Weekly Meditations

In Lent 2020 we started up weekly prayer sessions led by Dr. Margaret Clark on Wednesday evenings.  When these were curtailed by the closure of churches during lockdown, Margaret kindly agreed to provide short written meditations for circulation by e-mail to those in the group.  By popular request they continued after Easter, and are still going.  We are publishing them on this page - the four most recent will be found below - but if anyone would like to be included on the e-mail circulation list for future weeks, please let Liz Woodall know via the 'Get in Touch' page.  

Friday, 3rd November 2023

Mad, Bad or God

I have unwittingly commented last week on part of the readings for the last Sunday in October. Matthew 22. 34-46 shows Jesus confounding the Pharisees who were trying to trip him up on the Jewish Law. What was the greatest commandment? To love God, with heart and soul and mind. Loving your neighbour was a consequence of having got that first love – of God - right. All ‘the law and the prophets ‘ – indeed, the whole of the Bible – depended on those two. In our Old Testament reading from Leviticus 19 we had lots of examples of ways not to have loved your neighbour, whether through injustice or slander, hatred or injury.

Leviticus urges the people to be holy, as God is holy, when none of these wrong things would happen. Jesus in John’s gospel reminds His disciples that if they love Him, they will keep His commandments, and that His command is to love each other. (John 15. 12,17). The Beatles were quite right: all you need is love, though not just in the sexual way they suggested. There’s something deeper and bigger here. You see it in the eyes of the people who really do love God with heart and mind and soul.

Jesus went on to ask the Pharisees a question in their turn. He was pinning them down about the identity of the Messiah. They could repeat the stock answer that he was the Son of David (Matthew 22.42). Now, how come David, in psalm 110.1, refers to Him as Lord? How can David’s Lord also be David’s descendant?

We know the answer of course; that the Incarnate Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory ( John 1.14). “To you in David’s town this day is born of David’s line a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord . . . .” But the Pharisees, if they saw it, and it looks as though they were refusing to see it, were not able to accept that Jesus of Nazareth, this man in front of them, speaking to them, was indeed the Son of God.

A lot of people still refuse to see it. Every excuse from ‘he was a good man’ to ‘he was just a prophet of Islam’. He was either who He said He was, or quite mad, or utterly evil. Mad, bad, or God remain the choices we make about His identity. But if He is indeed God, then loving God with all your heart and soul and mind takes on a whole new dimension. Let’s remember that as we go into this remembering month.


Friday, 27th October 2023

Cyrus and Caesar

Two non-Jewish figures stood out in the Sunday readings: Cyrus King of Persia in Isaiah, and Caesar in Jesus’s well-known ‘Render unto Caesar’ in the other.

Both Cyrus and Caesar were emperors of huge empires, the dominant world powers of their times. Israel and Judaea were insignificant little provinces in their books. What these people remind us is that neither was insignificant to God.

Isaiah’s prophecy about how God would employ Cyrus to fulfil his purpose is startling, the more so as he was prophesying about two hundred years before Cyrus issued the edict allowing the people of Israel to return from the Babylonian captivity. (You can of course get round this by assuming that this passage is a later insertion by students of the Isaiah school of theology. That argument does pre-suppose students are as able to discern the hand of God in current events as the original prophet was. It also assumes prophecy, like miracles, can’t happen – a rash assumption.)

What Isaiah can see is the hand of God in directing world powers, not just the chosen people. Isaiah 45 begins by referring to Cyrus as his ‘anointed’, chosen to do God’s will, and a phrase with Messianic overtones. He subdues nations and opens doors for captives because God is holding him by the hand. God goes before him to smooth his way (v2), and enriches him (v3).  Why?  So that Cyrus may recognise the true God for who He is, and for the sake of ‘Israel my chosen’ (v3-4).  God is great.  Not a local God of a petty tribe, but the one and only Real Thing, who wants everyone everywhere to acknowledge Him as such.  The greatness and majesty of God are expressed in vv 5-7.  Twice God says of Cyrus that he is unaware of what God is doing with him and through him, but that God, not the emperor, is the master.

That is basically the point Jesus makes too (Matthew 22.21). The Jews hated the Roman empire, whose grip on their land had only got worse since the days of King Herod, and would lead to their annihilation as a nation within the lifetime of some of Jesus’s hearers. You were to pay to Caesar what was his due, even his hated taxes. Peter elaborates this point later: everyone was to get his due, taxes to whom they were payable, and the emperor to be respected as the foreign power set by God in control of their world (1 Peter 2. 13-17).

Because the really important thing was to acknowledge God as the supreme ruler, and pay Him what He was due. Things that one would rather not have experienced often have the effect of clearing one’s mind about priorities.

So what do we render unto Caesar, and what do we render unto God? A quick prayer at bedtime? A Sunday morning service? Jesus told us the first and great commandment was to love God with all your mind and soul and strength. If we ever achieve that (and who has?) I suspect that rendering unto Caesar will fall into place. He, and his modern equivalents, are still under the hand of our God. May they see it.


Thursday 19th October 2023

The King’s Banquet

This week the two Old Testament lessons both include passages about feasting, though not in the detail of Jesus’s parable. Even Matthew’s version of that parable (22.1-14) has less about the feasting itself than does Luke’s version.

What Matthew does emphasise is that it is the King’s wedding banquet for his Son. We are clearly talking of the Father preparing for when Jesus can rejoice, in the end times, with his Bride: the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, according to John in Revelations, or the Church, meaning the whole company of faithful people. It’s a bit of a parallel to the parable of the vineyard, after the harvest. Here we seem to be looking at a roast beef dinner quite overwhelming any picture of a hog roast or an Oktoberfest.

And again, nobody is interested. Most unlikely, literally, in a Middle Eastern society; but a fair picture of the general attitude to God. The invitees refused, paid no attention, or ill-treated the messengers. Most prophets had a rough time of it. Most ordinary folk have little time for pie in the sky when you die. The focus is on the here and now. We easily take our eyes off God.

But it’s the wrong focus. The picture of the wedding feast comes again and again in the Bible. Think of the gallons of wine Jesus made for the wedding at Cana. Think of his story of the girls waiting for hours for the bridal party, till their lamps nearly went out. In Isaiah (25.6) God is making a feast of rich food and vintage wines for His people, on ‘that day’ – the end times again. In our beloved Psalm 23, God prepares a banquet which the enemy can see but not share, and fills brimming glasses of wine. In the Song of Songs, ‘he brought me into his banqueting hall and his banner [the bridal canopy] over me was love’ (Cant. 2.4). There’s a lot of joy and celebration to look forward to.

Yet still, in Jesus’s parable, the original guests didn’t want to come, and God destroyed them – a warning – and sent out to bring in all sorts from the street corners, both good and bad, Matthew says, and filled the hall with people like us instead. Then comes an interesting twist: the man who wasn’t wearing a wedding garment. This man was thrown out into the dark, with the explanation that many are called but few are chosen. Why?

I think the main point is that he didn’t really belong. Literally, if someone turned up, even at a British wedding, in jeans and a T-shirt, he might be sent off to get changed. In Jesus’ society, it would have been unthinkable to come without festive clothing; an insult to the host. This person wasn’t bothering to make any effort, but was just doing whatever he wanted, regardless of his host or cultural norms. Suppose one takes that attitude when the host is God the Father and the bridegroom is God the Son? Do you really think you can enter heaven as if by right, on your own terms?

Don’t worry though about finding the wedding garment yourself. John tells us that fine linen, bright and pure, will be provided – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19.8). When we get to the heavenly wedding banquet, it will all be all right, because it is the End.



Thursday 12th October 2023

The vineyard

There was no mistaking the link between related Old Testament and New Testament passages this week. Isaiah gave a prophecy about the vineyard. Jesus told a parable about a vineyard. Both were referring to the same thing: the people of Israel. Psalm 80 unmistakably talked of the vine that came out of Egypt, which God had planted in the land. This was a metaphor there was no mistaking, and hearers in any generation would have understood the point being made.

Both Isaiah (5.2) and Jesus (Matthew 21.33) start with the image of a garden prepared with due care, in the expectation of a good harvest. The harvest however is disappointing. In Isaiah the crop was sour, like wild fruit, and in Jesus’ parable the harvest was dishonestly withheld by unworthy tenants. God had lavished love and care on an unresponsive people. What more could he possibly have done?

Isaiah prophesied punishment. Metaphorically, the wall would be broken down and trampled, the garden reduced to a wasteland Thus the news headlines last weekend have provided a chilling echo of what Isaiah foresaw. He was thinking of the invasion by the Assyrians which destroyed the kingdom of Israel, with Judah’s fate delayed by good kings but eventually just as calamitous. Why did the people go on expecting God to let them do what they liked and love them all the same? The arrogance would be punished, as indeed it was, terribly. Cities destroyed and populations massacred are nothing new.

Several hundred years later, Jesus foresaw the same kind of fate for the people. This time there was the added bitterness that it was not only God’s servants, but His own Son, who were rejected by the tenants. The people’s blithe assumption that they could have their inheritance whilst rejecting the Landlord’s son was mind-boggling. And the Pharisees knew perfectly well Jesus was referring to them (Matthew 21. 38,45). It didn’t stop them conspiring against Jesus, and the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman emperor Titus 40 years later was the result.

Jesus even warned His hearers that the kingdom would be taken away from them and given to those who would produce the fruit. Unfortunately non-Jews are inclined to be a bit smug about the Christian Church now being the chosen people instead. But the point is the requirement to produce fruit, the harvest. The fruit of the Spirit, says Paul, is love, joy, peace, and so on (Galatians 5. 22,23). Those who are no better than their unfaithful predecessors don’t automatically get the blessings either.

Jesus also introduces into the story the stone which the builders rejected, and its relevance isn’t immediately clear. Elsewhere, Paul talks of Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2.20), whereas the Pharisees seemed to find Him a stumbling-block. The addition of the Son into the well-understood image of the vineyard gave it an even more solemn significance.

Prophecies sometimes seem to be fulfilled repeatedly. For the first time in 50 years we have again seen Israel trampled, at a time when they were not expecting it. Regardless of the political ramifications we can see an echo of the biblical prophecies. And if we think as Christians we count as current tenants of the spiritual vineyard, are we are being fruitful tenants? Let us pray with the psalmist (Psalm 80.19) that God’s face may shine upon us all, and that we may be saved.