Before this course starts, attendees are invited to think about these questions: [and consider whether your answers are based on some text or theological truth found in the Old Testament.] Here are my considerations, presented as ‘thinking out loud’ for your encouragement and as a prompt to your own thinking.
“We have a duty to look after ourselves.” Is this true? Explain!
Parking his theological tanks on the terrace, CFL drives the heavy armour onto Conservative territory (if you agree), or Labour (if you don’t). Then again, what assumptions are we being caught in? Is talk of ‘duty’ an OT and biblical thing, and if so, how close to our modern and largely secular understanding? If I simply concede that ‘duty’ is a fair approximation to biblical and OT values, then the truth must surely be closer to a double-handed (binary) truth. Yes, I have a responsibility to myself and yet also to others, and thus a duty to care for me and them. Such is Jesus charge that we love neighbour as we love ourselves. That’s theologically challenging: where else is it acknowledged that self love is a valid thing? That’s the kind of talk that tends to get evangelists shouting at their listeners to repent. Love of self is what got us into such a mess. Of course Jesus agrees. His instruction is much more subtle. He takes for granted the grounding of responsible self care, following the things our mothers bring us up in as we are children, not adding any further emphasis to that, and radically extends that same kind of taken for granted thinking to those around us- ALL those around us. “Love your neighbour as yourself!” The extension is the kicker. We get that Jesus hearer’s were surprised. Should Jews have been surprised? Did they miss something in their scriptures (as CFL prompts us) that should have alerted them to this ‘radical’ truth? I suspect that Genesis 12 is a good place to go: Abraham is charged and gifted to be a blessing to all nations. Whatever the nature of a holy community ought to be, it must not exclude loving- caring for- the Other, those outside.
An appeal to God’s mission through Abraham could be thought decisive. Might there also be a valid No to CFL’s question? I suspect so. We must respect that in the providence and grace of God, we are not responsible for ourselves in rather a lot of ways. My very being here is the result of God’s sovereign creation. He has determined the times and places in which we live, says Paul to the Athenians. Perhaps I might have been a Māori fighting off Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who sailed into ‘Golden Bay’, ‘New Zealand’ on 13 December 1642, or a Viking fisher woman eeking out a simple existence in a wooden hut in ‘Newfoundland’ in 1021AD. Instead, I’m sitting here, rather comfortably, idly viewing social media posts of an old friend in New Zealand writing irreverent songs about the pandemic, while eating fish caught by some factory ship in the North Atlantic and ferried efficiently to one of my many local supermarkets. I used to read Genesis rather more ‘literally’ in regard to human origins, but now I realise that there is more than a grain of scientific truth in the notion that God can raise up sons for Abraham even from stones.
“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
Mt 3:9 ESV
Here’s what John Gill (d.1771) has to say about this passage:
There is absolutely no way in which we are responsible for the ‘care’ with which God endowed His creation with the capacity to ‘make things make themselves’ and I daresay we now share a great deal of ignorance regarding His effective Providence in preserving each of us from disaster and premature death, be that from disease, our own splendid stupidity, or our frequent indulgence of motorised transport. God is doubtless continuing to care for each of us more securely than we could possibly know. But all that can be quite reasonably be taken as given. It is in the common grace of God to human beings. Beyond this, we are most certainly responsible to rescue animals from wells on the Sabbath, seemingly against religious regulations, and even more so, to cover the well with a secure lid so neither our neighbour or our own child falls in during the night. I saw too many open wells in Africa.
If it is appropriate to read ‘duty’ as equivalent to ‘calling,’ ‘mandated,’ or ‘mission,’ and I think it can be all of those things, then this enquiry can be properly taken as a worldview question. Reading elsewhere in this blog will show that my position on the biblical worldview, based consistently on both OT and NT, is an holistic one. God has created and is sustaining a tripartite cosmos: God’s relationship with God’s created cosmos is at once transcendent and immanent, and it is the nature of God’s relationships with God’s cosmos that are of primary significance, over against a reductionist approach that stops with the questions, Who/What is God, and What creation is. (This second ontological question tends to slide away into a conversation in the realm of science, and then fall into opposition with the first- ‘We have no need of that hypothesis’ (allegedly said by Pierre Simon Laplace to Napoleon when asked of the place of God in his cosmology).)
So it is all at once the duty of humankind to properly attend to all three directions of relationship: firstly with God, secondly with our fellow (potential) worshippers, other human beings, be they believers or not, and also with all else that God has made and makes possible; the rest of creation, on which we are belatedly realise we so crucially depend. Ecclesiastes and Micah put these in an opposite fashion to one another, as if to bracket everything together in God, whom we call the Alpha and Omega. Ecclesiastes starts with God;
While Micah draws all our being and doing together into God;
I note that both statements are prefaced with a formalised or legal formula, which CFL’s phraseology of ‘duty’ is resonant with. We easily miss in both these summaries that while God is recognised in a distinct clause, the ‘duty’ of human beings to neighbours and environment is not separated under distinct headings. It is perhaps better this way, as the matter of whether my actions toward my neighbour with regard to water rights, their access to clothing or bread, or to land or a fair rate of pay cannot finally be separated from our collective use or misuse of water, land or the other resources that the earth affords to us- even the quality of the air we breathe and which we are pushing to climactic extremes.
The Westminster Catechism puts it succinctly, but commentators understood that there must be many facets of expression in contiguous organic combination to do justice to our living ‘in the image and likeness’ of God:
Once again and finally to CFL’s question: Do we have a duty to look after ourselves? You would think this was the normality, and a statement on which there is uncontroversial agreement. Absolutely, yes, because looking after Number One is what its all about! Is there a different view in the church? There ought to be. Take up your cross, says the Master. Follow someone Else. Christian duty points Elsewhere. Then again, once the call to service and self-sacrifice is understood and acted on, there remains a kernel of soundness in the suggestion. Too many believers suffer a different malaise, that of over-reliance on their leaders. In regard of spiritual disciplines and personal growth to maturity, there are the words of Paul: by now you should be off milk, and on to solid food, which is for the mature.
“Every believer is designed to hear from God for others.” Do you agree?
Designed, in terms of the basic ability or capacity? Maybe so. I have just been arguing that God intends for us to hear Him with more discernment for our neighbours than for ourselves. But that we are so called to do? As a basic principle of life, this suggestion is questionable: Jer 31:34a And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.
Yet in witness and evangelism this is perhaps exactly the gift of God; that God speaks of tangible things in the life of the Other to whom He would have me speak. The specific gift of prophecy that was bestowed on a few in the OT remains in focus in the Church Age, where the common gift of the Spirit opens such insightfulness to all the saints. We are intended to learn lessons from the accounts of the prophets like Elisha, who goes to the king (2 Kings 8) to answer the secret hubris of the nation’s monarch; to be the corrective and enlightening voice of God even to the head of state. While in 2 Ki 3:13 Elisha comforts the kings of Judah and Edom with God’s assurance that a confluence of natural phenomena, human manipulation of environment and the providence of God will bring them to deliverance. Hearing God for others should therefore be a common and continuous part of our human experience as the people of God, where we exercise responsibility for our neighbours and ourselves, from richly creative lives that exercise ‘spiritual’ and ‘natural’ gifts in seamless combination. Since our hearts are formed in God to know Godself, Who is a Community in unity, this phenomenon should be no surprise.
“The better a business serves its customers, the more healthy and profitable it will be.” Do you agree? If you agree, can you think of biblical or theological reasons why this is true?
My main response to this question is to put the purpose of business, and of any particular business, under spiritual examination. The outcome of business, as formulated in this question, appears to be profit and the ability to be profitable even more than it is about serving its customers. And while a business exists within and inseparable from community, the customers are only a subset of that community, and this could be a bias with moral implications- perhaps negative ones. Better to begin on a different basis: that any business – an enterprise that facilitates societal thriving and may also make profit, if compatible with such societal thriving- serves the health and growth of society, which is now to be considered in the context of the global village. This reframing demands a new economics, not least one that is eco-nomic, and that includes criteria of social justice and equity as well as environmental sustainability. Doing good for people- whether customers directly, or broader society, must be calculated to be in step with doing good in the world, for the planet as a going concern into the far future. All this is informed by the continuing creation mandate of Gen 2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Work is from ’tilling’ as in the agricultural working of the soil, extended to all human doings. Keeping is from watching, (shomer) which implies a profound responsiveness and thus respect for God’s creation. To work with watchfulness is to ensure that our doings are compatible with the order of God’s wider creation. Our ability to watch at all levels of discernment, from the subatomic to the cosmic, suggests that with such ability comes concomitant responsibility. So in sum, I answer Crispin’s question with a bias toward the negative, in the sense that I understand modern business to be antipathetic to holistic considerations of society and planetary health. Yet I would concede, aside from such concern, that a small enterprise that sought to exercise a ‘neighbourly’ attitude to its customers and wider society could reasonably expect such reward. What is at issue is the matter of how much consideration must be given to human sinfulness and community fallenness. If the prevailing context for a business plan is that the fallen state of society makes such neighbourly service questionable, then I give a negative response. Some business plans could be thought of with more optimism, and so the outlook is more favourable.
“Practising justice is only for some believers.” Do you agree and why?
What an extraordinary question! I am at a loss to imagine why CFL thinks it important to pose this question- a reverse instance of the NT wondering aloud, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ How could one possible agree with this suggestion? I have a hunch this is a catch out challenge, like Nathan the prophet popping in to ask King David about sheep. The point of the Genesis 2-4 scenario is to rebut the rival view that the King is the only one with divine calling, position or significant authority. Rather, we all are. All in the demut and tselem of God, all called to do what He would do from our place on earth. So too with Cain: his brother’s blood cries out to heaven, and its cry is heard. [I am reading brother as equivalent to neighbour.] The doing of justice and mercy is everyone’s duty and privilege, as the image of God on earth, doing justice in the earth, to all possible one anothers, and by one’s self. For this is the Divine disposition, and we are here in His place. So I am provoked to muse why this is even a question for CFL. Does he perceive a common malaise in the church that many defer to the few in this sort of leadership, as the realisation of the priesthood of all believers has still not dawned upon all. Is CFLs intent to scrutinise the integrity of my position? Viz, that I am very happy to affirm that it is the business of all believers to do justice as we walk with God- but that it is truly the case that I and too few others who so affirm do much less than we should to act on that stated conviction. I might have got the message that work is worship, but do I still put limits on the scope of my concern for justice in the world God places me in on His behalf? Doing justice is also worship.
Here is the text from the Vatican released by the BBC on 29 10 21:
Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed our deep vulnerability and raised numerous doubts and concerns about our economicsystems and the way we organize our societies. We have lost our sense of security, and are experiencing a sense of powerlessness and loss of control over our lives. We find ourselves increasingly frail and even fearful, caught up in a succession of “crises” in the areas of health care, the environment, food supplies and the economy, to say nothing of social, humanitarian and ethical crises. All these crises are profoundly interconnected. They also forecast a “perfect storm” that could rupture the bonds holding our society together within the greater gift of God’s creation. Every crisis calls for vision, the ability to formulate plans and put them rapidly into action, to rethinkthe future of the world, our common home, and to reassessour common purpose. These crises present us with the need to take decisions, radical decisions that are not always easy. At the same time, moments of difficulty like these also present opportunities, opportunities that we must not waste. We can confront these crises by retreating into isolationism, protectionism and exploitation. Or we can see in them a real chance for change, a genuine moment of conversion, and not simply in a spiritual sense. This last approach alone can guide us towards a brighter horizon. Yet it can only be pursued through a renewed sense of shared responsibility for our world, and an effective solidarity based on justice, a sense of our common destiny and a recognition of the unity of our human family in God’s plan for the world. All this represents an immense cultural challenge. It means giving priority to the common good, and it calls for a change in perspective, a new outlook, in which the dignity of every human being, now and in the future, will guide our ways of thinking and acting. The most important lesson we can take from these crises is our need to build together, so that there will no longer be any borders, barriers or political walls for us to hide behind. Some days ago, on 4 October, I met with religious leaders and scientists to sign a Joint Appeal in which we called upon ourselves and our political leaders to act in a more responsible and consistent manner. I was impressed by something said by one of the scientists present at that meeting. He told us: “If things continue as they are, in fifty years’ time my baby granddaughter will have to live in an unliveable world”. We cannot allow this to happen! It is essential that each of us be committed to this urgent change of direction, sustained by our own faith and spirituality. In the Joint Appeal, we spoke of the need to work responsibly towards a “culture of care” for our common home, but also for ourselves, and the need to work tirelessly to eliminate “the seeds of conflicts: greed, indifference, ignorance, fear, injustice, insecurity and violence”. Humanity has never before had at its disposal so many means for achieving this goal. The political decision makers who will meet at COP26 in Glasgow are urgently summoned to provide effective responses to the present ecological crisis and in this way to offer concrete hope to future generations. And it is worth repeating that each of us – whoever and wherever we may be – can play our own part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change and the degradation of our commonhome.
What is the message that Pope Francis is trying to convey in this statement? Much could be observed, for it is a carefully crafted address, acknowledging many interlinked factors. I have added highlights above to ground my own reflections. I suggest the following analysis to draw attention to what I see as the principal points:
Since the Industrial Revolution, the scaling up of sanitary living conditions and especially since the widespread manufacture and distribution of vaccines, humanity has cultured a mindset of security in life, ever-increasing power over natural resources and thus a sense of being in control of our corporate and collective existence. The only enemy we would admit to would be the ‘other’ we have gone to war against, a point now generally ignored as WW1, WW2 and the Cold War have been consigned to history.
The caveat to the above is that what quickly became true for the well-off elites, especially in the ‘developed’ West was never true for many others, in so-called developed countries, and much more so elsewhere. Most of the world has been poor, and this is very much the case for many billions alive today. The hope extended in the narrative of human progress was that the services and prosperity gained from technological and medical advances would trickle down to the masses. But in much of the world, while the benefits have not reached the least well off, many of the costs of our riches have been and growingly are being inflicted on those who have never been anything other than ‘poor’.
The many aspects of climate change, the accumulating effects of which are increasing in severity, and the relatively sudden COVID19 pandemic that brought economic havoc, even if it did not directly imperil life, both give the lie to the suggestion- even the firm belief- that all that is needed for the success of the human project is more time, after which the many very regrettable and, it is claimed, temporary injustices will be rectified.
Increasing technological prowess built on the exploitation and spoilage of nature and all its resources is itself the problem. To be clear, the powers that scientific understanding and insight give us are in no way evils- they are an amoral product of human culture- but the way in which the human imagination has been allowed to apply those insights into particular technologies, within a worldview framework ruled by a certain mode of capitalist economics is now exposed to have underpinned the development of many evils. [I add, for the benefit for a more critical audience, that the Vatican has resolved the historical misunderstand about the relations between the objective science which showed that the Earth is a satellite of our nearest star, with the profound theological view that puts the claim that we on this singular Earth have great significance in the sight of God. There must be a constructive dialogue between ‘science and religion’ in order to establish what ‘the facts’ do and do not suggest in terms of meaning and value. The postmodern view, if it is at all possible to generalise, has compromised such dialogue and allowed a reduced economic model to thrive in which the integrity of our unique and singular home is in great peril.]
We need to reach for a paradigm shift in our understanding of our relationships with one another as human beings: ‘society’, and also between humans and the world which is in fact God’s world. Pope Francis does not here spell out all the details of what a higher quality of relationships between humans and with the world we find ourselves in might be, but does succinctly indicate some significant landmarks in this worldview. He says that we should accord a quality of dignity to one another, thus as human persons. Each ‘other’ person is absolutely not merely an economic unit of production or consumption, an agent in the commercial market, a placeholder in a habitat, a point of ecological flux, though there may be efficiency in certain aspects of human government in temporarily adopting such perspectives. Rather, we have a transcendent quality of dignity as human beings that stems from our common origin of creation in the image of God, imago Dei. Thus it is asserted that the ‘religious’ perspective is not an epiphenomenon of our biological existence on the conveniently equipped third rock from our Sun, but rather a fixed point in the value system which we ought not have strayed from and to which we must return to empower the recovery of both peoples and planet. We find we are made as individuals with integrity of identity in the image of the Divine, and collectively are one family as we answer to the same Father. Such is our ‘common destiny’- not merely that we exist as one variety of primates in this period of earth’s long geological history, in a brief and futile interlude preceding the ultimate heat death of the universe which we can anticipate in the same instant as we came to consciousness of our miniscule place among many billions of far-flung galaxies. We need not fret to grapple with such a distant future crisis when our immediate circumstances are so much more pressing, and should take sober comfort from the theological understanding that this physical creation is a continuing giftfrom Godselfto us all. We are not to treat this unique biosphere with its diversity of ecosystems merely as a commodity, as a thing for crude use, then to be discarded, reduced to mere materials at our disposal, but rather to be respected as a gift: a sign of God’s disposition of love towards us all in all times and places. Since it is a continuing gift of God to those who should come tomorrow, we are necessarily expected to encompass all our notions of use within the bounds of responsible and humble stewardship*.
Such, following Pope Francis, is the basis for the worldview in which faith and spirituality are fundamental to the solution of this unprecedented predicament. For the Christian Pope Francis, the commitment to the God of Creation covenant is strong enough to enable interreligious dialogue and partnership, which he has put into practice, and also to appeal to the world’s politicians to work together as never before in hope, which surely cannot be based solely in our human capacities, though these are not inconsiderable. In claiming that facing the ecological crisis is a valid part of the Christian gospel message, Pope Francis is implying that while it proved a simple matter for human ego and excess to misuse recent science and technology to bring about our current crises, it will be the transformations of our cultural systems of economics and commerce by justice, forgiveness and restitution that no animal community could conceive of- this is the spiritual conversion of which he speaks- spiritual certainly in the sense of coming to a repaired relationship with God, but at one and the same time recognising that a transformed relationship with God ought necessarily and automatically spill over into a transformed relationship with our neighbours, and to further flood into our relationship with our common environment. Our mistake has been to bracket off the first kind of spirituality and pretend that the other two are not all part and parcel of the same thing. Surely God does care for the animals and plants- the oceans and forests and mountains- which is why we are here on God’s behalf. We broke the bonds of this covenant in our minds and hearts, and there they must be repaired. Pope Francis lists some of the seeds of conflict that we must attend to, ever germinating in the gardens of our hearts, quickly pulling them out by the roots to consign them to oblivion, and Christian people aspire to be examples of such redemptive co-working with the Spirit of God.
Such spiritual work cannot be an optional extra to the work of recovery we must commence and perhaps even complete in the next decade. With beautiful irony Pope Francis describes the hope that must be conceived and brought to birth in our global politics being as substantial as concrete; one of the technological marvels of our age that has also been responsible for the ravages of a million quarries and emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Hope can be a human product, but heaven’s resources are indeed available to us individually and corporately to co-create such a hope on such as scale that we may come to partnership in common cause and mutual trust to repent– to turn around and live differently. Perhaps such hope in a few will sustain the many- though Pope Francis invites us to imagine what synergy could result from a more general embrace of such a godly hope. St Paul said that the greatest things of all are love and faith, and hope- perhaps this is a time in which we realise why this is so.
With such a transformation from our collective old ways, from a broken economy, a chaotic planet and ecological disaster, to a new culture of care… Yes! The change that is needed is first and foremost inside us- that is where the solution must begin. Pope Francis is right to affirm that our technological capacity- the likely fruitfulness of our intellect, imagination and creativity to address the ills of atmosphere and ecology need not be in question. As much as to say, “Can we fix this? Of course we can.” But the real challenge is in the realm of human heart, and it is in the collective heart that we can reform human society- to make it to be such a thing that is recognised as the seedbed of a culture of care for the whole globe- its 7 906 882 490 persons (as I write- and rising) and each of the organisms which we are presently squeezing off the face of the earth with such unwarranted aggression. Biologists struggle to estimate species diversity on our planet, guessing that there are at least another million species to add to the 2.1 million we have catalogued so far. All the while we are driving some 150 species to extinction each day. We certainly can change our behaviour to stop our collective wanton destruction, and live differently in order to ensure that even a growing human population can live a new kind of prosperous life without continuing to have a net impact on the health and integrity of our planet- especially its climate. What is crucial is that we discover and create something completely new- a solidarity and collective will to join hands (as our African friends say) to act differently and to act together. Bluntly: to share.
9. In his concluding sentence, Pope Francis affirms what we already know- a journey of many miles does indeed start with a single step, and that step can, and must, be taken by me, and each of us. Quite so, and this is not at all trivial. But we will have no truck with multinational corporations9 who try to deflect attention from their corporate responsibilities in suggesting that transformative solutions really lie at the doors of the consumers of products and services- only in the local action of all of us as individuals. The Pope’s statement exquisitely avoids such sophistry. First of all is the place of the political decision makers who have it in their reach to set the governmental and legal frameworks in which all businesses and corporations of all sizes can operate. Our role as citizens, individually and collectively, must follow that, and can do so, when the governmental environment has been restructured so that the small choices of each individual can indeed add up to the collective impact that is needed.
10. Only once does Pope Francis use the word ‘urgently.’ This diplomatic nicety is not to be underestimated. As he does say more than once, we face multiple crises which are inextricably interlinked, and they may yet coincide to create a ‘perfect storm’ not only in the climate and its multiple physical effects but also in their ramifications in our globalised societies. But if we act NOW the worst may be averted. The Pope comes to this political call with considerable integrity, having made this matter a priority from the outset of his religious ministry- hence taking the name ‘Francis’, for Francis of Assisi. He has tackled the matter with respect to the voices of reason, by engaging with scientific experts, and yet showing that the voice of faith is contiguous with all other human concerns under God. Thus he draws together this collective plea for timely action and submits it to the world’s politicians meeting now and following COP26. He emphasises that the organisation he represents as Pope- the Catholic church- is as much responsible to act as any business or government, as well as the community of academics and scientists. In all these things we can see a significant example of leadership at this vital moment.
(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson
BBC Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0b10zxw, where a translator reads the speech in English, with the audio of the Pope speaking in Italian in the background. This is given prominence when he gets to the fifth sentence, which ends with the words tempesta perfetta.
* See https://www.professorbuzzkill.com/qnq-32/ “But, like spiritual quotes that get attached to Gandhi, political quips and gibes that get attributed to Churchill, and thoughtful sentiments that drift toward Martin Luther King, “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” got affixed to Chief Seattle, despite the fact that there’s no evidence he ever said it. The attribution happened during the environmental movement that started in the 1970s, but who first said it is unknown. The phrase is undoubtedly wise, and it seems to be common wisdom, a distillation of more extensive, paragraph-length ideas, or both. In fact, the nearest that Buzzkill Institute researchers have been able to come to a originator of the quote is the noted American writer, poet, and cultural critic, Wendell Berry. In his 1971 book, Unforeseen Wilderness, Berry wrote that environmental stewardship has been lost by most modern people. It can, however, be recovered. He said, “We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…” Berry is well-known in literary circles, and should probably be much better known in our wider culture…
The twenty sixth ‘Conference of Parties’ in Glasgow continues through Friday night into Saturday as I write. Live reports from the Blue Zone describe delegation leaders striding from room to room as they seek to collate a final text that’s agreeable to all, while the pleas of national leaders whose lands are disappearing beneath the rising seas are still ringing in their ears. Journalists are impatient for the programme to conclude according to the timetable, as if meeting news deadlines is more significant than the COP agreement itself. ‘Will this meeting end before Christmas?’ demands a BBC journalist of Alok Sharma, the UK COP president, [BBC NEWSNIGHT 12 11 2021] who simply responds with the suggestion that he should check the accuracy of his calendar. We hear that Mr Sharma worked right through the last night and day without sleep, but he still has his wits about him. The Christian Climate Observers Program further reports that the negotiations themselves are proceeding in a well-tempered and peaceable manner- a key answer to our prayers.
For those of us who are attentive to the call to prayer for the success of the COP process and the wider involvement of the Church in addressing our climate and ecological crisis, I submit this word from scripture:
9 After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favour in your eyes.” Then the woman went on her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. 20 And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”[a]
1 Samuel 1:9-20 ESV
It is the conviction of Climate Intercessors that God will hear our prayers and bring profound transformative influence to these negotiations, even with and through human agents who hold no explicit commitment to the Christian faith- willingly or otherwise. This is the clear implication of St Paul’s words to the young leader Timothy that ‘prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.’ Whoever they are, be they ‘godly’ or ‘ungodly’, God instructs and assures us that this will and must make a difference, one prayer at a time.
And so we continue to pray, upholding these proceedings through Saturday and potentially even Sunday, after which the country representatives must certainly travel back to their homes.
But there is a higher court in which there is influence that overarches the vital human activities in Glasgow and the electronic communications doubtless winging back and forth between delegates and their sending authorities. The BBC Science Editor was reporting on the stalling progress of the talks on Friday, but then concluded his remarks with this: ‘…there could be a miraculous surprise…’ We agree, and indeed, God would insist that the BBC’s Science correspondent speaks more wisely than he knows. We do pray for those on earth, as this is vital, and we also pray in our very imperfect knowledge of the mystery of the heavenly realms simply because God instructs us to do humble business with Him there. As Paul’s words to Timothy imply, such prayer is a massive lever to somehow exert great advantage against the fulcrum, which is surely bound deeply into the Cross of Christ. If we persevere and join together one with another in prayer and supplication, the influence of our puny and insubstantial breath- combined in unity by God’s Spirit- will be amplified and magnified into the most glorious result, by the grace of God. As Moses once parted the waters, and Elisha used Elijah’s cloak to part the Jordan for a second time; as Christ was seen in human form to command both wind and waves before them- so also in our day Lord! We pray that by all means the winds will indeed be stilled and the waves no longer rise.
God assures us Today that He will use the little people and the ‘nobodies’. He is certainly listening to the children who are protesting as best they know how, crying out as they fear their single future is being stolen from them even as they grow up with failing hopes. And most of all God is attentive to the earnest prayers of those- of us- who are considered to have no influence. God saw and heard and understood the anguish in Hannah’s heart, for she had no child. A child certainly was needed, because the hopes of the nation were collapsing with the decline of leadership in temple and palace. Eli the priest was not doing well in bringing up his sons after him. Their self-indulgence was public knowledge, and if the succession of leadership is in peril, then all is in peril. God sees the answers to bigger challenges than even the ones we have in mind. God was delighted that Hannah was resolved to hold onto Him, as best she knew how.
I hear God saying that we should continue to stand before Him as Hannah did, in her realistic appraisal of the situation in her life and in the wider awareness of the state of the nation- or rather nations, in our case. It is not the men, the priests, the leaders, the officials, or their chosen successors who are listened to, but this vulnerable woman who appeared to be incapable of speech, seeming both drunk and deluded. So she was censored and undermined, invalidated and banned from the place of petition that is now given to us all. Yet her protest is heard, first in heaven, and then on earth. Eli is brought up short by Hannah’s earnest response to his unsympathetic judgement, and once his eyes are opened, he blesses her and brings earthly alignment to the will of heaven.
We are beckoned to join Hannah in distress and affliction on account of the state of leadership that has brought us to these present circumstances. Truly, we need better leaders, whose eyes are opened to the true state of the reality that lies before us. We need to raise up leaders in the next generations who will partner for the common good and no longer abuse power and position. God will hear our prayer of repentance.
And we are invited to join Hannah in seeking a new birth, of God’s New Creation future in which planet and people come to live in harmony. Perhaps Hannah understands that a higher standard of leadership is called for in the future, and so she promises God that her longed for child will remain unshaven, in the Nazirite tradition. Perhaps we can thus surmise that we must call out to God for a different and more circumspect mode of life in what will be our collective tomorrows, so that as human beings have indeed ‘multiplied and filled the earth’ we will collectively determine to step more gently upon it from now on.
For both of these objectives, in all their dimensions, God wants us to hold onto Him.
We are not at all worthless women or men, but esteemed by the One who hears all intercession, and called to partner with the God of New Creation as co-creators. The scripture is not shy to point out that the conception occurred when Hannah returned to her husband and they ‘knew’ one another- an explicit (!) reference back to Adam and Eve beginning the human lineage. And there also God acts in ‘remembering’ the one who actively sought Him out in intercession, and so the child came to be and to be born, and to bring the temple priesthood into recovery, and thus the monarchy was sustained and rescued and recovered and recreated again. What and then’s might follow from our prayers over COP26? However satisfied and dissatisfied different parties will be next week when the COP statement is signed off and released, various actions and the COP process will continue, with the cycle of annual meetings continuing in Egypt next year and in Dubai in 2023. The whole ministry of the prophet-priest Samuel was an extended answer to Hannah’s prayer of anguish, and we can expect that what we are creating under God today will continue to require our prayerful attention. Yes, there is urgency; the COP text agreed this weekend will be crucial for what it says and for what it does not say, for that will be the basis for actions in all timeframes, but there will also be room for further consideration and development, for ratcheting in of our communities into ever closer cooperation so that the inevitable compromises are constructive rather than compromising to the whole process- that allowances and adaptations do genuinely mitigate suffering rather than deviously prolong it. Will the target of ‘net zero’ prove to be an effective facilitator for global action? Will ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ stand as the benchmark for judging the effectiveness of our new global covenant? I only know that we must start where we are, and that God’s blessing will come on our human agency. In His mysterious will, it remains patently simple: with us, God will. Without us, God will not.
(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson
Images from BBC News at Six 12 11 21.
Illuminated Manuscript, Bible Pictures by William de Brailes of Oxford, Eli’s Sons Commit Sacrilege and Hannah Brings Samuel to the Temple, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.106, fol. 17v Public domain image. From a volume comprising twenty-four leaves of Bible Pictures by W. de Brailes, an English artist active in Oxford in the middle of the thirteenth century. Seven leaves from the same set of images are now in the Musee Marmottan in Paris. These 31 leaves are all that remain of an image cycle that once contained at least 98 miniatures, and which was the longest cycle of Bible miniatures surviving from the thirteenth century in England. In all probability these Bible Pictures were actually prefatory matter to a Psalter, now Stockholm, National Museum, Ms. B.2010. De Brailes also composed and wrote the captions that accompany many of the images. W. de Brailes is one of only two English artists of the thirteenth century whose name we can associate with surviving works. 11 manuscripts have been identified that contain miniatures in his hand. De Brailes has a quirky and chatty style, and he was extremely gifted at turning Bible Stories into paint. To explore fully digitized manuscripts with a virtual page-turning application, please visit Walters Ex Libris.
COP26 in Glasgow is about just one thing, namely saving the world. This will be achieved by reaching an earnest and honest covenant between the appointed leaders of some 200+ nations to reduce global heating gases in our atmosphere to levels that will restrain the average temperature of our planet to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. We are already at 1.1 degrees above that benchmark.
Or to put it a different way, COP26 is about just one thing, namely money. Carbon dioxide is produced by processes that consume coal, oil or natural gas, either to release energy- which is money- or to process other things that make money, such as steel. Methane is also a global heating gas, huge volumes of which are added to the atmosphere as a by product of rice paddy fields and industrial beef farming. Yet more is bubbling out of the melting permafrost in Arctic latitudes. How we heat our homes and move from A to B, what food is on our plates, and where in the world all our stuff comes from: CO2 (equivalent) emissions are in the warp and weft of our ‘civilised’ lives. At least, it is for those of us lucky to enjoy these modern benefits.
Is any of this new? Surely the ancients, the likes of which are the characters in the Biblical accounts, however real or semi-fictional or constructed they may be, knew little of our current challenges? Their lives were simply primitive, and they would have no grasp of our technology or economies.
Quite the opposite- in the Jewish scriptures all this social economy is very much taken as read. The book of Daniel does not enumerate what the duties of the civil servants in Babylon would include, because, for any civilisation, they are broadly constant. Food and fuel, shelter and sanitation, communication and transport, trade and warfare- we might not recognise their particular solutions, but you can predict what else would be on such a list. And for the leaders, the figure heads, the monarchs and highest ministers, their concerns are ever constant: fame, legacy, being the centre of attention, and most of all, staying there. This requires the management of the mindset of their people, even more than the management of the practical aspects of society.
This is why Nebuchadnezzar wants to build a statue to himself. This is what idolising himself as a god is for. This is the ever present temptation for leaders, and so many fall into it. For this reason, the economy of the kingdom is bent towards generating an excess of material and energy; and money buys both, if there is short supply. Invading your neighbours, prosecuting an imbalance of trade- these are shortcuts to the same, sequestrating the efforts and riches of others for your own ends. These ends are not needs– they are fatuous luxuries of excess.
As the third chapter of Daniel recounts, these techniques of societal manipulation are well-honed and generally highly effective. It takes extraordinary courage to go against the flow. A very different worldview is required to inspire the vision to put one’s life on the line to object. Such is in the minds of Daniel’s young peers, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, so when the call comes to bow down to the golden image of the king, they bluntly refuse.
This is the point we have come to today. The economies of the nations of the world have been constructed in order to meet the basic needs of their populations, but more than that, to maintain power structures. As the world has progressed from the great rival empires of the 19th century to the single global village we have become today, these structures of commerce and exploitation have become ever more entrenched. The haves of finance and industry now have more than the likes of Nebuchadnezzar and our modern day leaders, all far richer than any of the monarchs and even the empires of history. The universal one horse power horse was excelled by the steam engine. What was fuelled by coal and steam then became the franchise of oil – fuel oil, petrol, diesel and then aviation fuel. No column appeared in the ledger for the climate, but the cost- the great debt that we now face, the accumulating consequences of climate change- was nevertheless piling up, throwing the scale of Nebuchadnezzar’s self-aggrandising statue pale into insignificance.
Compare the narrative with what we know about the most substantial Wonder of the World to survive, The Great Pyramid, constructed at Giza during the reign of pharaoh Khufu (about 2551-2528 B.C.). His reign was only 20 years in duration, during which best estimates today are that some 20 000 willing workers were engaged in the ordered, efficient and highly skilful architecture, mining and construction of this grand pile of stones1. Perhaps only six months in every twelve were spent tilling the Nile floodplain to generate crops and therefore wealth in this nation, that so many could be spared to indulge in ‘cultural projects’ such as pyramids for dead leaders, or temples for the worship of… well, whatever it is decided shall be worshipped, by whoever it is decides such things.
But the three Jewish youths, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; they were having none of it. They’d tolerated being absorbed into the Babylonian education system and quietly suffered the indignity of being given idolatrousBabylonian names. They were content to be made useful in the service of the foreign king in a foreign land- they knew that God is God of All and can see our discipleship wherever we walk it out. But this last move was too much- we may find relationships between people and place to be deeply flawed; community relations may be tragically broken, but we can muddle through, despite the fact that so often lions find they’re being led by donkeys. Now the king says he is a god?! ‘Our self-image is founded on the fact that our existence as humans is the created and sustained act of our God,’ they say. ‘We will serve you, but we will not give His glory to you, O king!’
I must admit that the argument must be advanced with nuance, for I am not claiming that we should have remained in caves and worn skins. We don’t need to argue for personal taste either- the statuary of our current civilisations is the product of complex cultural factors, and even amongst Christian folk, post Reformation and Counter Reformation, the creative use of imagery has continued with passion. I observe that the elevation of Liberty as an icon in New York harbour is a pointer to the freedom we can only have when all are free. The figure of Christ the Redeemer over the city of Rio de Janeiro may yet speak of deeper ambitions to those revelling in the carnival below, or splashing in the sea on Copacabana beach. In today’s money, the local Catholic community spent $3.4 million on this statue over a decade from 1922, with the express intention to stir a revival of faith.
In 2003, Hindu Tamil Malaysians built a 43m statue of their god Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war using 350 tons of steel, 1550 cubic metres of concrete, and 300 litres of gold paint. Perhaps this gives us an idea of what Nebuchadnezzar had built in Babylon. Once such a grand vision has actually been constructed, I can’t help thinking that a more critical reality is likely to dawn on people. This statue stands inelegantly above what appears to be a brick built convenience block, flanked on one side by an exotic gateway, while a line of fast food outlets, souvenir booths and a Starbucks copy cat coffee restaurant are on the other. In the photo, tourists are milling about, taking next to no notice of the shiny statue they apparently came to see.
Then there is the ‘ Statue of Unity’ built between 2013 and 2018 at the behest of Narendra Modi (today in Glasgow representing his country at COP26) as “Gujarat’s tribute to the nation”. This $422 million project is claimed to celebrate the role of independence activist Vallabhbhai Patel who brought significant unity to India after the close of British Empire rule- a thoroughly worthy cause for a memorial. But whose memorial is it? Patel’s, or Modi’s? Did this investment in the world’s tallest statue- all 182m of it- really serve to increase the sum of community well-being in this huge nation wracked by such poverty and social division? My current next door neighbours left their families in India to come to work here in the UK at the local hospital, and in a care home, and they shared their anguish with me during the pandemic when bodies were burnt in makeshift crematoria outside their hospitals. So many died without oxygen or vaccinations.
In the UK we have different monuments now- towers of steel and concrete in the financial district of London , for example. We still have our Empire and Colonial trophies, so there is not such a desire for these things any more. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar square can host a rolling programme of temporary exhibits, which come and go at a whim. Or perhaps we can tear down the statues of slavers and throw them in the canal. There is no single overriding narrative to hold our attention, but the haves still have too much.
Can we afford to fix the climate crisis? It seems that COVID19 has proven that we certainly can change the ways that things are done when there is a sufficient grasp of the new priorities. Children stayed at home to learn, business went online, and millions were paid from the public purse to do nothing. Nature got to breathe briefly, as the sky over my house was empty of planes, and lorries hardly disturbed the silence outside. There were more birds, and more sorts of birds in my neighbourhood. Some are still there.
We certainly stopped, though whether there has been a great reset remains to be seen.
There is enough money, at least to get started, and we are slowly discovering how we might remake the economies of our countries. It is not at all the end for either creativity or commerce- even for readers of the Daily Telegraph, the term social conservatism need not be an oxymoron. A Green Economy does not mean a return to a world without business, technology, science, invention- all of these are needed for our collective betterment. Science in its fruitfulness is a great boon: quite simply, the gift of God. But after the British Empire, Nebuchadnezzar, Modi and friends (in no particular order) we must examine the road into the Future between ‘We can…’ and ‘We should…’ In history past the Jews were known, and generally unpopular, for their attitude to idols of all kinds- at least that was what the Ten Commandments said they thought. Right now, like never before, we need to discover the examined life– our collective life, and especially what we invest in and spend on. We need a profoundly rectified world view– and no more golden statues.
Lord, we pray for wisdom on Wednesday for all the leaders at COP26 as they consider how the piles of money should be valued, and how they should be spent. We pray that the Earth and all communities and creatures that live on it will be valued above all the silver and gold. In Jesus’ parable, the wicked servant was commended for making peace with those he had wronged before his judgement was upon him. We ask thatour financiers learn to cancel debts and make such restitution with our world and those who are being wronged.
Ms Thunberg was one of the environmental activists speaking at the “Fridays for Future” meeting of young activists at Festival Park, near the COP26 campus.
“Inside COP there are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously, pretending to take the present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis.
“Change is not going to come from inside there. That is not leadership – this is leadership.”
The Swedish teenager led cries of “climate justice” and “no more blah, blah, blah”.
“We’re sick and tired of it and we’re going to make the change whether they like it or not,” she added.
King Nebuchadnezzar accuses the Jews of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego of not honouring his statue. On the left is a golden statue of a deity and a crowd of people worshiping the statue. In the background a burning oven. Anyone who refuses to worship the image is thrown into the furnace. Printmaker: Philips Galle (mentioned on object), after a design by: Maarten van Heemskerck (mentioned on object), publisher: Joannes Galle (mentioned on object)writer: Hadrianus Junius (mentioned on object) 1627 – 1678 https://commons-wikimedia-org.translate.goog/wiki/File:Nebukadnessar_beschuldigt_Sadrach,Mesach_en_Abednego_Geschiedenis_van_Sadrach,_Mesach_en_Abednego(serietitel),_RP-P-1904-3284.jpg?_x_tr_sl=nl&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=nui,sc
What is befalling us has been of our making, because we ‘like sheep have gone astray, each one to his own way.’ Let us return together to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, and call on His Spirit, who will return to us if we tarry for Him, just as Jesus said at his ascension. We need to covenant in permanent partnership with God to co-create a good and better future here in heaven-earth, to His glory. We surely cannot do this alone, in the strength of our own uncoordinated efforts, spurred on only by the worthy cajoling of a few wise owls and energetic youths waving placards in city streets.
Today, Sunday 31st October 2021, leaders, negotiators, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and activist protestors are gathering in Glasgow.
Holy Spirit of God, please Presence Yourself there also.
In the story of Noah’s life with You, we read that after the great judgement, and when the Ark had come to peace on the surface of the seas, you commanded that he set loose the birds to discover if there was a place for a new home for all Your creatures. At the last journey, the bird returned with a sign of New Life. Even so, come Lord!
At the beginning of all things, we read that your Spirit came down to settle the dark chaos. Even so, come Lord!
In the river of Jordan you came to your cousin, John, and commanded that he baptise you, that everything should be completed. Your Father spoke from heaven of common sonship, and You, Great Spirit of God, were said to come down in physical form, like a dove, showing that New Life is coming to all. Even so, come Lord! We would that you come to us, Trinity of God, step down from earth to water, and fill the air with Your presence and Your approval once more.
Spirit of God, come to encounter with us, with your creatures and your world, our world, which we have not cared for. We have again released chaos into land, water and air, and we are sorry. Hover over your Earth once more, and bring us into counsel with you about what can be created in this day, and in the next; in the two weeks of this conference.
You were not ashamed to be figured as birds in the narratives of old: even as a mother hen, who would gather her chicks to her, having laid and hatched them by Your gift, and call to them to return under her wings when danger is seen. Lord God, you hear the Alarm, and you indeed see what peril we are in. Come brood over us, and conceive in us your partnership plan for bringing New life and Healing to birth. Make us a saviour sibling to Your sacred Creation, to serve it and live our lives well for it, as an unseparated twin, a sacrificial servant, just as you modelled for us in Christ.
Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone.
Creator God, we cannot bring calm to the chaos in our climate. We call to you for your aid in bringing stillness and calm where we have caused disaster by our pollution and excessive consumption, without consideration or care for the consequences. You see how the graphs rise horrifically- the levels of gases and their effects on the temperature and weather. Bring your gift of stillness Lord, that we may know that You are God of the whole world.
We look for your bow in the sky above Glasgow: your sign of covenant promise given to Noah that you will not destroy the earth again by flood. As the COP26 conference is gathering in a storm of human dysfunction and recriminations, of anger over the accumulated injustices of generations, we hold out our hands in faith to receive your spirit of Shalom Peace over all the speaking and listening that happens there. May words of kindness and covenant be spoken to turn away wrath.
Creating God of all Providence, as You made all and gave life to all from your very Own Light, we ask you to bring your illumination again to the New Creation that is your will in this Day. All we have comes from you, and life relies on light. You are Light and the life of all mankind. Dispel our darkness and shine on us Today. Enlighten your whole earth we pray.
Man is like grass, you tell us, and your Wind blows over it; it is gone and its place remembers it no more. But Lord we would remind you that you promise to give us a hope and a future, and that your Spirit willcontend with us for a short while. You even promise to fill us with your very self, that we can be carried along by your Wind, in ways that men cannot understand. Come again, Spirit of God, breathe on your world, breathe in your people, and move in the air with us to do mysteries of healing.
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” [John 20:21f ESV]
Forgive us, Lord, for what You made ‘very good’ we have destroyed. We are ashamed, for the creation is groaning, the creatures are dying, the plants are burning, and the so-valuable soil is washed away. The air is full of filth, and we now realise, with complete horror that both we and our fathers have sinned against You. Truly, we are undone before You.
Spirit of God, we are comforted to know that you are willing to come again into this mess that we have made and to mourn with us.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Lord, lead us in the road of repentance to the good works that You have prepared in advance for us to do.
Father God, you see the industrial-scale fires that we have lit in forests and woodlands everywhere, and then also the fires that started themselves where the land became parched and hot. For thousands of years we have been at war with your beautiful trees. Help us to put all these fires out.
Yet we see your power in the picture of the flame- as with any fire, power must be used wisely. Beyond all our sense and logic, you visited your apostles and disciples with fire in the secret room to infuse them with such Life- the very life of GOD!- that their natures were visibly transcended before one another, just as Moses was seen by the Israelites on descending the mountain. What does this picture say to us, O Lord? I see that your true fire really does purify your people deep within, so that you can come in with us- to sup with us. And then the work that we do can truly be a joint work of God and God’s holy people. So purify us now Lord, and partner with us, in particular the work of the Christian Climate Observers programme at the COP26 conference.
In Your first Garden you planted trees to symbolise Life and a sharing in your very nature. But on your own terms, which we ignored. Yet you did not destroy us all then in judgement, but decided that your Life would continue, even to New Creation, and so we continue to live in hope. Thank you for keeping the Tree of Life growing in your New Jerusalem, which you are preparing even now. We thank you for the prophecy of the Singing Ringing Tree on the hills above Burnley, England, where the wind blows, and makes audible music through the sculpture.
I am trusting in the Great I AM! Let the wind blow.
Matthew 10: 16-20 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Spirit of God, speak sovereign words of Creation in this day, in this conference, and in the world that then unfolds before You. Your Word is mighty and powerful, even bringing seasons of desolation and judgement. Yet you blessed the generations that followed with peace and joy.
Psalm 46:6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.
Lord God, please bring to an end the destruction that we have done, where we have practised injustice on the weak all over the world. Give us words Lord, to all in common and also to your people, to speak truth to power and raise a standard of justice so that the materials of your creation are deployed only for the common good. Speak peace through us Lord, to end this War on the World.
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we praise you for your great power throughout the universe displayed, and especially here on Earth. In the time of Elijah, your prophet called upon you, and you answered him in Witness from heaven- the God Who answers by fire- He is God!!! You have given us power- your human creatures, and we have released great powers from the earth that have almost run out of our control. Lord, we pray to You now- meet us on the mountain in Glasgow and in your world- answer us with your power, and empower your people to be effective witnesses to the God of Creation and Salvation in our Logos Lord Jesus Christ. Bring Your order here on earth, we pray, as you anoint the work of this conference.
In your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another [your false steps, your offenses], and pray for one another, that you may be healed and restored. The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power]. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours [with the same physical, mental, and spiritual limitations and shortcomings], and he prayed [d]intensely for it not to rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its crops [as usual].
Energise our prayers, Spirit of God, with Your dunamis power, as we learn to pray them with You, so that Your lordship is seen over air and land: that rain falls as and when it should, that it comes in season, and as a blessing, and that the soil will be preserved everywhere it is found, and that it bears all its fruits as you first determined.
That the earth is healed, in Jesus’ Name!
Even so, Come Lord Jesus!
Maranatha (Aramaic: מרנאתא; Koinē Greek: Μαρανα θα, romanized: marana-tha, lit. ‘Come, our Lord! ‘; Latin: Maran-Atha) is an Aramaic phrase. It occurs once in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 16:22). It also appears in Didache 10:14, which is part of the Apostolic Fathers’ collection. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maranatha
Spirit groanCrusty Da KlownTerrifying news. On the source website the image is accompanied by this text. Ezekiel 21:7 “When they ask why you are groaning, tell them, ‘I groan because of the terrifying news I have heard. When it comes true, the boldest heart will melt with fear; all strength will disappear. Every spirit will faint; strong knees will become as weak as water. And the Sovereign LORD says: It is coming! It’s on its way!’”
Lord God of Justice, we lift to you the peoples and nations of our world whose small voices might be unheard in the crowd at COP26. You see those peoples whose lands are disappearing as we do not act, as the sea level rises and more frequent and more powerful storms batter them out of existence. You see the smallholders whose lands are taken forcibly by distant governments and greedy corporations- and sometimes these agents are our governments and our corporations! You see the desperate people who find themselves born into a world of great inequality and deep injustice, where the ‘haves’ do not share and the ‘have nots’ are not loved. All these are like the woman in the parable, whose husband has died, whose children rely on her completely, and yet she is assailed and assaulted by injustice. Her adversaries are faceless, just as the causes of misery are today for those who suffer because of the chronic violence done to the earth’s climate, and so many other ills that have been done to it- your gift of the Created good Earth. This woman is nameless to us, but you know the names of all who are like her. You know the precise wrongs in all their legion number and who is blame. We confess our sins to you Lord. We pray that the voices of all these people are heard, in heaven, and in Glasgow. We pray that the justice of their cause is proclaimed, and that the story of who and what is to blame, what the consequences are, and how they can be repaired, will be told before Your throne and thus here on earth.
We hear the charge of our Lord Jesus in this parable: that we should pray and not give up. Therefore we join our voices to the cries of the many vulnerable, that you already hear. We ask Lord, Give them Justice: give relief from all perils that stem from this climate crisis, give direction to its repair, and direct our negotiations to actions that will correct the wrongs that generations have done, and especially this generation. We declare that we are willing to persist and not give up in giving breath to the prayers for justice that you will to answer in our day, in Jesus’ Name.
Lord of Justice, we commend to you all the parties in these negotiators that are like the unjust judge- the persons and corporations that have been shamelessly careless of the justice of these causes. We pray for a change of heart, a discovery of heart, a paradigm shift in their constitution, that what was created as a means to extract mere riches from planet and people will become a means of service and care for both. We pray that nation states that prioritise self-interest above all other priorities will in this cause become common partners for our common good, especially for the weak and those suffering the disastrous effects of climate change. We pray for a great miracle- that they will come to a new place of respecting man and even fearing You, respecting the earth that you have left as a gift in our care.
Father of All, we do not ask just for this group or that, for our friends or our favourite projects. We recognise that the scales of human justice are flawed- they cannot balance, as the rich and powerful manipulate them to their own advantage. So we lift our eyes to heaven to ask You for divine justice in this negotiation and in the decisions and actions that follow. We come together to You, to persist on behalf of those who have no voice: we will be their voice before You!
Holy God, who knows our sins and gifts us faith, teach me to pray as Jesus encourages in this subtle story: You are depicted as a distant and impersonal figure who will nevertheless give in to persistent bothering! Spirit of God, show us how to bother You according to your will and invitation. You also accept the misconception that You will give in to pestering, rather than being moved by objective justice, which impugns your holy character. We understand that these descriptions are not accurate, but that you are teaching us a lesson. School us in it Lord!
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
God of Yeshua our Saviour Messiah, we thank You that you are indeed concerned for our collective welfare, in regard of our eternal spirits, as you have made us, each one. Since the beginning our hearts have been broken, marred by evil and our self-created wickedness. In this your Creation is broken, for we are at the heart of it, and so you grieve in your heart. You once unmade and remade your world because you wanted to mend everything. You are an awesome God, not least because you know how to make things New as you please. But in these recent centuries we have been unmaking your world, throwing the entire biosphere into a state of peril, driving so many species to extinction, and there are now many more ways in which your good Creation is provoked to groaning. We hear Your heart Lord: reveal your sons and daughters in this Day, who will hear your prophetic Voice calling us to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with You, our God! We are happy to be patient for your final End, whether you come soon or late, but we call to you now Lord for this need in this time, which cannot wait. As creation is groaning, so we are groaning before you Lord God, and though there is a mystery of futility in our lives, we humbly ask at this time that You empower a break though in all our affairs, that Good may be done in this conference and in the decade of action that must follow it. Hear from heaven, O our God, and heal our Land, even as you promised.
Lord, those of us that are your own people would draw nearer to You. You invite us in, to share in your groaning in the cause of what you have made, O God of Wonders. Come to us each one, Spirit of Holiness, and teach us to pray in this time. As we are willing for you to deal with the ‘spiritual’ state of our hearts, we are asking you to deal with the state of our doings in the world- is that not spiritual also? Your Incarnation says ‘Yes!’ Lord you see our great weakness as your body because we have restricted our vision to the eternal future and been careless of the beautiful and vital things you have made from your dust- the stuff of this world, which we said was dirty and even evil. Forgive us these heresies Lord! So we do not know how to pray. We thank you for these ten strategic prayers- give them breath by Your Spirit as we breathe them out to you with the best halting words we can muster, and show us what can come next. In the beginning your Spirit brooded over the formless void- was it chaos? There is chaos now Lord for it is us who have ruined waters and lands and all the air. Come brood in us! Come brood with us!! Reveal your best Will and use us today to release your saving purposes into the world, especially into everything that pertains to the state of the climate. Use us to bring together these peoples, their leaders and all the systems that there are for good– for Your Good Purposes.
In Jesus’ Name
As written in the opening chapters of Genesis, the state of ‘Paradise’ does not last very long. Having left the first couple to tend God’s own Royal garden in His stead, the Lord returns in the cool of the day in hope of fellowship, but discovers disaster. I do not believe that the Creation-work mandate to us as God’s human creatures in over. Nor do I believe that God intends to wind back the clock of history to take everything Back to Genesis. The cross of Christ only advances. While Eden is closed behind us, God continues to surprise us by coming down to join us in our mess. And now my prayer is this:
Lord God in Jesus Christ, as you once came to seek fellowship with your worker friends in Eden, we would invite You in to the world you gave us to watch and keep. Lord God, we invite You back to show us how to partner with You in the good work you would have us create today and tomorrow. In Your Mercy Lord,
Hear our prayer.
Sir John Everett Millais (British, Southampton 1829–1896 London) The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), 1864 British, Wood engraving; proof on India paper; image: 5 1/2 x 4 5/16 in. (13.9 x 10.9 cm) sheet: 7 5/16 x 6 1/16 in. (18.6 x 15.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1921 (21.68.4(18)) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/382280
Protest banner at Cologne cathedral. tobias-rademacher-2APWB4LzNyE-unsplash
Micah 6:8 ESV He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Lord God of Creation, we thank you for our human leaders, who are men and women like us, and so are not perfect! Nevertheless, we thank You for them, and for their service.
As we commend them to you as they and their representatives gather in Glasgow this weekend for the two days of leader speeches and negotiations, we recognise that you have long intervened in the affairs of this human world, in ways which our theology may still not accommodate. You treated the kings and pharaohs of old with grace and mercy, speaking to them personally and using them to accomplish your good purposes in this world, even though they were not your special people, your avowed followers. We hope for the same partnership and blessing at this crucial time, when the common fate of all lies before them and the decisions being made next week.
Thank you that some of our leaders are like Pharaoh in Egypt, who received your dreams of warning, of mysterious insight into a distant but nevertheless inevitable famine that would assail ‘his’ land in the politically far-off future. Against all the odds, as we would measure them, he gave his attention to your visions, tested his advisors and found them wanting, and then sought out the man of God whom you had prepared for such a time1. Extraordinarily you blessed Pharaoh and his court with an extraordinary level of humility to accept Joseph’s counsel2, which came from You, and further to promote him to ultimate office to bring about the adaptations required3. Pharaoh did this without changing his religion or the religion of his country, though that happened at other times – Lord, in Your Sovereignty we ask you to move the hearts of our leaders to be like this leader, and respond promptly with wisdom.
We pray that you will find many of our leaders will walk in this example when they meet in Glasgow, and as the negotiations continue right now through diplomatic channels. The prophesied seven years of plenty were just enough, for once they had ended, the famine was upon them all! Holy Father, we ask that there will be such a timely response, as the science says we have no more than a decade to act corporately, and to act differently. We ask that you impart a common gift by your Spirit of humility, to reject all faulty counsel and search out and embrace the right advice.
Father God, we know that some leaders have heard the warnings of heaven, whether through science, from their people, or simply through the talk of the international community. They say that they have heard, but in their hearts they have not, being wedded to habit, vested interests, and the lobbying of the foolish and to the banal evil of faceless corporations- the excuse of ‘the system.’ Like Nebuchadnezzar, they have heard Your direct challenge and may have paused to say the right things4, but then revert to their careless and arrogant hubris. And then- oh great God of Mercy- when your judgement falls upon them they eventually come to their senses! You preserved the life of this arrogant king, and even his place in government, as he was chastened before You, and as he came to his senses, he returned to the world stage to give You glory. We don’t know how his behaviour changed- what sort of leader he then became- but we surmise that he was a wiser king and a better servant of his community. And for such we pray for our leaders- You know who they are Lord, Merciful God!
Thirdly Lord, you know those leaders who are hiding from You and from all good wisdom at this time. Some will be those who stay away from the COP in Glasgow, but others will hide in plain sight, even saying the right things in public. Like Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar, who ought to have learned lessons5 from his father, they indulge their passions, exploit their people, ravage the earth, consuming its produce and products without thought for tomorrow, and nurture arrogance even before Your Face, as they serve up their feasts on the vessels of Your Temple. Lord, even as we cry for mercy, we pray that Your writing comes to them, in the secret halls and offices where they and their friends would try to hide. And we pray for the writing to be interpreted to them, that some may be saved from disaster. Let mercy triumph over judgement, as Jesus taught us, and yet please remove those who practice wickedness without repentance that is bringing our world, Your world, to such ruin. Give their place to wiser leaders, and may your people be found there to support them.
Be Lord of Mercy and Lord of Judgement in these things Father, for You alone see into all our hearts and know whether the soil there can be prepared to enable your Word-Seed to grow: can the stones be removed, and the soil turned over, or must the tares be left to grow with the wheat? We forgive their trespasses Lord, for we hope also for Your forgiveness; yet we beseech you that You will bless us with good leaders in our time, that there may be peace in our Day.
In Jesus’ Name
Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream (Iran, 19th century) Judeo-Persian illuminated manuscript on a rectangular sheet. Drawing depicting Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and Judeo-Persian inscription (written in Farsi using Hebrew characters) within a black and red double frame. Accession no. 85.46.2 (Gift of Chimon Mayeri and Family). https://www.flickr.com/photos/magnesmuseum/4558795206
It’s nearly time for the twenty sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) to begin in Glasgow- just over a week to go until the start of the biggest international meeting ever held in the UK, and, regardless of number of attendees, certainly the most important meeting of world leaders to take place in our generation. What time is it? It is decision time. And it is reality time. Either there will be substantial and effective plans from each country’s leadership- the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reducing emissions driving our climate chaos- or there won’t. And the sum of all these individual commitments either will or will not add up to the collective difference that we have to make as one human race to recover our collective community to a state of sustainability. I’ve written much in this blog over the last 18 months about vision, co-creation and dreams that point to God’s very good ultimate future that could be seen in part in our here and now- in our community of people and planet. Perhaps you’ve been a friendly reader, or maybe a critical one. However, right now, the average global temperature is rising significantly, and though there are even some scientists I thought I could respect who still choose to argue about what ought to be uncontested facts, there will be as much use in arguing with thermometers as humble King Canute was said to prove on an English beach as the tide and waves came rolling towards him. It doesn’t matter what kings might decree, or knaves declare they do not believe. Apocryphal as Huntingdon’s story undoubtedly is, there’s never been much arguing with the tides. The Dutch have been best at it, while downstream from where Cnut the Great perhaps stood at Thorney Island, Westminster (in London) we now have a barrier in the Thames to keep the high water back. But there won’t be any arguing with rising global sea level. Soon enough, our Thames barrier won’t be big enough to keep the salt water out of the City of London. “By 2050, over 570 low-lying coastal cities will face projected sea level rise by at least 0,5 meters. This puts over 800 million people at risk from the impacts of rising seas and storm surges.”1
It has long appeared to be the case that the actions of generations of kings, princes, slaves and peoples of all positions in society may well have profound effects upon one another, but not much on the environment in which we all live. This impression is simply not true.2 Though the population has been much smaller than current levels, woodland cover in Britain fell from around 75% about 4000 years ago to an all-time low of 5% in 1905, and most of this loss was before the Industrial Revolution. Many other historic examples of human impacts on environment and climate could be collated, where the fall of complete civilisations has been the inevitable result of our overreaching exploitation of the natural systems on which we depend. But now there are 7 902 132 110+ (says World Population meter, as I write) of us, which collectively is causing a crisis of near-apocalyptic proportions, and time is not on our side.
Make no mistake, if there are indeed some 2 380 000 000+ Christians in the world today, then there is much that we followers of Jesus can do- should do. Must do. In any economic system, that’s a lot of spending power, a lot of influence, and a great deal of responsibility. Today, I am simply applying our shared spiritual values to prayer. Each of us must consider our contribution in ‘practical’ terms, our lifestyle choices at home, in transport and energy use, our consumption of all kinds. But if I am persuading you that there could be a richness in the Christian world view that adds significantly to potential solutions to the crisis in our Commons, then we should also explore what vital contribution prayer might bring to our toolbox of actions.
In advance of COP26 a small band of Christians convened ‘Climate Intercessors’ to address this most urgent priority, including Eden Vigil, YWAM England and Tearfund. In turning to prayer, Christians are not claiming that action is not required. ‘I will show you my faith by my actions’, says the Apostle James (James 2:18). But the claim we are somewhat persuaded of is that by turning to God first in prayer, this will engage the agency of heaven and also shape the actions we ourselves go on to do, and the spirit in which we do those actions. If we are to encourage one another, and all the more as we see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25) the Spirit we are filled with will make all the difference- how we speak, the love we show, the grace we extend to one another. We do not claim a monopoly on the truth of what must be done to rescue our world, but those truths must best be spoken in love, and it is this that is in such short supply. Most of all we are keeping covenant with our God, the Creator, who promises to be with us and amongst us when we join together in prayer. And to hear us. And to answer!
This is strategic. The focus of this prayer initiative is on the conference and its aims and objective, and most of all, its outcomes. Many issues interrelate with these priorities, but we want to lift this conference to the Lord of the Cosmos and hear what the Spirit of God would do with us in answering the prayers of the world for urgent rescue. Here is the summary version of the COP26 programme: from https://ukcop26.org/the-conference/presidency-programme/
The Climate Intercessors team have responded to this agenda by suggesting that the (approximately) five main conference areas are supported by ten strategic prayer requests. This has been a corporate exercise, shared between the leaders of various organisations that have partnered to lead this vision, and also inviting contributions from anyone who attends the monthly prayer meetings or posts via the website. Speaking personally, I have been massively encouraged to join across a virtual e-link with my brothers and sisters in the USA and Canada, Europe and Singapore at different times, to hear their testimony and championing of the needs of local communities that they are giving their lives to. We have learned to pray into the COP programme, asking for exactly what it asks for. We are learning how to pray into these aims from God’s point of view- in partnership with God’s Spirit. What a privilege to co-create the future with God, for this is His invitation!
My approach is to ask what the biblical perspectives could include that pertain to praying ‘Christianly’ about these matters, and this is what I would like to share with you here. As the final ten strategic requests are collated by Climate Intercessors, you may find these reflections of help when engaging prayerfully with the practical issues.
We pray that people everywhere take notice of what is happening around us, in weather events and other consequences of climate-impacting pollution, and that their eyes are opened because, collectively, we are proving slow to see. God please give us discernment to understand what we do at home affects things far away and everywhere. Just as CFCs from our broken fridges or sprayed aerosols rose invisibly to the sky, the consequences were seen far away over the Antarctic as a hole in the UV-filtering ozone layer. This problem was understood and acted on successfully. Now our collective carbon emissions and methane production is causing increasing loss of Arctic sea ice and distant mountain glaciers- too far from our gaze, even the reach of our news media. Yet our acts of collective destruction do not demonstrate that we do not really belong in this Good Earth that God has made and placed us in. The ‘prophet’ Jonah (he didn’t want to be a prophet at the start of his story!) tried to ignore, deny and literally run away from God’s call to be a voice of warning and a prophet of repenting action in the foreign land of Nineveh. He ended up in the sea, and yet God did not allow him to drown and die. Rather, the text says that God provided a ‘great fish’ to swallow Jonah and thus give him pause for thought, even for prayer. You will perhaps know the foreshadowing of the work of Christ in this episode of Jonah’s journey, but as well as that I suggest that God uses His created world to ‘keep us in the loop,’ because spiritual priorities include ‘practical’ matters in this world. The book of Jonah concludes with God’s assurance that he cares about both human inhabitants and also the many animals that live at the city- though they were clearly farmed for people’s food. Therefore, the climate crisis should not be read as Creation ‘spitting us out’ but rather that God will deploy its networks to mitigate our excesses, keeping us connected within it.
For all countries, and especially for those who have caused and are now causing the greatest damage, that all the warnings will be taken seriously- the warnings of our joint experience, of the IPCC reports, and from all who are suffering and protesting. The Egyptian Pharaoh of Genesis was awakened by a doubled dream that warned him of an approaching disaster of supply, of disruption to sustainability. After due consultation and testing, Pharaoh gave Joseph leadership and full authority, with signet ring, court robes and a gold chain, to implement his co-created plan of preparation and rescue. Such divinely inspired dreams passed to the role of prophets like Agabus in the early Church3. Much ink has been spilt to caution Christian folk from misunderstanding the role of prophecy in our day, and with much wisdom, no doubt. Yet Agabus spoke, and it is recorded, that God still gives insights into concrete events that are about to take place in history, including those that pertain to basic and general human survival, just like Pharaoh’s dreams in Genesis. God does have a special role for his people to play in bridging heaven and earth, even in the courts of those far from the good news of Jesus Christ. We pray therefore that Naaman’s servant girl will be heeded by all the ‘powerful’ leaders of the nations today (2 Kings 5 tells of the foreign leader, Naaman the Syrian, who sought healing from the God of Israel) and that these leaders will even come to value the very dirt on which we stand (2 Kings 5:17). (Or as Wendell Berry puts it, What I Stand For is What I Stand On.)
That all ‘Pharaohs‘ will act proportionately to the present crisis; that global leaders will not be ‘Nebuchadnezzars‘ who hear the warning of the Watcher but simply ignore it. There will and must be a plan, and God would make this with us. We can seek God for wisdom on behalf of our leaders who may not themselves ask for it. God makes His first creation as a temple for his Presence with us, in which ha’adam works in Shalom peace; God gave a full plan for the Ark of rescue in judgement to the silently attentive and persistently obedient Noah. In the inhospitable wilderness God gave plans for a Tabernacle to Moses, and anointed skilled technicians to build it. At Jerusalem, where David prayed to build a House for the Almighty, God answered with plans, first of preparation and then instructions for his son Solomon, who built according to the pattern. God met with God’s people in all these times and places, and they lived! These foreshadowings point to the Body model of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, of which we are now all living stones, joined spiritually to our Head, joined relationally to one another and joined organically to the World- fully Incarnated! God would be in this co-created Plan with us- not at all distant- for the True God is not the far away god of Deism.
4. Many Christian folk see a foretelling of the Father of Lies in the Garden of Eden in the character of the serpent, and there is some accuracy in this. Though in some ways it is also accurate to say that we have left Eden, the first place of shared fellowship with God, God’s people and God’s creation, nevertheless this world is still an Eden for us all. And there are certainly many liars amongst us, and we all struggle to know the truth, and to tell it accurately. We pray therefore that the liars in our Garden will be seen for what they are, and that their various appeals to what we would see and taste and think (4 Gen 3:6) will be understood as a matter of our spirits being vulnerable and open to deception. Further, we pray that spiritual powers that inspire such lies will be exposed and dealt with in God’s grace.
5. The fifth prayer prompt mentions our recognising and being part of ‘ the community of creation.’ This is a positive motivation- it must also be coupled with a willingness to expose the great injuries done to both community and environment. These two are, in any case, never really separate. The great prophet Elijah grappled with many spiritual and political challenges in his life ministry, and very near its conclusion is an episode that speaks to our current priorities. The very judged but not yet fallen toxic partnership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel is described at 1 Kings 215 in the episode of Naboth’s vineyard. Verses 25 and 26 of this passage observe that Ahab did many other egregious acts of evil in Israel, but this one story stands for them all. It perhaps takes some effort of imagination5b to perceive that this is a study in the breakdown of the biblical vision for the proper relations between leaders and people, people and land, and the whole network that makes up community living. The wickedness of Ahab and his wife are not prevented- this is a hard fact to accept. Naboth, the humble and obedient member of the community of God is bullied but resists, and then is framed and murdered in a shameless act that makes a mockery of the principles of justice. Only then are we told that God is watching and that He speaks to his prophet. Even then, judgement is only spoken but not yet followed through. Such divine patience underlines our agency and responsibility before God, rather than exposing any lack of compassion or ability on God’s part. All this is the very antithesis of Jesus’ instruction to pray simply, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ How much is enough anyway? There is no specified quantity, but ‘daily bread’ is a sufficient guideline. The particular vineyard that Ahab was jealous for was not only a part of the land portion of Naboth’s family, it was a sign of the blessed life of the family of God, and a sign of the joy of abundance that God does indeed allow in this world. It was not a resource to be bought and sold but an inheritance gift from God through the present to the future, and to all generations. In Buber’s terms, not an ‘it’ but a ‘thou’. We read that on leaving his ark, Noah planted a vineyard and then overindulged in the wine he produced from it; a great stress on family and society followed. What is a gift for joy can so easily become the fuel of excess. And so it has been since the Victorian development of steam and the subsequent drilling and pumping of billions of barrels of oil. It is no small thing that BP, Shell and Equinor have been prevented from exerting influence as sponsors at COP26.6 Without being personal about the company directors or employees, Ahabs and Jezebels are not welcome here, and the judgement of the hour is finally being heard. [However, see here6b] Love for nature and community must also come with teeth. We urgently need to throw out the old economics and shift paradigms to an economy that rightly values Creation, which is why Sir Partha Dasgupta’s report to the UK government is so important.7and8
6. The sixth prayer point concerns our young people. As I welcome children back to school post-pandemic, it is very clear that there is a general sense of trepidation amongst our youth. What sort of future do they have to look forward to? Many perils and challenges could be expected. How long will the COVID19 pandemic last, with its knock on effects on education and child development? What of the economic situation and the prospects for jobs and housing? No challenge can be isolated: and perhaps the answers to these and others lie in a ‘Green Recovery.’ The scope for spiritually inspired co-creation is phenomenal, I think, and we can take a lesson from the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. The nation appears destroyed, its survivors sequestered into an oppressive empire that might seem to have its boot on the necks of the next generation of the Jews. Yet this is not at all how the picture is given in the book of Daniel. In exile, God gave extraordinary opportunity to Daniel and his peers to find a hope and future of cocreation even under this occupying and all-absorbing empire. Against all expectations, these youngsters Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), along with Daniel, discover that God makes a way for them inside the system to be a generation of integrity, vision and cultural transformation. The whole testimony of the book of Daniel is that whatever chaos may be unleashed around us, even for the vulnerable young people of today, God first gives hope and then substance to that hope. May it be so now Lord!
7 The final prayer point published in advance is for God’s blessing and Presence in the city of Glasgow,; the name means ‘Dear Green Place.’ As the final days count down, this hope for blessing is being challenged by intentions for strike action in the city, and piles of uncollected rubbish on the streets. It is no idle matter to seek God’s blessing at a place of negotiation over such controversial matters as involved in the climate crisis; especially with some arguing that there is no crisis at all. Does the geographic location of this conference really matter from a spiritual perspective? Do I, your God, have need of an earthly House? G-d once asked, but then God came to the Temple anyway. We certainly want God to be especially Present in Glasgow, and our God is certainly big enough to take on all opposition and to be victorious over all obstacles. We certainly pray for justice for bin men9, that their valuable work is properly recognised, and for wider peace in civil society. I am considering the victory of the Philistines over Israel that resulted in the capture of the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4) which was then carried away to the town of Ashdod. As Robert Alter and the English Standard Version make plain, though the unfaithful Israelites deserved to go into exile, Godself goes in their place. We read that the Ark was placed in the temple of Dagon, but the next morning the statue of the idol was found collapsed in front of it. The Philistine priests set their Dagon up again, but the next day it was back on the floor with its head and hands broken off! None of this is meant to refer to Glasgow, but there will be idolatrous influences that we pray God works actively to bring down to dust- literally, to disarm them! No blessing came to the Philistines: wherever the ark was carried, there was fearful judgement, but after it was sent back to Israel, in 2 Samuel 6:11 we see that the household of Obed-Edom was blessed simply because the Ark was there. Such we pray for Glasgow itself. So I happily affirm that the principle of Incarnation can extend to God’s blessing of the places where God’s co-creative work is being done.
What suggestions would I make for the remaining three prayer prompts, to complete the set of ten? What do you think of these:
Suggestion 8: The brief was that we seek God regarding aspects of COP26, its programme and people. I am happy with this: but to pray ‘in the Spirit’ must surely mean that we are open to ‘seeing from God’s point of view.’ Now we can only know anything of God’s Point of View if God reveals it to us. Which is why scripture is a necessary guide, and I think we must take a lead from Nehemiah chapter 1.
O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.
The chapter begins with research, which is a parallel to the IPCC reports that lay out in great depth and detail what the state of our atmosphere and climate is in. This is the business of science. But Nehemiah also reaches out to God with a spirit committed to the principle of repentance. Our political discourse is sullied by words of regret– that this or that tragedy has befallen certain parts of the community on the watch of this or that minister- but without accepting personal responsibility. I believe that Nehemiah gets results in his efforts to partner with God in co-creation because he does two things at the start: he puts his own life and reputation on the line, AND he aligns with those who went before him, owning their sins and failures as his own. He explicitly repents on behalf of those who may or may not have done so themselves. God says this is necessary: He covenants with Abraham in Gen 22 because of this step of willingness to sacrifice. Galatians 3 makes it clear that the Incarnation-Salvation project hinges on this self-identification. So too we may find breakthrough in the heavenlies by owning what we corporately have done to the climate, and what we have left undone in not fixing it up to now.
I repeat what I said before: the Disciple’s Prayer that Jesus gave us (Matt 6, Luke 11), that begins ‘Give us this Day our daily bread’ continues, ‘…and forgive us our sins…’ for taking from our brother and also for taking from our brother and sister Nature, or, as Francis of Assisi10 would have it:
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods, by which You cherish all that You have made.
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water, So useful, humble, precious and pure.
Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs. Praise be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.
This is therefore a claim that we must pray for the Church, for God will surely recognise that we are an agent in this crisis, and must feature in a proper prayer programme, even if this does not fit neatly into the framework of the COP programme.
Suggestion 9: There are many people and interests that will not be represented at the COP26 negotiations, but God wills that their voices are heard directly. They may be represented in some way by others, and some may be in the streets and parks of Glasgow outside the fences, protesting and holding vigil for some worth aspect of this cause. God knows about off-site protests: I think we can bracket all these together under the heading of Luke 18 and the Parable of the Persistent Widow, Jesus commends to us the attitude of this powerless woman, who has no recourse to a husband or any man who can speak and gain influence on her behalf. Her approach is artless and blunt, even perhaps irreverent. The judge is openly godless in his commitments, using the law only as a means of making his living, and careless of duty or social responsibility. But God is watching over all this, and implies in this parable that if we play our proper part in partnership with God, then God will see to it that, eventually, justice is not subverted or hijacked by the violence that oppresses many around the world in our time- not least the indigenous peoples whose resources are under such sustained assault. Notice that this depends on us, or, as the champion of liberation in South Africa, Desmond Tutu puts it, God believes in us.
Suggestion 10: We do pray that God is present in the public meetings, in the sessions on days 1 and 2 when the world leaders convene, where their words and the words of their speechwriters are trotted out for scrutiny by delegates and the world’s media and the commentariat. Yet we know that the success of these talks and negotiations depends on everyone being in the room. Will everyone be in the room? Even if Putin, Morrison and Xi do show up, will they be present? Actually committed to the cause??
This need not be a problem. If Xi Jinping stays at home in China with his Communist Party friends, God can get to him there. Daniel 5 describes how Belshazzar is holding a private party for his committed friends and hangers-on. He is nevertheless very aware of the wider agenda, the global political realities- the fact that he is trying to hide. Why else does he bring out the golden vessels looted from the Jerusalem temple? And then God writes on his wall- God is not above expressing Godself as a graffiti artist, and then Belshazzar is brought up short. He is now very definitely present and in the moment, and Daniel is summoned to bring God’s now and rhema word. So we can pray confidently that God will find all those whose attention is needed in this moment, wherever they may conceal themselves, and that God will speak clearly through His people in mercy and judgement, and taking care of His servants as He does so. God’s shalom on those who are in the circle of the leaders of China and Russia, or wherever else God has His ‘Daniels’ who would speak truth to power even at great personal risk.
A few days ago we watched ‘I am Greta’, the 2010 BBC documentary film following Greta Thunberg and her father as she set off from Sweden around the world to be given audience by the great and the good of international politics. Much is made of the fact that she meets President Macron of France before she has been given any recognition back in her home country. It has ever been thus. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ Later we share her frustration as she notices that so many leaders don’t back up their apparent agreement that there should be change with concrete decisions to make the necessary changes happen.
How many of these meetings with the so-called influential people who lead governments and intergovernmental organisations were really worthwhile? How would anyone be able to tell? ‘God only knows’, you might say irreverently, with a shrug of resignation. But that begs the question. God does indeed know, and more that God lets on. Because there is another meeting in the middle of this documentary that most watchers will not have the faintest idea about. At one of the international conferences, Greta is filmed sharing a selfie photo with a gentleman who grabs an opportunity to say ‘Hello!’ As they pose together this unnamed ‘passer by’ explains that his 16 year old daughter too is ‘quite the activist.’ What we do not get to hear on film is that this is one of the members of the Christian Climate Observers Program, and I daresay that the film producers did not know this either when they selected clips to stitch together in this presentation. But here we can see, right in the middle of this landmark film, that God has His servants front and centre of the action, yet probably unseen by most.
So I close by observing that the prayers we are joining in praying over COP26 are not at all impersonal prayers, as though it did not matter who was praying them. God wants to hear from you, and me. ‘For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.’ (Amos 3:7 ESV). He intends for us, personally, to be fully involved as co-creating partners with God in making everything New.
Starting in Glasgow.
Perhaps you and I will meet in a Climate Intercessors webmeet. I hope so.
On behalf of the Climate Intercessors leadership, from the website:
We would also appreciate prayers for those Climate Intercessors leaders and their programs or organizations which will also be at COP26 in Glasgow. Please pray for Laura, Jack, Samuel, Ben, Lowell, the Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP), A Rocha International, Tearfund, and YWAM. Please pray for wisdom and discernment, faithfulness, stamina, safety and health. Thank you!
climateintercessors.org 10 prayers for COP26
The full list of prayers has now been published, and you can see it on their website, and download a 4 page pdf for printing from here:
You can draw your own conclusions about how my suggestions compare with those on the final document.
We began considering Henry of Huntingdon’s fanciful account of King Canute, who has been so often misrepresented as an arrogant monarch, full of hubris, while the more modest attitude described in the earlier telling is typically lost – modesty does not make much of a headline. Wiser heads would observe that it is not Canute we should be shouting down, but his would-be courtiers, flattering him with superhuman powers he could not possibly possess. But in the biblical worldview, even this is short of the true mark. Look at what the Lord God tells Ezekiel He is actually looking for in the community of faith:
29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them.
To be one who stands in a breach in a defensive line- that is the stuff of heroism, is it not? But what is the adversary in this fight? It is the Lord! What foolishness is this- to expect to stand in the way of God’s divine advance, in bringing righteous and warranted judgement on an uncompassionate, unjust and actively wicked people. Look at this! Such is precisely what God is dreaming of: a single Noah, a solitary Abraham, just one Deborah can be the saving of an apostate and undeserving community. It only takes one Son of Man to command the wind and waves, and that presumably might even include turning the tide. It would be hubris if the idea came from us, but God commands us as He commanded Ezekiel. What a relief it is to know that there are now many faithful intercessors building and standing just as God demanded of Ezekiel! And so God’s indignation can be turned away!!
2 Woodland colonised Britain around 10,000 years ago, following the last glaciation, reaching a natural equilibrium between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago (Godwin, 1975; Peterken, 1993). During this peak period the ‘wildwood’ is thought to have covered around 75% of the landscape (Peterken, 1993). Britain was not one huge forest: ‘British ancient forests were patchy’ https://nerc.ukri.org/planetearth/stories/608/ While ‘only’ 6% of the UK is built on, very little of the environment has been unmanaged, with a great loss of biodiversity as a result. https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/land-cover-atlas-uk-1.744440 See final graph of ‘Long term woodland coverage in England’ at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-41551296 showing a doubling of tree cover from 1905 to the present day, though Forestry Commission pine monoculture does not count as a substitute for a ‘natural’ ie diverse ecosystem. Such nuance is insignificant compared with current deforestation considered globally: https://ourworldindata.org/deforestation
As we met to pray this week, the media news was full of the sudden change of political fortunes in Afghanistan, displacing the plethora of accounts of fires, smoke and flooding from the days before1, although further forest blazes broke out in the south of France, where double-jabbed Brits had driven to enjoy their summer camping. This briefly grabbed back a few column inches. The ‘story’ seen through the news lens seemed more that the holiday makers had been rudely interrupted in their merrymaking, rather than that forests in the only remaining country on the north coast of the Mediterranean that were not on fire last week had finally succumbed to the flames. There are a few forests on the North African coast too. Apparently their local authorities do not see fit to mention climate change, so the fires breaking out in Algeria are even being blamed on arson, where ‘suspects’ are then lynched, by suspicious locals or even by terrorist groups. How tragic that some folk who came to help put out the fires are viewed with hot-headed suspicion and become the targets of fatal violence.1b
One of the criteria for setting our prayer agenda is drawn from Col 4:2; praying with watchfulness, which echoes the watching which God gave to humans to do in the garden [Gen 2:15 to till and watch…]. However, where should we be looking? Some say3 that the object of our attention should be only on ‘spiritual’ things, and being attentive to the state of our own hearts before God. Well and good; the problem here is in the ‘only’. Certainly we seek to prioritise the voice of the Spirit, and concur that if our spiritual health before the Lord is sound, then through our activated faith with Jesus, any obstacle can be overcome in partnership with God. But we are convinced that our daily work is worship, and that work happens in this world, which is where Jesus’ kingdom is coming. So while God’s Word and Voice must certainly be given priority, we watch for what is in Creation that we can partner with God in attending to in prayer and in daily work that He will then judge to be ‘good’.
The US and then, inevitably, the UK, decided to withdraw their military interventions from Afghanistan- the collective stomach for continued maintenance of the troubled peace was exhausted, apparently. What will happen next? Might the swift takeover by the Taliban lead to a sudden about-face by Western powers, with renewed bloodshed, or might the mere threat of such action lead to subtler outcomes? In spite of the results of this embarrassing failure of intelligence and hasty abandonment by the previous western alliance, might new power relations be exerted in the Middle East which generate completely unpredicted outcomes, even to the transformation of human rights concerns more widely in the region?
As these event occupy TV screens in Europe and America, as that is where editorial attention is focused, in Haiti, a decade after the last devastating earthquake that killed 200 000, a new 7.2 scale quake has now accounted for 2000 known deaths and multiplied destruction.4 Half a million children are without homes and a tropical storm arrives as families sleep outside without shelter. Leadership is in further crisis in the country following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse just a month ago. What news reports do emerge from such places typically include a focus on the destruction of religious buildings4 and the laments of those who belong to those communities. Is this motivated by the desire of TV editors for dramatic pictures, or is there something more cynical behind this particular focus?
Perhaps you will agree that there are resonances between all this and the conclusion of the account of Jesus’ earthly life in Israel in Matthew’s gospel, from chapters 23 to 25. We have recorded a remarkable set of thoughts that look beyond the coming events of the personal trial and crucifixion- Jesus speaks as King over All even as he is about to offer himself as the unique Passover Lamb. He looks past these immediate concerns, vital as they are, to speak of two Ends, we now understand:- the mortal end for the community of faith that Jesus foresaw would develop from the germ of the disciple-apostles, in what is prophesied of the clash of kingdoms and especially the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the ensuing diaspora of the Jewish people. Fused with this is the further End of All things, related specifically to the Second and Final Coming back of God’s Anointed Saviour and Lord. In this melding of prophesying of the near and far-off future, two truths are asserted: you don’t know when the End will be, for only God the Father will determine this. And yet both sorts of End will surely arrive- the end of your lives, which in many cases, though doubtless not all, will be in times of great troubles and even persecutions, and then also the ultimate End, when Christ will return in glory for Judgement. In both cases, Jesus is addressing us as disciples with regard to ultimate concerns; God’s Kingdom and our place in His eternal Triumph! The purpose of this prophesying is related to these concerns, and not to the specific events of human history that transpire long after the first century AD. It is simply a truism to say that history- the Present become past- has Trouble in it. Jesus makes the following plain to us: even for people of true faith, life will never be straightforward, and yet even in the face of continued challenges, sometimes of the most acute and perilous sorts, meaningful discipleship will always be possible, in a mode that often transforms the world God gifted to us for the better, and that generates the fruitful creativity of God’s Kingdom Come.
Matthew 2337 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Where is Jesus’ attention at the introduction of this prelude to the account of his trials and crucifixion? On Jerusalem, the central focus of YHWH God’s earthly attention through the Old Testament testimony of God’s dealings with humankind. On the city, the centre of social and business economy. On Israel’s capital, the place where trading and temple are cheek by jowl, the historic focal point of God’s partnership with the children of Abraham since Melchizedek and through the kingship of Saul and David and all the rest. Here still, at the moment of climax in YHWH God’s covenant dealings with humankind, is the Divine attention in the Holy of Holies and throughout God’s Holy City. Furthermore, Jesus prophesies that this is the place from which a crucial invitation to God must be uttered in unison – until then, God tarries. Remarkably indeed, we are here told that in God’s perspective, the Centre holds.
24 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Anticipating the deliberate destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and including the final demolition of Herod’s Temple [the ‘Second’ temple rebuilt after the exile in 516 BC and lasting until 70 AD] Jesus takes issue with what his disciples are looking at, that is, what they are seeing when they look at the impressive temple complex. He engages their spiritual intelligence through a cryptic comment, asserting that it will all fall– but how? And what meaning should be drawn from this conclusion? We should not expect to be seers of the specific and detailed events of the future, but a co-creation mindset can include way of seeing the future through a kingdom-of-God lens, which shapes our evaluation of what is fixed and what is subject to change, and what therefore is really of value.
While God’s attention will remain on the city, the place of work and history future being made, this will not continue in the same terms as with God’s covenant Nation alone. The significance of the Temple is about to come to a close, as Jesus Himself becomes the final High Priest, offering himself as Paschal Lamb. So the temple of his body will be broken and fall into the ground, we now understand, and what is raised up is the New Creation Body of the Church, of which High Priest Christ is the Head, and we all, the fellowship of faith, are joined together to become the many-membered Body of the same Christ, yet spread abroad in every city and nation. The ‘mother hen’ Spirit is well able to keep us gathered in this way. The initial horror of the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the mockery of its continuing demise beneath the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque continues to vex the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, yet their demolition by the earthquakes of AD746 and 1033 should continue to remind them that the long term future holds a different promise. We should not think that Jesus takes any pleasure in such disaster and destruction, or in the fatalities that result, but this is the perspective of the God of the new wineskin and new wine, the God of New Creation: unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, he once said, it abides alone. Death can be a baptism into a different future.
3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Just as we hear Jesus continuing to speak of Jerusalem in significant terms, so also we note that the disciples make their Lord their special focus of attention. In this separate and intimate meeting- such special privilege!- Jesus reciprocates with a personal and wide ranging intelligence briefing that speaks as much today- to us and our children – as it did then. It is impossible to tell exactly what speaks to then and what to now, and I think this is deliberate. There is a general and yet insightful portrayal of what the life of discipleship will always be like- very much in the world, with its tribulations and crises, and yet capable of being -indeed mandated to be ‘not of this world’, that is, above it. The ‘cloud of witnesses’ is both above and also within God’s creation, and thus the world is watered and nurtured.
Can we see what is in this ‘intelligence briefing’? There are seven ‘alert levels’, if you will, of which the first is the most urgent.
Misleading claims of those who claim to be Jesus, that is, to speak on His behalf, to speak as Him. This is of the highest priority- we must continue to know Him, not merely to know about Him.
rumours of wars
nation rising against nation
kingdoms rising against kingdoms
And no, this list is not exclusive or exhaustive, but as we see even this week, such events and happenstances have the capacity to dominate our attention, to demand our focus, and to undo our equilibrium which must only be centred on Him. The Centre must hold. But the focus Jesus is commending is not the centre and nothing else– it is the centre, in which all else can be held within God’s providence, and from which compassion can reach out even to that which is rotten, in agony, even dying.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away[a] and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
We see in Jesus’ example that some who come to serve and love in God’s Name are reviled and persecuted. A servant is not greater than his master, and this world can refuse love with thoughtless cruelty. But note this- Jesus reassures his followers that their endurance is possible and meaningful before he states that the final triumph of the gospel good news of God and His kingdom is assured. In this we are assured that we are not merely servants, but esteemed forever friends, even in the most extreme of circumstances, if we persevere. Just as we have learned that we can only understand God’s Good News message by beholding it in the person of Jesus Christ, the priority of our Lord’s points in this passage show that we are each as important to Him as the gospel message itself. His missionaries may give their lives in persecution, but that does not make them disposable goods in God’s eternal economy.
15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
I simply note the following in regard of this discussion: when the ultimate testing and peril come, even when the ‘present’ is brought to great strain, and each of us is under the greatest duress, Jesus assumes that we will be engaged in the economy of life in the same human terms as ever. Some are at work in their houses, doing family business, while others are out ‘in the fields’, whether literally or metaphorically. There are ‘inner rooms’ which we might imagine to be offices and places of significant business, while beyond the realms of general human habitation there is wilderness. So in sum, it is assumed that God’s people are engaged in life and work in God’s world, and Jesus is with us there, everywhere, for that is where salt and light ought to be. That is how we answer the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’
Again, to repeat, the life and identity and integrity of each of God’s saints is acknowledged and affirmed. Salvation in God is not general and impersonal, but He will see us and see us through to the End, even as He saw Hagar in the desert, with her child.
It is fashionable to note the various minorities of people in our society who have been overlooked, or whose interests might be forgotten in the commerce of so-called modern culture. This is an excellent thing. God has been taking care of the easily forgotten and the vulnerable for much longer than we have, as Jesus notes the special concern that is needed in crisis for pregnant or nursing mothers. In this way Jesus acknowledges the whole human life cycle, which hinges on this most vulnerable stage, where each and every one of us is utterly dependent for our origin and infant development on our mothers, and then many others too. We all ought to have been counted as part of a ‘vulnerable group’ and therefore relying on others for our survival at some point, even if we think we are strong now, as individuals, and Jesus speaks here to remind us not to forget it. What is more, and this is a further exciting affirmation of the key role of prayer in God’s kingdom economy, Jesus plainly asserts that we can engage with God in prayer partnership even with regard to when the final and ultimate tribulation comes to our communities. Even God’s great wrapping-up plan for History is apparently open to prayerful negotiation! In this, God cares about the weak and the weakest, and we have a part to play in this.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. What if that village has the Church within it?
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
In forthright terms, we are told that God’s worldview completely trumps all others. The present is going to end as God determines, and God will determine the New Future that will follow. Just as there is pain in childbirth, new life is released and born into being through that pain, and the pain is real but passing. The great works of God’s first creation in Genesis are each checked off and decreated- the lights which stood as signs are no longer required, because the Great Light is now plainly revealed, lightning and shaking and the very deliberate announcement of the End- but not for us. Just as the ‘sign’ of the Son of Man (Jesus’ adopted name from the testimony of Daniel the prophet) is seen more prominently than the signs that are to pass, so God’s elect are gathered. For us, those who persevere in faith with Jesus, this End is not the general End of oblivion, but a Great Meeting, in which all else is negotiable, except the ultimate intention of God in Christ that we will be With Him, One.
32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Our partnership with God in creating the future includes being observant about these serious circumstances of world affairs. To be sure, we cannot know that any particular set of disasters that we observe are the specific signs of the final End- Jesus makes that very plain. And yet we are to be constantly expectant of the Good in the End, just as Jesus had earlier approached a particular fig tree by the roadside, expecting to find flowers that had developed into fruit, though discovering that it was ‘not yet’. Just as the Sabbath speaks of Creation-yet-to-be-completed, so the birth pains of our present are in some way a sign of the New Creation that is coming. Contrasting with the uncertainly of exactly when God’s planned transformation takes place is the certainty of God’s Words, which are, above all, God’s Logos Words to us. In the metaphor of birth pains, Jesus extends the feminine sensibilities and aspects of God’s creative involvement in this world- in maintaining the processes of life and also in New Creation. What do birth pains tell the woman? The baby is coming, and she will be the child’s mother. Yet these contractive pains can come early, somewhat randomly, in the general period before the child is delivered, and this is the powerful mystery of the metaphor. In each generation there can be a genuine experience of birth pains, yet the actual End is in fact still afar off. But it is still coming!
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son,[b] but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Jesus draws a stark contrast between people amongst whom Noah silently built the ark, according to God’s instructions over a long century, the product of his studied and energetic labour, and the folk surrounding him, whose priorities are summed up in three activities: eating, drinking and marrying. There is nothing wrong with these expressions of the joys of God’s created life for human creatures. But in Jesus’ description we get the sense that these people were consumed with their pleasures, their own priorities, having a perspective on the world that all would continue in constancy and stability. It is really this thoughtlessness that God’s judgment comes to, and perhaps this is the very word that is timely for our friends today who rail against COVID precautions and/or ‘climate alarmism’. The tone changes from v40, though now without any sense that these hard working people are indulging themselves inappropriately. Jesus message is that we should aim to live in this naturally bounded world, yet with another eye fixed on the final purpose of God, as the Parable of the Dragnet spells out for us.
Here is where the faith message of Christ melds with the original mandate for work: like Adam and Eve, we are to be continually watchful in the world, regarding its inanimate resources, its creatures, and also the complexities of the vast human society that has recently exploded within it. Paying attention to all this, we have good works to do. These are profoundly informed by the values of the gospel of Christ, whom we meet as the Logos of God. He is watching over His Word, and will see that it comes to pass. We are to watch with God, and then act accordingly with the power that our human agency gives to us. We have sufficient freedom to do what is right.
As these passages continue, we are left in no doubt that the setting for God’s people in God’s world is properly understood to be work, rather than taking our ease, and not so much ‘meeting in church,’ because work was the gift of God to us even from the ‘pre-Fall’ garden.
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant,[or bondservant] whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that [bond]servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked [bond]servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow [bond]servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that [bond]servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We know that for Jesus, His ‘spiritual’ business in the false trials and His crucifixion will follow these words; in what Jesus says here, that work is implied. Once it is done, what is left to do? Just as in the garden in Genesis, God puts his people in charge, ‘over his household’ to manage and steward it on His behalf, doing as He would have done, being the living image and likeness of God in His Creation temple. This is a wholehearted intention, for at the end, God says He will give us charge over ‘all His possessions’! This co-creative partnership is no game, no temporary pretence before the final reality is manifest by some sovereign work of God completely beyond our agency. For sure, God will sovereignly and gloriously create the transition, to all things being New. But don’t expect to be putting your feet up afterwards.
I find it instructive that there is ambiguity in the translation of ‘servant.’ How much is voluntary and how much obligation? What is constrained, and in what are we free? Reflecting on the interchangeable use of servant and bondservant suggests this sense of tension, between following God’s divine and sovereign instructions for our lives, and the pleasant space within boundaries in which we can express our gifts and individuality, even as we attend to the same mission of the Kingdom of Christ and His Lordship.
Is ‘doing Church’ important? Well of course it is, but just as Jesus directed the [Jewish] disciples attention away from the stones of the Jerusalem city temple, so our attention should be directed away from the exterior trappings of ‘church’ to the transcending reality- we are the Church, and where the Church (ekklesia) is in the world, there is Christ doing what He sees His Father doing. Check the words of God in Christ to the seven churches in Asia to see the importance of Christian community rooted in the wider yet local community.
What does it mean when the delegated master is given charge of the household? This is not maintenance of the estate, of the building, of the trivial affairs of the absent owner separated from the community. The master of the household is firstly in charge of the feeding of the household- that’s the people in it! God wills that we are less concerned for stuff and more for society, though society needs a certain amount of stuff, and that must surely be managed too. There is a difference between use and indulgence, as Jesus explains. We must not give into people’s uncontrolled desires, because today some even want to set fire to the house.
There are more facets to the creative tension of free agency and obligation in this account. From 24:43 to the conclusion of chapter 25 we discover four pictures of delegated responsibility:
Matthew 24:43 The master of the house. This is an ambiguous title, either for the owner of a household, or for the chief manager who has been put in charge. It should make no difference, for the wise manager ought to do exactly as if they were its owner. Note that we must not assume this ‘master’ is the same as the servants in 24:46, which comes straight afterwards. So these variations should make it easy for us to understand that God is encouraging us to consider and reflect on what it means to live with watchfulness as widely as possible.
25:1- 13 The Ten Young women. They are neither owners nor stewards, but they are members of the community who are both invited and expected to attend the wedding festivities of a particularly important couple.
25:14-30 The servants of the man who went on a long journey. They are assigned variable portions of resource- life is really like that- and in God’s world, there is still the expectation of just and equal reward in value. God should be trusted both to act justly and to respect our differences.
25:31-46 The ‘sheep‘ who prove to have been those who did what Jesus would do, each individually and out of the public gaze, usually without media attention, so naturally overflowing from their spiritual lives that they are themselves surprised to realise that what kindnesses they showed to their fellow creatures is counted as high worship of God.
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps[torches] and went to meet the bridegroom.[and the bride]2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
The account of Jesus’ words to his disciples given by Matthew takes another diverse turn with this depiction of the local cultural preparations for a wedding. I expect that big events might have a tendency to happen late. Long journeys on foot or even with animals are not trivial, which we forget in our age of cars. So with the arrangements for a wedding, and the need to take care with the preparation of special clothing and uncommon quantities of food, folk are likely to turn up late. No particular reason to blame brides. Maybe Jesus foresees this unfortunate habit- he blames the groom! (at least that’s how most versions translate it). While the groom or couple might be late, Jesus makes his point by impressing that it is the guests who must be ready, and its the young women of the community who we are brought to consider. Girls particularly love a wedding, I believe. Much energy and motivation is released in all the anticipation, all the chatter, all the doings that must be done. A great deal of human creativity is released when there is a wedding in the community. Art, flowers, music and dancing, cooking and serving. Hair, dressing up, general laughing and giggling. Just as Jesus said; eating, drinking and marrying. This is a wonderful thing. But it is not the general business of marrying that Jesus is now referring to- it is THE marriage, His own marriage to His Body, to us. It is God in Christ who is the Groom, and this most fabulous event is certainly to take place- BUT will we be being ready? I love how it is the young girls that Jesus uses in this story to address all of us regarding the serious business of planning and preparation. Is this a group of people you would place such trust in? Perhaps you can’t relate so much to the metaphors of managers and bondservants. Perhaps, as a woman, you agree that the metaphor of preparations for the wedding is easier to relate to. Now as both a married man and a father, it certainly does speak to me. The scripture is multidimensional and very inclusive. It is inclusive of wider human experience and expression- in considering our final End, there is still ample room for culture and art and all things joyful. A relative of mine has a sign in their kitchen. ‘If there is no wine in heaven, I’m not going.’ Judging by Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana, I don’t think that will be a problem.
We need to exercise some imagination in reading this text, as most of us have never used an oil lamp, relying completely on ever-present electricity. We mustn’t stretch the metaphor either- shouldn’t the well supplied young women (‘virgins’) share their oil with the others? That misses the point. The oil supply is a metaphor for our state of preparedness for God’s glorious and awesome Return. You have to do that yourself. Sure, I can encourage you, but you must listen and agree and then do your own planning and preparing- tilling and watching, if you will. We can pray together too, but you’ll need to commit to meeting up. Go ahead- make that plan!
14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants[bondservants] and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents,to another two, to another one [i.e. about twenty years’ wages for a labourer], to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those [bond]servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.[e] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Perhaps you are quite familiar with these words, as the Parable of the Talents is commonly known. I wonder if you agree that reading it as part of the two chapter discourse Jesus has with his disciples, then and now, extends your perspective. In brief, here is what strikes me. Once again, we are in the field of everyday life and business, in the marketplace, in the community. God’s household is outside as well as inside. There is an extraordinary level of trust and delegation from God (the travelling Master) and his selected servants. In the story, everyone gets a trust, and its a whole lifetime’s worth of property, investment, what you will. In short, what they are given is their lives. A happy accident in English means that many read ‘talent’ and hear the noun for our personal gifts and capabilities, rather than a large unit of money. Headteachers giving school assemblies like to make that deliberate mis-step to make a worthwhile and entirely valid point. We are not ‘in [the] church [building]’: we are in the world. And the share for each servant is absolutely not equal and it absolutely doesn’t matter. Every faithful servant who ‘invests’ the master’s trust is rewarded equally with ‘a share of their Master’s happiness.’ The last time I checked, money doesn’t buy joy or happiness, so that’s a very meaningful reward. It is deeply personal and intimate, for here is reward for the religion that God truly esteems.
The foil to the life work of the faithful is the fear of the servant who does not trust honestly in his master, and so does not put his single talent of money to work. The man does know know Him. This is the tragedy. Ironically, the Jewish Rabbi Jesus suggests such a one should break the Torah law and place the talent with worldly bankers for interest. The point really is who our trust is in- so even as we work in the World, our watching eye is on the true Master of the World, who is surely coming to seek account from us, each one, face to face. As the conclusion makes plain, the servants are working energetically within the current economy of the world, but perhaps expecting an accounting according to God’s higher and eternal economy. God will be reading from a different balance sheet.
There are two versions of this parable, and in case you need reminding that the whole section began with Jesus’ focus on Jerusalem, the city of cities in this world, go see Luke 19:11-27 to see what reward is given by the Master to each of his servants. I am astonished that this conclusion has not attracted more attention 6 in the past- perhaps it is a sign of the power of the lie that God is not interested in our daily work, or what goes on in the city, but only what happens ‘in church’. Or perhaps leaders who were jealous with their own power fear what would happen if the full truth of God’s trust in each of us were better comprehended, so have concealed this truth. If so, they fear rightly.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[and sisters] you did it to me.’
It is surely important to pay attention to fellowship in the family of God. I am much the richer for it, and am looking forward to the coming season of renewed community life as the easing of COVID restrictions continues. ‘Do not give up the habit of meeting together’, exhorts the writer to the Hebrews (10:25), and with good reason. This is taken as read by Jesus: what he really wants to say is on a simpler, practical and thus profoundly spiritual plane. Food, drink, clothing, human warmth and welcome, alertness to sickness and imprisonment- these are the practical concerns that God is looking towards, and though it may be a shock and a surprise to many of us, so should we be. Given the anticipated violence and destruction in Jerusalem, coupled with the final erasure of Israel at Masada by the Romans, and the subsequent diaspora of Jews and Christians, this makes sense. But don’t stop there. Surely we will always have opportunity to respond to immediate needs of those who befall these trials of life unexpectedly, through persecution or disaster, whether, say, in terms of job loss or illness, or larger scale issues like a pandemic. “You will always have the poor with you.”
Surely there is more for us to attend to, to anticipate, to plan for our ministering. Why might the food supply be restricted in coming years, and for particular people? Will there be a clean water supply in every place? How is clothing produced – is it just and sustainable? Why might people move from place to place, becoming refugees in the world, simply separated from home? What are the reasons that people fall into sicknesses- what are the contributing factors, the consequences, and the repercussions? All this is surely the management business of God’s living-and-praying-with-watchfulness people. For me, what is the role of a would-be theologian and teacher in all these things? What even are the reasons that the innocent might find themselves on the wrong side of the law, or why might the guilty be unjustly punished? Human rights abuses were not so-called in the Bible, but we can see them clearly now, and we may even be looking through God’s eyes. Surely we do these things first for those who are God’s people, but Jesus’ Samaritan parable taught us that there is no-one who is not a neighbour.
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The conclusion to Jesus’ description of the final reckoning is truly the completion of the circle which begins at Genesis 2:15, ‘The Lord God placed the ha’adam in the garden, to till and watch over it.’ And then Yahweh left them there, to see what they would make of it, coming back to fellowship at the cool of the Day. When we are busy in the garden, are we constantly thinking of what the Creator of that garden would have done with it, moment by moment? To be honest, probably not. We just get on with it, though such a thought might come to mind from time to time. This is as it should be, if the gardeners are truly ‘in the image and likeness’ of the One who made both garden and gardeners. A good gardener attends to the seasons and the changes in the plants and their interactions – watching with acute attention to the opportunities and demands of the ecosystem, weighing up potential possibilities and consequences of the myriad choices that could be made, and then at once doing. The work of tilling the soil and tending to the plants and their fruit, the care and preparations that are required, season by season; these are all constant in the garden, and the gardener can get rather lost in it all! And so it proves to be with the watching and tilling of the saints in God’s world: the faithful watchers of God prove to be so attentive to the real needs of their neighbours that they have stopped giving account to Who may be watching them. We may be surrounded by CCTV in our modern towns and cities, but most law abiding folk are no longer self-conscious about them. Not that the grainy black and white videos tell the whole story of course, but God has us all on 24-7-365 CCTV (aka ‘Heavens Above’ Angel-Cam) and knows why we are doing what we do. The God who sees sparrows fall also sees each bottle of water, though a glass of water freshly drawn from the tap should be more sustainable, more just, and more appropriate to stewarding God’s world.
Too many sparrows have fallen from the skies through my lifetime, though I see a few more have returned to my own garden during the recent lockdowns. I let a few trees grow up too, which has provided them with more habitat. My friends in Kenya are sometimes obliged to spend on expensive bottled water since cholera is never far away, and as they generally wear second hand clothes transferred from Europe’s charity markets, this tends to undermine local clothing production. There and everywhere there is strife in the community, tribalism and party political squabbling, and then persecutions of various kinds. Bad leaders thrive through support from the powerful, while good leaders are unjustly blamed for complex consequences of the little good they seek to do. A teacher can help in understanding, in showing how the economy of the world operates at the moment, and suggesting how it might be transformed. How might we stop the forests burning? Where would it be best to plant new trees? How can we constructively interact with the water cycle in our area for the good of people and planet? Where should richer countries intervene with military might in the affairs of other countries, and to what end, and for how long? Which Afghan nationals should be rescued from their homeland and given safe passage to our country, at least for a season, or permanently? At the time of recording the words of Jesus and Peter and Paul and the rest, this scope of influence was beyond imagination. But not any more.
In God’s ultimate economy, His throne is at its centre, and the lives of the living saints are God’s means for holding all these concerns [and more: you know what they are!] in both prayer and action- with our whole lives- to the One at the Centre, who is already making all things New. Through our faithful stewardship, the centre can yet hold. If we hope for the reward of ruling cities in the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19)6, then our watching and doing need to expand to a larger scale than hitherto. If God is to return to find His people praying with impact in His world such that it has not been allowed to fall into fire and destruction, because God’s people are being truly salty, the our prayers must reach a greater scope than hitherto. It is time such prayer spread like wildfire, for there is growing chaos, and then soon He will be at the Gate.
You may think that I am ignoring questions regarding the justice of God. I will simply say this. If God’s people, who are addressed directly by all these words of Jesus in the first instance, woke up to the realisation of the responsibilities that we are thus charged with, individually and collectively, then perhaps the world at large might stand a chance of being able to hear the call of the God Who made them, and see the Way home. Let’s defer discussion of the justice of God’s judgements until after that. There may yet be sense in the Ending.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The news in 2021 is a litany of disasters. Forest fires on the North American continent under ‘heat domes’ from western Canada to California, incinerating whole communities. Towns and villages suffer sudden ‘unpreparable’ floods in Europe, from Germany to Belgium, and now in London, where a month’s worth of rain fell all at once blocking roads and transforming tube stations into swimming pools. Though you didn’t know that both Copernicus Sentinel satellites surveyed land surface temperatures on June 20th across Arctic Siberia finding the ground temperature at Verkhojansk to be 48C. Or that Somalia, Ghana, Chad, Uganda and Nigeria have all been hit by flooding in June and July, following the vast locust swarms which plagued east Africa in earlier months, ravaging food supplies. The headline international news did report that an entire year’s worth of rain fell in Henan province in China all in just three days. We will remember that September 2019 to March 2020 saw the worst ever bush fires across Australia. Meanwhile, the Amazon rainforest is continuously burning because Jair Bolsonaro’s government says its OK to turn one of the principal biodiversity hotspots and lungs of the planet into more substrate for utterly unsustainable agribusiness.
For those of us fortunate not to find our houses sinking in the melting permafrost, our livelihoods disappearing in flood or fire, basements filling with water or houses demolished by the ‘unpredictable’ arrival of mud and rocks, there is still COVID. On July 7th 2021 WHO announced that the reported death toll has passed 4 million.
What sort of response would qualify as being theologically responsible? It is easy to reach for hyperbole and, indeed, apocalyptic language in such circumstances. When our collective house is burning down, that is surely justified. ‘Apocalypse’ in biblical terms does not mean the big bad stuff that happens, but, as Bart Ehrman puts it, ‘A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities’, such as found in the Book of Revelation (or ‘The Apocalypse of St John, RSV) (Italics my emphasis). In particular, I find it interesting to note that the imagery of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation 6 is rather ambiguous, and so also inevitably are the interpretations that have followed this first century prophecy of the End of All Things. What John wrote was itself not original, drawing inspiration from the Jewish prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel, who each described the horsemen in different terms, but crucially, Christian commentators through the centuries following St John of Revelation couldn’t decide if the rider of the white horse was with the good guys or the bad guys. The four dread foals are released, you may recall, by the action of the Lamb of God who opens the first of the seals of a scroll seen in John’s heavenly vision. Which agencies are supposed to be at work here, I wonder? Are the references meant to be definitive? Possibly not.
Following Biden’s arrival in the White House, and the rejoining of the Paris Climate agreements by the USA, there is a bit less arguing about whether something should be done, and a renewed focus on what should be done, and by when. I will confess here to grimly welcoming the recent news of fires and flood, with their deadly consequences, for the reason that I hope that these ghastly events ‘at home’ in the US, Canada, Europe and China will finally concentrate minds in government and the places where, apparently, money talks loudest. Vast hectares of trees planted in the US to offset past and current carbon costs in business have now gone up in smoke, while London’s Thames Barrier could not protect the underground transport system from flash flooding. The damage done to coral reefs in the distant oceans has not commanded attention in the capitals of the G20, but the wailing of voters and jittery corporate investors might yet have the desired effect.
Not that its worked out this way in Russia or Brazil, where ‘the system’ has been sequestered by pseudo-elected leaders perhaps better described as totalitarian dictators, supported by oppressive networks of billionaire oligarchs whose business is, so often, in making piles of money from the pillage of the resources of our single shared planet. The Chinese Communist Party is trebling down on its efforts to exclude western influence from the internal affairs of their country, to the extent of undermining foreign investments in China to avoid regulatory scrutiny, and by ejecting BBC journalists who might suggest to their citizens that the Henan floods, to pick the most recent example, might actually be the result of global climate change rather than unfortunate and random fluctuations in the climate. No ‘schoolgirls on climate strike’ in Shanghai, thank you very much.
Then there is the fine democratic example of Australia, where a democratically elected government is in full climate change denial even after the country has literally gone up in smoke. How much more iron ore can be blasted from the culturally sensitive lands of the pre-Captain Cook Land Down Under? How much more coal can be sold to the Chinese who, for the moment at least, are making steel and cement at such a prodigious rate?
Some of us met to pray this month, and it had been decided that the leaders of Australia, Russia, China and Brazil should benefit from our special and prayerful attention. There are now (as of Thursday 22nd July) under 100 days to the global climate summit ‘COP26’ in Glasgow this November. I will reserve comment on the UK and our own government for another post, though you may have noted Boris bumping elbows with Scott Morrison (heading gallery).
What might we co-create with God in prayer regarding the leaders of these four nations?
Let’s consider the case of the exiles of Judah in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Daniel and his three friends- probably many others as well- have been trained and deployed in high office in the capital and in connected places of influence. This is not God’s people living according to God’s ways and instructions in God’s promised homeland. Yet these young people are still God’s people who can find how to live in God’s ways- difficult though that may prove- and can demonstrate that what is not their homeland is still part of the world that the true God made and has plans for. Daniel is a son of Abraham, who has indeed been exiled from the land of the first Promise, and yet is now at home within the scope of a larger Promise. We find testimony that there is a tightrope-wide tolerance for Daniel and his faith in Babylon, on which he is seen to teeter-totter his way along, day by day, even decade by decade, until one king passes to another*. So Daniel establishes a principle for believers in God’s world: we need not await the full rule of God in the world before we can act as those who ‘tend and watch over it’ (Gen 2:15 ESV). We certainly should not despair of God’s co-creation of righteousness and justice with us as His people just because the godless presently have so much of the world under their control.
Let’s look at this one chapter in some detail to see what lessons and possibilities might emerge:
4 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! 2 It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.
3 How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.
4 [b] I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5 I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6 So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. 7 Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation. 8 At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the Spirit of the holy God—and I told him the dream, saying, 9 “O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the Spirit of the holy God is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. 10 The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.
13 “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. 14 He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. 17 The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ 18 This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the Spirit of the holy God is in you.”
All too often it seems that our leaders, even ones who rise from common stock, end up in isolated bubbles, possessed by terrible delusions of their own grandeur. At moments of crisis and disaster this comes into public view, as their ghosted speeches and miniscule actions have us collectively wondering aloud, ‘Can’t they see what must be done? What on earth are they thinking? What kinds of monsters have we elected?’ Nebuchadnezzar is credited with writing his own speech as recorded here in Daniel 4, with his personal prayer thrown in for good measure. What sort of experiences have wrought such profound changes in this great dictator, that he now speaks with such transparent self-awareness? How exactly have his eyes been opened? Perhaps there are secrets here for us to apply to our present near-apocalypse predicaments.
Nebuchadnezzar shares his first person diary report. In it we can see that none other than the Most High God Himself has been the prime Agent in rectifying Nebuchadnezzar’s entire world view. This is a significant contribution to the insights afforded in scripture for what a ‘biblical world view’ consists in, especially in regard to the place of all human leaders under God, and of their place and responsibilities regarding all creatures on earth. It also suggests that however entrenched human earthly leaders may appear to be, and however godless their regimes, that there is scope for radical transformation of both leader and government.
The chapter begins with a new and unabashed acknowledgement of the true God of the cosmos by the non-covenant king Nebuchadnezzar, the previously unquestioned ruler of the Judahite exiles in Babylon. He confesses the sense of ease that his privilege enabled, summing up his ability to do whatever he likes with the riches of the entire empire in this pithy phrase: ‘I was … prospering in my palace.’ Unless invited, no one would have questioned the king’s will: they could only expect an immediate and sticky end! Professors of the ancient Near Eastern cultures tell us that kings like Nebuchadnezzar would have believed in his own god as one local god/ one of the gods of his homeland, who was the superior rival to the gods of neighbouring lands. He now realises that whatever divinities there may be, there is One of particular note, whom he names as the ‘Most High God’. As for himself, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that he can no longer behave like a god over the country, thus redefining what it means to be a king. He addresses the whole world to speak peace under heaven, which suggests positive implications for the future of the exiles presently held in benign captivity.
In the worst case scenarios, which as I described above may well be what we are facing in the world today, there is one last line of defence of justice in God’s cosmos, and that is Godself. Nebuchadnezzar, apparently impregnable in his rule, is nevertheless not isolated from the voice of the Almighty. If no one else has the opportunity or courage to speak truth to power, God can certainly do so. What might influence the timing of such an intervention? We should inquire of the Lord on this matter.
The king is at his ultimate ease, and then out of nowhere he is troubled by dreams, fancies and visions. What are the means by which the wetware of our creaturely brains are accessed by the Spirit of the Cosmos? Christian folk who are expert in the matters of quantum physics and/or neuroscience have spilt some ink in this regard over the few decades we have known anything of both disciplines of study, and have reached two conclusions: we don’t know enough about the workings of the human mind to say very much at all about how our thoughts are nevertheless both free and meaningful, and secondly, that what we do know presents no obstacle at all to the proposition that we can have a communicative relationship with the Divine. God created, say the theologians, ex nihilo, so it should not surprise us that He yet speaks from the void.
As with Joseph who was summonsed by Pharaoh in Egypt long before, Daniel is brought to the king’s audience chamber as the last possible interpreter of this heaven sent vision. Whatever God has to say directly to the self-styled and would-be ruler of the earth, God does not deliver alone, but opens the king’s will and enables His human creature to perform the role of priest to the pagan king. God’s word, will and way will be facilitated in human terms, for this is God’s creation ordinance.
Nebuchadnezzar describes the vision he has been dwelling on in his mind to Daniel, and it is a picture of cosmic dimensions. Babylon is fabled for its hanging gardens, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, no doubt replete with plants of every kind that could be collected as far as the empire had extended, though not as complete as we can enjoy today at Kew Gardens, in London. In a royal garden that has been planted by generations of kings, there will be mature trees, but this ‘fancy’ exceeds any that grows even now at Kew or Wakehurst Place or Bedgebury, arboreal collections all found just a few miles from my home in the South East of England, thanks to the Victorian globe trotting plant collectors who stocked these sites that are now living museums of the world’s trees. Wakehurst is home to the largest growing ‘Christmas tree’ in England, a 35m giant redwood, though the UK’s tallest is a 44m native Beech tree on a private estate in West Sussex. However, the vision given to the king is of a great tree that reaches from earth to heaven (recalling the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9) which forms the habitat and food supply for all manner of creatures. Animals find shade under it, birds nest in it, and as any ecologist will tell you, even a single tree can be the home for many hundreds of species and myriad individuals. This tree in Nebuchadnezzar’s mind is another version of the royal garden planted in Genesis 2, and the vision is immodest in its assertion: the Watcher from heaven addresses the tree, and Daniel explains- it represents you, O king!
In this iteration of the familiar garden trope, the king himself is depicted as the mighty Tree of Life, combining two messages: affirmation that it is the proper place of the ruler to shoulder responsibility for the supply of all the needs of humans and all creatures in the land. Quite properly, in this sense: everything depends on him- he is the vital connection between the needs of community and creatures on earth with heavenly supply and sustenance from above. And interwoven with this truth is also the judgement of God on Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris- he has not acknowledged that the God of Creation is the absolute and ultimate source of the riches that he sequesters from the resources of empire and the labour of all its citizens.
The Jewish scriptures are a rich ground of prophetic judgments, but not many are delivered in person by the man of God direct to the ear of the one being given his ‘unsatisfactory’ school report. How is Daniel to go about this? It is not uncommon to hear modern day Christian folk getting carried away with their denouncements of ungodliness, though it is absolutely right that we call out the injustices and cruelties meted out by the influential on the vulnerable. Too few seem aware of Jude’s instructions for spiritual warfare in Jude v9: even fallen spiritual personalities are not to be slandered, purely out of respect for Godself. We can almost hear Daniel’s heart beating out of his chest as the realisation of what he is being asked to say to Great Nebuchadnezzar dawns on him in full-orbed intensity.
19 Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king answered and said, “Belteshazzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered and said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies! 20 The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, 21 whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived— 22 it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. 23 And because the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field, and let him be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven periods of time pass over him,’ 24 this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25 that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. 26 And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”
Nebuchadnezzar is doubtless quite smart enough to know that any serious interpretation of this vision is going to involve a bluntly confrontational message, and he encourages Daniel not to hold back. Daniel manages to compose himself and finds a form of words to address the king with sufficient dignity as well as doing justice to the sobering word from heaven’s messenger. How extraordinary that God’s message of judgement is not simply, ‘You have been tried and found wanting; your reign and life are now over!’ That will come to another king on another day in this book. Nor even, ‘You have been tried and found wanting, so now your rule is at an end- it will pass to another while you depart in ignominy.’ Despite that Nebuchadnezzar has no part in the covenant of the lineage of Israel, God does through Daniel what Jeremiah instructed the exiles: He brings peace and prosperity to the land in which God’s people are found, without distinction. What does this look like? It means that God’s desire is to redeem Nebuchadnezzar, even to do righteousness and mercy in that land through him! It means that God is bringing the measuring rod of righteousness as revealed in part to Israel even to the nation of Babylon. It means that God in interested in the character and fruitfulness of the pagan king as ruler of that country. As with any of the other sons of God, discipline is the constant companion to those who would grow in character. To lead the king in the way of chastening, the following steps are announced:
Ultimate pruning- all limbs and leaves removed, denoting Nebuchadnezzar’s removal from the kingship and all its privileges and responsibilities.
Destruction and binding of the tree stump in two kinds of metal, signalling the ultimate winnowing of this king who nurtured an arrogant image of his own status and significance. This is an appraisal and judgement of Nebuchadnezzar personally, and yet…
The bound stump is not dead; what is more, it is mysteriously nurtured amongst the tender grass, as a newly sprouted seedling in the open space in which it first germinated many years previously. The plant, which is the king, is neither dead, nor is it finally removed from relationship from other human creatures in the world. And, as the metaphorical imagery shifts…
‘Let him be wet with the dew of heaven,’ says the Watcher in the vision, recalling the way in which Genesis describes the Edenic water cycle, before the beginning of rain, when water condensed from the air in each daily cycle, thus watering each plant and tree with its necessary aqueous nutriment.
As for food, it will be the same as the beasts. This continues to acknowledge Nebuchadnezzar’s physical, biological nature, which as Genesis told us, is one with the biological organisms, and yet is dramatically reduced from the luxuries of creative diets and cookery that he would have been accustomed to. [Note that the tree-man metaphor is stretched to breaking point now, as the man needs food, while a tree makes its own by photosynthesis. This is entirely acceptable prophetic storytelling, which does not transgress modern scientific boundaries with any harm to the meaning.]
This verdict and sentence is not at all permanent- it is a time limited judgement, for ‘seven periods of time’. What mysteries are hidden in the Genesis account of the creation week? What exactly is the nature of the completing seventh Day, before it becomes known as ‘Sabbath’? Some wonder whether it makes sense to talk of the eighth Day in the Genesis context. While a day is a unit of time in which we can accomplish significant things, some tasks are larger and require more sustained attention. Nebuchadnezzar is to leave the company of human beings temporarily, for a kind of week of spiritual time, but at the completion of this season, there is a healing, with hope for reconciliation, for that is what the completion of a week by Sabbath promises. And then, in the grace of God, it may even be possible to start again. What does the grace of God mean? Even that the kingship will be kept on hold- things can be put right and go back to the way they were. Such are the extraordinary dimensions of God’s redemption- far beyond all we can think or imagine, as another bible author later puts it. Right now, there are several things it would be good to see put back to the way they were.
There is then a massive gap in the narrative. We are left to speculate entirely on what happens next- immediately next, that is. What does Nebuchadnezzar say? How is Daniel treated? What is the effect of this revelation on king and kingdom? In the short term, we do not know, for nothing is said. What we do know is that the man of God has carried out his joint-working with God – earth and heaven have worked prophetically together, and the earthly ruler has been told in plain terms what the Truth is. God put the ha’adam (humankind) into the Garden ‘to till and watch over it’, as Claus Westermann translated Gen 2:15, and so Daniel has been anointed as joint watcher with The Watcher from heaven. Both man and divine Speaker have uttered the word for this time to the earthly ruler, in concert and in harmony. What will this double spoken Word accomplish? In the field of garden metaphors, we have to wait and see, for these things take time. Nebuchadnezzar still has free will, even in this season of divine confrontation. And his response is all that the rest of this episode has to record. We will hear no more of Daniel’s involvement in this narrative, which we can take as a comfort in this respect: while God clearly does look for our partnership in watching and doing, we can expect that God will continue His sovereign action at significant scale and with precision of timing that are, well, Divine! And Nebuchadnezzar will come to say this himself.
28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.
King ‘Neb’ isn’t content with his ornate throne or the sycophantic attentions of his attendants. He’s on the roof of his great palace, as near to the heavens as he can climb, and in a futile attempt at avoiding any embarrassing contradictions, he is talking to himself. Most of us comfort ourselves with similar intentions, but Neb has been served notice, and God is listening very attentively. Were the king to be feeling pleased with himself on account of the efficiency of his rule, his attention to the needs of the peoples under his influence, and especially the directives that Daniel gave him personally exactly twelve months previously, then there might not have been cause for alarm. Might we speculate that Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel’s counsel seriously at first, perhaps making radical changes to plans and procedures in the kingdom? Might there have been a change of heart in regard of the weak and oppressed amongst his citizenry, at all levels of society. Many a leader has stood up at such moments and declared their intentions to adopt a more inclusive and generous attitude, turning their attentions to service of their community. But after the ink dried on the newspapers, or should I say, the cuneiform tablets baked solid under the Middle Eastern sun, these trumpeted intentions can drift all too easily, as entrenched and powerful interests have their subtle influence behind closed doors. Whatever leadership is about, it pivots crucially on unswerving long-term commitment to the primary mission, and God made it abundantly clear to Neb what this mission should consist in. In what terms does the meditative Neb now address himself? 1: The power he has exerted in creating a palatial home for himself, and; 2, his own personal glory. If we were to define the ambitions that constitute hubris- arrogance that challenges the nature and status of the Deity- then Neb’s words hit the target dead centre.
In his first letter to Timothy, St Paul commends the saints of God to attend to prayer for all leaders that we can live quiet and peaceful lives in godliness (worship) and reverence (gravity) [1 Timothy 2:2]. The emphasis here needs to be on our work as worship and adopting a sober minded attitude, rather than on quietness and peace, I think. Which is how leaders should really behave, treating human beings as the creatures of dignity that God made us to be, treating God’s world with similar respect, and handling time and opportunity wisely. All these messages come through in the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar. Paul did not suggest to Timothy, or at any other time, that we should ask God to remove deficient leaders, and that is not what God does with Nebuchadnezzar in this case. The mission field has been Nebuchadnezzar’s mind, pure and simple. The word of God came to him with divine imperative and in partnership with examples of human integrity, but he refused this reasoning, and so his human mind is taken from him for a season. William Blake’s evocative picture gives some insight into what this purgatorial experience could have been like. But then, most wonderfully, Neb’s reason is returned to him. What might be suggested here in the ways of God as He stoops to our creaturely level to beckon us toward heaven’s Light? It must remain a mystery.
34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; 35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendour returned to me. My counsellors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Daniel 4 ESV
Again, we are only given a partial view of the outcomes. What might be implied by Nebuchadnezzar’s confession that he ‘honoured’ God? Does this point to an inward religious observance, where the secular has been divided from and relegated beneath the spiritual? Frankly, we cannot tell, but the point is moot for us. If we and our leaders are to come to our collective senses in this most urgent season, our honouring must be practical and very much orientated to the implications of what we say we believe; the implications of our faith in the One Whom we confess.
Babylon, and certainly its king, have had a Great Reset. The prophetic message of Daniel leaves us to speculate on what the effect of all this on the king, his court, country and empire, and for the Judahite exiles. Not merely the questions we have posed but many others unspoken remain unanswered, and perhaps that is the nature of apocalyptic prophecy. Heaven holds a store of answers to matters that may not yet have transpired on earth. In our ecological and environmental crisis, it is surely the truth that the heavenly Watchers address all of us in the privileged West, where so many of us are, frankly, at ease, and prospering in our homes, blessed with technologies for life and leisure beyond the dreams and fancies of the ancients. At the scale of population as it now stands on our earth, these habits are no longer sustainable or just, and change is needed. Indeed, urgent pruning. It is a commonplace in scriptural commentary to observe that ‘one stands for many’, though it may be a shock to discover that this message addressed all of us as much as for Vladamir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison or Xi Jinping.
Such are the truths and revelations that emerge when a biblical narrative has reached its climax and conclusion. The whole account of Nebuchadnezzar’s ‘comeuppance’ with Almighty God, YHWH of Daniel and Judah of Israel serves to show us that God is willing and able to bring leaders and those with the greatest power to account, and, most mercifully, not to treat them as they deserve at the first count. This king discovers that God is God of Justice and of Grace, of Judgement and of Mercy. And because Neb has told us his story in retrospect, we see other aspects of his rectified worldview. At the start, when Nebuchadnezzar summoned his trained servant Daniel, we were reminded that Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar, which is a direct reference to the god Bel, ‘my God’, says Neb, to begin with. We never hear Daniel voice his disapproval at this. Furthermore, Neb calls on his proven wise servant, saying that he knows ‘the spirit of the holy gods is in you.’ This is how most English texts give the translation, and doubtless this is appropriate to the original sense. Daniel does not get to protest about this gross heresy either. But a footnote in the ESV makes clear that an alternative rendition is also accurate, and that is the one I have given in the quotations above. With hindsight, Neb now recognises that he understands Daniel’s God better now, by personal experience, and he also understands that Daniel is a man, a fellow creature, who nevertheless has a particular relationship with the Most High God whom he has just had such profound dealings with. So it is accurate and appropriate to say that Neb now understands the meaning of the translation as I have given it: Daniel is sought for his wisdom because in him is The Spirit of the Holy God. This stems from the radical commitment Daniel shows as a man of complete spiritual integrity. In the prophecy of his own exile, Nebuchadnezzar receives the simple grace of daily dew from the sky, while Daniel remains, as Psalm 1 puts it, a Tree planted by streams of Water… whatever he does prospers.
It is surely the business of God’s own present day prophets to consider what the divine Watcher has to say to all, leaders and laity, CEOs and citizens, presidents and peasants alike. This is what coppicing does, for while some stalks grew up to grasp more sunlight, and so grew taller, overshadowing their neighbours, when the chainsaw comes, they are all cut down to the ground, and start again. When the new stems grow together in the next season, they more or less keep pace with each other, and all gain sufficient water and light. In our new ways of doing things, we will need such lessons to apply to the continued growth and prosperity of a global population of seven billions. This will require the concerted efforts of many minds, the collective exercise of reason, and also the fruit of the infilling Spirit of the Holy God. May we join together to pray in this regard.
What lessons emerge from our study of Daniel chapter four? The God of Creation finished His first work in the figurative Creation Week of Genesis 1, and then passed over significant responsibility for ongoing creation of the future in ‘working and watching’ to us, specially called ‘human becomings.’ Initially this work of naming and tending applies within the bounds of a royal garden in Eden, where creature and Creator continue in daily fellowship, encompassing reflection on the ongoing work as well as their intimate relationship. But beyond Eden- the whole world is the LORD’s and everything in it, so Daniel works through every obstacle to find the means to thrive as a co-creator of a better future for his own people and even for the people amongst whom they are exiled. Despite that the might of the Babylonians overshadows their entire lives- Daniel’s name and the identity of his God are alike trashed and squeezed into an idolatrous mould by Nebuchadnezzar- Daniel proves that Yahweh God will come to fellowship with him in this exilic wilderness. And the wild-ness can be tamed, together. This is absolutely not an equal task. But the partnership is real, and God decrees that it is crucially so: co-working is part of Creation, as a Creation Ordinance, for God determines it to be so. It remains God’s Good Purpose. Make no mistake, God made and maintains the cosmos, in every respect- the span of space and every particle filling it, and the moments in which it exists. I cannot tell you where God’s creation ends and God’s providence begins. Yet when God speaks in judgement directly to Nebuchadnezzar, this is not a complete work of God. There is a crucial partnership role for His creature, His faithful bond-friend Daniel, whose real name He knows (Daniel, which means ‘Judge of God’, or better, ‘God-is-Judge’!) Inevitably, the king seeks out Daniel, in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God, who speaks in human terms to complement what the divine Watcher speaks in divine terms, and so the judgement and ultimatum are brought into being. In time. The seed of the Word is allowed to grow. Daniel’s work in this season is done.
We are given privileged insight into what happens next. What was at first co-created between YHWH God and covenant son Daniel is then completed by God alone, in God’s own sovereign will and power. Even as the God-bestowed freedom of his humanity has been respected, divine judgement finally comes to Nebuchadnezzar and the kingship of Babylon, a living enlivening judgement which is mysteriously carried forward to completion by God. Who can say what literal events transpired, as described in this exotic narrative? The important claim is that God can, whatever we may think, and even more importantly, that God will do as God pleases with us, but God has determined to only do so with us. Neb was not living as a partner with the True God, but Daniel was- he was the co-creator who God partnered with to tend the plants and creatures God has instantiated. Thus Neb is brought, by the grace of God facilitated by the co-working of Daniel, into a greater human fulness, and the kingdom of Babylon is touched with the reality of the kingdom of heaven.
In the beginning, God created… and then we are brought to the opportunity to co-create with God. Without our partnership, there is no immediate answer to the growing ills of the world. But more of us are discovering God’s intent to bring us into intimate involvement with making a better future, a Good future, through co-working with the God whom we know in Jesus Christ. ‘No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything that I have heard from my Father I have revealed to you.’ For sure, the challenges we now face are beyond any one of us, and probably beyond us collectively as well. But not if we allow that ‘us’ includes God. Jesus continued, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and your fruit should remain, in order that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.’ We can draw nearer to God to enter this partnership, and trust that what God starts with us, God will certainly finish.
As I conclude this article at the start of August 2021, there are reports of larger than usual summer wildfires breaking out around the Mediterranean, in Greece, Rhodes, Italy and Sardinia, and now in Spain. The earliest reports were from Turkey, where one hundred wildfires were burning across the country by 1st August. Apparently the Turkish government is repeating rumours that some fires had been started deliberately, rather than by lightning or other natural causes. Which is rather to miss the point. The ‘house’ that we have built for ourselves turns out to be flammable, and through a mixture of sins of omission and commission, fire is now breaking out all over. The responsible way forward, as God’s people in God’s world, is not the black and white of political struggle between opposing factions orientated to earthly power and influence. It is good to ‘speak truth to power’, be that the principled stand of a striking schoolgirl on the pavement at her nation’s parliament, or an underdog politician calling out the egregious excesses of a ruling dictator. But God has taken Daniel on a deeper journey in God’s Spirit, that opens living channels of communication between earth and heaven, initiates a dialogue of prayer into the heavenlies over globally significant situations, and directs his Spirit-filled life into counsel and watchful insight at crucial seasons of change, even, at divinely appointed moments, into the most secret and senior offices of state and power. The invitation implicit in this scripture is that God intends for us to be there too.
Jair Bolsonaro 22 11 2018 CC BY NC 2.0 Jeso Carneiro; AustralianPMScottMorrisonPMJohnson14062021 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tim Hammond; President Xi Jinping of China Kigali, 23 July 2018 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Paul Kagame; vladimir-putin-president-of-russia-2374090 pixabay 17 11 2016 Joenomias
“The world is at a perilous point in this pandemic. We have just passed the tragic milestone of 4 million recorded #COVID19 deaths, which likely underestimates the overall toll”-@DrTedros— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) July 7, 2021
FIRE pexels-izaac-elms-8722621 LIGHTNING Guy Corbishley FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY pexels-pixabay-257703 DEAD CORAL REEF pexels-jeremy-bishop-2397651
https://www.ft.com/content/3f89c759-eb9a-4dfb-b768-d4af1ec5aa23 “We’ve bought forest offsets that are now burning,” Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon programme manager, told attendees at an event hosted by Carbon180, a non-profit organisation that focuses on carbon removal. The tech giant was assessing how the disaster might affect how it buys offsets in future, Willmott said at the Carbon180 event. “We don’t want this to force us to pull out of investing in nature-based solutions,” she said. Instead, buyers must “get really smart about what the risks are”. The offset programmes carry a “buffer” of credits that are not sold to any companies but are available to cover any shortfalls resulting from problems with a project. The Colville project has generated more than 14m credits since 2016, about 5m of which have been used by buyers, according to data compiled by the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project.
If ‘Daniel’ is understood to be one literal character all the way through the book, then he served five different kings in exile: Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus. As we reflect on the behind the scenes role of our avowed Christian Queen Elizabeth II, Daniel shows it is possible for just one of ‘God’s servants’ to exert multigenerational influence in the corridors of power.
‘No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything that I have heard from my Father I have revealed to you.’ John 14:15 Lexham English Bible. And verse 16 following.