Sunday, February 9, 2014

Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid!

Have you noticed that you can return to some children’s books that you read first as a child when you are adult and find in them riches you had never dreamt of.

I re-read Peter Pan recently and was amazed at how dark it was, how rich it was.  When I re-read the Wind in the Willows I was amazed to find how moving the encounter with the god of the animals’ world was in the wild wood – very moving to read at Christmas time.  I love the playfulness of Alice in Wonderland that I never fully appreciated as a child.  I was enthralled by Emil and the Detectives, read to us with enthusiasm by a teacher at school and by parents at home.  It was great returning to that after visiting Berlin and to discover the riches in that novel too.

Then there are adult books that can be adapted for children.  Many who are around about my age had a unique treat as children.  I would have been 6 or 7 when we had our first TV set.  I remember on Saturday evenings the start of Dr Who and before that the equally scary serial stories of Garry Haliday and the Voice.  And on Sunday evenings in the same ‘children’s hour’ time slot ‘the classic serial’.  Initially done live, and then in low budget studio productions the BBC serialised all the great classic novels.  To this day I find it hard to remember whether I have read a particular novel by Dickens or whether I have seen it on TV.  Now those classic serialisations are done in massively expensive lavish productions once or twice a year.  Through the late 50’s and 60’s they were done practically every week.  The routine in our house was to watch the 5-30 episode and then go to church.  It meant I grew up with children’s adaptations of the great classics.

When I have returned to them later on I have been taken aback to discover the dark side, the disturbing side and the extent to which these novels I was introduced to as if they were children’s stories are actually adult stories that are very powerful.

It is very easy to imagine that the great Bible stories fall into the first of those categories – we are introduced to them as children, we tell them to children as children’s stories and they are wonderful.  We imagine they were told for children.

Actually they were told for adults and we have down through the years adapted them for children and made them into children’s stories.  That’s  a wonderful thing to do – just as it was wonderful for my generation to be introduced to the great classics of English literature in that way.

We can choose whether or not we return to the stories we were introduced to as a child.   We would do well to choose to return to the Bible stories we were introduced to as children and read them through the eyes of an adult.

That’s exactly what I want to do with the story of the feeding of the 5000, brilliantly re-told by Bob Hartman in his story tellers Bible, brought to life by countless Open the Book groups in schools up and down the country, not least in Oakwood school by our Open the Book group.

It’s the one story from the ministry of Jesus that occurs in all four Gospels.   There are only half a dozen or so other incidents in the life and ministry of Jesus recorded in John ‘s Gospel and none of them occur in all three of the other gospels.

Immediately, it makes you think there’s something special about the feeding of the 5000.  For John it’s a foretaste of the bread we break in communion, for what we celebrate in communion   For Luke it is the link between the commissioning of the 12 and Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as Messiah.  For Mark it is part of that journeying from the Jewish side of the sea of Galilee to the Gentiles side.

In Matthew’s gospel there is a darkness to the story that’s easy to miss.

The centre point of Matthew’s Gospel is in chapter 13 when Jesus teaches at length about the very kingdom of  God John the Baptist had come to proclaim, that Jesus had proclaimed – that entirely new way of looking at the world.  Matthew 13 is a chapter of parables – the wonderful parables of the kingdom, how from tiny seeds, the littlest of yeast, the great kingdom of heaven comes.

In focusing on this way on what shape God’s rule takes when it comes on earth, Jesus sees himself very much as a prophet.

Once he has finished saying all those parables he moves on and comes to Nazareth where in his own home town he is rejected.  Jesus saw himself as a Prophet, in the line of those great prophets of the Old Testament from Elijah and Elisha right the way through to John the Baptist.  “Prophets are not without honour,” he said, “except in their own country and in their own house.”   It is because of the unbelief of the people that in Nazareth he did not do many of those deeds of power that were associated with that great line of Prophets.

Then as Matthew 14 opens we return once again to the story of John the Baptist.  I don’t think I had realised how prominent a part John the Baptist plays in Matthew’s gospel – it is as if Jesus’ ministry is played with the figure of John the Baptist in the shadows.

At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’

This is the Herod who was the son of Herod the Great, who was later to play a key role in the trial and execution of Jesus.  At the death of Herod the Great he had been made ruler over the territory to the West of the Sea of Galilee – one quarter of the old kingdom.  As part of that Herodian dynasty he had bought into the whole Roman way of doing kingdom – it was a brutal, harsh, lavish, extravagent way of life that he had sought to impose on Galilee by building two great Roman cities one the re-building of the sity of Sepphoris less than five miles from Nazareth, and the other a brand new Roman city complete with great shopping arcade, theatre and a very lavish life-style on the shores of the Sea of Galilee – a city he called Tiberias after the name of the emperor who reigned during the life and ministry of Jesus.

It is a moment of raw emotion for Herod.  He had been incensed at the way John the Baptist had attacked his Herodian regime, not least his own personal marital arrangements, and he had had John imprisoned.

For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ 5Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.

This verse is a moment of sheer terror for Herod – he recognises in Jesus a John the Baptist come to life.  He had imagined he had silenced the prophetic voice of John only to find it had come so much more alive in Jesus.    This whole new way of thinking, this whole new way of looking at the world, this kingdom of heaven Jesus was preaching, turned upside down the worldly kingdom of Roman values that Herod and the Herodians were crafting.

The terror was all the stronger because Herod felt he had had been trapped into having John the Baptist executed.

I used to revel in telling this story to children … I have found it very much more difficult since realising that this kind of execution still goes on.

In the story that Matthew records in detail here we have a glimpse of the Roman way of life with its banqueting and its excess.  Also a glimpse of the Roman callous disregard of human life – one of the few civilisations to have sports that involve the killing of people.

6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ 9The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother.

We sanitise this story when we tell it to children.  It is horrific.

The disciples who in chapter 11 had come from the imprisoned John  asking whether Jesus was the one John had been looking for now have a grim task to undertake.

12His disciples came and took the body and buried it;

Who could they turn to?   They knew exactly who they could turn to.

12His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

So, what does Jesus do.

And it is at this point that we arrive at the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  And we find Jesus in the depths of a very real grief that overwhelms.

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

In the solitude he discovers the solace of prayer and of peace.

But Jesus is not able to remain alone or in peace.

But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’

What Jesus models for this crowd is the exact opposite of the banquet.

It’s a massive contrast.  Whereas the Roman feasting of a birthday celebration results in death.  The feasting from five loaves and two fish results in life.

And all ate and were satisfied.

It is a wonderful conclusion.

It offers us an alternative lifestyle – this is the lifestyle of the kingdom.

Note the numbers …

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children

Why is the counting of the men significant?

Think what’s happened.  The prophetic voice of John has been silenced.

Is it a nice group of people out for a picnic as we tell the story to the children.  Or is it possibly an angry crowd, shocked at what has become of the prophetic voice of John.

Turn to John’s gospel and he leaves you in no doubt …

This is a crowd of men who have come together to hail Jesus as their King and take the Herodian dynasty by force of arms …

It is at this moment in John’s telling of the story (John 6:15) that Jesus realises what this crowd of men want to do …

When Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

The kingdom of heaven Jesus has come to proclaim is not built on the lavish excesses of the Roman lifestyle – it is not to be achieved by force of arms – it hungers and thirsts after righteousness, involves love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy too, and it celebrates the peacemaker.  It may have tiny beginnings in the mustard seed, the yeast, or the five loaves and two fish – but it is the way to follow.

So what does Jesus do?  Back to Matthew 14:22

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

There is personal tragedy going on in this story that means Jesus has to seek the solitude of prayer and the solace it gives.

There is also the tragedy of political turmoil as people struggle to make sense of a wild world that seems to be engulfed by political storms.
There is a remarkable, a disturbing, significance in what then happens.

A real storm had swept down the rift valley of the Jordan and had whipped up the usually tranquil sea of Galilee into a frenzy …

but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

But Jesus is there with them in the midst of the storm – the real storm they experience on the sea of Galilee, he is in the midst of whatever storm threatens to engulf them in personal tragedy, in political tragedy too –

They cannot believe their eyes as they see his presence approaching them … they were terrified!  It’s a ghost!  And they cried out in fear.

Then comes that wonderful moment …

Immediately … there and then … at precisely the moment at which they are filled with terror and sense they will be totally overwhelmed they hear the voice of Jesus …

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

This whole chapter took on new meaning for me when it was read as a lectionary reading for the day when we touched the conflicts in Palestine and Israel at their most raw – when we had encountered the tensions between Jewish settlers and Palestinians and the work of Christian Peacemakers in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Those are the words to take with whatever the uncertain times we feel we face, be it in times of personal tragedy, or when we despair at the state of the world.  It is the presence of Jesus with us in the storm and his word for our heart that speaks into our fears …

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid!

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid
When Jesus heard news
he could not bear
He sought solitude
And turned to prayer.

In the stillness of this place
We turn once more to you
Lord, hear our prayer.

When Jesus saw fear
in the faces of his friends
He came alongside them
and spoke words of peace
and words of calm

In moments of fear,
may we know your presence
and hear those words of peace

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

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