Day Thirty Four: Subversive

Psalm 110
Proverbs 22:1-9
Luke 6:27-31

Most of us have, at some time in our lives, heard – sometimes incessantly – the phrase: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It’s the golden rule of human interaction; and a definite go-to phrase in most mothers’ “raising children the right way” manual.

So while it was unacceptable for my brother to hit me with his cricket bat, it was really unacceptable for me to respond by hiding it on top of the roof for
it set a bad example,
it reduced me to his level,
and it precluded any potential for change – setting into motion a vicious and escalating cycle of retaliation instead of demonstrating an alternative way of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Yet, if you are anything like me, such reasoning seems tremendously unfair and naive.

By young adulthood, we should know enough of human nature to understand that instead of being lauded as “the bigger person,” the do-unto-others-as-you-would- have-them-do-unto-you attitude (as we understand it) often earns us the label of “spineless doormat.”

Yet, if we look more closely at the ideas expressed in both Proverbs and Luke today, we may gain a deeper understanding of our subversive power and purpose in the world: to undermine the kingdom of self and establish the kingdom of God …

… as Christ did.

From the opening line of this portion of his sermon (Luke 6:27-28), Jesus is being subversive. Among most circles, hatred of one’s enemies was regarded as acceptable as long as you did no harm to them. But Jesus commands an unexpected action instead of the socially acceptable inaction:

“Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.”

Instead of limiting harm, Jesus actively promotes goodness and generosity,
service and love for the payoff for such things are “plenty and honour and a satisfying life” (Proverbs 22:4b).

Echoing the sentiment of Proverbs 22:2
“The rich and the poor shake hands as equals — God made them both!”
in each of the culturally-bound examples that Jesus goes on to give, we see too how our reactions to an enemy, a bully, or a tyrant can turn the tables of power: in Roman times offering the other cheek to be slapped would, in fact, force the “perpetrator” to acknowledge you as an equal, rather than a powerless victim; and giving up your tunic to the one who had already taken your coat would render you naked and unprotected from the elements, thus exposing the perpetrator to social censure and legal prosecution.

Within this subversive context, the notion of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is not an expression of a meek (or weak) submissiveness to the actions of others or a commitment to being the bigger person in hope of some future heavenly reward,
but a searching for and sharing of shalom;
a re-orientation of power;
an acknowledgement of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being
and of our own right and desire to be treated as equals – regardless of our race, religion, gender or socioeconomic class etc.

Such work begins not with those that we already see as our equals or our friends, but in those relationships where inequality, conflict and resentment are rife.

Today, be subversive. Do good for someone who hates you (or who you hate). Bless someone who has cursed you. Pray for someone who has used or abused you.


Day Thirty Three: In Spite Of

Psalm 110
Proverbs 3:1-12
James 4:11-17

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how often
God’s power,
God’s presence,
God’s purpose,
is made manifest in spite of,
rather than because of,
me ….

I know, as Christians, we are called to be light to the world
as we walk in and with and through the Light of Life;
I know, as God called me into ordained ministry,
it was with the command to watch my life and doctrine closely that those who listened might be saved;
but I also know that countless people have experienced the church as a hurtful and unwelcome place,
and that, many times, my own service has been offered from a space of brokenness, exhaustion, distraction, and/or poverty.

The grace of today’s Scriptures
is that God continues to be God
in spite of …

… external circumstances that threaten to overwhelm
or destroy us:

“You were forged a strong scepter by God of Zion; now rule,
though surrounded by enemies!
(Psalm 110:2) …

… our fickleness and forgetfulness:

But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under his loving correction.”
(Proverbs 3:11) …

… our preoccupation with our own life plans and the accumulation of power and possessions:
“yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
(James 4:14) …

… our words – so concerned with pride and judgement rather than peace and affirmation:
But who are you to judge your neighbour?
(James 4:12b).

Time and time and time again,
we get it wrong; we let what is happening around us detract from or destroy what is happening within us; we fail to live up to the purposes for which we were forged; we commit, as James points out in verse 17, the sin of knowing what is right but neglecting to do it.

But being good – and, in turn, good ambassadors of the Gospel – does not begin with the best of intentions or a to-do list of right behaviours.

It starts with and is sustained by an intimate friendship with God
(see Proverbs 3:5-6)
who will make straight our paths,
and speak through our poverty,
and transform our tiredness,
and use our brokenness,
and receive our “sorrys,”
and cover our inadequacies and excuses,
and correct us when we head off
in the wrong direction …

… and the very evidence of God’s power, presence and purpose at work in spite of all of this is precisely the light
– the lifeline –
that others need in the midst of their own struggles.

Trust God today
with where you feel weak,
or broken,
or tired,
or inadequate,
or distracted.

Feel His/Her favour resting upon you in spite of everything else that is happening in and around you.

Receive the gift of healing, of nourishment, of peace. 

Day Thirty Two: Within-Without

Psalm 110
Proverbs 1:20-33
James 4:1-10

Over countless meals with family, friends and/or acquaintances, talk turns – every time – to the terrible state that the world is in …

… the dishonesty, bigotry, and greed of many of her leaders; and the corruptive power of power …

… the economic reasons behind wars and “peace-keeping” efforts in resource-rich countries while, in other parts of the world, entire tribes and cultures are able to wipe each other out without intervention…

… those truly awkward conversations that begin with “I’m not a racist but …” or “I have nothing against gay people but …” and end with the uneasy truce “let’s just agree to disagree” or the less-easy sound of someone walking away in disgust and frustration…

… the latest horrifying terrorist attack, freeway pile-up, farm murder etc. and the inevitable laying of blame at some group that we are obviously not part of ….

The underlying message:
the world is in a terrible state
we are not to blame;
in fact, we are far better people than most!

In James’ letter to Jewish Christians living in an angry society divided by greed and jealousy, James asks a pertinent, piercing question which is very much relevant to the terrible state of the world today:

“What causes quarrels
and what causes fights among you?”
(James 4:1). 

Take a moment to answer James’ question in terms of:
1. fights and quarrels within the world,
2. fights and quarrels that have occurred specifically within your life and relationships.

 One of the more irritating habits that my boys picked up during their preschool years was chanting in response to anyone who pointed at them:
“For every finger you point at me, there are three pointing right back at you.”

But this is precisely James’ point: for all that we try to distance ourselves from blame or responsibility for the state of the world around us, what happens without is really a mirror of what is happening within our own hearts and minds.

We go after what we desire despite the cost or consequences to others; maybe drawing a line at actually committing a murder, but often killing a person’s trust or reputation or marriage without remorse.

And the things we covet that we are unable to get our hands on become the source of sour relationships, the reason why our words are full of anger and frustration and criticism and bile.

We would rather go without something than humble ourselves and ask for it, openly, honestly, vulnerably.

And when we do manage to swallow our pride and ask but don’t receive, we are outraged – even though what we were asking for was selfish or wrong or impossible for the other person to give in the first place (James 4:2-3).

Then, as with those who scoffed at Wisdom’s call, who turned from her life-giving ways,
terror strikes,
calamity comes like a whirlwind,
distress and anguish fill our days;

we have our fill of our own devices,
then choke on the fruit of our desires
(Proverbs 1:26-27,31).

The world without is a reflection of the world within – a compounded, magnified version of our own sin.
But, through the grace of God, the inner (and then) the outer can change.

Prayerfully reflect on James 4:6-10 as you seek change within – and without.


Day Seven: Under Whose Authority?

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Ezekiel 36:24-28;
Mark 11:27-33

The Gospel reading for this day confronts us with a question that Jesus actually refused to answer,

By what authority are you doing these things? … And who gave you the authority to do this?”
Mark 11:28.

The question comes after two significant events that threaten the power dynamics and social hierarchy in Jerusalem:

  1. Jesus entering the holy city peaceably on the back of a colt and being welcomed by the common people, to the cry of “Hosanna” which means “save us,” who see being fulfilled before them Zechariah’s prophecy (9:9) that Zion’s King would come to them mounted on the foal of a donkey.
  2. Jesus forcefully expelling the corrupt traders and money lenders from the temple to return it to a place of prayer. This action is particularly important in light of Malachi’s prophecy as it testifies to Jesus’ true identity and authority: “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple … But who can endure the day of his coming? … For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap” (Malachi 3:1-2).

The question is not asked by the common people but by those who have religious and political power over them – the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council).

Make a list of all of the “voices” that have power and influence in your life. Remember to include those from the past who still have an impact on how you think and act today.

Next to each “voice,” simply plus a “+” “-” or “?” as you reflect on whether it has a positive, negative, or neutral impact on who you are and what you do.

Finally, number the list in order of importance with 1 having the greatest influence, 2 the next etc. 

Jesus responds. Not doing so would have been highly disrespectful, and I’m sure that his mother had brought him up right.

But he doesn’t answer the question that they have asked, for his actions themselves have indicated his true identity and the source of his authority.

Instead, he turns the tables by asking them a question about the source of John’s authority to baptise in the name of God that they cannot possibly answer without further damaging their credibility among the people.

The discussion ends in deadlock. Those in power are forced to proclaim, “We do not know” (Mark 11:33a).

Often we do not know the credentials of those who seek to influence us. Nor do we truly know the voices that drive them – their hidden ambitions, their deepest longings, their fears and insecurities. Often we just follow.

But this season points us to the Ultimate Authority in our lives – our Advent God who pronounces us beloved and holy and well that we might never live like fools again (Psalm 85:8).

How does God’s authority compare to the other “voices” in your life?

Where did it rank on your list?

As others look at your choices and actions, would they question where your authority comes from or would they long to know the One who leads you more intimately?

As the first week of Advent comes to an end, you may want to sit for a while with the words from Ezekiel 36:24-28 which speak of how God exercises God’s authority – to gather, to clean, to give, to remove, to make possible, to be ours.

Do you, truly, long to be God’s?