The Bible passage this week, the week beginning 7th February, is the account of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law as well as many who were possessed with evil spirits. After driving out many demons, Jesus prevented the demons from speaking because they knew who he was. Why did Jesus do this? Why did Jesus not want his actions to be known? There are two inter-related reasons. Firstly, Jesus did not want to become a celebrity faith healer or celebrity exorcist. That was not his main aim but there was another, related reason. To understand this, we need to understand Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to this world. Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God. This was his over-riding concern and he talked more about the Kingdom than anything else. For this, he needed to spend time with his disciples. He needed time to teach them and train them because, when he was gone, they would have to take over the work of building the Kingdom. Now, if Jesus was known as someone more powerful than even Caesar, he risked immediate imprisonment by the Romans. If that happened, he would be unable to teach his disciples and his ability to establish the Kingdom of God would be hampered. We too should have an over-riding concern for the Kingdom of God. For this, we too should be wise as the best way to promote it.
The Bible passage this week, the week beginning Sunday, 31st January, is the account of Jesus driving out an evil spirit. Many Christians today do not seem to believe in Satan or, at least, do not believe he has any influence through his evil spirits. This is strange because Jesus certainly believed in the power of Satan. In addition, Satan seems to be more active in our lives when we start to promote the kingdom of God and this is why, in the Bible passage, Jesus had come to his attention. What about us? Have we ever come under attack for what we have done to promote God’s kingdom? There is a challenge for us all here. If we have lived our entire Christian life and never had our finances, career or family ‘attacked’, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, is Satan interested in us? This is precisely what the apostles meant when they urged us to rejoice in our sufferings. Rejoice because Satan has taken notice of you and therefore you must be doing something right! At the same time, we must be fearless towards Satan. Jesus, by His death and resurrection has defeated Satan. As a result, in Christ, we have nothing to fear. Yes, there may be skirmishes still going on, but the war is won and, with the authority of Jesus, we will prevail. In one of the earliest books in the New Testament, the author tells us to resist Satan in the sure knowledge that he will ‘run away’ from us and leave us alone. Once this happens we can continue to promote the kingdom of God and to annoy Satan in just the same way that Jesus did by casting out his evil spirits.
The Bible passage this week, the week beginning 24th January is the story of the call of James and John to become disciples of Jesus. The Bible records the fact that these two men ‘left their father and their boat and followed him’. On the surface, this seems a straightforward event until we reflect on the circumstances. James and John were fishermen. That was their life, what they knew and what they did well. It was also their source of economic stability, status and reputation. Moreover, in the ancient world, the father in the family was revered. Often, boys would aspire to be like their father and eventually take over the family business before handing it on, in turn, to their children. Further, because their father’s name is explicitly mentioned, it is likely that he was both well-known and a highly successful businessperson. Therefore, in giving up all of this to follow Jesus there would have been an enormous sacrifice for the two brothers James and John. They were choosing to give up all that they had, were, owned, did and aspired to become. However, that is what they did! God is less interested in our own status, profession and income than He is in our faith. God wants to build, not our wealth and fame but our character and faith. This is what is of eternal consequence. What about us? Will we give up everything to follow Jesus? Although salvation costs us nothing, discipleship costs us everything. We know, for example, James was one of the first to be martyred. Will we, like James and John sacrifice everything to follow Jesus? If we are prepared to do this, let us start today.
Jesus once said to Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.” In truth, we do not know very much about the disciples. Two of them, Matthew and John, succeed in writing whole Gospels without hardly mentioning themselves within the story. The Bible passage for this week, the week beginning 17th January, sheds some light on two of the disciples – Philip and Nathanael. Doubtless, these two were close friends and work colleagues, coming from the same part of Galilee. It is also likely that they both studied the scriptures together. Indeed, it may be that Nathanael was meditating on the scriptures away from the noise of the house, under a fig tree when Jesus first saw him. Jesus clearly had a high regard for Nathanael declaring that there was ‘nothing false’ in him. However, Nathanael, Philip and all the other disciples were also prone to despair, despondency, negativity and even cynicism. Nathanael, for example, declared, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip, in turn, could not believe that there was any hope for them to feed five thousand men on the hillside: “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bit!” I find it immensely re-assuring that these great people who went on to plant churches, revolutionise the world and give their lives for their faith all started from a position of weakness. God is less interested in what we have been and more interested in what we can become. This year, 2021, why not start the journey of being a better disciple so that, one day, like Nathanael, we can hear the words of God: “This person is a true follower of Jesus in whom there is nothing false.”
Too many people for too many centuries have laboured under the misapprehension that God is not pleased with them. God has often been viewed as a harsh judge who likes to condemn us for our wrongdoings. In my personal experience, of over 40 years as a Christian, nothing could be further from the truth. More crucially, the notion that God is not pleased with us is not the message of the Bible. This week, the week beginning 10th January, the Gospel passage includes the words of God at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, whom I love; WITH YOU I AM WELL PLEASED.” The amazing reality is that, if we are fully united to Christ and imitate Him, then these words of God can be levelled at us! Maybe we should start 2021 by letting these words wash over us, again and again. Maybe this is the year when we should dispel the notion that God is not pleased with us because then, and only then, can we fully be the people God wants us to be in 2021.
What should we do if someone wrongs us? For most people, they would say that we should respond by wronging the perpetrator even more. Firstly, to make them repay for the damage they have done us and then, on top of that to go beyond what they did to us so that they never think of doing it again. The result would of course be retaliation and escalation until it all gets out of control and ends in a feud. For this reason, the Old Testament law was that the repayment of any wrong must not go beyond the amount that the person has been wronged. This was the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but no more! It was actually to limit revenge and show control and some degree of mercy. In the Bible reading for this week, Jesus goes one better than the law. Jesus offers a new sort of justice: a creative, restorative and healing justice. Jesus says take no revenge at all. It is only this response that reflects the patient, forgiving and overflowing love of God towards those who hurt us. It is only this response that can break the cycle of violence. It can break the cycle of violence between nations, tribes and individuals. No other god encourages people to behave in this way. It is truly revolutionary and it actually works.