Jesus was certainly a thorn in the side of the religious establishment. Today’s lectionary includes Luke 13:10-17, in which Jesus engages in a furious exchange with the leader of worship about what should and should not take place on the Sabbath. His words are not placatory:
“You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”
The writer of another part of today’s lectionary was a wise woman, trusted by St Paul, and in Hebrews 12:18-29, Priscilla wrote:
“[God is] getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered.”
And these New Testament quotations hark back to the prophecy of Jeremiah(1:4-10) God instructs him:
“I’ve given you a job to do among nations and governments—a red-letter day! Your job is to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, and then start over, building and planting.”
A theme has been running through the lectionary readings for the whole of August about how radical will be the change in our lives when we accept the leadership of Jesus, when we choose to follow His teaching and example. How sad, when what we actually want is for life to continue much the same; maybe a little more comfortable, a little more money coming in, fewer arguments, cheaper fuel and food, nicer neighbours; but really much the same. Tradition; that is what we want to uphold, by which we mean the Good Old Days, as we wish they had been.
The opening of the Jeremiah account of how he came to understand the magnitude of the changes required, make clear that this revelation went on for many years before he finally got the message. So there is hope for us all, even the most intransigent.
Catastrophic changes did follow the life of Jesus in many ways. The Roman tenth legion saw to that, ending Jewish rule in the Holy Land in 70AD for the next 1900 years. The Romans destroyed the holy temple and scattered or killed every Jewish leader, starting, or continuing, a persecution that has led to the undoubted antisemitism and undoubted paranoia that we see around us today. I am sure that no-one believed that would happen. I am sure that Jews of Jesus’ time hoped that everything would continue in much the same way, maybe a little improvement here and there but really, much the same. Uncharitable Christians (and there have been many) were quick to blame Jews for their own misfortune. From this catastrophe came the spread of Christianity, as newly-Christian Jews fled to the four corners of the known world and took their Christianity with them.
A woman had a garden. It was a large and beautiful garden. She worked in it every day and cherished it. More often, she sat in her favourite seat in the middle of the garden and found peace; she found it easy to reflect on her life in this spot, on its beauty and loveliness. One day, she awoke to see that a sink hole had opened up in the middle of her garden and her cherished spot had vanished beneath the Earth. She was devastated. For a long time, she used to stand by the hole and gaze into it, mourning the loss of her special place. The rest of the garden became neglected and overgrown. The rhubarb was not picked, neither the runner beans. The apples fell from the trees and rotted on the ground, ruining the lawn. Then she determined to change her life as a result of this catastrophe. She built a wall around the hole. It was still there. She knew it was still there, but she devoted her attention to the parts of the garden that had not been affected. She discovered many plants that she remembered from before. She planted new. She dug up the lawn and sowed potatoes. In time, the new garden overgrew the wall. Although she knew the hole was still there, and she remembered the happy times she had spent in her favourite seat, somehow the joy of the new garden masked the regret and sadness.
What we actually want is for life to continue much the same; maybe a little more comfortable, a little more money coming in, fewer arguments, cheaper fuel and food, nicer neighbours; but really much the same. But for all of us, life will change; there will be holes occur in cherished parts of our lives. If we are lucky these will happen as we get older and our powers decrease; but if that is so, we will not have had practice in building walls round holes and it may be much more difficult.
Sometimes a hole enters our lives through our own doing: betraying a marriage; neglecting a child in favour of a career; or losing an opportunity through lack of self-confidence or ambition. Sometimes a hole enters our lives because of an external happening: the weakness of a dam; a tsunami; and invading army; the death of a husband, a wife, a child, or a parent. Maybe for you it is the threat of Brexit, or the lack of Brexit.
We have choices. We can spend our time gazing into the hole, mourning the loss of what had been so important to us, neglecting all the other parts of our lives that were working so well. Or, we can build a wall around the hole and concentrate on what is left, seeing how our lives can change to bring other joy. We shall always know that the hole is still there. We shall always remember our former happiness. But, in many cases, we will find new happiness and fulfilment as we step back from the hole and rejoice in what else in our lives can bring satisfaction.
Jesus and all the prophets say that crises are to be expected and that we are to embrace a change to a better life. The holes that occur in our lives when Jesus comes to stay are holes where our lives were not Jesus-Shaped. Jesus’ words were of love and of self-sacrifice; words of warning about accumulating possessions; words of condemnation for those clinging to religious practices. Would Jesus be welcomed into our church? He came to bring catastrophe to each of us who accept Him into our lives. He came to bring crisis and change. He came as a revolutionary.
Winston Churchill said “Never let a good crisis go to waste” in reference to the conditions after the Second World War that allowed for the formation of the United Nations. If we are serious about becoming Jesus-Shaped people there is a clear path to take. We must read the scant accounts that we have of the life, teaching, and example of Jesus. We must realise the change required of us. We must dig the hole to bury those enjoyable parts of our lives that no longer fit; whether it is eating meat, flying on holiday, using other people for our own comfort, driving a car, or keeping wealth for ourselves rather than giving it for the common good. Then we must build a wall around the hole and concentrate on the other parts of our lives that can still go well. We must explore new opportunities for service.
What of our future? Will we accept the necessity to share our wealth with the rest of the God’s creation? Will we limit our luxury so that we consume less of the earth’s resources and leave more for those at present on the breadline? Will we back off from destroying habitats for greed? Will we start reading the Gospels and test our beliefs against them. Will actions follow revelation? Or, as we might have said to Jeremiah, to Priscilla, and even to Jesus, “Good luck with that!” Do you remember the story Jesus told about Dives and Lazarus? Luke 16:19-31, if you want to remind yourself. The rich man ends up in Hell and pleads with Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers… you know the rest.