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The Book of Esther

The Book of Esther is a fantastic story.  Unusually for a bible text, God’s name is never used directly, and yet God’s hand is across all the pages, pulling the strings when his people need him most.  Roughly a contemporary of Daniel, Esther has much wisdom to tell us about how to thrive in a different or even hostile culture.  It’s also a rattling good yarn – deserving of the film titles which introduce each day! – which we’ll enjoy for the next two weeks or so…

Note: to allow for some annual leave, Inspirations have been posted in advance, up to 15th June.  Scroll down to find daily reflections from 7th June onwards…

Saturday 15th June – Esther 5:9-14 ‘Dumb and dumber’

In his book Why Organisations Fail, Jim Collins – the leading management and leadership thinker – outlines five stages of decline.  Fascinatingly, the first two stages happen when organisations appear to be at the peak of their powers: stage 1 is ‘hubris born of success’ and stage 2 is ‘undisciplined pursuit of more.’  What makes this sequence so devastating is that the rug is slowly being pulled from under its feet even while the organisation is lauding its own achievements.  Usually, by the time people start to realise they’re in trouble (stage 3 – denial of risk or peril), it’s too late.  They didn’t spot the warning signs, and disaster lies ahead.

What’s true of organisations can be equally true of people.  Haman finds himself exactly in the sort of quietly perilous position that Collins describes in his book – though to read today’s passage you would never know.  Haman exhibits exactly that brand of hubris that is the undoing of many powerful and successful people.  He assumes that his position is unassailable, and fails to heed the warning signs that a more astute observer might have spotted.  He knows full well that Mordecai is a Jew – so how has he missed the obvious inference as to the likely sympathies of Mordecai’s ward, the Queen, the very person now throwing banquets for the king and himself? 

Instead, he spends his time boasting about his power (dumb?) and, notwithstanding the king’s existing statute to oppress the Jewish people, decides that Mordecai deserves humiliation on top of execution, demanding the construction of a 75-foot pole on which to hang his body (dumber?!). 

Haman will come to have a particular reason to regret wasting his energies on building this pole – but it is a sobering reminder that human pride, power and ambition are shifting sands on which to build a life.  The methods people use to force their way to the top usually come back to bite them, often with greater force.

Our Saviour models another way.  The way of humility and service, of compassion and generosity.  This Saviour’s arrival lay hundreds of years ahead of this particular story, but we can see echoes of this kind of lifestyle in the behaviour of Mordecai and Esther.  They chose to be salt and light, to be the good yeast that worked its way through the dough. Many of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom seem to connect with ‘the mustard seed conspiracy’ of these two, which saved a nation.

Tempting as it is to misuse power, may God grant us grace to choose the kingdom lifestyle taught and lived by Jesus, trusting in God’s power and authority to bless it – and us.

Friday 14th June – Esther 5:1-10 ‘True grit’

‘Pray as if everything depended on God.  Act as if everything depended on you.’  I was told that many years ago, and it’s wise advice. There may be times when it’s the action of others we have to rely on, but often we have to play our part as an outworking of what we have prayed for.

For three days, the Jewish people have fasted and prayed.  Now it’s time to act.  And it’s notable that Esther wastes no time.  As soon as the period of fasting is completed, she takes her courage in both hands, puts on her best dress and goes to see the king. 

And we should bear in mind that this is the riskiest moment for Esther.  It’s now that the king will either order her execution or extend his favour towards her.  Thankfully, absence in this case has made the king’s heart grow fonder, and Esther is warmly received, with the further promise that the king will grant her whatever she asks.

But even now, Esther plays a canny game.  Rather than blurt out her request – too much too soon, with the additional drawback that Haman is not in the room to see the king’s response – she invites Xerxes and Haman to a banquet that evening, thereby keeping the king on tenterhooks and making sure that Haman is fully involved in everything that happens next.  The banquet is a success, but even then Esther keeps her cards close to her chest and piques the king’s interest yet more by inviting him to another banquet the following evening, to which Haman is also invited.

Esther is not just being coy or cowardly: little by little she is reeling the king in.  After two meetings in quick succession Xerxes must be wondering what on earth could be so important, whilst also being reminded of how much he likes his new queen.  As it happens, Mordecai also plays his part by showing his own courage in the face of Haman’s malice (v9).  This prompts Haman to say and do some unwise things which ultimately work against him, as we’ll see tomorrow.

Today’s passage finishes with apparently everything left unresolved: but in many respects the biggest battle has been won.  Esther has an audience with the king, and God’s people have hope.  Hundreds of years later, Jesus counselled us to be ‘wise as snakes and innocent as doves.’  We should beware becoming ‘political animals’ – but there are times when shrewd behaviour reaps its reward. 

May God grant us grace to act wisely in all that we face today, and in this season.

Thursday 13th June – Esther 4:1-17 (ii)  ‘The Fast Show’

This chapter of Esther is usually the only one that anyone has read!  So for that reason at least, it deserves a second look.  And, alongside the conversation between Esther and Mordecai, what is most striking in this chapter is how the situation caused a nation to fast and pray. 

Yes, their lives were at stake – but even so, the outpouring of religious fervour and commitment is notable.  People sought their Lord, and not only with prayer but with fasting, too.  We see it in verse 3, and then again at the end of the chapter (v16).

The most recent equivalent in the history of our nation came in 1940, as 300,000 British and Allied troops were encircled in a small corner of North-Eastern France near Dunkirk and facing annihilation.  On 23rd May, King George VI called for a national day of prayer and fasting for the following Sunday.  Ten days later, the result was a miraculous rescue of 270,000 of these soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk.  The weather conditions were unusually favourable and the German response unusually muted.

Watching the most recent, brilliant film about this event, this part of the narrative was completely overlooked.  Perhaps that’s no surprise – but it should never be forgotten.  A nation fasted – and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.  Just as it is here in the book of Esther.

Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline which has declined in recent generations.  It is fascinating that ‘fast days’ are now much more likely to be talked about in diet regimens than in church!  And I would admit that my own commitment to fasting has been patchy for a long time, so I don’t speak with any great authority today. 

But this passage does challenge me to look again.  We may not be facing genocide, as the Jewish people of Esther’s day did – but there are huge challenges facing our church, nation and world at present.  Fasting is not a slot machine, and it’s always a challenge; but it does unlock something in the spiritual realm, in our access to God.  Maybe it’s time to take another look?

Wednesday 12th June – Esther 4:1-17 (i) ‘Sliding doors’

I wonder what it must be like to know that one moment will determine the entire course of your life?  In the classic film of 20 years ago which is our title for today, we saw two versions of what happened to Gwyneth Paltrow’s life, depending on one trivial incident: the doors of a tube train were shutting, and she either squeezed into the carriage or just missed it.  The repercussions of this one event then played out – in alternative versions – for the rest of the film.

Today’s passage is a bit like this – only the big difference is that the event is not random or trivial, but huge and obvious.  Esther’s people are threatened with genocide, and she is the only one of her people with favour and access to the king, the one person whose intervention might prove critical – this is the moment that will determine the course of her life, one way or another.

But to do so is hugely risky.  We’ve already seen how touchy King Xerxes is, and how keen on observing both royal prestige and protocol.  Even his wives were not allowed just to turn up and see him, and, if Esther times it wrong or meets his displeasure, she faces a worse fate than her predecessor Queen Vashti, who was ‘merely’ banished – Esther would be executed. (v11)

And yet… and yet: ‘who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’ (v14)  In one famous sentence Mordecai gets to the heart of the issue.  Esther may have wondered why she, of all people, was favoured by the king; perhaps this is the answer, perhaps this is her calling, her moment? 

And it’s important to notice that Mordecai attests that, for all that she is in the right place at the right time, Esther is not the messiah, to coin a phrase: God is not limited to only being able to fix this via Esther – if she refuses, Mordecai recognises (in one of the great statements of faith) that God could do it another way, because God is the one true God.  Esther is called to be obedient, and let God do the rest.

For such a time as this…. very few of us will experience the sort of nation-changing, life-defining moment Esther did.  But this sense of calling applies to us, too.  Calling is not just for ministers and missionaries: God calls all of us to lots of things, big and small.  What is God’s call for you, at such a time as this?  It might be a person to contact, or a commitment to make, a task to fulfil, or a relationship to renew.  It might be something bigger!  But whatever it is, will you step out, like Esther did, trusting in the One who calls?

Tuesday 11th June – Esther 3:1-15 ‘The Purge’

How quickly the tide turns.  Only yesterday, Mordecai is saving the king’s life: today, not only his life is in danger but that of his people.  How did we get here?

Things start to go wrong when Haman is promoted to the highest office in the land, below only the king.  Haman is an Agagite (v1), which means there’s a bitter history here.  Agag was the king which the prophet Samuel told King Saul to defeat – but Saul wouldn’t kill him, so Samuel finished the job.  Ever since, the Agagites had hated the Jews, so Haman’s promotion always threatened to mean trouble for the Jewish exiles living in the Medo-Persian empire, and especially in its capital, Susa.

The flashpoint is not quite what it seems.  The text says that Mordecai refused to pay Haman honour (v2), so it looks like a gratuitous snub.  But what is really being required of Mordecai here is a form of worship, where Haman is effectively the substitute for King Xerxes himself.  What Mordecai is doing (or refusing to do) is the same as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the famous story in Daniel chapter 3.  His worship is reserved for God alone – he will not bow down to another human being.

It is hard to know whether Haman was genuinely personally outraged by Mordecai’s decision, or just used it as a convenient excuse to exact a plan of vengeance which had lain dormant in the hearts of his people for centuries.  Either way, he set about making the most of his privileged position to sanction a genocide.

As we saw in chapter 1, Xerxes was particularly sensitive to anything that smacked of disrespect (like most tyrants), and Haman cleverly plays this to his advantage.  Thus, he tells the king: the Jewish people ‘keep themselves separate, and they do not obey the king’s laws.’ (v8)  So, with the promise of a huge bribe, he suggests that the king should destroy them.

The king isn’t interested in the money (v11), but he doesn’t like the sound of disobedience, so he concurs, and issues the decree – giving a full 11 months for the letters to be circulated, and plans for the genocide to be prepared.  Time enough, also, for God – via Mordecai and Esther – to save the day!  But that’s for tomorrow, and the next few days.

(An interesting footnote is that the genocide was planned for the 13th day of the month (v13), which is where the original idea of ‘unlucky thirteen’ comes from.  It is also notable to see how both power and hatred reduces our capacity for compassion – see how Xerxes and Haman enjoy a drink (v15) while the city is in a fever of anxiety.)

What we see in today’s passage is the destructive power of resentment and bitterness in the human heart.  Haman had nursed a hatred for the Jewish people in all probability for many years, even generations.  This hatred was ultimately to be his undoing.  Whilst we might think that this could never happen now, sadly history suggests otherwise.  Let us continue to examine our own hearts, and also pray for the hearts of those with power in our world today.

Monday 10th June – Esther 2:19-23 ‘Sense and sensibility’

Our culture has an ambiguous relationship to truth-telling when it involves getting other people into trouble.  Generally it depends on how much power the culprit has.  If they are powerful, then the person telling the truth is lauded as a whistle-blower.  If they are peers, then the person telling the truth is a snitch.

Should power really determine the judgement we give?  Arguably the risk of ‘snitching’ is greater than whistle-blowing, where (at least in the West) the person usually has immediate protection under the law.  And Mordecai no doubt took a certain level of risk in revealing today’s plot, since people prepared to kill a king are almost certainly able to kill a private citizen. 

The story at this stage is only recounted briefly: it might seem odd that it is even recounted at all, given the lack of attention the narrator seems to give it here – however its true importance only becomes clear later in the book.  Mordecai has saved the king’s life, even if, for now, little is said about it.

Why did I give today’s inspiration the title I did?  Well, the original meaning of ‘sensibility’ when Jane Austen wrote this famous title is what we would now describe as ‘sensitivity’ – and this is an apt description of Mordecai, who throughout the book of Esther demonstrates admirable sensitivity, both in emotional and intellectual terms.  Unwilling to leave Esther destitute as an orphan, he raises her as his own (2:7).  He is acutely worried about Esther’s racial background (2:10, repeated here in this passage v20).  And now he spots a plot which perhaps others would have overlooked.  Mordecai is someone who we would call ‘tuned in’ on every level.

But unlike the ‘sensible’ (i.e. ‘sensitive’) sister in Austen’s novel, Mordecai shows sense as well.  He tells Esther, who in turn tells the king.  Esther also sensibly (and humbly) gives Mordecai credit – this fact again becomes incredibly important in a couple of chapters’ time.   Our narrator is setting up the story with expert care.

Some of us may have faced the sort of dilemma Mordecai did – whether to blow a whistle or not.  Others of us have not: either way, truth-telling tempered with humility, as it is here with Esther and Mordecai, is a wonderful quality.  The world needs more of it: and may God grant us grace to be humble truth-tellers in our lives, too.

Saturday 8th June – Esther 2:1-18 ‘The Cinderella Moment’

After Xerxes’ major strop in chapter 1, today our now queen-less king is looking for a new partner.  Not that he lacks existing possibilities, as the frequent references to his harem indicate.  However, he misses that special someone, and so institutes a nationwide beauty competition, which to our modern eyes reads rather like an ancient combination of Miss World and Love Island.

Not surprisingly, the competition attracts hundreds of hopeful applicants (v8), who have to undergo a gruelling beauty regime (v12) to have any chance of winning the king’s attention.  The competition lasts months and months, with only one entrant allowed to visit the king each evening (v14). 

One prospective candidate, however, is different to the others.  There are definite parallels between Esther and the much better-known story of Cinderella.  Both have a more illustrious heritage than their current circumstances suggest: generally the Babylonians only took into exile the brightest and the best of the conquered Jewish nation, so Mordecai probably has a respectable ancestry, which accounts for his being able to sit at the king’s gate regularly, as we’ll see tomorrow.

Both also have to hide their background.  Esther is not mistreated, as Cinderella was, but her Jewish faith and culture potentially puts her at risk.  She has to enter the king’s harem incognito, as it were, just like the way Cinderella goes to the prince’s ball – though it is notable that the narrator indicates that it was the older Mordecai who forbade Esther to reveal her background, rather than Esther having any such qualms herself.

Finally, both Esther and Cinderella have that natural grace and beauty that enables them to stand out from all the other wannabes.  It is interesting that Esther refuses more than the basic beauty regimen before seeing the king (v15) – you get the sense that she wants the king to see her (and love her) as she really is, or not at all.  Perhaps it is this integrity and authenticity – allied to her obvious beauty – that the king falls in love with, such that Esther becomes the chosen one, the new Queen.  Fittingly, the king throws another banquet, completed successfully without the dramas of chapter 1.

We may not have Esther’s beauty, nor any desire to win a pageant!  But there is something here about the value of honesty and authenticity which is worth reflecting on.  How easy do we find it to let others see us as we are?  Esther finds herself in an ambivalent position: forced to hide her culture (rather than her faith) but open about her character.  It strikes a chord with many of us, who understand the struggle to be ‘real’ in our world and our relationships.

God blessed Esther despite all of this.  May Esther’s example inspire us to be authentic, and, where we find it hard to share parts of ourselves to others, to ask God for courage to be real about who we are, including our faith.

Friday 7th June – Esther 1:1-22 ‘Pride and prejudice’

So the book begins with a bang!  Like an ancient Bond movie, we start stylishly in the palaces of the powerful, where the King (Xerxes) has convened a big summit which lasts almost six months (v4).  King Xerxes came to power in approx 486 BC, so, as we begin in the third year of his reign (v3), this dates the book fairly accurately to about 483 BC.

The summit ends with a whole week of feasting, at which Xerxes’ power and wealth is ostentatiously displayed (verses 5-8).  At this time, the Medo-Persian empire stretched from India to Egypt, so Xerxes was probably the most powerful ruler in the world.

But there was one person over which Xerxes had less than full control. His wife, Queen Vashti, had her own banquet (v9), and when she was summoned by the king, she refused to come (v12).  We don’t know why: there is no sign that she was plotting, perhaps she was just tired of being treated like an object for display.  Whatever the reason, her refusal was like a red rag to the bullish king, who, after consulting his advisors, decided that she could no longer be queen.

The real reason why we are told this somewhat unedifying episode is made clear in chapter 2.  Vashti’s successor is Esther, the heroine of our story, so were it not for Xerxes’ actions here in chapter 1, there would be no Esther, and who knows what might have happened to God’s people as a result?

But Vashti’s fate reminds us of the destructive power of pride and insecurity.  Above all, Xerxes could not bear to lose face: his veneer of absolute control could not be dented.  Was there really any great risk to the family structures of the kingdom by Vashti’s assertion of independence?  Probably not.  Just a lot of paranoid alpha males worried about their reputations (vv17-18)!

There is a useful reminder for us here.  Where does our sense of worth and security come from?  Certainly, there is great value in affirmation from other humans; in contrast, abusive or neglectful relationships can destroy our self-esteem.  But ultimately, our security comes from knowing whose we are: that we are loved and cherished by God, that we are unique and uniquely valuable – held in his arms and given hope, purpose and a future. 

All of us will occasionally be ‘disrespected’ by someone.  God’s constant love and affirmation allows us to rise above that.  It may not heal all of our human relationships, but it does allow us to live with confidence and trust.  Perhaps even today there may be some encounter God is calling us to let go of?

As we begin the Book of Esther, let’s take a few moments to remind ourselves Whose we are.  The Lord is our shepherd: we shall not want.

The Gospel of John – ch9 onwards

Thursday’s reflection concludes our series in John for time being. Tomorrow we start looking at the Old Testament book of Esther…

Thursday 6th June – John 10:30-42 ‘In that place, many believed’

Sometimes in life, the best thing to do is to retrace your steps.  Perhaps because you’ve got lost, or perhaps because you need to go ‘back to your roots’, back to the start.  This is often a good thing – whilst it could be seen in some circumstances as an admission of failure or defeat, it can also be the opposite, something proactive and hopeful, a determination to refocus ourselves. 

Jesus has had a year or more of persistent opposition – every time he goes to Jerusalem (part of his religious identity, and we should never forget that he was born a faithful Jew, whose identity was formed in that crucible of faith), he is torn into by his enemies.  John chapters 5-10 cover roughly a year: it begins with an unnamed Jewish festival (5:1) – most probably Tabernacles or Hanukkah – and proceeds through the spring festival of Passover (6:4), the autumn feast of Tabernacles (7:2,14) and finally the winter celebrations of Hanukkah (10:22) – and the result every time is the same.  More debate, more opposition, more repetition of the same arguments.  In fact, it gets worse each time, such that his opponents are now trying to seize him (v39).

What does Jesus do?  He goes back to the start.  He goes back to where his cousin John’s ministry began – across the Jordan, in the Judean desert (v40). This is where the Baptist first preached that the Messiah was here, where he pointed out Jesus as the One, where thousands re-dedicated their lives to God.  This is where there was spiritual hunger, and spiritual fruit.  Jesus is re-charging his batteries: not so much away from people, but back in a place where he is welcomed, where his word is listened to, and where many believe (v42).

It’s interesting that this is a remote place – not an urban centre, but one which invites commitment.  People have to make an effort to get there, it’s somewhere you only go if you really want to, if you’re hungry to grow spiritually.  This is why it’s such a good resting place for Jesus.  He spends most of his life going to people – it’s in his nature, because the Lord is the One who takes the initiative, he naturally comes looking for us.  But here, people come to him, they seek him out.  Here, he is restored by spending time with those who are truly seeking him.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that after a few months in this remote place, of recuperation and renewal, he takes on his greatest challenge of all – the raising of Lazarus, and the events that follow swiftly upon it. 

Perhaps a few of you reading today need to go back to the start, to your roots.  A place to rest and to grow.  A place of spiritual hunger and renewal.  Jesus did it – do you need to?  Let’s be clear that this is not running away – and if that is your motivation, it won’t work.  But if that still, small voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd, is gently beckoning you back to the start, to rediscover your first love, then take a few moments to reflect what that might look like for you.

And if that’s not the place you find yourself in today – store it away, be alert for the time when that is the word for you.  Why not pray for those who are being called to that place of rediscovery and renewal?  And, like those who sought Jesus out across the Jordan, may we continue to find in Jesus our first love, our joy and our hope.  Amen.

Wednesday 5th June – John 10:19-33 ‘One with the Father’

For children of my generation, the great film saga of our childhood was Star Wars.  I was not quite old enough to appreciate ‘A New Hope’ when it came out in 1977, but by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, it was my birthday treat to go and watch it with Dad.  By 1983 and the release of Return of the Jedi, we were all hooked – and the big reveal of that film was the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father – none other than the ultimate bad guy, Darth Vader. 

The difficulty with anyone accepting this could be the case came from the fact that Luke was apparently nothing like his father.  Except… what was apparent all the way through the series was that Luke had exceptional power, the sort of power that only Darth Vader possessed – only that Luke channelled it for good, rather than evil. 

In today’s passage, the debate over Jesus’ identity continues to rumble on.  We left it in v21 in the Autumn of the Jewish year (soon after the Festival of Tabernacles); almost three months later, at the Festival of Dedication (which we know better as Hanukkah), the debate is still going on: (v24) ‘How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

It’s no surprise that the debate reignites as this particular festival: Hanukkah reminded God’s people of their wonderful liberation from Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BC, and it was naturally a moment when Messianic fervour would be at its height.  And Jesus is very clear with his reply: (v25) ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe.’

In fact, as he insists, if they won’t listen to what he is saying, all he can do is demonstrate his identity, to let the divine power manifest in his works speak for him (v25).  He’s saying, in effect, ‘if you won’t believe what I say, then look at what I can do, and have done.’  It’s like the million-dollar question at the heart of the Star Wars films; except, of course, that Jesus’ Father remains entirely good and perfect.  But the point remains: you can spot the Son because he bears the imprint of his Father.

And this divine imprint brings a wonderful promise: because Jesus really is the Lord, he is certainly able to keep all those who follow him: (v28) ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one will snatch them out of my hand.’  It turns out that his questioners’ vision of the Messiah was too small all along: not just a divinely commissioned human liberator, but the Lord himself made flesh.  ‘I and the Father are one.’ (v30)

This is dynamite, and the charge of blasphemy is inevitable (v33) – and would of course be justified, if it were not true.  But if it is true… then today we can rejoice that our future is secure, because it is entrusted into the one Being in all creation who has the power to keep and to save.  No-one – no-one – can snatch you out of your Father’s hand.  Hold fast to that today – and may it bring you great peace, and joy.

Tuesday 4th June – John 10:14-21  ‘Listening to Jesus’ voice’

Back in my ‘office’ days, one of the highlights of the year was the Company Sports Day.  Before you get notions of some sort of serious competition, this was more It’s a Knockout than Diamond League Athletics.  Events included the Space Hopper Relay, welly wanging, egg and spoon race, you get the idea – all washed down with a picnic and free drinks all afternoon.  What could possibly go wrong? 

The last event each year was the biggest and most chaotic of all.  It was a relay race, where all participants had to run to the end of the course, put a blindfold on, spin on a stick ten times and then try to run back to their team.  The team would help them find their way back by shouting out – so each participant had to listen carefully for the voice which enabled them to get home.  As you can imagine the fun was in the fact that people were so dizzy they usually ran off at an angle of 45 degrees before falling over in comic fashion.  One particularly memorable year, my wife ran very fast at an oblique angle straight into the managing director, almost knocking him over.  But I digress.

Thankfully I don’t remember anyone actually getting hurt – but in a way I think that race feels a lot like life to most of us.  We feel disorientated, bewildered at the complexity of life, which seems to keep spinning us round.  Many of us have no idea where we’re going most of the time – and even if we do, if can feel daunting trying to get there, like running blindfold and dizzy in a crowd of other blindfolded dizzy people.  And there are so many different voices, all shouting for our attention.  ‘Do this, try that, buy the other.’  How do we know which voice we can trust?

As we continue to rejoice in Jesus’ profound teaching about his identity as the Good Shepherd, today’s passage reminds us that the key to life is to know which voice to listen to.  If we listen to the right voice, everything else will fall into place.  Conversely, if we fail to listen to it, we shouldn’t be surprised if the rest of life feels dislocated.

Jesus is very clear that his is the Voice above all others, and he can make this bold claim because he carries unique authority: the only one with the authority, not just to lay down his life, but also to take it up again (vv17-18).  Only God can decide to rise from the dead!  And because of this unique authority, his invitation to listen to his voice goes far beyond his own people: (v16) ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold.  I must bring them also… There shall be one flock and one shepherd.’

It is these last two claims – to unique authority and global reach – that continued to divide his listeners.  Both are either wickedly arrogant or wonderfully true.  There isn’t really a middle ground, as C.S. Lewis famously observed.  It divided people then (vv19-21), and now.  Which Voice will we listen to?  Which flock are we part of?  Praise God that he has given us a Good Shepherd!  Life is challenging, and we are often tempted to doubt.  May faith rise in each of us again today to trust the Good Shepherd, to listen to his voice, and to live as one flock, for the sake of His world.

Monday 3rd June – John 10:11-15 ‘Caring for the flock’

I recently watched a remarkable wildlife documentary about octopi (that’s the plural of octopus!) Many octopus mothers – including the one in this film – are known to lay eggs only once in their lives.  They guard and care diligently for the eggs, all the while losing weight and weakening due to a lack of food – largely because their constant vigilance to protect their young against predators means they can’t risk leaving them to eat.  Indeed, in recent scientific observations, an octopus mother even refused food when offered pieces of crab by the research team.  Over time, they also change colour, usually taking on a ghostly pallor.  These remarkable mothers often die soon after the eggs hatch, essentially sacrificing themselves for the success of their children. 

This example provides a great illustration of what Jesus is teaching about today.  When it comes to the privilege and responsibility of nurturing life, much depends on the one nurturing.  When things get difficult, what is the one nurturing prepared to do for the sake of those in their care?  Life as a shepherd in ancient Israel was hard, and often dangerous, if a wild animal came sniffing around.  All you had was your courage and a rod to beat them off, and that was it.  Unless the sheep were your overriding priority, there would be a strong temptation to run away, just as Jesus warns his listeners. 

It’s why we need a shepherd, rather than a hired hand (v12).  The shepherd simply has too much invested in his flock – emotionally and otherwise – to run away.  When he sees a wolf coming, he stands his ground, for the sake of his flock, even risking his own life (v11, v15), if that’s what it took.

Jesus wants us to know that this is the kind of shepherd he is.  It’s why we need to trust him as our Good Shepherd.  There are many other voices: not just ‘hired hands’ who’ll let us down, but thieves who want to destroy (v10) – to rob us of all that makes life worth living.  Voices which lie and deceive.  Our first calling is to listen to Jesus’ voice – and tomorrow we’ll reflect on that in more detail.

But today, can I invite you to place your life once more into the strong and loving arms of this Good Shepherd: the One who never runs away but will be with you, no matter what, in every situation you face.  The One who has proved his worth by already laying down his life for you.  The One who alone is able to offer you life to the full.  This is our Good Shepherd – and, as we trust ourselves into his care, may he lead all of us in the right paths this week.

Saturday 1st June – Psalm 23  ‘The Shepherd’

As the week ends, let’s anchor our reflections on The Good Shepherd in the psalm which, in part, inspired Jesus’ wonderful teaching…

Well – what is there to say about the most famous chapter in all of scripture?  If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you will probably have read or heard this psalm dozens of times.  Indeed, it is one of the few portions of scripture which still has currency in Western culture; a fact which is even more surprising when you think how few of us actually know a real-life shepherd.

And yet the image of the loving shepherd giving everything to care for his sheep is one that resonates with us.  And yet, it is vital that we don’t over-sentimentalise this psalm.  To be a shepherd in ancient Israel was a tough calling; sheep faced a constant battle for survival – the best land was always farmed for crops, so green pastures were scarce, as were still waters.  Sheep would fan out over a wide area to eat enough grass: the ‘right paths’ of the psalm describe those well-worn tracks which denote the places where enough food was to be had. 

A shepherd would usually lead the flock personally, using a rod to beat off predators and hooked stick (staff) to yank unruly or wayward sheep back into line.  The shepherd would also sleep at the entrance to the sheep pen – quite literally ‘the gate’ for the sheep.  King David knew all this first-hand, of course – he was himself a shepherd before he became a king. 

What it means though, is that this is not a psalm of lush pastures on pleasant summer evenings: the sort of rolling fields that we think of as characterising the English landscape.  It is, rather, a psalm of dependence and survival in tough, semi-arid hill country.  It is, in other words, a psalm for real life.  A life marked by struggles, where the journey is uncertain and there are frequent obstacles. 

Our great comfort – and why this psalm speaks so deeply to so many people – is that when life is like this, when it is hard and painful, we want a real God who loves real people with their real lives: and   this is the kind of God we find here.  This kind of shepherd is someone to whom we can take our grief and find hope.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but, in the midst of it, we find these simple yet immensely profound words: ‘you are with me.’ 

Ultimately, this psalm inevitably points us beyond David to the Good shepherd himself: Jesus Christ.  A shepherd for every season of life, for green pastures and dark valleys, one whose goodness and love pursues us (the word ‘follow’ is a bit too passive a translation of the Hebrew word) all the days of our lives.  Take a few moments today to pray through this psalm; and may the Good Shepherd be all you need today.

Friday 31st May – John 10:10-11 ‘The Good Shepherd’

And so we finally get here!  The iconic image of Jesus as The Good Shepherd.  There’s so much we can say – and some we’ve already said this week – but before we explore the image (and the rest of this passage) further, today let’s remind ourselves to link verse 11 to verse 10.  Paragraph breaks are not there in the original text – we impose them in our translations.  These translations are wonderful, not least because we can read God’s word in our own language; but sometimes we can miss obvious clues – and here, let’s just pause to reflect on the simple point that the abundant zoe life that Jesus talks about in verse 10 is directly linked to our relationship to the Good Shepherd in verse 11.

Indeed, relationships lie at the heart of what Jesus means by abundant life – in laying down his life for the sheep, the Good Shepherd comes to restore us to right relationships, in every dimension:

First and foremost, with God.  Jesus doesn’t explain how laying down his life will do that for us in this passage, but there’s plenty of other texts in scripture that do.  His sacrificial death on our behalf makes forgiveness possible, wiping the slate clean and restoring our souls.  We are set free to live lives of praise to God, at peace with ourselves.

But it doesn’t stop there – having set us in right relationship with God, it also restores and renews our relationships with each other.  The Good Shepherd longs for us to start relating in love, just like he does; and he gives us his presence, by the Holy Spirit, to do just that.  Most of the references to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament are addressed to people plural – i.e. to the community of God.  We are being built into a place of worship where God lives by His Spirit (Ephesians 2:22). 

Finally, the abundant life of the Good Shepherd brings purpose to our wider relationships.  We carry the good news of the kingdom everywhere.  We have a message of justice, of care for creation, of the value of all people – we have a vision that gets us up in the morning, and is with us when we go to bed at night.  In short, we become people of purpose.  When we pray ‘your kingdom come,’ we also pray: ‘your will be done, on earth as in heaven.’  That’s Jesus’ manifesto for the world, that earth would increasingly resemble heaven, as the abundant life of God is done here, too.

This is the abundant life which the Good Shepherd longs to bring us.  It what he lays his life down for.  As we’ve reflected over the last few days, our calling is to know his voice, and follow, trusting that his is voice is the way to salvation and fullness of life.  This is your Good Shepherd.  Take a few moments to praise him, to receive his peace and presence, and be filled with purpose for all that the Lord calls you to, today.  Amen.

Thursday 30th May – John 10:7-10 ‘Abundant life’

As seasons of the year go, this is definitely the season of abundant life.  Perhaps it’s the amount of rain we’ve had over the winter and spring, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen things so lush – which is code language in many places for overgrown!  The wild flowers, as well as the weeds, seem more densely grown than ever.  Nature is bursting with abundant life.

This is often in contrast with how many of us feel on a day-to-day basis.  Nature might be bursting with life, but we aren’t.  Life can be a struggle, for many reasons.  And yet, deep down, we instinctively sense that this is not how it’s meant to be.  We are made for more; yet, it can be hard to articulate what this ‘more’ is.

Jesus understands this.  That is one of the profound blessings of the Lord coming to walk the earth in human form – he knows.  He has lived in our skin, felt as we felt.  He has been hungry and thirsty, tired and fed up, he has wept at loss and bereavement.  And yet… and yet, he wants to reassure us that there is more.  He has come to bring us more.  We face battles in this life, not least from a spiritual enemy who wants to ‘steal and kill and destroy’ (v10).  But this is not the end of the story.

At this point we need a simple, but vital, language lesson.  Greek has two different words for ‘life’.  The first is bios, which just means physical existence.  It’s where we get words like biology from.  But there is a second word: zoe.  This means ‘the essence of life’ – true, eternal, spiritual life, the things that make life worth living.  And this word – zoe – is the word Jesus uses here in this wonderful verse:

‘I have come that they may have zoe (life), and have it to the full.’  Or, as other translations put it – to have life in abundance.  Abundant life – now that would be something, wouldn’t it?  This is what Jesus came to bring us: not just forgiveness, not just direction and purpose, not just a community to be a part of, but life.  Real, abundant life.

We can interpret this kind of life in many ways: one marked by faith, hope and love; by joy in the tough times and a peace that transcends understanding; a life marked by wonder and awe, and that has the capacity to see the hand of the Lord in all kinds of things.  Today, spend a few moments reflecting on what that abundant life would look like for you: right now, in this day, and whatever you’re facing.  Seize faith to believe that this is a promise for you – and for any of Jesus’ followers that are on your heart and mind at present.  And may the Lord grant all of us this abundant life, this zoe life, today.  Amen.

Wednesday 29th May – John 10:7-9 ‘I Am the Gate’

On the second Sunday of 2017, we were about to start the 9.30am service, when one of our welcomers came and found me urgently.  ‘Come outside, you’ll want to see this,’ they said.  So, I hustled out and watched one of the more unusual sights I’ve seen in my years here.  Running along the road, and just passing the churchyard gate, were about fifty sheep.  We had no idea where they had come from or where they were going. I don’t think they had any idea where they were going either! 

There was great excitement – and, for lack of a better idea, we decided to corral them in the school car park over the road from the church, and try and find out who the farmer was.  A few willing souls stood on sentry duty.  It actually took about 2 or 3 hours to get hold of someone, by which time the grass verges around the car park had certainly had a good trim from fifty grazing sheep, and the ‘hired hands’ were very cold.  By lunchtime, the sheep were safely back in a nearby field.

What’s the moral of this story?  Sheep need a shepherd.  Look what happens when a large flock is left to its own devices.  Alongside this, ‘never leave your gate open,’ would certainly be another!  As we edge closer to Jesus’ famous saying, ‘I Am the Good Shepherd’, today we think about the much less well-known counterpart in this passage: ‘I Am the Gate’.  And the most important thing to observe is that, in the farming culture of the day, Jesus is basically talking about the same thing, or rather the same person – the shepherd is the gate for the sheep.  And here’s how….

In those days sheep lived mostly out on the hills by day, and then at night in the sheepfold, which was not a covered barn, but more like a fortified pen. It would be built with loose stones piled to form a rough, walled enclosure – just high enough to keep the sheep in and wild animals out.  There was no gate as such, but when the sheep were in the pen the shepherd himself (or a colleague) would literally be the gate.  They would sit in the gap and protect the sheep directly.  No dogs or locked metal gates – just one brave shepherd.  This is why Jesus calls himself both the Gate and the Good Shepherd: in first century Israel, that was two ways of saying the same thing.

It also explains why Jesus makes the link with salvation: (v9) ‘Whoever enters through me will be saved.’  He is literally the way in to the sheepfold, the entry point to all God’s promises.  Those who come in via His gate will ‘find pasture’ – all they need to live.

As we spend the next few days delighting in this rich biblical image of the shepherd, today let’s give thanks that Jesus is our ‘way in’: our Gate.  He is the Saviour, not just of the world, but of each of us.  We have all found our way into his sheepfold.  Simply put, the key to life is found in Him; and, as we claim this beautiful truth, may we go out and find pasture – all that we need to live – today. 

Tuesday 28th May – John 10:1-6 ‘They know his voice’

Sheep don’t always have a good reputation.  Most of us find them visually appealing, certainly unthreatening – but we tend to think of them as stupid and easily led.  ‘Like sheep’ is a common way of describing those who tend to follow unthinkingly.  Modern science, however, is starting to change this view – take, for example, this summary of research published in 2008 (italics mine):

“Sheep are generally held in low regard as far as cognition and social skills are concerned. However, there is now increasing evidence from studies of their behaviour and brain function that they have highly sophisticated social and emotional recognition skills using faces, voices and smells. They are able to recognize and remember many different sheep and humans for several years or more and appear to have some capacity for forming mental images of the faces of absent individuals.”

We recently watched a fascinating TV documentary which demonstrated this very point.  Sheep can recognise faces, and also voices.  This only proves what many farming cultures – and shepherds – across the world have known for centuries: sheep know their shepherd’s voice.

And, as we continue in John chapter 10 today, this insight lies at the heart of the next part of Jesus’ profound teaching about himself as the Good Shepherd and his sheep.  Having reminded his listeners that the shepherd calls his sheep by name, he now describes the reciprocity of the relationship: these sheep know his voice.

It could be said that one way to describe the journey of faith is learning to recognise Jesus’ voice more often and more truly.  Why?  Because, as Jesus says, we follow the voice we know: (v4) ‘his sheep follow [their shepherd] because they know his voice.’  The most recent example which Jesus is referring to is the blind man who has just been healed and is now following Jesus – but it applies to all of us.  We are on a journey towards knowing Jesus’ voice, because we will follow the voice we know.

We see this ‘voice’ most clearly and repeatedly in scripture – it’s why these Daily Inspirations exist; but also through the wisdom of mature followers, who act as ‘under-shepherds’ for us, through the convicting Spirit manifested in prayer – and occasionally in more overtly dramatic ways.  However the voice of Jesus manifests itself, our task to is recognise it, and follow it. 

What is the Lord’s voice saying to you today? May God grant us all grace to recognise, and follow.  Amen.

Monday 27th May – John 10:1-3 ‘Called by name’

What’s in a name?  It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  We humans have a deep-rooted need to name things.  We can see this even in trivial matters: we’re watching a series on motor-homing at present – not that we own one, but we’re intrigued by the idea.  And for the first two episodes of this programme the conversation has returned repeatedly to what the motorhome should be called: the wife wants to call it Millie, the husband prefers Henry, John or something altogether more esoteric!

It’s just a motorhome, rented for a few weeks – but it still needs a name.  A name confers identity, and also attachment.  I remember talking to a farmer who shared that he never named animals that were destined for the abattoir, only ones that he planned to keep – once he named an animal, he grew attached to it, and then the grim but necessary part of his job became too painful.

We get this desire to name things from God.  In Genesis, the first specific task given to humanity was to name everything else.  That’s not just a job, it’s part of what it means to bear the ‘imago Dei,’ the image of God.  We name things because God does; because God wishes to confer identity and love on the things he names – as do we.

As we begin looking at John chapter 10 – one of the richest and most loved portions of scripture, and one where we can pore over almost every verse – we encounter this wonderful truth about the Good Shepherd: (v3) ‘he calls his own sheep by name.’  This lovely image – based on the real life of an Israelite farmer in Jesus’ day, where all sheep were valuable and given names – echoes the great prophetic promise of the Lord in Isaiah (43:2): ‘I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’

In essence Jesus is affirming: that promise in Isaiah is now fulfilled – in me, the true Good Shepherd.  He calls each of us by name – which means he knows who we are, and he values us highly enough to confer a unique identity upon us.  Just take a moment to let that sink in – in the great mass of eight billion souls, the Lord knows you.  Yes, you.  You’re not just part of one great nameless blob.  He calls you by name.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at what it means to know the voice of the Shepherd who calls us: but today, give thanks that the Lord has called you, and not just in a general sense; he has called you by name.  And may He grant you grace to live peacefully and joyfully, today and this week, in the security, the love and the blessing that this confers upon you.  Amen.

Saturday 25th May – John 9:1-41 reprise

We’ve spent a week reflecting this on this amazing chapter.  As the week draws to a close, let’s read the story in its entirety, that it might speak to us one more time. 

Sift through the key phrases: ‘this happened that the work of God might be displayed’; ‘while I am in the world, I am the light of the world’; ‘one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see’; ‘”Lord, I believe,” and he worshipped him.’

This same Jesus is at work in the world now, by his Spirit.  What do you need to offer to him today? 

Friday 24th May – John 9:34-41 ‘True sight, true blindness’

Brother Andrew, one of the great missionaries of the last century, was once stopped in his car while smuggling bibles into Communist Eastern Europe.  The bibles were not well hidden, and as the policeman opened the boot, Brother Andrew prayed this simple prayer under his breath: ‘O Lord, you who made the blind to see, make seeing eyes blind.’  The bibles were there, right in front of the policeman’s eyes, but miraculously he didn’t ‘see’ them and waved Brother Andrew on his way!

If the policeman in this story suffered a temporary literal blindness, in today’s passage, Jesus reflects on a different sort of blindness – the spiritual kind.  Chapter 9 draws a striking contrast between the healed man and the Pharisees in their response to Jesus, one that he refers to in v39: ‘For judgement I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.’ 

The theologian R.A. Lambourne makes the helpful observation that all of Jesus’ miracles are ‘judgement’ moments (the root of the Greek words for judgement used in the gospels, including here, mean division or decision): they are points of decision about Jesus, they draw dividing lines – what do you think of Jesus, are you with him or against him? 

And that is very true here: the wonderful healing of the man’s physical blindness led the man to worship Jesus (v38) and the Pharisees to reject Jesus, even to the extent of throwing the man out of their company (v34).  The Pharisees were generally revered by society as those who could ‘see’ – but Jesus has exposed their true blindness, rejecting the work of God and the One sent by God to accomplish this work.  In contrast, the blind man not only marvellously receives literal sight, he receives spiritual sight as well – he believes in Jesus (v36).

The kingdom of Jesus turns things upside down – the blind see, those who complacently think they can see may well find out that they are blind, after all.  This extraordinary chapter of John teaches us that what makes the difference is humility (‘one thing I do know’, v25) and worship (v38).  If we direct our love and honour to the One who alone is worthy of it, then the Lord graciously gives us eyes to see him as he really is.  We receive true sight.

Take a few moments today simply to worship Jesus.  Let him fill your heart with gratitude; and may the Lord grant us all the grace to lift our eyes and see him as he really is – that we might also see everything else as it really is, too.  Amen.

Thursday 23rd May – John 9:24-34 ‘One thing I do know’

This particular passage has a special memory for me – or rather verse 25 does.  When Alise and I got married 25 years ago, the last song we played at our service was a slightly unusual choice: it was by one of my favourite bands of the time, Primal Scream, and the song is called ‘Moving’ on up.’  It’s basically a gospel song, very different to much of their lyrical output, and (in case you’re worried) very appropriate to sing in church: it begins, ‘I was blind, now I can see.’  We had a band formed of our friends playing for us, and the vicar enjoyed singing it so much he spontaneously asked them to play it again!

Life is complicated.  Perhaps especially so in this era: alongside the very human challenges of suffering, injustice, sickness, war – the things humanity has always wrestled with – we have a whole host of very recent and new things to get our head around: technology, AI, climate change.  Most of us feel as if we can never keep up; there is always so much changing, so many threats and possibilities, it’s bewildering.

It is maybe of some comfort to recognise that this sense of dislocation is not as new as we think.  The Industrial Revolution, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, even the rapid developments brought about by the Roman Empire in many territories (including Israel) around the time of Jesus all created a sense of foreboding or uncertainty.

One of my favourite hymns was written by William Young Fullerton, a Baptist preacher born in Belfast who was friends with the great Charles Spurgeon.  Fullerton also lived in a time of great change and uncertainty – the late 19th century – and his hymn ‘I cannot tell’ captures that sense that there is so much we cannot really fathom about our faith and our world.  I cannot tell so much, Fullerton begins each verse…. but this I know… but this I know… but this I know.

It is the cry of the blind man in our story today.  Harassed by the Pharisees, pressured and unjustly accused, his dramatic encounter seems to have brought him nothing but trouble so far!  Relentlessly interrogated to admit that Jesus is a ‘sinner’, not only does he refute that quite bravely – (v31, v33) ‘God… listens to the godly person who does his will… If this man were not from God, he could do nothing’ – he also makes this simple but profound testimony: (v25) ‘One thing I do know.  I was blind but now I see!’

In difficult times, we all have things we can cling to, undeniable truths which form the foundation our lives.  You have a story with Jesus, a story of God’s work in your life.  Our world may drive you to distraction, you may feel helpless or anxious – but there are things you do know, things you can rely on, a Love that will not let you go.  ‘One thing I do know’: take a few moments to remember that thing (or those things), that your faith might rise again, and that you might stand, today and always, firmly on our Rock – the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Wednesday 22nd May – John 9:13-23 ‘Persistent unbelief’

Many years ago, I visited the local prison weekly to encourage some of the Christian prisoners.  I remember one evening sharing a bible study with the group, and as we were leaving, one of them asked for prayer.  His blood pressure was so bad he had permanent tinnitus and couldn’t sleep.  So, we prayed, and left.  The next afternoon, this prisoner found a friend of mine, a fellow prison visitor, in the chapel; he was very excited and shared that he had been wonderfully healed overnight.  The tinnitus had gone, he’d slept well, and when he visited the prison doctor that morning his blood pressure reading was that of a fit young man in his 20s (he was in his late 50s). 

It was an amazing answer to prayer – but the doctor’s response was fascinating.  When the prisoner told him about how he had been prayed for the previous evening, the doctor dismissed it and told him that the medication he was on was simply starting to work.  The problem with that view, as the prisoner told my friend in the chapel, is that he had been taking the same medication every day for ten years!  Quite a coincidence that it suddenly had a dramatic effect after more than 3,000 days…

‘None so blind as those who will not see.’  You may have heard this saying, and it accurately describes the skeptical attitude of many people towards faith, even when presented with clear evidence that ‘there are more things in Heaven and Earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (with my thanks to Shakespeare).  In the case of the prisoner above, even a rapid and medically verifiable change was dismissed, because it didn’t fit with the doctor’s worldview. 

More generally, it has been noticeable in recent years to see how many atheists have abandoned the idea of a single universe, because the probability of a planet capable of sustaining intelligent life is so infinitesimally small.  The odds are stacked in favour of a Creator, but rather than admit that, it is more prevalent now to say that there could be an infinite number of universes (or rather, multiverses) – though, of course, to make such a claim with absolutely no evidence for the existence of other multiverses requires rather more faith than most religious people!

And in today’s story, we see the response of many Pharisees to Jesus’ miraculous healing of the blind man.  There is a side issue here, in that Jesus did this ‘work’ on the Sabbath (and here the making of ‘clay’ could be classed as work, which was forbidden in the rabbinical tradition) – but, the bigger issue is that they simply can’t believe that the man had been healed.  They didn’t like Jesus, they rejected his claim that he is the Messiah – but, rather than admit that this miracle might be evidence to the contrary, they try desperately to disprove the evidence of their own eyes – even to the point of finding the man’s parents and somewhat offensively asking them if he really was born blind (v19). ‘None so blind as those who will not see….’

We may know of people we love, close to us, whose persistent refusal to believe hurts us deeply.  Let’s pray for these precious souls today.  No-one is beyond God’s love.  The Lord can light a spark at any time.  And may the Lord grant us all grace to have eyes to see his love, mercy and glory, this day and every day.  Amen.

Tuesday 21st May – John 9:5-12 ‘Dust to dust’

‘The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul (or being).’  So reads the account in Genesis chapter 2 of the creation of the first human.  We are made of the ‘dust of the earth’, something we are reminded of at every funeral or burial service: ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’  Once buried, our bodies then decompose and return to ‘dust’ once more.  It’s not something we like to think about, but it is a profound reality that we have to acknowledge, as part of the human condition.

The nature of the Fall, and what it means for our human condition, forms the backdrop to this wonderful miracle in John 9.  It is very significant that the man Jesus heals is ‘blind from birth’ (v1) – this is not an illness, or something that has developed over time, it has been there for his whole life.  Jesus is very quick to correct the disciples that it is not the result of some particular sin (v3), but it nonetheless remains a consequence of the Fall, in that the perfect life the Lord designed for humanity to enjoy in his presence is affected at every level. 

This explains why Jesus decides to act in such an unusual way.  He often heals with a word – and sometimes he uses saliva, which repels us now; but, in those times, saliva was generally thought to have curative properties.  So, the spitting is not as strange as we think – what is different is the fact that Jesus deliberately uses some dirt mixed into his saliva to make a clay paste.  We’ll see tomorrow why ‘clay’ contributed to his debate with the pharisees, but today, let’s focus on why Jesus used some ‘dust’ to heal the man’s sight.

Fundamentally, this is an act of re-creation.  Like the Lord God in Genesis 2, Jesus is forming life from ‘the dust of the earth’.  Only this time, it is mixed with Jesus’ own saliva – making it clear that Jesus is the source of life itself, the one who creates and re-creates, the one who brings renewal and transformation.

Amazingly modern science validates the ancient narrative of Genesis 2 in one remarkable respect.  If you look at the composition of the human body, it is about 18% carbon – the ‘dust of the earth’.  However, the dominant element is oxygen, which makes up 65% of our bodies (primarily in the form of water molecules) – ‘the breath of life’.  We are partly dust and mostly breath! 

This ‘breath’ is what Jesus comes to bring life to (the biblical word ‘Spirit’ means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’).  And as we read today, he brought renewal and re-creation to the man at the Pool of Siloam.  It’s what he does.  And it’s what he longs to do for us, too.  Jesus is re-creating each one of us – fragile creatures, who are partly dust and mostly breath.  Pray that his transforming power continues to be at work in you, and in all those to whom Jesus is bringing new life.  Amen.

Monday 20th May – John 9:1-5 ‘While I am in the world’

We are entering the season of the year when our days are at their longest.  Already at nearly sixteen hours today from sunrise to sunset, by June 21st – the longest day – it will be 16 hours and 41 minutes, with correspondingly just 7 hours and 19 minutes of ‘night’.  In the modern world, this makes relatively little difference to our patterns of work, since we have electronic lights to enable us to work during the dark days of winter.  But in ancient societies, working life was directed by the hours of daylight.  When night came, very few could work.

In today’s passage, Jesus uses this idea to describe his own ministry.  His presence in the world is the spiritual equivalent of ‘day’: so, (v4) ‘as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.’  He says this in response to seeing the blind man, whom we first encountered in our previous reflection in John 9.  Jesus sees this man and knows he has ‘work’ to do.  The consequences of this encounter will be far reaching, and will take us through the next two chapters of the gospel.  But it begins with two very simple responses of Jesus: first, he saw the man. 

How easy it is to miss these opportunities, simply because we do not see the needs around us!  Our culture struggles constantly with compassion fatigue – as I suspect, do many of us.  But Jesus keeps seeing – and moreover, he is moved to respond.  It is one thing to see, but another to act.  We’ll see how Jesus does that tomorrow – but today, we take a moment to reflect on his motivations.  Jesus feels a deep sense of urgency, because he knows his time is short: (vv4-5) ‘Night is coming, when no-one can work.  While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’

Here, he returns to his famous saying in the previous chapter – only this time, he doesn’t use the form of special emphasis which makes it an ‘I Am’ (divine) statement.  It is simply an observation – he is called to bring the Lord’s divine light wherever he goes.  And, conscious of this calling, he is able to see and to respond to this man’s condition.

But why, you might be asking, did Jesus refer specifically to his light being manifest ‘while he was in the world’?  Did it stop after his death, resurrection and ascension a year or two later?  Not at all!  Once the Spirit is poured out, Jesus is still in the world – acting through the lives of his followers.  The baton is handed on: ‘I am the light of the world’ becomes ‘You are the light of the world.’  The light burns still, in the hearts of all his followers today.

Today, give thanks that Jesus’ light shines through you.  Pray for grace to see, to be moved and to act, according to his will, that this light would shine brightly, wherever you are. Amen.