Archive for the ‘prophecy’ Tag

Saturday 24th December “Walking in the way of peace”   Leave a comment

Well I have made it. We have reached the eve of Christ’s mass and I have managed to read the set scriptures and commentary in the booklet by Redemptorist Publications and post some thoughts on this blog every day through Advent. I have valued the exercise and want to spend time in the coming weeks reflecting on what I have written, seeing what it might say about where my faith/spiritual journey now is and maybe glean some pointers as to what the next few steps might be. However for today I will reflect on the set passages as I have done throughout this period.

The Bible passages set for today are 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14; and Luke 1: 67-79.

In 2 Samuel we have King David stating he wants to build a temple for God and then Nathan being given the prophecy that is was not to be David but David’s son who would build the temple. In the passage in Luke we come to Zachariah’s prophetic song at the birth of John the Baptist. 

There are lots of echos here in my personal life.  I have long identified with David, he mucks up big time over and over again but then comes back to God with deep passion. I have often mused that he was probably bipolar (manic-depressive) as I am. He certainly portrays in some of his psalms a personal knowledge of what it is like to be depressed (e.g. Ps 32). Then here he is trying to make a grandiose gesture of building a temple – very hypomanic.  And in this story it is Nathan the prophet again who is his spiritual counsellor. My firstborn son, who is 18 next month, is called Nathan. We did not name him after the Old Testament prophet but because the name means “gift”. However my attention is always alerted when I hear passages about him read out or the amazing anthem by Handel “Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet …” about the coronation of King Solomon, David’s son who was going to go on to build the temple.

There is thus for me in today’s readings a strong theme of “fathers and sons”. This is timely for me with my own son reaching the age that in our culture we think of as adulthood. Many a musing there about what I might have been able to pass on to him for his future life. One thing I value in Nathan is he seems to have inherited from both me and his mother an independence of thought and spirit. Looking forward to watching his life unfold with the ups and downs we all face. However as any loving father would be I am a little fearful for the immediate future with all its transition and uncertainty. I have hopes but no divine prophecies for his future. 

Then tomorrow we celebrate the birth of “The Son of God”.  Intellectually I can not say what I mean by that phrase as it relates to Jesus. For decades I wrestled with that but it has become less important in my spirituality now. However at midnight communion/mass tonight I will in awe and wonder give thanks for Emmanuel … God with us!

Friday 23 December 2011 – “Preparing the way”   Leave a comment

Today I have finished my Christmas present shopping and done the big food shop for the “feast” so have been enacting my own preparations for what is to come.

The Bible passages set for today are Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; and Luke 1: 57-66.

In Malachi we have more prophesies of the one who will prepare the way. Again I hear the words so clearly as set in Handel’s Messiah:

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.

But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He
appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.
[Handel’s Messiah Recetive Part I]

Or from a modern version of the Bible:

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the LORD Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness,
[Malachi 3: 1-3 NIV]

It is interesting to take a sceptical position about prophecy and muse on these words. Malachi is difficult to date because it contains few historical references but it was probably written about 450 years before Christ.  It here talks of a messenger – a quite universal theme in scripture and in many religious experiences. The messenger precedes the arrival of something longed for and seen as a significant intervention of God in the lives of humankind. So what could have stirred Malachi to write these things and then their subsequent interpretation of them hundreds of years later to refer to John the Baptist and Jesus?

I have no problem with prophecies being poetic generalities that find their meaning in the sense making of later generations.  Look at it from God’s perspective – how would He/She communicate with humankind? Although hearing a voice and interpreting it as God speaking are reported throughout history and across religions most religious people would probably talk along the lines of sensing what God is saying. Believing God to be entwined with every sub-atomic particle in the universe He/She is there then within the workings of our brains, our thoughts and our emotions. However as said in previous posts we are not puppets of the creator. We can make choices to recognise or not the existence of the divine and to seek to relate to Him/Her. So it seems reasonable to me that in deeply spiritual people, and I would put prophets among those, they can experience times of being well attuned to the divine. At times I believe this may come out as prophetic words. I definitely see this as sensing God’s purpose and expressing it in ways familiar to the individual concerned not in being a scribe for divine dictation.

I would like to go on and make some “learned” points based on Jung’s writings on the collective unconscious and symbolism in religion but it is over 20 years since I struggled to read and understand that stuff.  Suffice it to say there seems to be common themes ideas that repeat in religious experience. Many a sermon has been constructed based on that, e.g comapring Jesus to various Old Testament characters e.g Melkizedak, Abraham, David, … There is something that speaks to me about the way prophecy might work. Our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines (neural networks). An example of this is that we are so good at recognising the faces of individuals we know but we also get triggered false recognitions when we think someone is somebody else or even when we say “they look a bit like so and so”.  So to me in the bigger patterns of life, in the narrative we construct of the events that surround us it seems to me that we should recognise strong echos in the writings from the past that are familiar to us. That not fully worked out mechanistic view of prophecy is important to me as a way of seeing that prophecy has a plausible basis, that brings in scientific perspectives, where is can’t just be dismissed as bunkum; as impossible therefore I won’t think about it further.

Even with a sceptical view the sheer number of links between Old Testament prophecies and the stories around Jesus needs answering. It seems improbable to me that these were merely constructs of the Gospel writers to cynically creating a new mythology; i.e. deliberate deceptions. Many of those writers went on to die for what they believed. People die for their convictions not usually for something they know to be a construction of lies. 

This all begs the question why do I warm to these Biblical prophecies and reject say those of Nostradamus?  Where people see fulfillment of these I understand it to be triggering pattern recognitions in the brain too. I don’t think researching the precision of fulfilment in terms of minutia of facts is a fruitful investigation partly because of what I describe as the poetic nature of prophecy. The real answer is I think that I value prophecy as a tool in sense making of subsequent but still past events not as a predictor of the future. The prophecies of the Old Testament have helped me construct meaning out of the New Testament but they are not for me points of blind faith. I am sure I will go on questioning them and the notion of what prophecy is on and off for the rest of my life.

I have gone on to long on this theme and not said anything of the story from Luke of Zechariah being struck mute until he named John the Baptist as instructed. However I will sign off this post now (my wife wants to sleep).

[Note I discovered that Malachi 3: 23-24 are not included in the King James Version or the New International Version of the Bible but were in the Jerusalem Bible. I have not looked into the reasons for this but it seems a non-contriversal point given that the verses relate to the prophecy of Elijah coming back before the Messiah which occurs at various other points.]

Tuesday 20 January 2011 – “Pregnancy and promise”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages for today were Isaiah 7: 10-14 and Luke 1:26-38.

The passage from Isaiah foretells the virgin birth and in Luke the angel breaks that news to Mary. However I might struggle with what may be historical truth and what symbolic myth in the Christmas story there is one bit in today’s readings that is particularly meaningful to me:

… and will call him Immanuel
[Isaiah 7: 14 NIV]

Immanuel meaning in Hebrew “God with us”.

Whatever theological wrangling has gone on throughout Church history, or inside my own head, as to the exact nature of Jesus what he represents to me is “God with us”. It is one thing to believe in the existence of God, say as creator, but it is in fact quite a big further leap to then see Him/Her as “with us”. However through the eyes of faith I have “known” that all my life.

The stories of today’s readings and indeed the whole theme of Advent is expectancy. Given my faith in “God with us”, what is my own expectancy? What does that faith really mean in my life?

Monday 12 December 2011 – “Heaven on Earth”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today are: Numbers 24: 2-7, 15-17 and Matthew 21: 23-27.

If I am honest I find the prophecies of Balaam harder to relate to than those of Isaiah that have been the fodder of these meditations up to now.  Maybe it’s because they are less familiar (although I remember well the story of Balaam and his talking ass from my childhood/youth); or maybe it’s because they come from an earlier time in history (possibly around 1200 BC compared to Isaiah around 700 BC).  The notes for today, doubtless like many other commentators, interpret them as pointing to the future messiah and asking the question will he come from heaven or earth? (I can’t see this question in the reading in several versions I looked at).

In the passage in Matthew the religious leaders are questioning Jesus again, trying to trap him.  “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” [Matthew 21: 23], Jesus throws the question back to them asking about John the Baptist.  The leaders discuss it among themselves: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” [Matthew 21: 25-26]. So the question here boils down to: from earth or from heaven? (of human origin or divine?).

This reminds me of the nature vs. nurture debates that have raged over diverse aspects of human character.  The answer is almost always of both.  Here too the answer, as suggested in the notes, and maintained by me, is that Jesus (and John the Baptist) were of both the human and the divine; the earthy and the heavenly.

Quoting from the prayer from the notes:

God of earth and heaven …
Help us to recognise you in the places where heaven and earth meet.
Amen.
[Your Journey to Christmas, Redemptorist Publications, 2011, p.24]

3rd Sunday of Advent 2011 – “Shoots of righteousness”   Leave a comment

Theme for week 2: “Signs of God’s coming”

The Bible passages set for today are: Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; and John 1: 6-8, 19-28.

The Lectionary has taken us back to the story of John the Baptist again.  The words from John’s Gospel this time:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
[John 1: 6-8 NIV]

in some way echoing those from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. … to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.
[Isaiah 61: 1-2 NIV]

When John the Baptist is quizzed by the religious leaders of the day as to who he was he replies: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” [John 1: 23] apparently citing the words from Isaiah 40: 3 that we met on the reflections of Sunday 4 December and Tuesday 6 December.

The notes for today’s reflections open with the question: “How can you tell when God is at work?” My immediate reaction to that was He/She is always at work; we just might not be always aware of it.  While accepting that as true there do seem to be times in history and in our individual life’s journey when the separation between the divine and the temporal or earthy seems particularly thin.  The notes suggest the signs from Isaiah of this include: oppressed people becoming free; those who are sad are comforted and in the wilderness of life shoots of righteousness and praise begin to grow.

While not disbelieving that as a pattern of God’s working both in the leading up to what some Christians would describe as the focal point of history, the coming of Christ, and in the transformations that happen in personal spiritual journeys, it is not something recognise as a current or recent experience in my life.  I am neither aware of being in a spiritual desert nor of particular or new stirrings of God in my life.

There is another echo from Old to New Testaments in today’s readings:

I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. … For as the soil makes the young plant come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up
[Isaiah 61: 10-11 NIV]

And:

Rejoice evermore.

Pray without ceasing.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
[1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18 KJV]

In Isaiah the rejoicing is at seeing the new shoots of God’s work; in Thessalonians Paul is urging us to rejoice in whatever circumstances recognising that it is the will of God.  Now there is a challenge.  Turning it into a personal challenge how do I find joy in what seems like a bland spiritual state?

Monday 5 December 2011 – “Walking in the sunshine”   1 comment

[My aim is to write a shorter reflection today. I have a lengthy and demanding, if interesting, day of work ahead]

The Bible passages set for today were Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Luke 5: 17-26.

The passage from Isaiah is another example of prophecy as hope for a better future.  Its opening image is of the desert blooming. It is from this idea that the title for today’s reflection comes.  The notes for today cite the comparative example of Vera Lynn singing “There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover” in the darkest days of World War Two Britain.  [The ornithological inexactitude of that song still annoys me!].

However this hopeful passage also contains the concept of a vengeful God, found throughout the Old Testament and to some extent in the New.  This challenges my own images of God which as I have mentioned in previous posts are dominated by God is Love [1 John 4:8].

The verse in question from today’s reading is:

say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
[Isaiah 34:4]

To my view, surely God loves as much those who I might see as against me, the causes of my woes, and longs to save them too? So this begs the questions for me personally:

  • Are the images of the God of vengeance, portrayed throughout the Old Testament, the product of the cultural context in which they were written (the people writing them were often part of small nations dominated by large powerful neighbours and sometimes over-swept by mighty empires)?  Are they therefore really projections of human nature and desires?
  • Or, are my own images of God deficient (they of course are); but in this area am I ignoring or avoiding an important aspect of the divine nature?

The Isaiah passage then returns to its hopeful theme of physical disabilities (blind, deaf, lame) being removed which is echoed in the story from Luke of Jesus healing the paralytic man after his friends had lowered him through the roof to get him in front of Jesus.

The significant point from Luke’s account of this particular healing is that Jesus did not say to the man “you are healed” but instead said “your sins are forgiven” [Luke 5: 20]. This caused great consternation in the religious leaders of the day that were present (a theme repeated throughout the Gospels).  The notes for these Advent reflections draw from this point and say:

Whatever our physical illnesses may be, it is our spiritual diseases that bring darkness into our worlds.
[Your Journey to Christmas, Redemptorist Publications, 2011, p.16]

Posted December 5, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Advent 2011 Reflections

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2nd Sunday of Advent 2011 – “Cry Freedom”   1 comment

Theme for week 2: “Valuing Humanity”

The Bible passages set for today are: Isaiah 40: 1-5, 2 Peter 3: 8-14 and Mark 1: 1-8

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

[Isaiah 40: 1-2 KJV]

I can not read the opening verses of Isaiah 40 without hearing the words in my head as set to music in Handle’s oratorio “The Messiah”.


This is prophecy as comfort: things will get better. That sentiment is so well conveyed in Handel’s music.

Isaiah then goes on to pen words that seem to so closely prefigure John the Baptist approximately 750 years later:

A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
[Isaiah 40: 3 NIV]

Mark when he set down his Gospel account of Jesus’ life and teachings begins not with what we now know as Christmas story, his birth, but by referencing this verse from Isaiah and telling the story of John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

[Mark 1: 1-3 NIV]

The nature of prophecy (a personal view)

I think of prophecy as primarily two interlinked roles.  Firstly of understanding and speaking out against the evils or injustices of the day and then of envisaging what the future might become.  The oft thought of, to me distinct, third role of “predicting” the future I understand as something people understand in hindsight and regard it as a less important, and an often abused aspect.

I think prophets, at least religious ones, are people who might poetically be described as being “sensitive to the heart of the divine.”  They have the gift somehow of discerning something of what God “feels” about a situation.  They express this in their sayings or writings often in a poetic form.  This applies both to their analysis of the present and their hopes for the future.

So in the above example Isaiah envisages a time in the future when a voice cries out it wilderness to prepare the way for God, so that His glory “shall be revealed” [Isaiah 40: 5].  Then centuries later Mark would have been familiar with this words because they would have been read regularly in the temple and the synagogue.  When he sets out to write his Gospel and he thinks of the story of John the Baptist which had probably been recalled to him by others, he makes the poetic link.  I see some similarity between this and the various times during the writing of these reflections that I have recalled bit of the Bible that I may not have read since my teens or twenties.  So the prophetic link is made from the present back to the writings of the past.

There are numerous such prophetic links made from he Gospel stories back to the writings of what we now call the Old Testament from hundreds of years before.  Some of these are specifically pointed out by the Gospel writers some are highlighted by subsequent scholars or preachers. Some people sceptically think these links were written into the stories to give them weight. In other words they accuse the Gospel writers of fitting their narrative to the prophecies from the older scriptures. I do not believe that this process was so cynically manipulating. I find it hard believe that the Gospels were fabricated to dupe people.  They were an attempt by the authors to give a true and meaningful account. Tradition has it that both St Matthew and St Mark died a martyrs death. That was the fate of many early Christians. It is difficult to believe someone would die for something they thought was a lie.  However they were writing decades after the events they recorded.  The nature of memory and story telling is that the story may evolve on repeated telling. So it seems possible to me that the detail of the narrative is reported so that the prophetic link is made obvious. For me the truth of scripture is not in the minute of its detail but in what can be discerned about God’s interaction with man in a diverse account spanning approximately 1,500 years of history in one part of the world.

Prophetic roles today

The title for today of “Cry Freedom” is most closely in my mind associated with the struggle from apartheid in South Africa.  It is the title of the 1987 film, directed by Richard Attenborough, based on the writings of journalist Donald Woods, focussing on the story of Woods himself and the real-life events involving black activist Steve Biko.    Biko was a person who envisioned a better future for the black Peoples of South Africa and campaigned for it.  A famous slogan of his was “black is beautiful” addressing the twisted attitudes represented in apartheid and sadly held by many white people.

The notes for today’s reflections cite the example of Aung San Suu Kyi and the ongoing struggle in Burma (Myanmar) from political oppression.  The notes highlight here practice of meditation and its importance in her personal life and the political struggle. It is she says the greatest aim of her life, to seek for purity of mind. In this purity, she is able to see the fear, not only in her own people, but also in their opponents

I can readily regard Steve Biko and Aung San Suu Kyi as examples of modern-day prophetic voices.  There envisioned a brighter future and spoke out clearly against the injustices (the evils) they saw all around them in the present.  Beyond that they were politically active in trying to bring about these visions which I would regard as an activist role that is not always part of being prophetic in this sense.

What about me?

As an aside I wrote a brief account here of my own practice of meditation as it has been raised in the example of Aung San Suu Kyi.  I have moved this to a separate blog post: Meditation (me personal practice).

In the post entitled “Introducing Others“, I outlined how I did not see my role, my calling as being one of evangelism.  Do I have a prophetic role?  Maybe in a very small way I do.  In my work I am often pointing out to “the University” how things might possibly be done better in terms of meeting the needs of our 13,000+ disabled students; in enabling their learning.  Sometimes it feels like being a “voice crying in the wilderness” [Isaiah 40: 3 and Mark 1: 3].  However, just in this last year, some of the opportunities for improvement that were envisioned by a small group of us a decade ago have begun to be established in structures, roles and practice across the university.

Posted December 4, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Advent 2011 Reflections

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