What’s in a name?

Names matter. In the Jewish world of the Bible, children were expected to grow into the meaning of their name as part of their destiny. Thus, the naming of children, especially male sons, was a most sacred and solemn task. Jesus’ Semitic name, Yeshua, which means the ‘Lord rescues’, is a great example. His name is inextricably tied to his destiny. Likewise Zechariah the father of John the Baptist , his name means ‘Jehovah remembers’. The meaning was an essential part of Zechariah and Elisabeth’s life . The God whom they thought had forgotten their longing for a child gave the man whose name means Jehovah remembers, a son, even if that gift came so very late in Zechariah’s life. Then we come to another Z. Zacchaeus and the story of Jesus passing through Jericho and calling Zacchaeus down from a tree. Zacchaeus whose name meant ‘just one, righteous one’, which thinking about it is something of an ironic name for someone who had become Chief Tax Collector working for Rome.
The story of Zacchaeus of course reminds us that Jesus has this amazing ability to see what a person can become. Whatever the appearance might be, whatever the lifestyle, Jesus knows that in God’s kingdom all is not what it might seem and nothing is impossible with God. So, at the outset of this story we have a central character whose name actually signifies God’s gracious future purpose for him.
Of course, tax collectors at this time were not popular. Zacchaeus would have been very wealthy, have few friends, and probably if he dared to admit it, had little hope in his life. As Chief Tax Collector he would live off income gained from other tax collectors he had recruited. Tax collectors as a rule cheated the people from whom they took taxes. Zacchaeus would not even know who had been cheated before he got his cut. So, in faith terms he was a as far removed from God as he could be. The Rabbis taught that people needed to make retribution before they could be forgiven and this man up the tree had no way of ever making retribution to those (who he didn’t even know) who were cheated to generate his income.
In this religious system, contrition was not enough for God’s forgiveness to be granted to you. It needed to be coupled with retribution. As a result, Zacchaeus had no hope of every getting right with God.
In this short story everything has significance. Let’s briefly consider the tree that Zacchaeus climbs.
The Middle Eastern sycamore tree is not like the sycamore species we see in other places. It is part of the mulberry-fig tree family and it can grow into a very large, spreading tree; with dense foliage and the majority of its branches are horizontal, branching from the trunk 6 to 10 feet above the ground. Its figs are not fit for human consumption and fall off and are eaten by birds. The ground under sycamore trees was therefore usually somewhat messy and the whole tree was seen by Rabbis as being unclean. These trees were planted outside the city limits. So, we have an unclean man hiding in an unclean tree.
Then we realise that this man Zacchaeus has some burning need to actually see Jesus. Why, I wonder? What prompted him to want to gaze upon this very different rabbi who spoke with an authority like no other? What had he heard about Jesus that would compel him to need to observe him up close? Might the motivation be traced back to when Jesus called another tax collector (Levi) to leave everything and become his disciple? That calling of Levi would have sent real shock waves through the small, tight-knit tax collecting Palestine community. What kind of rabbi would ever do such a thing? And then there is Levi himself. If I were Zacchaeus, those would be compelling enough reasons for me to want to see Rabbi Jesus as well as this ex-tax collector, now disciple Levi.
So small in stature, Zach decides it is now or never, but needs a vantage point to see Jesus. Somewhere where he can see and yet not be seen himself. Somewhere a bit discreet. What better place than the sycamore tree which would have been planted at least 75 feet away from the city limits. The dense foliage would hide him well. Seems like a good plan.
I often think Zacchaeus probably more fell out of the tree than climbed down, when, passing by the tree, Jesus merely looked up and called him down by name; oh and almost as an aside adds, ‘Guess what Zach; I’m coming to your house for dinner tonight.’ A lot in a few verses. Jesus sees through the dense foliage. Jesus sees through the man hidden away. Jesus calls the man by name. Jesus makes himself ritually unclean on the eve of a major festival by dining with someone who has been in an unclean tree and is regarded as an unclean person.
In this story Jesus simply tells Zacchaeus ‘I must dine with you tonight.’ This is now a story of great rescue, as significant as the lost sheep or the prodigal son coming home. Jesus has seen more in Zacchaeus than anyone else. Zacchaeus is about to become the person God intended all the time: the just one, the righteous one. This is not just a simple Sunday school story we remember from childhood, but it is actually a really important event. It is one that reminds us that God sees more in all of us than we can imagine. God accepts those who others reject. The gospel is for outcasts.
We know the ending of course. Zacchaeus repents and vows to pay back all that has been taken falsely. As I said earlier, this in reality would be practically impossible as Zacchaeus would not even know who, in the whole system of tax abuse, had been wronged. But that is not quite the point here. What is the point is the restoration of Zacchaeus to God. The no-hoper, out on a limb of his own making, has been seen for who God wants him to be, has responded to the call and changed.
I leave you with an odd thought to ponder about this story. In my reading I came across these words of challenge for us all: ‘Stand under the tree with Jesus.’
Stand under the tree and stop, think and wonder if we truly grasp the full meaning of this encounter. Maybe we are being challenged to come down from our high perches, the ones where we feel secure, semi-hidden from any potential opposition and in charge of all we survey. Stand under the tree, and maybe we need to keep standing under it until we understand it.
Maybe this passage is reminding us to leave the safety of the branches, to come and have real fellowship with those on the ground? Maybe it is a call for us to stop hiding behind branches, buildings, traditions that now need re- evaluating?
A challenging story that I leave us all to ponder.

Genesis: New beginnings

The book of Genesis is the first book in the Bible and opens with one of the most famous first sentences of any literary work: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ It’s where we find the famous stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Abraham and Isaac, and a snazzily multi-coloured coated dreamer named Joseph.

On its own, the book of Genesis reads like a string of epic stories: a real saga of a world that just keeps going wrong, despite the best intentions of the Creator. But Genesis isn’t a stand-alone book. It’s the first instalment in the five-part Torah (or Pentateuch), which is the foundational work of the Old Testament. The Torah is Israel’s origin story: it’s the history of how the nation of Israel got its population, its land, and its religion.

As the first book of the Bible, Genesis lays the foundation for everything that is to follow. Throughout Genesis we meet God in many ways: God as awesome power, God as holy judge, and the tender merciful God. This is the God grace of God, the Creator who sets out his plan to save mankind, first through the founding of the nation of Israel, and ultimately through the sending of Jesus Christ.

Now Genesis is one of the longer books of the Bible so if you are thinking of getting into Bible reading it can be quite a tricky start. So I’ve pulled out a few verses to give you a flavour of the God we meet here. Very often people say that the God of the Old Testament is awful and full of vengeance and the God of the New Testament is a whole lot better!

Funnily enough God is God and like us, who he says he has made in his own image, there are facets to the character; things we glimpse more clearly in some stories than in others.

So here goes on a quick summary of God in his beginnings of dealing with his people.

God is creative: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ – Genesis 1:1
God’s heart breaks over evil:  ‘The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.  The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.’ Genesis 6:5-6 One Bible translation puts this even stronger and says that the behaviour of man broke God’s heart.

But heartbroken or not, God remembers his people: 
‘But God remembered Noah.’Genesis 8:1
‘Then God remembered Rachel’s plight.’ Genesis 30:22

God hears and sees us even when no one else does:  ‘You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress.’ … ‘Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.” Genesis 16:11,13

Nothing is impossible for God: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?” – Genesis 18:14

God is merciful: ‘When Lot still hesitated, the angels seized his hands and the hands of his wife and two daughters and rushed them outside the city, for the Lord was merciful.’ Genesis 19:16 Later on in this story, God shows his patience and mercy again. When the angels told Lot and his wife to go to a certain area they were scared and asked to go to a different city instead. But finally they ended up fleeing that city to go hide in the area the angels originally told them to go. I can quite see God and the angels smiling ruefully and wondering why they didn’t do as they were asked in the first place.

God is faithful:  ‘Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. … Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’ Genesis 21:1

God provides eternally and here on earth: ‘Abraham named the place Jehovah Jireh (which means ‘the Lord will provide’). To this day, people still use that name: ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’” – Genesis 22:14

God starts answers prayers before we finish praying them: ‘Before he had finished praying, he saw a young woman named Rebekah coming out with her water jug on her shoulder.’ – Genesis 24:15

He’s a God of generosity and abundance: ‘When Isaac planted his crops that year, he harvested a hundred times more grain than he planted, for the Lord blessed him.’ – Genesis 26:12

God sees a promise to the end and is with us in our waiting: ‘What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.’ – Genesis 28:15

God works good in the worst of situations and sits with us in the waiting: ‘But the Lord was with Joseph in the prison and showed him his faithful love. And the Lord made Joseph a favourite with the prison warden.’ – Genesis 39:21

If I had to sum the whole beginning saga up in a few words then they would simply be this: God is love itself and our very existence hinges on that incredible love.

Beginnings and new beginnings. Hope for all of us even when we feel perhaps there is little light ahead and the battle around us is intense. As ever I will leave you with a few of my favourite secular words of wisdom on the idea of beginnings:

‘Celebrate endings—for they precede new beginnings.’ Jonathan Lockwood Huie

‘Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.’
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

‘Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.’ C.S. Lewis

‘Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.’ Henry Ford

‘What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’ T.S. Eliot

Music for reflection: different styles to hopefully suit different music tastes

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be confident knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.
a prayer attributed to St Teresa of Avila and St Thérèse of Lisieux.

With love and prayers for you all and those whom you love and care for.


Exodus and Sabbath and ‘Follow the leader.’

1956 and the film epic of the year was The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner amongst others. An epic indeed of around three and three quarter hours duration. ‘Left in the bulrushes by his Hebrew mother, raised by the Pharaoh’s sister and disliked by his stepbrother Rameses (Brynner), Moses (Heston) becomes a warrior and possible future Pharaoh. However, his worldview changes when he discovers his real origins. A time spent as a slave, the burning bush in the wilderness, and a magic staff and he’s a man with a heavy mission, ready to lead his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land.’ The film summary says it all.

Looking through the epic story with a 21st century lens and of course knowing full well how the plot ends, I can’t help but ask: ‘How on earth could the Israelites have got into such a mess that, having escaped the brutality of slavery in Egypt, they ended up wandering about for 40 years or so?’ Whatever else, this story of the great escape showed, read it and you will find it is full of God’s provision, God’s protection, and God’s guidance, chapter upon chapter.

God is very active in this book from start to finish. He doesn’t seem to have much of a day off; more of that in a moment. He starts off by protecting Moses as a baby, saving him from certain death, having Moses brought up in the luxury of the Pharaoh’s place, then sending plagues, rescuing a whole nation in a single night, splitting a sea in two…..
Then, when rescued from slavery, he provides for the Israelites by food appearing out of thin air day after day. God’s action and provision on behalf of the Israelites is obvious.

Yet, what do they do? Probably what we all do from time to time; they complained constantly, thought going back to slavery would be better for them, made idols while God’s presence was still on the mountain in front of them, and blamed God instead of thanking him or better still, praising him. To be fair to God he did do an incredible amount in all of this.
But it always amazes me that they simply couldn’t or maybe I should say, simply wouldn’t see what God was up to. Why couldn’t they simply ‘follow the leader?’

But when I really stop to think about it and if I dare to be totally honest with myself, I guess some days I’m no different. God actually performs a miracle, maybe not the dividing the Red Sea kind, but nonetheless something significant happens, but I / we miss it because we were not paying sufficient attention or maybe, if we were, then as ever we were hoping/expecting something different.

Thinking about God’s never ending provision for those Israelites, I am also asking myself whether we, too, can become immune to the daily ‘manna’ falling form the sky. For us, this is more likely to be in the form of food and shelter and friendships and God’s love. I’d like to think that if I saw some of the miraculous things the Israelites witnessed, I would have been mega grateful, but I’m not so sure I’d be any different.

Why didn’t they see what they were being given? Food for thought for another day, but there are two things that always strike me as lessons from this story of the greatest escape ever.

Firstly, the Israelites had been set free and they needed to remember this regularly and celebrate. But even before they crossed the Red Sea they panicked when they saw the Egyptians overtaking them and suddenly decided they wanted to go back.
‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!’” (Exodus 14:10-12)

Their current situation, thinking they will drown in the Red Sea waters, seemed worse than slavery, but that’s because they forgot who was actually in control. Sometimes, especially during recent lockdown, people have shared with me that they feel like: ‘God you’ve led us to a place where there’s no way out.’
But what God actually says is this: ‘That’s only because you haven’t seen a sea parted.’

Re-thinking the Exodus story I am reminded of times when I gave preferred to complain and forget what God can do. Complaining can be quite a nice security blanket to wallow in.

The second thing that strikes me again in this story is that God provided manna from heaven six days a week, but actually the food provided gave them enough to eat on all seven days, including the sabbath. God commanded that the sabbath should be a day of rest, spiritual refreshment, renewal. They did not need to gather food that day. There was enough provided already.

Sabbath, a day of complete rest, is actually a real gift, but sadly is a gift that is not recognised as such or is perhaps left unopened or even discarded now for so many of us. It’s offered though, all gift wrapped and ready for us to enjoy, but in our busyness and in a world where shops are now routinely open seven days a week, we have somehow lost the enjoyment of it.

We are currently in a period of time where we have all experienced an enforced sabbath or sabbatical due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many it has been a time of pain and suffering especially for so many affected by illness. But for others it has also been a time of rest, of blessing and of creative change. It’s been a bit like a fallow time – those fallow periods were traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of their land. The benefits of leaving land fallow for extended periods, include rebalancing soil nutrients, re-establishing ecology, breaking crop pest and disease cycles, and last but by no means least, providing a haven for wildlife.

In our Covid 19 ‘Sabbath’, for some work slowed down, commuting ceased for weeks on end, traffic quieted for a time, shops remained closed. The relentless activity stopped. As a society, banded together by a hidden disease, we had to remember that there are some things we really are not able to control.

Many people I speak to are undecided about our coming out of lockdown, not just because of fear of infection, but also perhaps because there is a reluctance to end this period which for many has felt like a sabbatical. I find myself wondering whether or not we have learned all we need to learn from it? Have we appreciated the gifts that have been evident during enforced quiet time? Can we guarantee we retain some of the healthier rhythms once all this is over? And then thinking about the world of nature all around us, the farming year, the need for fallow times in crop rotation, I am reminded that Sabbath is a gift that isn’t just for us as individuals, but for all of creation.

In lockdown I have indulged my love of poetry reading and so have gone back to Malcolm Guite, a firm favourite and his words that speak so poignantly of this rhythm of life wherein sabbath is retained and blessing and rest are enjoyed as God’s divine gift to us.

The Seventh Day: Blessing and Rest

Blessing and rest, delight in everything
Sustained by your strong love and richly blest,
This is the gift you give, the day you bring
Blessing and rest.

This is indeed the ‘gladness of the best’,
From first lines in the east where linnets sing,
To where the last light lingers in the west,

You lift the cares to which I used to cling,
As you yourself descend to be my guest
And show me how to find in everything
Blessing and rest.

© Malcolm Guite

Music for reflection:

Blessings to all,