Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ancient prophet, young Messiah

Old IsaiahSometimes I read something in the Bible that makes my heart beat faster. It happened this morning when I was reading the prophet Isaiah.

I was reading chapter 49, which contains the second of Isaiah’s ‘servant songs’. (For the other three, go here.)

In amongst these prophecies about Jesus, I read this:

The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:1-3)

We aren’t told much about Jesus’ infancy and childhood in the New Testament. Apart from Luke’s fascinating glimpse of Jesus in the Temple, telling his bewildered parents that he’s been “about his father’s business”, there’s almost nothing.

Yet here, in this prophecy from centuries before Jesus’ birth, we get another glimpse. Jesus is “named” in the womb as the servant, the saviour. (A divine christening that works itself into history as the angelic instruction that his name should be Jesus, “Saviour”.)

Young JesusAnd then we get a glimpse of Jesus in his childhood and youth, being prepared by God, sharpened in wisdom, protected, readied for what was to come. It’s wonderfully poetic, too: in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away”.

Jesus was hidden in the quiver for about 30 years before God took him out and fired him, like an arrow in the heart of his enemies. And in those years, Jesus heard his father’s call. He discovered who he was. Who he was called to be. Israel-in-person. Messiah. Servant. Saviour of the world.

To get the best effect, say these words aloud, but as a whisper – like they would have been whispered in Jesus’ mind and heart over those years of preparation: And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

It is a mystery quite how Jesus became aware of his calling and identity. I’ve long since been dissatisfied with explanations that leap too quickly to Jesus’ deity (babe-in-manger thinking through quantum physics et cetera); they don’t seem to me to do justice to Jesus’ full and true humanity.

But I love the glimpse Isaiah gives us. This young prophet, but more than a prophet, this servant, but more than a servant, this son. He hears his father’s voice. The call grows. Certainty grows. He reads Isaiah and knows.

And then the day of confirmation: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

That call was tested immediately with the demonic “if” – and afterwards? Isaiah himself prophesies an agony of uncertainty, especially in the face of rejection from his own people: I said, “I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God” (verse 4).

But Jesus saw it through; through the tears, the sweat, the blood. The result was salvation.

What a salvation. And what a saviour.

That was the heartbeat moment of inspiration. Thought I’d share.


For those who want a bit more exegetical background on ‘the servant’, this mysterious yet compelling figure who crops up several times in the latter chapters of Isaiah, here’s some theological small print:

The ‘servant’ is called ‘Israel’ – yet the prophecies about him find their fulfilment in Jesus. (The first servant song is quoted by Matthew to that effect; verse 8 of the chapter I read this morning is similarly cited by Paul; Acts-writer, Dr Luke, has Philip the evangelist explain to an Ethiopian eunuch (got all that?) that Jesus is the servant… And so on.)

How can the servant be both Israel and Jesus? Answer: because, as Israel’s Messiah, Jesus represents Israel as a whole. This idea of representation is found throughout the Bible. A chosen individual can stand for a whole people: a patriarch can represent his whole family; a king can embody his whole nation.

Jesus takes on Israel’s ancient calling to be light to the world, a blessing to all nations. Jesus, the Messiah, the servant, a ‘one-man-Israel’, embodies both Israel’s faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to Israel. He is the fulfilment of God’s purposes through Israel and the answer to all God’s promises. He says to the prisoners, ‘Come out’, to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear’.

In Isaiah 49, the prophet announces the servant to the whole world (v.1) as: called by God from conception (v.1), prepared in his youth (v.2) and commissioned to be God’s servant (v.3); knowing pain as his mission seems to fail, yet trusting God nonetheless (v.4); tasked with calling Israel back to God (v.5) – and not only Israel but the whole world (v.6); despised and rejected, yet eventually commanding the allegiance even of monarchs (v.7); embodying God’s saving covenant with His people (v.7) – and not just with Israel, but with people from all over the world (v.9-13).

Thank you God for your servant, Jesus.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Fix

'The Fix' is another poem from my friend Wilf. As so often with his wordsmithying, worth sharing.

I'm not myself today,
Not that I'm anybody else, you understand
But what I am doesn't seem so good or complete
In this strange bright light.

I feel dangerous and afraid
That if the wrong thing touches me
I would explode, or spit poison
And the "wrong thing" would be
Someone I love,someone like you.
So I'm in a bit of a fix, the fix being that I need fixing
And God who does that kind of stuff
Seems distant
Though it is always He who orchestrates these things.

The happy ending is slow in coming
But he knows it will
He will be himself again
But not again
For it will be the self
He has never quite been before
Some steps closer to perfection

Monday, February 20, 2012


God's loveI just had an animated phone call from my wife.

A young woman who we’ve been praying for had just phoned her. This young woman is pregnant and there have been serious complications with the pregnancy. The medics said there was some sort of ‘band’ around the child which meant she was very likely to be born seriously deformed and therefore disabled.

We’ve been praying for this woman and her baby, and her partner. We met them some months ago; they’ve been coming round to our community, becoming our friends, finding faith bit by bit. Life is chaotic for them (as for so many families we meet, where the norm is anything but stable family life).

The other day, this young woman tried praying for the first time. She prayed for her mum who desperately needed a new place to live and was excited when, just hours later, her relieved mum rang to tell her she’d found a suitable place.

The other day she said to my wife, “Praying works!”

Then, today, she went to the hospital to find... no ‘band’ around the baby. Prognosis: normal birth. No reasonable medical explanation. They were both, understandably, awed.

They know we’ve been praying.

It does seem that God moves in simple miracle answers towards those who are just finding faith, just being reborn. (Conversely, when we’ve been believers for longer, things are often less ‘open and shut’ – partly I think because God gets to work on our character, teaching us patience and trust...)

God is loving and good. He’s a faithful Father to all his children – and especially to his newborns.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Love that lasts

LoveMy friend, a committed, lifelong celibate, blogged on Valentine’s Day. He made the point that those who have chosen to remain single out of love for God and for humanity (rather like Jesus did) can be just as romantic – more! – than any human couple.

I agree. And I’ve seen it in him and in many other passionate celibates of both sexes. In this post I’m going to explore the corresponding truth – that couples cannot just rely on romance; there has to be gritty, lifelong commitment (such as, in fact, I have also seen modeled in my celibate friends).

Fortunately for me, this post will be easy to write because this week I read two excellent pieces on precisely that topic: lasting love. One from a C of E Archbishop and another from a retired C of E bishop. (Since I’m staying with my in-laws, good Anglicans both, whilst writing this, it seems an opportune moment to say that I think the Church of England has some impressive leaders.)

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, is a master publicist with the common touch, a great communicator (and makes a good duo with his boss, the altogether erudite Rowan Williams). Two days ago, on Valentine’s Day, Sentamu wrote an article about what makes love last the test of time. Church Times? Theology Today? No – it was in The Sun. (Read it here.)

Sentamu made the point that when couple marry, contrary to popular belief, they don’t say “I do”, they say “I will”. It’s not just a declaration of “how I feel today”, it’s a declaration of “what I will commit myself to tomorrow”.

Great point, well made. True love, in the end, must be willed, not just felt; must be for the long haul, not just for now.

Then, last night, I was reading a book by Tom Wright, until recently Bishop of Durham (and in my view one of the greatest Christian writers and teachers of our time). As it happened, the passage I was reading was on the same topic, that of lasting love.

Wright writes:

…the excitement of romance is like the excitement of striking a match. It’s sudden, sparky, dramatic – and it doesn’t last long. The question is, What are you going to do with the match once you’ve struck it?

The answer…is that you will use the match to light a candle. A candle isn’t as exciting as a match, at least not to being with; but it can be far more beautiful, far more evocative, and far more long lasting. Human couples need to learn that lesson, to prevent them supposing that, when the match has gone out, something has gone dramatically wrong and they must look for another match to strike as soon as possible. To learn this, indeed, is part of the road to the virtue of chastity.

(from Virtue Reborn)

Love is the aim, the goal, the end. Love is the word that sums up not only mature humanity, but also God himself. But it takes work, effort, grit.

It may even take gasping out prayers and sweating blood in a garden, like it did for Jesus.

Thank you, God, for passionate celibates. And for steely-eyed, determined, married couples. May we all have not just a happy Valentine’s Day, but a happy forever after – in love.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Elisha the miracle workerAfter my last post on a healing that we in the Jesus Army have found really exciting, I thought I'd post up a study I wrote recently. It was based in 2 Kings 4; I was considering the miracles of Elisha, and Elijah before him - and Jesus after him.
Elisha's miracles show he carries the same power as Elijah before him (1Ki.2:9): Elisha's multiplication (2Ki.4:1-7, 42-44) and purification (2Ki.4:38-41) of food are reminiscent of Elijah's provision for the widow of Zarephath (1Ki.17:7-16); Elisha raising a child from death (2Ki.4:8-37) is similar to Elijah raising the widow's son (1Ki.17:19-23).

Their miracles demonstrate that each is an anointed prophet, a man of God (2Ki.4:7, 9, 16, 1Ki.17:24 etc.)

And they point towards the miracles of Jesus, the ultimate anointed prophet, the man who is God - food multiplication (Jn.6:1-14), raising a child (Mk.5:35-42) and so on.

Miracles restore nature; they don't change it altogether. God is the Creator and all that He created is good (Gen.1:31): He made a world with plenty of food; He gave life to man; He made breath, sight, strength (see 2Ki.4:34).

Miracles restore creation's goodness. This is why the miracles of Elijah, Elisha - and Jesus - have common themes: provision, healing, commanding nature, reversing death.

Yet - and this is fascinating in itself - the man of God has imaginative freedom to perform miracles differently... Borrow some jars? Send a staff with your servant? Lie on a corpse? Throw flour in the pot? Use a boy's lunch? Smear mud on blind eyes? God works with and through His man to right wrongs and restore creation.

It made me ask what 'imaginative methods' for miracles I have experienced, why such inspired originality might be important, and how we can grow our faith.

Answers on a postcard.