Obsessive

Jesus rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows. He looked steadily at Judas. ‘You want it clean?’ he said, ‘You want it super squeaky clean? I am not sure you will like it better that way. But here goes.
‘There was a bloke. A trader – a specialist. He dealt in pearls. Always seeking the most beautiful, perfect pearls for his customers. And he never minded selling. There was no risk. Each pear he sold gave him more money to buy new pearls. And he never needed to cheat, as such, Judas, because he would buy with just the usual haggling, and then sell at a premium price to the super rich, because they respected his expertise and his knowledge.
‘Then it happened. He found the super pearl. Huge. Its lustre unbroken. A perfect sphere. A wonderful colour, white, pure. He knew at once he would never see another pearl like it. The trouble was, it was in the hands of another merchant.
They haggled. It was good humoured, but ruthless. The price was agreed. The pearl merchant, our honest, shining example of a pearl merchant, sold everything. He sold all his pearls, every one. He sold his house. He sold his donkey. Everything he could realise, he did. The lot. Then he handed over the money and came away with the pearl.’
Judas nodded, shining approval.
Jesus sighed. ‘Yes but look at the dilemma. He now has the perfect pearl. What is he going to do? Do you imagine he can sell it? That he can let go the one thing he has been searching for all his life?’
Jesus had this power with his stories. He sucked you in. You lived them. We were all looking horrified, and none more than Judas. No, we all knew what obsessives were like. No real person in this position could let go of that pearl.
‘He has nothing but the pearl,; said Jesus quietly, ‘and he will need to start from the bottom again if he wants to rebuild his business. Maybe he can. Maybe he has enough credit with others to borrow enough to buy little inexpensive pearls. But will his customers really want them? It is a disaster, that is what it is. Once you have the most valuable thing, you give up everything for it, and it may not be the shining easy thing to do you all seem to think.’
Then he wrapped his cloak around him, as though he was cold, and sat staring into the distance as if he was seeing something we could not see.

Treasure to cheat for

The plough jolted, stopped. The oxen strained for a brief moment, then subsided into relaxation. At that distance, there was no making out the words the ploughman spoke, but we could make a very good guess. He heaved up his arms, flapped. He went to the front of the plough, backed up the oxen, and after some grubbing around and kneeling, scrabbling, tossed out a middle sized stone. With some difficulty he shoved and heaved it to the edge of the field and left it there. He flapped over the stone again, gave it a kick, then straightened himself, and loped back to the plough.
‘Supposing it had not been a stone.’ said Jesus, lazily, ‘suppose it had been treasure?’
‘Oooh, tricky one!’ said John.
‘Suppose it was a little box of treasure. I think – I think he would bury it again. I bet that bloke ploughing does not own the land.’
A small snort came from Matthew, ‘I bet he does not either. He is the son of my cousin’s first wife’s brother. He is a hired hand.’
‘Always a little behind hand with the world?’ asked Jesus, sympathetically.
‘Always.’
‘If it was treasure,’ said Jesus, ‘he would bury it. Carefully. Then he would go and convince his wife to sell up. That would take a lot of time, that would. She would bend his ear something terrible. But he would not tell her it was treasure, would he? For utter terror she let something slip. She would be furious, but he would somehow convince her, or just do it, her ringing a peal in his ears. Sell up. But he is only half way there. He still has to get the land owner to sell, and not just some land, just that piece of land. My word, the worry that somebody would find the treasure before he convinced the land owner to sell. The arguments he would have with the farmer as to why that field. Why such a crazy scheme. He would never make a living from one field.
Then going back, knowing if the treasure had gone he had lost everything. Oh think of that.Imagine if he had not hidden it well enough. Then putting the plough in the same furrow, and yes, yes, the treasure. Opening the box. Seeing the riches. Knowing he was a made man. Oh think of the joy.’
Judas sat up, and took the grass stem he was sucking out of his mouth. ‘He ought to have checked to see if it could be identified first,’ he said, always so horribly correct, ‘He ought to have seen if it had somebody’s name in it. You know that is the law.’
‘He ought,’ said Jesus, ‘but I do not think he would. Oh, being that poor, and suddenly having riches offered you? Could you really do it? No, I think he would just buy the field – break the law,’ Jesus twinkled at Judas, ‘I do not think the law would be observed. Because the treasure would so, so transform his life – he would cheerfully cheat a bit to get all that… and that is what the Kingdom is like. Something you would cheerful lie, cheat and steal to get a hold of.’
Poor Judas looked aghast.

Joy of the redeemed

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“The wilderness will rejoice and blossom.

Like the crocus it will burst into bloom;

it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy…

…Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

Then will the lame leap like a deer…

…Water will gush forth in the wilderness

and streams in the desert.” (Is 35;1-10 NIV)

Somehow, the rejoicing of Advent 3 has found itself being drowned out by the contemporary collective rush, where people either consciously or subconsciously reach for the “fast forward” button to get to the stable and manger too soon. But as we journey over the hills deserted by the shepherds, as we draw ever closer to the cradle, we peer through a receding darkness to see the pink flush of a new dawn of hope.

GAUDETE! GAUDETE! GAUDETE!

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Hide and seek

The women had worked all day with tight smiles, put on for an illustrious guest, and eyes averted from the stranger. Of course Jesus knew better than to engage other men’s wives directly, and he sat in the courtyard, watching quietly behind lazy lids.
It was Passover – no, not THAT Passover, but the first one that we were together. He sat, relaxed, in the shade, watching, half smiling. In the end, and a little later than the women had wanted, the hard work staggered to a conclusion. It is always like that, Passover. It is exhausting for the women, because it falls to them to ensure the house is cleaned up, spotless, and, especially, any hint of leaven is removed.
Leaven? Sour dough, I understand you call it. A fermentation which makes bread rise. Without it, you get biscuits, or crisp cakes, or maybe a soggy mess, depending on the skill of the cook. It is extraordinarily tenacious of life, leaven. So the house is swept and cleaned and polished so that before the Passover is made, there is none left.
The last ritual is for the children to search the house looking for anything unclean, and, to encourage them, the lady of the house hides a little, little piece of bread, normal bread, risen bread. When the girls find the bread, the search is over. Hiding that bread is the last act of the great clean-up, and then there is a pause before the great cook-up starts.
Jesus watched the little girls pelt around, looking under and over and around, until at last Miriam (my sister’s eldest) called out: ‘Got it!’ and came running in, laughing, with a fragment of crust carefully wrapped in a piece of linen by my wife, just in case it spilled a crumb anywhere and started all the work again.
Then there was a brief pause in the work. Water all round, and a short rest. At that point, Jesus began to teach. We, us lot, the disciples, were all sat at his feet. First he repeated a couple of his usual teachings. We half listened, and the women sat quiet, but not really listening.
Then I saw him look kind of sideways at the women. But it was to the child that he spoke. ‘Tell me, how easy is it to hide the leaven?’
Perhaps a little startled at being spoken directly to, what with her being just a kid, and a girl, Miriam threw up her head suddenly and said: ‘Hiding it is easy, Rabbi, but hiding it well is hard.’
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘yes, I see. Tell me, if you hid your bit of leaven in a barrel of flour, would you find it easily?’
‘That would make it hard, Rabbi,’ said Miriam, ‘sifting through the flour to find something so like itself.’
‘I wonder why I have never seen it hidden there?’ mused Jesus. Miriam looked at him trying to decide if he was half-witted or not. ‘Nobody wouldn’t never hide it there, sir,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ asked Jesus.
The kid was looking directly at him now and so were all the women. Everybody was trying to make up their minds why he was acting so stupid.
‘Well, sir, if you done that, all the flour would turn – it would all turn into leaven in a little.’
‘Ah, and that would matter?’ he asked.
Miriam was a bossy kind of a girl, and she told him straight, while many of the women hid amused smiles or concerned glances at her outspokenness. ‘Sir, we are trying to get all the leaven OUT of the house. Leaven is unclean, sir. We must have it all done away with for the Passover, to be pure.’
‘And if you put it in a barrel of flour it would turn all the flour?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Two barrels?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Three?’
‘Sir, give it a little time, and leaven turns everything into itself. It would make three whole barrels dirty like itself.’
‘Dirty?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘But I kind-of like ordinary bread, especially hot and spongy as it comes from off the oven.’
‘We all love it, sir,’ Miriam assured him.
‘We ALL do?’
‘Oh yes, sir.’
‘So, only dirty in some ways.’ Silence.
‘Then that is what the Kingdom is like,’ said Jesus, ‘It is something which you may be told is really a bit dirty, but it is powerful. Put a bit of it, that you can hardly see, into this big big world, and before you can blink, you will see it work its way through it all. In the end, it will make it all delicious. Like hot spongy bread.’
That night, some of the wives, gathered there, decided they too would follow Jesus. That made some stir I can tell you. It was only afterwards I saw how cleverly he done it. Drawing them in, and not scaring them too much. Not coming over like a mad man, but speaking direct words which made sense to them.

Oh yes, you long for it.

Jesus was in cracking form that day. He was bouncing with energy, sparkling with wit and with laughter. Towards evening we came near to a little village. In the fields outside we stopped to rest. At the field edge he sat down and at last fell silent.

It was getting near harvest, and we rubbed a little grain between our hands, nibbling on the seeds as they came clear of the husks, hard enough to be dislodged but still with a little damp sweetness in the core. The cool of the day was stealing on and we did not need shade to sit and relax. Anyway, the only shade here was a mustard bush, full of little Blackcap birds, searching for insects in the plant. Andrew wandered over, and helped himself to a couple of the pods, setting the seed free and crunching a mouthful of sweet corn and hot mustard.

’Cor, no wonder it is grown at the field’s edge and not in gardens,’ he commented, looking down. ‘There’s a forest of seedlings shooting up! A bit wilted-looking though. Suppose the drought will get them soon.’
‘Don’t believe it,’ said Matthew, who came from solid farming stock. ‘They will suck up the dew and be good as new in morning. They will grow and grow and only determined efforts to plough them will ever control them. As for stopping them, er, no. You can’t’ He gestured. There must have been a dozen full-grown bushes along the edge of the field, many showing determined efforts had been made to cut them back.

‘Delicious, though,’ hinted Jesus. Andrew tipped a selection of wheat and mustard seed into the Rabbi’s hand.
Jesus chewed some of it. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘You plant one big wheat seed and what do you get? How many seeds grow in the head? You would be lucky to get fifty, I would think. Perhaps one bird would perch on a stem of wheat, a little finch, maybe.

‘And look at the mustard seed. Not half the size, not a quarter. And it shoots up and you cannot stop it. Cut it back and it just bushes out more. And look, the birds! Little birds dancing through it, picking a living in it. How many seeds to the plant? Hundreds, maybe thousands. You don’t need to sow it, it does that for itself. You dare not put it in a garden, or in a couple of years your garden is all mustard.

‘It is, everybody knows, an utter pest. Yet we all kind of love it. Here is Andrew offering it to me as a little fiery treat. It makes my mouth water. It is an almost painful pleasure. But oh, yes, you long for it.’

He looked at us, and he was suddenly extra solemn, deadly grave. We all sobered up. ‘This Kingdom I tell you of? Heaven? The world where things are done as they should be?’

We were silent, nodding. We were waiting for him to tell us there would be no mustard in this kingdom, no half-dirty, half-painful pleasures. No weeds which bring us pleasure. Heaven would be a very serious, very clean business.

‘That Kingdom,’ he said, ‘That Kingdom is JUST like the mustard.’ We looked at him and if I looked as silly as Andrew, sitting there, jaw dropping, no wonder Jesus laughed out loud, tipping back his head, roaring. Once again he had sprung a trick on us. Ruefully, we began to laugh too. He sprang up, and picked himself some mustard seeds, and scattered them. We were still laughing as we reached the village.

Sarah

In the dim tent,
Its dark hides
No longer needed
To protect
My beauty,
My fertility
From lascivious eyes,
But still my refuge
From the fierce light,
The yellow sun
Beating the earth
As my childlessness
Battered my soul,
I saw three men
Appear,
Shimmering,
Brighter than heat-haze,
Until Abraham’s greeting
Transformed them
Into the simulacrum
Of travellers.

I baked,
The calf was killed
For these rare creatures,
Visitors to the old man,
Patriarch only
To a slave-woman’s son,
And his wrinkled wife,
Her womanhood,
Her beauty
Dessicated
By age and disappointment.

Concealed
In the dim tent,
Sheltered by propriety.
I knew it a mistake
When the bright stranger
Promised me a son
And I laughed,
Presuming him ignorant
Of my withered womb.

But suddenly
His light
Outshone
The beating sun,
His power
A vast shadow
In the shadeless day,
Piercing
My refuge-tent,
My heart,
My all,
As he promised
That no wonder
Was beyond the Lord
And I knew
I had laughed at
An angel,
At the living God.

II

The majestic Lord,
The Lord of wonder,
Assured me
That my womb
Would flower
And I laughed
In scepticism,
In bitterness,
In unbelief,
Until my fear
Struck the laughter
From my lips.

I knew
When Abraham
In cautious,
Breath-holding love,
Began my miracle,
But I could not laugh
For fear.

I tiptoed
Through each
Weary, aching,
Joyful day,
Each hour of confirmation,
Movement,
Flowering
Of the child within,
Stretching
My too-old body,
Greedy
For my willing gifts,
But I dared not laugh
For fear.

After endless days,
Each too short,
Too long,
I held my living,
Flailing,
Screaming miracle.
I named him Isaac,
Because now,
All fear assuaged,
All bitterness
Washed
In his birth-blood,
I could only laugh.

I wish we’d all been ready

The reading on Sunday was from Matthew 24 and spoke of a warning of judgement when the Son of Man comes unexpectedly. I was immediately taken back to a song by Larry Norman, an American gospel singer that I have been listening to since my teens.

Those lyrics spoke to a teenage me and still speak to me today. I remember going to see Larry back in Birmingham – a southern American with long blonde hair looking every inch the rock star. The imagery is still strong. “A piece of bread would buy a bag of gold” – this year has seen communities in Syria where hunger has once again been used as a weapon of war.

The meaning of the song has changed for me. The confidence of my teenage self saw it as a call to engage everyone to find out “if they were saved”. Now I want everyone to experience God’s love but know that God is acting before me. I still wish in this Advent that we shall all be ready, ready to receive the love of God. Man may have set a date for Christmas but it is still true that we still do not know the hour of the Lord’s coming. We can always encounter God unaware – let us all be ready.