(These studies on the Gospel of John were originally
written by Rowland Croucher for Scripture Union’s ALIVE TO GOD
INTO YOUR HANDS
[Introductory page] ‘READ, MEDITATE, PRAY’
There are two ways, broadly speaking, we can read
the Bible: ‘Bible study’ and lectio divina.
In Bible study we mainly use our head; in lectio
divina, our heart. Bible study is reading the Bible for doctrine;
lectio divina is reading the Bible for holiness. Bible study may
degenerate into purely ‘reading for information’; lectio divina
is ‘reading for transformat-ion’. In Bible study there is a tendency
to be over the Word, as a critic of the Bible text; in lectio
divina we are under the Word: it becomes our critic!
Lectio divina is a Latin phrase from the 4th or 5th
centuries which means, literally, ‘sacred reading’. It involves
‘reading, meditating, praying’ or, in Latin, lectio, meditatio,
Margaret Hebblethwaite (Finding God in All Things,
Collins: Fount Paperbacks, 1987/1990) writes: ‘Choose a passage
from Scripture that is not too long… Read it slowly and reverently…
This is the lectio. As you come to a phrase that touches you in
some way, stop, repeat it over and over. Let [these words] sink
into your subconscious. This is the meditatio…
‘When you have dwelt on the phrase for a while, let
prayer arise out of you. Perhaps you will want to celebrate your
love and enjoyment of God by making an act of praise. Perhaps
you will want to ask for help and grace. Perhaps you will share
a sense of struggle and confusion. Perhaps you will want to humble
yourself before God and ask forgiveness. It may be a wordless
prayer that comes up from within, or it may be a matter of saying
something to God. But in some way you gather up what is going
on within you and direct it towards God in prayer. This is the
oratio.’ (pp. 92 ff).
Catherine de Hueck Doherty in her beautiful book
Poustinia writes about ‘folding the wings of the intellect and
opening the door of the heart.’ That’s it!
In the next few weeks we’ll use this reading, meditating,
praying sequence to help us understand the way our Lord trusted
his Father, as a pattern for our humble and trustful dependence
‘MY TIMES ARE IN YOUR HANDS’
Feeling a bit down today? Something has happened
to bowl you over? This special Psalm is just for you!
Read PSALM 31: The Psalmist (Jeremiah? See Jer. 20:6-18)
has problems caused by sickness, enemies, physical hardship, social
rejection, slander, and conspiracy. But the Psalm is full of images
of safety and security: list them! Fifteen times the Psalmist
affirms his devotion to God’s service. He commits himself – his
person, his times, his trust -utterly to God. His message to us
is: whatever life deals up to you, take heart and know that ‘God’s
in his heaven [so] all’s right with the world!’
Meditate: Think about your own life in terms of the
problem-areas the Psalmist identifies. Then think about all God
provides for you – also in similar words to those of this Psalm.
Pray: Perhaps you could write a prayer in your journal
which has two columns to it. In the first list your problems,
and in the second a praise-sentence against each, beginning, ‘However…’
or ‘But the Lord…’
And remember… It’s not what life does to us that
counts, but what we do to life. There is nothing worthwhile in
life that is not learned in the school of adversity.
Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 10:13 is a summary
of the message of Psalm 31: ‘No testing has overtaken you that
is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let
you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will
also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’
THE SECRET OF SERENITY
We now begin to follow Jesus during his last days
on earth. In John 7 the ‘countdown to Jerusalem’ begins. This
would be his last visit to the ‘holy city’ before being crucified
there in the coming spring.
Read: JOHN 7:1-13. Jesus’ contemporaries were divided
about him. (‘He is a deceiver’; ‘he is a good man’). His enemies
wanted to kill him. Some in the crowd complained about him. Even
his brothers failed to understand his mission and did not believe
in him. Their suggestion: ‘Forget your resistance to the devil’s
temptations and show your power anyway!’
Meditate: With all this ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ what
was Jesus’ response? He was clearly not in the ‘victim mode’ but
was in complete control. ‘My time has not yet come.’ Why was he
not harried by all the opposition – even from within his own family?
He seems to be serenely in charge of his destiny. How does anyone
get to be like that? (And something else: Jesus says he had invited
the world’s enmity because he spoke out against its evil. Have
you, have I ever suffered for that reason?)
Pray: ‘Lord, I am tossed to and fro by others’ reactions.
Their praise or blame affects me deeply, because I am not yet
like Jesus. Help me…’ (complete the prayer in your own words).
And remember: Peace does not come in the absence
of trouble; but from an inner serenity even in the midst of trouble.
Jesus wasn’t joking when he promised: ‘Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid’
WISDOM AND OBEDIENCE
Three important issues face us today: (1) What is
the difference between ‘wisdom’ and ‘learning’? (2) What is the
relationship between obedience and certainty? (3) How does a law
become our master rather than our servant?
Read: JOHN 7:14-24. Jesus was not a graduate of any
‘rabbinical seminary’ (as was Saul of Tarsus). He was not ‘ordained’
by the Jewish religious system. But his wisdom and authority (see
Matt. 7:28f.) were undisputed. They came directly from God, his
Father, (v.16) whereas the rabbis’ credentials were earned through
academic study. The key? Obedience: doing the will of God (v.17).
If you have to choose, be taught by a saint rather than a scholar!
(If you can find the rare combination of both in one person, follow
that teacher anywhere!). Jesus knew the law (v.22), so we should
pursue formal learning too, but always with the humility of knowing
that we can study the Bible assiduously, and miss the whole point
(as the Pharisees did, see Matt. 23:23, Luke 11:42)! The law is
meant to serve us, not enslave us. People and their wholeness
matter more than laws…
Meditate: If the key to wisdom, certainty, and avoidance
of legalism is in knowing and obeying the will of God, how am
I doing? C T Studd, the great English cricketer and missionary
used to read the Bible through regularly to find any command he
was not obeying… Well?
Pray: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test
me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.’ (Psalm 139:23,24 NRSV).
AN OFFER TOO GOOD TO REFUSE!
There are 21,000 odd (in both senses?!) Christian
denominations in the world. Each believes it’s more ‘right’ than
any of the others! More probably they all have a different mix
of truth and error! Making judgments about the truth from our
limited perspective is always dangerous: it’s like someone with
myopia presuming to describe accurately the scenery for everyone
else. Jesus’ compatriots argued -hindered by their biasses – about
whether he really was the Messiah…
There are some things you can know for certain (what
are they, for you?), the rest you leave open, and learn to live
with ambiguity. It’s certain that Jesus is the Christ, the Son
of the living God, and he offers ‘living water’ to any who ask
Read: JOHN 7:25-52. In many third world countries
the cry of the water-seller is regularly heard. Jesus cries out
similarly, but offers to those who believe in him refreshment
for their spiritual thirst. The setting was the Feast of Tabernacles,
when the priest poured water from the pool of Siloam onto the
altar, in thanksgiving for rain and harvest, and for the gift
of water from the rock in their wilderness wanderings. Jesus had
already told his fellow-Jews he was the true temple (ch.2), the
true brazen serpent (ch.3), the true water (ch.4), the true manna
(ch.6). Who is this man? He is the Christ!
Meditate: In your imagination, come to Jesus with
an empty vessel – a large one. He offers to fill it, to satisfy
your deepest longings. What do you want from him? What are your
desires? List them, in this form: ‘I desire…….. because I
want to glorify God by ………..
Pray: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for
righteousness.’ (Matt. 5:6). ‘Jesus, my humble desire is to be
righteous, to do good: for your glory, not mine. You offer the
water of life to any who thirst. I’m included in that invitation.
With my unsatisfied thirst and my empty vessel, Jesus, I come!’
ACCEPTANCE AND REPENTANCE
There are two ways to try to make another person
change: order them to change, or love them into changing. With
the Pharisees, ‘repentance preceded acceptance’; with Jesus it
was the other way around. The Pharisees’ message was ‘You change,
conform, then you’ll be acceptable around here.’ Jesus’ word to
people who already knew they were sinners was, ‘I do not condemn
you’ before he told them to ‘go and sin no more’.
Read: JOHN 7:53 – 8:11. The Pharisees were clever,
but not clever enough. Jews were not permitted by the Romans to
execute anyone; but the law of Moses prescribed execution as the
penalty for adultery (execution of both parties – where was the
man?). So was Jesus going to be off-side with the Romans or Moses?
‘Let whoever is without any sin cast the first stone.’ Someone
has said that there is the sin of law-keepers, and of law-breakers,
and each is worse than the other! On balance, though Jesus did
not condone sin in any form, he preached more against ‘sins of
the spirit’ than against ‘sins of the flesh’. Why?
Meditate: Let us put ourselves into this story. With
whom do I identify? Why?
Let us pray in the words of Anselm: ‘O Lord, our
God, grant us the grace to long for you with our whole heart,
and that so longing we may seek and find you; and that so finding
you we may love you; and that so loving you we may hate those
sins from which you redeemed us for the sake of Jesus Christ.’
(Praying with the Saints, Dublin, Veritas Publications, 1989,
Pascal once wrote: ‘There are only two kinds of people
– the righteous who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners
who believe themselves righteous.’ Which am I? As we go into this
day, or off to sleep tonight, let us think about this: ‘Accept
one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise
to God’ (Romans 15:7).
JESUS CHRIST: SON OF THE LIVING GOD
Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with
his Father-God. Jesus was from ‘above’; his enemies were from
‘below’. He was never alone: his Father was always with him. Indeed,
if his enemies did not acknowledge this special relationship,
they would ‘die in their sins’ (v. 24). His followers believed
he was truly human, and also fully Divine: both within one person.
Read: JOHN 8:12-30. The metaphors Jesus applied to
himself were used by the Jews to describe their Law. For example,
the law enlightens: Jesus is the light of the world. Those who
refuse the light ‘walk in darkness.’
Meditate: Athanasius, a great church father, said
that when Jesus became one of us he did not subtract deity but
rather added humanity. Jesus wasn’t less than God, but became
something in addition to God, a human being. And he lives within
you… think about that!
Pray: In a prayer, let us respond to this famous
statement by C S Lewis: ‘A man who was merely a man and said the
sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.
He would either be a lunatic -on a level with the man who says
he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of hell. You
must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of
God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up
for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you
can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not
come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human
teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.’
(Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1960/1978, p. 56.).
JESUS MEANS FREEDOM
Most in our world do not enjoy full political and
civil freedoms. That is, they cannot participate in bringing about
changes in their government, or speak or worship freely. In biblical
times, however, slaves were totally owned by their masters. But
slavery can mean many things… Into this world of ‘slaves whose
wills are free’ comes the Son of God promising deliverance from
all the sinful, selfish or religious entanglements in our lives.
Jesus liberates us to become his servants and co-redeemers. Service
for him is ‘perfect freedom’, the ultimate liberation.
Read: JOHN 8:31-41. Finding religious security in
something other than a personal relationship with God is a very
common problem. These Jews said ‘We’re OK as children of Abraham.’
Today it might be ‘I believe all the right doctrines, belong to
the right church, partake of the sacraments, follow the best leader…’
Meditate: There are many captivities. Everyone is
a slave to something: money, sex, power, ambition, others’ adulation,
addictive substances, religious bigotry… What are mine?
Pray: In our prayer, identify the things that are
meant to be fulfilling, but can cause us to be ‘driven’. Name
the entities which, though good in themselves, can be abused and
create unfreedoms. Let us ask for strength to renounce addictions,
easy formulas which save us from the hard work of thinking too
much, or legalisms which result in our being known more for what
we don’t believe than what we do believe. Conclude with this petition:
‘Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.’
‘BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE STRENGTH IS IN YOU’
A striking feature of worship in the Bible is that
people gathered in what we could call a `holy expectancy’. God
actually spoke to his people in worship. Today is Pentecost Sunday,
when we remember how the risen Lord sent his Spirit to empower
his people: a dramatic church service, that! Around the world
today, followers of that same Lord will worship him in village
huts, grand cathedrals, and every structure in between. Some will
be worshipping secretly, in fear of state police; some will praise
God in complex liturgies, others in loud Pentecostal praises,
still others with a simple four hymns-prayer-sermon service…
Read: PSALM 84. The Psalmist, who may have been a
Levite barred for some reason from offering worship in the temple,
longs to be in the house of the Lord again. Fellowship with the
living God for him is not a chore, but a necessity. ‘Going to
church’ is lovely, not because of the glory of the building or
the aesthetics of the liturgy, but because there he meets his
King and God. Just as refreshing rains turn a wilderness into
a place of springs, so worship causes his barren life to be fruitful
again, or, to change the metaphor, gives him strength for the
journey. One day spent in communion with God in this special place
is better than a thousand elsewhere. To be a humble servant for
God in his house is a higher honour than to be special guest in
any other setting.
Meditate: ‘To worship is to quicken the conscience
by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God,
to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart
to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.’
‘We worship not because worship benefits us (although
it does), not because we need to (although we do), nor because
it is relevant to our daily lives (although it is), but because
God is.’ (Richard Neuhaus).
Pray: Turn all these thoughts into your own free-form
THE COSMIC BATTLE
Read: JOHN 8:42-59. ‘Who do you think you are?’ (v.53)
sums up the consternation Jesus’ antagonists felt about him. ‘Before
Abraham was born, I am!’ (v.58). ‘But you belong to your father,
the devil’, Jesus told his accusers. Each of us is a battle-ground
where God and Satan vie for supremacy – God for our good, Satan
for our harm. It’s sometimes not sophisticated to acknowledge
the existence of Satan: the two errors are denying his reality
and subtle power, or giving him too prominent a place (finding
demons nowhere, or everywhere!).
Meditate: # Imagine you are there, in the temple
precincts, listening to the accusations against Jesus. A bystander
asks you: ‘What do you think?’ (And remember there are loose stones
around, which some are beginning to gather to throw at Jesus!).
# Think about the characteristics of someone ‘from God’ in this
passage (loving Jesus, hearing his word, following the truth etc.)
or ‘from the devil’ (wanting to rid our lives of Jesus, hating
the truth etc.). Ask of each: Is it I, Lord?
Pray: Infantry soldiers are taught to anticipate
what their enemy might do to destroy them. Satan has a particular
plan to destroy your life, and a particular strategy for your
family, church, nation as well. What are they? Talk to the Lord
about your response.
James 4:7 is a text which has helped many in this
cosmic battle: ‘Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil,
and he will flee from you.’
DISABILITIES AND THE ‘WORK OF GOD’
The Messiah, it was predicted, would give sight to
the blind (Isa 29:18; 35:5; 42:7). This is the only miracle recorded
in the gospels where the sufferer was said to have been afflicted
from birth. But, Jesus’ friends wanted to know, why was this man
Read: JOHN 9:1-12. ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?’ Many rabbis taught, ‘There is no death
without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.’ Wherever
there was suffering, someone had sinned. Some believed you could
sin in the womb, or, your soul having existed beforehand, you
were contaminated with sin at conception. (The Jews probably borrowed
the idea of the pre-existence of the soul from Plato and the Greeks).
The Old Testament does teach that the consequences of parents’
sin are passed on to children (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18;
Psalm 109:14). But Jesus doesn’t get into a theological discussion:
this man’s blindness is an opportunity for a miracle, to show
God’s power at work in the man’s life, thus to prove Jesus the
Messiah’s deity and compassion.
Meditate: Some ‘reading’ Alive to God may be blind,
or visually impaired. Others may have another form of disability.
How can a ‘work of God’ be experienced in each of our lives? If
I am not physically disabled, what other ‘handicap’ might prevent
God working powerfully in my life?
Pray: In our prayer, let us imagine we are at the
side of the road, and Jesus is passing by. Jesus wants to perform
a miracle, and do a ‘work of God’ in and through us. Let us open
up ourselves to him, and let him do it!
PERSONS MATTER MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE!
Read: JOHN 9:13-34. A legalistic mind works like
this: The law of Moses says you shall not work on the sabbath.
But what is work and what isn’t? Is making clay work? Sure. Is
healing someone work? Yes. Jesus reasoned differently: the Sabbath
was a good law, but people matter more than laws. Further, adding
to the plain Mosaic law hundreds of sub-clauses leads to elevating
‘human tradition’ above the Word of God. The law ceases to be
a servant, and becomes a tyrannical master; only the most erudite
will ever know all the sub-clauses. In any case, the Sabbath was
made for us; we were not made for the Sabbath.
Today, someone who applies ‘sabbath’ to ‘Sunday’
might reason: I shouldn’t ‘break the sabbath’ so I’d better not
work, nor support any enterprise that engages in Sunday trading.
So a legalist will not buy Monday’s newspaper, or travel by public
transport, etc. The sabbath remains a good principle: do something
‘re-creational’ on one day a week (if you work at a desk for example,
go walking!), and set aside the day also for regular worship.
Meditate: How in our culture can institutional legalisms
or regulations imprison persons within their deadly grasp? Put
yourself into the mind-sets of the Pharisees, and try to argue
their way (it’s easy!). Then imagine you’re Jesus, and think his
way (maybe not so easy!).
Pray: ‘Lord help me always to value persons more
highly than anything else. The butcher is a person, the pastor
is a person, the prostitute is a person, the rebellious adolescent
is a person, the one who is blind is a person – just as I am a
person, made in your image, worth your dying for. So help me to
relate to others with integrity, and not fit them into my little
legalistic systems or formulas. For your glory, Lord. Amen.’
REAL BLINDNESS AND REAL SIGHT
The blind man had a ‘progressive revelation’ about
who Jesus was: from a man (v.11), to a prophet (v.17), who might
have disciples (v.27), to someone ‘from God’ (v.33), even the
‘Son of man’ (= ‘Messiah’, vv. 35-6), one who is, most appropriately,
worshipped (v.38). But as the man born blind moves into more light,
the Pharisees progress into deeper darkness.
Read: JOHN 9:35-41. Jesus apparently went looking
for the man he healed of blindness. Chrysostom said of this incident:
‘The Jews cast him out of the temple; the Lord of the temple found
him.’ The Pharisees, meanwhile, had a dilemma: Jesus breaks the
Sabbath, so must be a sinner; but a sinner can’t do a miracle
like this; so the facts must be untrue; but it really happened
– so they resort to abuse. In their pride and self-deception,
they thought they knew it all. The darkness of those who know
they’re blind is better than the spiritual pride of those who
think they see everything.
Meditate: ‘Not many of you were wise by human standards;
not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God
chose the foolish… to shame the wise; God chose the weak…
to shame the strong. He chose the lowly… and the despised…
so that no one may boast before him… Christ Jesus has become
for us wisdom from God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:26-30)
Pray: Let us humbly ask the Lord to remove the cataracts
from our spiritual eyes.
Before we leave this great chapter, perhaps read
it right through again. Let us relive the experiences of the blind
man, his parents, Jesus and his adversaries. There are lots of
insights into human nature and the way Jesus deals with it, from
which we can learn.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD KNOWS MY NAME!
Read: JOHN 10:1-21. A Palestinian sheep-pen had walls,
but only one entrance, where the shepherd slept to protect the
sheep from predators. The shepherd would lead the sheep (not drive
them) and they knew his voice. They had individual names, often
given as a description of each sheep’s unique peculiarities –
colour, markings, shape, size, etc. (Throughout the Bible names
are important: and they are today too -one’s name is more than
a label for postal envelopes or for a file in the tax department!).
The shepherd would risk his life for their safety. But Jesus,
the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his ‘sheep’; (five times
he refers to his death for the flock: vv. 11,15,17,18 twice).
Usually sheep are offered as a blood-sacrifice for the shepherd.
Here the shepherd offers himself as a blood-sacrifice for the
sheep. We – who are not part of Judaism – are the ‘other sheep’.
However we belong to one flock, with one shepherd: the one united
church of Christ around the world.
Meditate on this: Jesus the Good Shepherd knows me
intimately, knows me by name. He goes before me, never asking
me to venture where he has not first prepared the way. He leads
me into green pastures. He offers his protection for my security
and cares for me – even to giving his life for me. He calls me
today. What is he asking of me? Where is he leading? Am I prepared
Pray: Turn to Psalm 23, and if you wish, say that
great prayer aloud (slowly)!
Finally, an interesting parable by Anthony de Mello:
A sheep found a hole in the fence and crept through it. He was
so glad to get away. He wandered far and lost his way back. And
then he realized that he was being followed by a wolf. He ran
and ran, but the wolf kept chasing him, until the shepherd came
and rescued him and carried him lovingly back to the fold… And
in spite of everyone’s urgings to the contrary, the shepherd refused
to nail up the hole in the fence. (Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, The
Song of the Bird, India: Anand, 1982, p.200).
‘MY LORD AND MY GOD’
The Jews confront Jesus with a direct challenge:
to tell them plainly if he were the Messiah. Their charge against
him is blasphemy: ‘You, a mere man, claim to be God’ (John 10:33).
Jesus does not deny it, but nowhere does he say outright ‘I am
God.’ He had affirmed his messiahship to the Samaritan woman (4:26),
and also to the blind man by using a messianic title, ‘Son of
Man’ (9:35). He said, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’
(14:6). Jesus is the ‘human face of God.’ When Thomas later exclaims
‘My Lord and my God!’ (20:28) he is congratulated as a believer.
Read: JOHN 10:22-42. It is the winter season, and,
as Augustine remarked, the human atmosphere is wintry too. Jesus’
enemies are trying to trap him. Jesus says his miracles speak
for themselves: they are ‘signs’ pointing to his messianic identity.
There are divine finger-prints all over them, for those without
closed minds. But Jesus also affirms ‘I and the Father are one’
(v.30). The word ‘one’ is neuter, not masculine. There are two
Persons – Father and Son – but one ‘substance’. The two are united
in securing the eternal salvation of the flock, which comprises
those who hear the Son’s voice, and follow him.
Meditation and prayer: Let us consider and respond
to this Trinity Sunday prayer: ‘In the mystery of your Godhead
you have revealed to us the fulness of your divine glory. We praise
you, Father, with the Son and the Spirit, three persons, equal
in majesty, undivided in splendour, yet one Lord, one God, ever
to be worshipped and adored.’ (A New Zealand Prayer Book, Collins,
1989, p. 401).
‘GOD WILL REDEEM MY LIFE FROM THE GRAVE’
In a world where the ‘5-star success system’ (possessions,
fame, education, vocational success, power) rules, let us remember
that all these accomplishments are ephemeral – they will die with
us. Sometimes the ungodly are rich, and the faithful poor are
oppressed. But the only life worth living is one of uprightness
and trust in the living God.
Read: PSALM 49. ‘Hear ye! Everybody, people of high
or lowly birth, rich and poor, hear ye!’ cries this Levite from
the temple (vv.1-4). What shall it profit anyone if they gain
the whole world and lose their soul (Mark 8:36)? When death stares
you in the face, you don’t have to be afraid, unless of course,
you’ve trusted in your accomplishments rather than the living
God. All human distinctions disappear in the face of death. If
you’re self- confident, proud of your wealth or status, you’ve
had it! (But the ‘real you’ is of more value to God than all the
wealth in the entire world). Your life savings – or those of another
‘redeemer’ – won’t be enough to buy a reprieve from the grim reaper!
Though the rich are now honoured, they will die just as the animals
must die. And you’re dead for a very long time. (vv.5-12). You
can’t take any of it with you. Evil and good, rich and poor will
all die, and their bodies will disintegrate in the grave. But
God will not leave the righteous in the dark world of the dead
(Sheol) where the ungodly languish: God will ‘receive’ them. (vv.
13-20). Two ways and two destinies: the choice is ours!
Meditate on this: If you have God and everything
else, you have no more than having God only; and if you have everything
else and not God you have nothing.
Pray: Lord, if I’ve been proud of my education, or
physical fitness, or material wealth, forgive me. Help me to ‘boast’
about understanding and knowing you: the Lord who exercises kindness,
justice and righteous-ness. May I delight in these, as you do
Lord. For your glory, Amen. (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
NEW LIFE: BUT NOT YET!
Jesus is now, from John 11 onwards, advancing towards
the ‘hour’ of his death, resurrection and glory.
Read: JOHN 11:1-16. This is a crucial story: raising
the dead is the ultimate proof of Jesus’ messiahship (only God
can raise the dead, 5:21), and it consolidates the enmity of those
who would eventually put him on a cross. Jesus is ‘glorified’
both in the miracle and in his dying (12:26ff). Lazarus was a
special friend, loved by Jesus (v.3). His sisters were the compulsive
Martha and the contemplative Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Their home
in Bethany, two miles east of Jerusalem, was a favourite lodging
place for Jesus when he was in Judea.
‘With superb dramatic form the Lazarus story sums
up Jesus’ career. It is the ultimate sign. Jesus, the source of
life (10:28; 11:25), now gives life to one man. But even this
ultimate revelation is condemned, leaving Jesus judged as worthy
of death (11:50).’ (Gary M. Burge, Commentary on John, in Walter
A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989 p. 863).
Meditate: As you imagine yourself participating in
this event, put yourself into the ‘skin’ of one of the disciples,
or of Mary and Martha, especially when Jesus delays a couple of
days before going to the tomb where Lazarus has been buried. How
are we supposed to trust this One when he treats our calls for
help like this?
Pray: Let us speak honestly to our Lord about the
unresolved issues in our lives which we have prayed about, agonized
about, and he delays his response. Sometimes his ‘not yet’ is
harder to take than ‘never’. Tell him!
THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
I am a pastor, so I conduct funerals. The last four
involved a young man who committed suicide by gassing himself
in his car, a middle-aged woman who died during an asthma attack,
a 65-year old fine Christian man who passed away after heart surgery,
and another youth who put a gun into his mouth, and sprayed his
brains onto the ceiling. At each of these services we heard again
those immortal words, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those
who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone
who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
(John 11:25, 26 NRSV).
Read: JOHN 11:17-44. Twice Jesus is ‘deeply moved’
(vv.33,38). It’s a strong word: the kind of deep distress that
makes one’s body tremble. Why? His deep love for Lazarus? His
profound antagonism to death as Satan’s work and the result of
sin? His identification with the grief of Lazarus’ loved ones
and friends? A deep spiritual struggle as he braces himself to
do battle with the forces of darkness? But so confident was he
that someone four days dead would rise again, that he thanked
his Father in advance for the miracle that was about to happen!
No wonder many of the bystanders henceforth believed in him! This
restoration of physical life to one person is a pledge of Jesus’
lifegiving power to you and me.
Meditate: Anthony de Mello invites us to meditate
on our funeral: Imagine you see your body in its coffin laid out
in a church for the funeral rites… Take a good look at your
body, especially at the expression on your face… Now look at
all the people who have come to your funeral… Go slowly from
one pew to another looking at the faces of these people… Stop
before each person and see what they are thinking and feeling…
(Sadhana, Anand, India, 1978, p. 90).
Prayer: ‘In Christ we live, in Christ we sleep, In
Christ we wake and rise’. (J.S.B. Monsell)
PROPHETS AND RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS RARELY MIX
The ultimate irony in John’s Gospel is in 11:50.
From within the Sanhedrin, (the Jewish ‘parliament’, comprising
both Pharisees and Sadducees) Caiaphas the high priest speaks
more than he knew. ‘It is better… that one man die for the people
than that the whole nation perish.’ Both happened: they later
got rid of Jesus (so they thought) but the Romans wiped out their
nation as well, in AD 70.
Read: JOHN 11:45-57. The raising of Lazarus finally
did it: the Sanhedrin plotted to kill Jesus. If the masses followed
Jesus the fragile political arrangement with Rome would come apart.
He may be from God, but he was a threat to stability; there were
national and religious institutions to protect. So those who heard
about Lazarus now had to declare themselves – either for Jesus
or against him. Jesus’ enemies hoped his death would put an end
to his influence. Because Lazarus lives, Jesus dies; but now because
Jesus died and lives, we live, forever.
Meditate: Throughout history the prophet, the ‘stirrer’,
threatens the status quo. Institutions, said sociologist Robert
Merton, are all inherently degenerative. Think about the national,
civic or religious institutions which give you security. The Pharisees
honestly wanted to uphold their doctrines and interpretations
of the law; the chief priests – mainly Sadducees – had to maintain
their positions of national and religious power. If you were in
their position, how would you feel if an ‘outsider’ threatened
Pray: How can I thank you O Lord, for all you have
done for me? You ‘faced the music’ unflinchingly, went to your
death and my atoning, dying and rising that I might never die,
but live life in all its fullness, eternally. May I die to myself
and sin, so that I might live for you, and you might live your
divine life in and through me. Amen.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time,
and revisits Bethany, before entering the holy city on the first
Palm Sunday. Simon the leper treats him to a sumptuous banquet
there, according to the accounts in Matthew and Mark.
All four Gospels have a story about a woman anointing
Jesus with costly perfume (Matt. 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50).
The Luke account describes a different event than that in the
other three gospels.
Read: JOHN 12:1-11. Usually oil was poured onto a
person’s head, not their feet; usually a whole years’ wages worth
of ointment was not used at once (not even on kings!); usually
respectable women did not undo their hair in public; and usually
a slave rather than a friend attended to the cleaning of guests’
feet. Like all great acts of devotion, the cost was irrelevant.
Care for the poor is important (see Deut. 15:11), but does not
have the same value as the lavish worship of Christ (v.8).
Meditate: Put yourself into the minds and hearts
of the main characters here. Martha served (in what ways do I
humbly serve Christ?); Lazarus reclined at the table (am I eager
to enjoy his company and imbibe his teaching?); Mary’s offering
was extravagant (if his love demands my all, what have I offered
him?); Judas was out for what he could get, even if he had to
steal from others (what is my motive for following Christ?).
Pray: Take my love my Lord I pour At your feet its
‘HAIL TO THE KING!’
W E Sangster has a sermon about the donkey Jesus
rode upon in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Donkeys don’t
have ‘presence’ do they? They are awkward, obstinate beasts. There
are proverbs about donkeys: if someone calls you an ‘ass’ it is
not usually a term of endearment! Whoever heard of a conqueror
riding in triumph on an donkey?
Read: JOHN 12:12-19. Crowds come with Jesus, and
meet more crowds coming out of the city, in the kind of welcome
usually given to a head of state or a conqueror. (These days a
ticker-tape welcome greets those triumphant in war on either the
battle-field or the sporting field!). The palm branches are symbols
of triumph. The crowds hail the messiah-king with the words of
Psalm 118:25,26, normally used by priests to welcome pilgrims
on their way up to the holy city. Riding on an ass fulfilled Zechariah’s
prophecy (9:9) and was Jesus’ signal that he had not come to be
a warrior- king, but as Israel’s king of peace. ‘Look how the
whole world has gone after him’ were more words spoken by those
bearing witness to a truth greater than they knew.
Meditate: Whatever Christ touches – even a donkey
– he dignifies. He uses ordinary people, the poorly-educated,
the ‘handicapped’, those the rest of society might scorn or spurn
or despise. Think of them – Ruth, a foreigner; Rahab, a harlot;
Matthew, a tax- collector; John Mark, a missionary drop-out. The
list goes on and on. Think about your excuses… and say at the
end of your meditation: ‘Jesus loves even me!’
THERE IS NO LIFE EXCEPT THROUGH DEATH
‘The real value of ease cannot be appreciated without
having known pain, nor of sweetness without having tasted bitterness,
nor of good without having seen evil, nor even of life without
having passed through death.’ (Sadhu Sundar Singh).
Read: JOHN 12:20-36. The meeting of Jesus with a
group of Greeks is the setting for one of the most poignant, and
important, concepts in the Christian faith and life: we die to
live, as Jesus must die for us to live eternally. The Greeks were
‘representatives of the great world beyond the tiny province of
Judea and its introverted conflicts. Their search for Jesus came
as another temptation to short-cut the way to the world’s renewal
and have a mission without a cross’ (John V. Taylor, The Go- Between
God, SCM, p.106). Jesus, in his prayer, voiced the stark choice
facing him: should he avoid ‘this hour’, or glorify the Father
by dying? It’s a battle we often face too, in small or ultimate
Meditate: When the seed is put into the ground, and
the earth is heaped onto it, there is a ‘dying’ before germination
and life. Imagine you’re the seed. The feeling of entombment in
the earth is awful – it’s black, lonely, cold, dark and damp.
The outer shell protects the soft inner kernel. What is that shell
for you? What kinds of protective devices have you built around
your real and tender ‘self’? Imagine the Father-gardener breaking
open that outer shell, and exposing your bruised self to the elements.
But then new life comes – reaching for the light, reaching up
towards the sky, a plant or tree of beauty and fruitfulness…
Pray: Verbalize your own response to this great truth:
‘There is no life except through death… This is the way the
Master trod… shall not his servant tread it still?’
‘MY GOD TURNS MY DARKNESS INTO LIGHT’
The Psalms reflect the agonies and ecstasies of the
lives of a range of people in a variety of circumstances. Many
of David’s Psalms, for example, were composed in the context of
military (and/or emotional and spiritual) battles. Since Jesus
has taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and that those
who live by the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52)
we who follow him as peacemakers are not free to exult over ‘crushing
others beneath our feet’ (Psalm 18:38). However, we can learn
from this great Psalm that God is our helper in all times of need:
what more could we want?
Read: PSALM 18. This hymn of praise and conquest
begins and ends with a joyous outpouring of gratitude to God for
his help in distress and trouble. Following ardent worship (vv.
1-3), David recalls many of God’s deliverances when he was in
trouble (vv. 4-19). He has devoted himself heart and soul to God’s
service, and God has been utterly faithful (vv. 20-26). With a
God like this, anything is possible (vv. 27-25). Praise the Lord
(vv. 46-51)! In difficult situations, with God’s help let us advance;
when a wall – an immovable object -confronts us, we can choose
to sit in front of it bewailing its height; or with our God we
can scale it (v.29)!
Meditate: Your difficulties may not relate to military
warfare, but, as Scott Peck says (The Road Less Traveled), ‘life
is difficult’, and maturity is all about our facing troubles ‘head
on’. So, list your ‘enemies’, your problems. Scale these walls.
You can do it, you can conquer them, God being your helper!
Pray: O worship the King, all-glorious above! O gratefully
sing his power and his love! Our shield and defender, the Ancient
of Days, Pavilioned in splendour and girded with praise.
GOD IS LIKE JESUS
‘If only Jesus would appear to me, here, right now,
and do a miracle, I’d believe in him!’ Would you? If after three
years of miraculous signs many of his contemporaries refused to
believe, probably we’d be no different: reasons for not being
committed to Jesus are usually moral rather than ‘evidential’.
All the evidence in the world won’t help if we refuse to surrender
our wills to the Lord!
Read: JOHN 12:37-50. John is closing the story of
his ‘Book of Signs’. Unbelief is caused, as Isaiah foretold, by
spiritual blindness. Those who persist in their rejection of Christ
(v. 37) become increasingly hardened. The unbelieving mind becomes
a closed mind. Jesus has come as our Saviour, but many do not
want to be saved. So they must wait for inevitable judgment (vv.
47-48). If the proven remedy for a disease is refused, the ‘condemnation’
of the disease is irrevocable. Judgment is the other side of salvation.
The sun does not exist to cast shadows, but warmth and light,
but when the sun shines, shadows are inevitable. One of the saddest
statements in the whole Bible is v.43: to sacrifice truth for
the cheap praise of others is utterly tragic.
Meditate: What is God like? Look at Jesus (v. 45).
‘God is Christlike, and in him there is no unChristlikeness at
all’ (Ramsey). As the ‘Jesus freaks’ used to say, ‘If God is like
Jesus, nothing is too good to be true!’
Pray: ‘Lord, I believe. My life’s aim is to please
you regardless of the cost, or the opinion of others. Take me
as I am, and make me what I ought to be. I love you, Lord, and
I will trust you forever.’ Amen.
REFLECTION DAY: A SPIRITUAL CHECK-UP
John’s Gospel is a series of stories about contrasts:
belief and unbelief, light and darkness, life and death, salvation
and judgment, God and Satan. Wherever Jesus went, controversy
accompanied him. He comes to us, and we similarly have to make
a choice. And the choice is stark: follow our own willful way
which is deadly; or follow Christ on the high road to life.
Let us reflect on the sins which prevent our full
commitment to Christ. The seven ‘deadly sins’ are pride, covetousness,
lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth…
# In what ways am I proud? # Are my ambitions godly
or selfish? # What does sex mean for me? # Most anger is destructive:
what makes me mad? Have I repented and asked the forgiveness of
the one against whom I vented my wrath? # In what areas of my
life am I a victim of addictive behaviours? # Have I got professional
jealousies, or jealousies in relationships? # Workaholism is an
inordinate love of work; laziness is an inordinate love of idleness:
towards which of these do I err?
Imagine Jesus beside you: talk to him about your
specific commitment to grow and change in one or more of these
areas. Remember, however, that he accepts you even before you
change. He loves you towards change, growth, maturity.
A special blessing for you: Go into this day or this
night in the fellowship of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
and, as you go, remember: in the goodness of God you were born
into this world; by the grace of God you have been kept all the
day long, even to this hour; and by the love of God, fully revealed
in the life of Jesus, you are being redeemed. Amen.
[These notes may be reproduced in print or in preaching
with due acknolwedgement).