Greetings from Norwich.
There’s a little phrase I won’t be using again for some time! The month of April is upon us and I can hear the sound of removal lorries warming their engines. The new St A’s Manse is being renovated at a fantastic pace. I’ve been so impressed by the combination of love and expertise that the Deacons have brought to bear on this hefty task. As a family, our involvement has been thoroughly enjoyable. One our ‘jobs’ has been suggesting some colours for the internal paint-scheme. Debbie (my wife) and I scanned plenty of charts, bought ‘tester pots’ of paint and experimented by daubing the walls with uneven patches of colour. Elephant’s Breath, Purple Pout, Sumptuous Plum, Moroccan Flame – you name it, we’ve had a splash of it. We finally settled for Antique Ivory White for all surfaces. It sounds rather stylish, but looks rather Magnolia to the untrained eye. I’ll have to emphasise to visitors that our choice is nothing more than a distant cousin to the favoured paint of hospitals, schools, etc.
Talking of visual spectacles, many of you will know that a lunar eclipse is taking place during April. The best places to see it are in North, Central and South America, but Cambridge gets a glimpse at 5.55am on the morning of 15th April. Sadly, it’s all over by 5.57am when the moon sets.
For countless millennia, humankind has observed such moments and considered them to be auspicious. In ancient China, a myth developed that a celestial dragon was eating the moon (or sun) during an eclipse. It’s still a tradition in some parts of China today to beat pots and pans during an eclipse to ward off this evil attack. The Chinese name for ‘eclipse’ is 吃 (‘chih’) meaning, literally, ‘to eat’.
The ancient Greeks also attached various mythological beliefs to eclipses. However, the word that they chose to describe it – ekleipo – means, simply, ‘to fail’. When one of the heavenly bodies is seemingly extinguished, it has failed.
In Luke’s Gospel, the word ekleipo is used in 23:45 to describe the failure of the sun’s light as Jesus is crucified. The word is also spoken by Jesus, when He comforts his disciples just prior to His arrest:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail (ekleipo). And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32 ESV)
Jesus’ words are not quite what many would expect in this particular situation. Firstly, Simon Peter is given the terrifying news that Satan has asked to have him (and the other disciples) that he might sift them like wheat. The thought of being vigorously shaken in ‘Satan’s Sieve’ is a horrid one; it sounds like one of the very worst of human experiences is on its way. Secondly, Jesus reveals that He has prayed for the disciples – wonderful news, things are looking up! However, thirdly, we discover that Jesus has not prayed that the disciples will be spared this sifting process. It seems like the obvious thing to ask for. Surely it’s better to not go through trials and tribulations? Jesus has prayed, instead, that the sifting won’t lead to the failure of their faith. The disciples must shine, even on a day so awful that the sun can’t manage to do so.
Strange as it may seem, this is one of many occasions when Jesus calls for endurance within a difficult situation, rather than avoidance of that situation. Disciples are to expect tough times.
As Christ concludes His beautiful Sermon on the Mount, He tells the story of the wise and foolish builders: one builds his house on sand, the other on rock; both experience the same hardships: rain, floods and wind beating against the house. The house built on rock endures, unlike the neighbouring property with poor foundations.
Similarly, Jesus quantifies the benefits of following Him in these terms (italics are mine):
‘Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Mark 10:29-30 ESV)
It seems that Christians are only kidding themselves if they assume discipleship will involve exclusively happy, safe experiences – like perusing colour charts, or moving house from one beautiful city to another.
Of course, it’s fine to seek to avoid trouble and it’s fine to pray to be spared difficulties. But, should such times come upon us, we need to remember that Jesus warned us they would. And we need to be assured that Jesus is intervening on behalf of the most important thing: our faith.
With the power of Christ’s prayers behind us, our faith isn’t eaten up by the evil one or the world; it can still rise and shine.