach it to others. This takes the form of sustaining the weary with a word (Isaiah 50:4). This is one of my favorite images for teaching and pastoral care. The idea that words could provide a means of nurture and care for the weary lies at the heart of what many of us seek to do. Yet this passage goes on to say that such a ministry can bring with it suffering and humiliation.

This is best illustrated by Jesus’ life. More than anyone else, Jesus fulfilled God’s calling to be a gentle, humble servant who sustained people through his words. His ministry, however, ultimately led to suffering and death. Here we encounter fully the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom: a kingdom in which the king is prepared to be tried and killed by those who should be his subjects (Matthew 26:14-27:66), who takes the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7), and who refuses to exploit equality with God (Philippians 2:6).

As we approach Holy Week, we celebrate and affirm these principles of God’s kingdom in which the least are the greatest, weakness is strength, and death brings life to all.

March 27
Hope is Absolute
Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

Two weeks ago we saw how the resurrection of Jesus, though unique, comes as no surprise to us because of the nature of God. The God who brings people back to life is precisely the kind of God who would raise Jesus from the dead. The Hebrew Bible readings today continue this theme. Jeremiah speaks to the nation of the everlasting love and faithfulness of God, which promises joy beyond their despair (Jeremiah 31:3-4). Psalm 118 contains similar words, probably from the king, who experienced this faithfulness personally when he was rescued from his enemies.

This everlasting love and faithfulness is reflected in the New Testament in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection speaks of the relentless love that God has for the world and the hope that this brings. The resurrection makes this hope a permanent, immovable feature of the new creation in which we now dwell. It would be overly simplistic and downright untrue to say that despair no longer features in our world. Jesus’ resurrection does not remove despair, but it does temper it. Jesus’ resurrection means that despair is no longer absolute; hope is always present even if it feels far away.

The New Testament readings also point us to the impact of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus did not rise from the dead so that we can sit back and bask in the hope that this brings. Jesus’ resurrection should galvanize us into action. The readings from John and the alternate gospel passage, Matthew 28:1-10, end with a command to go and tell others about it. Acts 10:34-43 is one occasion in which Peter does just this. Their task was to communicate Easter hope to a world consumed by despair; we are called to do the same. Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates a new world order governed by life and hope instead of despair and death. We are called to proclaim this to the world - in words as well as deeds.

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