Of course we were excited and grateful. No one had to tell us to say thank you for these presents. As kids, most of us had to be forced to write letters to Granny and to Aunty Sue for the hankies and socks. But these presents we were over the moon about!
Most of us like to have our gifts nicely wrapped and properly marked, “Gift”, with our name on it. And once received and enjoyed, it’s a lot easier to say, “Thank you.”
If we were the “Lepers” Jesus healed that day, surely we would have been grateful? Here we are with this debilitating disease that excommunicates us from society and cuts us off from our families. We would do anything to be rid of it. We call out to this wandering rabbi we’ve heard stories of. Is it possible? Probably not but, who cares? Let’s give it a go.
“Jesus,” we call out from the dust and the shame. “Jesus! Master!” (Nothing like a bit of flattery.) “Have pity on us!”
And what does he do? He sends us to the priest. “Go and let the priests examine you,” he tells us.
Yeah, right. In this state! You only go to the priest when this dreaded disease has left you; when you’re whole and well. Then he can pronounce you ready to return to society. Do you think we’d be calling out for help if we were fit to go to the priest? But, hey, when you’re an outcast, you get used to people telling you what to do; so we all turned round like little lambs and marched off towards town.
Well! What can I say? Something strange started to happen. Our skin started to heal. The lesions closed up. By the time we reached the edge of town we were well enough to show ourselves to the priests.
Now, if that were you or me, surely, “Thank you” would have been the first thing on our minds. But what happened here? Only the Samaritan came back. Jesus calls him the “foreigner”. Was it because he had no obligation to visit the priest, and no family to call on and be distracted by? It’s easy to miss an opportunity to give thanks. And by the next day the wandering Rabbi had gone.
I think of the story of a man who needed a parking space. He was desperate. He was late for court and he was going to get arrested for contempt if he didn’t get himself inside that courtroom in the next five minutes. He’d been driving around for ages already so, in absolute desperation, he decided he’d pray. He promised to give up drinking, and smoking, and swearing. I told you he was desperate.
“I’ll even go to church every month. Just give me a parking please.” As he said the magic word, a parking opened up in front of him, right outside the courtroom.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s OK, God. You don’t have to worry; I’ve found a spot.”
THE PSALMIST AND EXILE
There wasn’t much for Israel to be grateful for during the exile. They had been attacked and defeated by the Babylonians, dragged away from their homes to the land of their captors, their city and temple destroyed. The Psalmist summed up the despair of that time in Psalm 137:
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
He went on to spit out his hatred of the Babylonians who held them in captivity:
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction
happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-
9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
“Ooh, how nasty,” we say, from the safety of our protected pews and comfortable lifestyles. But anger comes easily enough to us when we’re in traffic, in government-department queues, or on the other end of the telephone. Our lives aren’t threatened, and all that has happened is that the level of service we received left much to be desired. Yet when someone fails to give us the service we demand, or pushes in front of us, we get angry.
JEREMIAH AND EXILE
Jeremiah had a different view of the exile, and of the experiences we face that so often lead to anger and frustration. He wrote to the Jewish leaders, banished to those same rivers in Babylon (Jeremiah 29):
5 Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. 6 Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children…. 7 Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 GNB)
God isn’t waiting for us somewhere else, in some other circumstance, in a better situation. Jeremiah calls us to focus our attention on things we can do in our weakness and helplessness, and on the gifts God gives us in those difficult places.
I have a prayer on my desk at work that I read every morning when I start my working day. It’s a prayer written by Brother Lawrence, he of the ‘peeling potatoes in the monastery’ fame. I imagine it’s a prayer Brother Lawrence prayed when he walked into the kitchen; when he would perhaps much rather be walking in the garden, or praying in the chapel, or writing to people who needed encouragement—something, anything, more healing or fulfilling than peeling potatoes or cleaning toilets. He prayed:
“O my God, since you are with me, and I must now, in obedience to your commands, apply my mind to these outward things, please grant me the grace to continue in your presence; and to this end prosper me with your assistance, receive all my works and possess all my affections.” (Brother Lawrence, “Fourth Conversation”, The Practice of the Presence of God)
Our hope doesn’t lie in the fact that one day we will be in Heaven, that one day we will be rescued from all of this. Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” God’s kingdom isn’t somewhere else—another time, another place. God’s kingdom is here and now. “Don’t wait until after the exile,” Jeremiah said to those who were suffering in Babylon. “Sing your songs in that place; live, love, plant, reap, let life happen there, in that place of despair and hopelessness.”
JONI EARECKSON TADA
Some of you will remember Joni Eareckson. She broke her neck in a diving accident when she was 17—just finished high school—and has been a quadriplegic ever since. Her book that introduced us to her amazing story was called, simply, Joni. It was written in 1976 and she is now 60.
Joni Eareckson Tada she is now, with 35 books to her name and six honorary doctorates behind her. The magazine, Christianity Today, says that she might be mistaken for a modern-day Job. Having been a quadriplegic since the age of 17, she has endured chronic pain for the past ten years. Now, at age 60, she has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
In an interview with the magazine she says,
“Even though it seems like a lot is being piled on, I keep thinking about 1 Peter 2:21: “To these hardships you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” Those steps most often lead Christians not to miraculous, divine interventions but directly into the fellowship of suffering. In a way, I’ve been drawn closer to the Savior, even with this breast cancer.”
OUR GOD IS COMING
In Isaiah 35:4-6 the prophet calls out,
“Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue, coming to punish your enemies.’ The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert.”
Ruth Patterson comments on this passage in her book, “Looking Back to Tomorrow: A Spirituality for between the Times,
“We have good news to share, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary,” she writes, “news that’s going to strengthen tired hands and encourage weak knees and give strength to those who have been imprisoned for far too long. And the good news is that our God is coming…. (He) is coming to save us, to destroy our enemies.”
But note that Isaiah doesn’t say, “God is coming to take us away from all of this.” Or, “We are going to God.” Our God is coming into the situation in which we find ourselves.
WE HAVE GOOD NEWS
And the fact that he is coming to save us, to destroy our enemies, is indeed good news. But, instead of sharing it, we spend our energy complaining. We have a song to sing, but we think that God might be offended if we sing in the desert, in the dark places, in the streets. We assume that good news won’t be effective against the power and the violence of the world. We are taught that violence only listens to violence. We think we should rather express our anger because, otherwise, nothing will change: taxis will continue to be taxis and service levels will just get worse.
We read in the letters pages of our local newspaper endless debate between Christians and atheists and Christians and Muslims. Christians trying to reason or argue with the others, to point out the error of their ways, show them where they are wrong, and why they should change their minds. I wonder if we are not focused on the mind when we should be engaging the heart. We have good news, our God is coming! Instead we indulge in arguments and complaints.
One of the problems, of course, is that the gifts God gives us aren’t always properly wrapped, marked with our names. Sometimes they are small treasures easily missed: a tiny bird dancing in the spray from a leaking hosepipe, a child’s smile, a dragonfly hovering above the water, or a dozen hadedahs looking stupid on a fence.
Sometimes God’s gifts of growth and opportunity come wrapped in pain and struggle, which is what Joni Eareckson Tada discovered. And it’s often in the wilderness of dry and empty times that God makes his presence known. The greatest gift of all came in the shape of a cross. It’s hard to recognise the presence of God in the pain and the stress in which everyday life swamps us. But that’s where he is.
And he has come to save us, to destroy our enemies. Ah, no, sorry, bad news; our enemy does not drive a taxi. Our enemy is not behind the counter of Home Affairs or the Msunduzi Electricity Department [government departments that have raised the ire of local residents recently]. He is not even training in a terrorist camp. Ruth Patterson says, our enemies “are certainly not other human beings, created in [God’s] image and likeness….”
Who are they then? Patterson says, “Included in their ranks are despair, doubt, cynicism, injustice…, bitterness, racism, guilt and fear.” It is from these enemies within that our God comes to rescue us.
What else will God do? Patterson continues,
“When he comes he will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. Those who have been blinded for years…are going to begin to see, to recognise the other who is different as their sister, their brother. Those who have not been able to hear another’s truth because they have been deafened by…(their own propaganda) or by their own self-righteousness are going to have the ears of their hearts unstopped. Those who have been silenced, who have had no one to listen to the cry of their heart, are going to sing a song of freedom from their broken places that the whole world will hear…. And the Spirit of God…will satisfy the thirsty souls of those who have long been yearning for something that material possessions could not satisfy.”
Friends, our God is coming! He is coming to a place in your heart and mine. He is coming to renew our world by transforming our lives. His healing and transformation doesn’t necessarily begin with the outward needs of our bruised and broken bodies or painful circumstances. He begins his work within.
Our God is coming. Let me ask you, what does he long to do for you and through you?