Let’s be honest… when we hear about prophecies, visions and strange murmurings, we either think of Bruno or we are reminded of the series of seemingly strange men in the Old Testament. If you’ve got a child under 18, are a Disney fan, or perhaps have even just looked at music charts in the last few weeks, you’ll no doubt have picked up on this (very) catchy song from Disney’s newest offering: Encanto. Bruno is introduced as a strange family member who can’t help but apparently ruin the lives of those around him… or so they say.
In case you haven’t seen the film, it centres on a family who have each been given as children. Each of these gifts helps the family and the community. Most of the gifts are pretty cool (super human strength, for example), but Bruno’s gift – the gift of prophesy and truth telling – appears to be more of a curse. So much so, he spends most of the film missing in action and has an entire song dedicated to telling us all why they don’t even talk about him. Despite their best efforts to paint this picture of Bruno as a mad-man, in reality he is no more mad than the rest, with their strange ways and powers. He is, put simply, a truth teller. And, for some, the truth is scary.
Bruno isn’t, though, the first truth teller to have ever existed. There have been many truth tellers in the past, and many exist today. In the church, we call them prophets. Prophets are people who speak truth into situations, pointing people back to God even in the most difficult of times. In the Bible, we meet many prophets who speak truth about certain situations, often to their own great danger. For example, we see Daniel literally fed to the lions because he refuses to bow down to a different god. We meet Moses, who tells Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people leave their bondage in Egypt, chased by a ferocious army. John the Baptist comes and warns people that the Kingdom of God is coming and they must repent, turn back to God and be baptised. Eventually, he ends up being beheaded and his head being served on a silver platter.
To be a prophet is dangerous work. It is to face the wind head on, and point to Jesus, no matter what’s happening. It is to stand up and tell the truth, even if you know the people hearing your message aren’t going to like it. It is to challenge and to hold both mirror and window up to society: a mirror so people can see the reality of their actions; a window so people can glimpse something of the goodness of God in their situation. As I said previously, people don’t often like the truth. It rocks the boat and disempowers the status quo.
Each year, in Lent, I think of the prophets who came before Jesus, who gave up everything to point people towards his coming. I think of the people who I’ve met in my lifetime, who bear the cost of pointing others towards Jesus, challenging behaviour and demanding better of the people around them. This Lent, let us pray for more prophets and truth tellers; for more people who point us towards Jesus, no matter the cost. May we raise up children who are fierce in pursuit of the truth, and fervent in their love for Christ. Amen.
Notes for talking to children: many of the short reflections I am releasing over Lent use songs that children will likely know well. Please feel free to use them to talk to your child/ren about Jesus and faith. Prophets is particularly tricky, as they may have questions about whether the prophets in the Old Testament had eyes that glowed green and could they tell if someone’s fish was about to die – as in Encanto. However, the focus, I think, is on a) the keeping close to God and developing that listening ear to hear what God is saying and b) the speaking of truth, even when that might be really hard. As ever, honesty, openness and authenticity is key with our child/ren. They often teach us more than we teach them.
“The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” (Luke 23:55-56, NIVUK)
They rested. But was it Sabbath rest? Or the rest of grief? The tiredness of grief that must have consumed them immediately after the brutal death of their friend and teacher, Jesus. This is the part of the story that I so want to read, and yet there’s so little detail of what they did. Is this it? Is this all they did? Rested?
This is the bit of the story that is scant with detail, but anyone who has ever experienced grief or loss knows what came next. The fatigue. The loss of appetite. The tears for no reason. The isolation. How could they have rested, truly rested, and worshipped at a time such as that? How could they have participated in Sabbath rest and worship?
We see this played out in Frozen 2, when Anna loses both her sister and her friend. She sinks to the floor, barely able to speak. She sits alone in the dark, a metaphor for the isolation in your mind after loss. When she sings, it is with a whisper.
I’ve seen dark before, but not like this This is cold, this is empty, this is numb The life I knew is over, the lights are out Hello, darkness, I’m ready to succumb I follow you around, I always have But you’ve gone to a place I cannot find This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down But a tiny voice whispers in my mind You are lost, hope is gone.
“You’ve gone to a place I cannot find … you are lost, hope is gone.” Words sun by Anna in the song Do the Next Right Thing. It’s a hint given throughout the film: when all seems lost, we do the next right thing. Yet, Jesus gives the same instructions. He tells them to break bread and to do it in remembrance of him; to drink wine, remembering his blood poured out for all; to worship their God, without pretense, and with their whole hearts. Despite their loss, despite the hopelessness they find themselves inhabiting, the women, we are told, do the next right thing. They entered the Sabbath and they rested in their grief.
Can there be a day beyond this night? I don’t know anymore what is true I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone The only star that guided me was you How to rise from the floor When it’s not you I’m rising for?
In the immediacy of losing Jesus, they must have wondered what happened next. Here was a man who’d taught them so much, proclaimed to BE the truth. The way. The life. But now he was gone. They had rooted their lives in his; where he went, they followed. Even until the end, even with the danger of being associated with this man, the women followed to the cross. And to the tomb.
In the same way, Anna’s life is rooted into that of her sister. She finds her truth and identity in being Elsa’s plucky but vulnerable younger sister. She’s not the queen, but by blood she is royalty. And when her sister is lost, Anna doesn’t know how to do the next right thing. Why? Because the one who guided her towards that thing has gone. I wonder if the women felt this despondency. How do we rest and worship when the one who guided us to rest and worship is gone?
But break it down to this next breath, this next step This next choice is one that I can make So I’ll walk through this night Stumbling blindly toward the light And do the next right thing
They must have felt lost. Yet they had a deeper faith, rooted into a tradition of worship and rest found in keeping the Sabbath. They knew that Yahweh had delivered the people they belonged to out of Egypt and through the waters into new life. They had to believe that if they did the next right thing, if they stepped into the Sabbath to worship and rest, that Yahweh would deliver them out of this grief, through their tears and into new life. The life he had promised them. The life where they would no longer hunger or thirst.
Of course, this is the turning point in the song, where Anna’s voice strengthens and she starts to make a move. She becomes resolute in what she has to do next. If this were a musical about Jesus’ death and resurrection, one of the women would sing this. At this moment, though, they’d have been mourning and resting in the darkness of their own home for 2 nights and a day. They’d be getting ready to make a move out of Sabbath and into the next right thing: returning to the tomb to continue mourning.
And, with it done, what comes then? When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice And do the next right thing.
That first Holy Saturday wasn’t just about darkness and isolation, grief and loss. It was also about Sabbath: rest and worship. Worship that no doubt included loud cries and wailing. Rest that no doubt included both silence and noise. Today, as sit in our own social isolation, I wonder if we have lessons to learn about how we rest and worship this Easter.
It was that line which made me first thing of the crucifixion story: “What comes then? When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again.” I instantly imagined Mary and the other women yearning for yesterday, mourning not just the loss of their beloved friend, but also the loss of life as they knew it. Life as they’d hoped it would be. Yet, they made a choice: to rest into their grief and loss. They made a choice: to wait and return to the tomb after a day of Sabbath. They made a choice, to hear God’s voice. To do the next right thing.
There are just three words I want to say to you today. Three words I want you to hear today.
Love is everything.
Love. Is. Everything.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes of the indispensability of love and all of its character. It is patient, kind, slow to anger, not self-seeking, rejoices with the truth. It protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. It does not keep a record of wrongs, nor shame others. It is not proud or boastful. It is everything.
Often read at weddings, this passage has a lot to say about love. But why did Paul choose to teach the Corinthians about it? Why was it so essential for him to impress upon them the greatness of love?
At the time of writing, the church in Corinth were falling out over which spiritual gifts were the greatest, experiencing disunity and jealousy, amongst many other things. The context of this particular chapter is that it comes immediately after Paul tells the Corinthians (in Chapter 12) that no one person amongst them is vital. Yes, there are those with prominent gifts, such as prophesy, teaching, healing and interpreting, but the whole church, the body of Christ, is one body with many parts. And Paul writes that all those parts suffer with one another, whilst equally rejoicing with one another. They are one body.
And so, Paul’s focus on love in 1 Corinthians 13 makes sense. You could be the greatest at prophesying but, if you do not have love, it is nothing. You could have a real gift for preaching but, without love, it is nothing. You could have everything that is outwardly good and seen as special but, without love, it is nothing. Whilst all that you’re fighting about will cease to exist, writes Paul, love will never fail. Love will always exist. In fact, we see in verse 10 that love is completeness. Paul builds his argument that the “most excellent way” is love: when we are fully grown, when we are complete, love will be everything. You won’t need to worry about who is preaching and who is not, who is prophesying, and who is not, because love will suffice in its entirety.
Love is everything.
I wonder if you’ve seen the film The Greatest Showman. In the box office it had great success and has become one of the highest grossing musicals of all time. Friends of mine, who are quick to state their dislike of musicals, rave about it; but on the face of it, it seems shallow and is only very loosely based on the main character P.T. Barnum’s life. And yet, the music, oh how the music explodes onto the screen and tells us of deeper truths which lie within all of us. I am certain that stirring of emotions from within is the catalyst for the film’s success.
‘What does all of this have to do with God’s word? What does this have to do with love?’ I hear you ask. Well, when I am in the very early stages of preparing to preach, I like to run and mull things over in my head. Sometimes I might mutter along to myself, phrasing and rephrasing things which occur to me about the passage. And sometimes, I have a sudden moment of inspiration. These moments tend to come from nowhere; they feel almost like a sucker punch, and they’re usually at the point in the run when I am struggling along, and my thoughts are turning to survival. It’s almost as though, when I am physically empty, the Lord is there with me to fill me up spiritually. It was at this point the other afternoon when the song ‘Never Enough’ came onto my shuffle playlist; it was at this point I felt winded and yet had clarity; it was at this point that I burst into tears.
You see, the words woven through this melody have power. This wasn’t the first time this particular song made me cry: both my husband and I were moved to tears, when we watched the film for the first time. The lyrics reminded me of how I feel God working in my life. This idea that nothing in life could ever be enough, without Him. Nevertheless, here I was, several months later, crying because God had revealed something different.
‘All the shine of a thousand spotlights, all the stars we steal from the night sky, will never be enough, never be enough. Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world, but it’ll never be enough, never be enough for me.’
God does not need the shine of a thousand spotlights, He already holds the world in His hands. Indeed, He does not need to steal the stars from the night sky; they are His already. And yet, He chooses to say, ‘I am not done.’ He chooses to send His most beloved Son to live on earth, be crucified and then rise again. Why? Just so we can encounter Him. Just so creation can be restored. Just so we can take His hand and share in His story. (In fact, the songs says this… “take my hand, will you share this with me? Because darling without you… it will never be enough.” This is the most extravagant and overwhelming display of love in all of history.
The song, according to its writers, is supposed to feel exactly like that: Extravagant. Overwhelming. They wanted to conjure up the image of ‘someone in a castle trying to count all of their riches and it still doesn’t add up to enough. It’s kind of that moment where someone isn’t really satisfied.’ And that was what came to mind when I was mulling over 1 Corinthians 13 on a long 6-mile run.
God’s love for us is so extravagant, so rich, so complete, that He could not leave us and creation after the fall. All that we read about love in 1 Corinthians 13 is part of God’s character because He is love. God is patient, and kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. God does not dishonour others, nor is He self-seeking, nor easily angered, and He keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres. God never fails. He is complete and whole.
Yet, He chose to say, “It is not enough.” His love is so complete that, despite our lack of whole-ness, He chose us. He chooses us. He chooses the impatient mother. The unkind classmate. The envious, boastful social media influencers. The proud and self-praising boss. The bully who humiliates. The angry teenager. The couple who bring up old grievances in new fights. The colleague who feels good when other people get their ‘comeuppance’. The teacher who fails to protect. The colleague you can’t trust. The friend who never sees the light at the end of the tunnel. The student dropout, who just can’t persevere.
We all know these people. We are these people. And God loves us anyway. It’s written throughout scripture, from Genesis through to Revelation. In John 3: 16 it says, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ As we think about how God loves us that much, that He would rather send His son to die in our place, than live eternally without us, it may be that you recognised one of those character traits in your life. How does your record of wrong doing affect your relationships? What does always being hopeful look like in your life? How is love hindered by your lack of generosity to those who wrong you?
For me, I struggle with patience. I have a 3-year-old and it often feels like Groundhog Day as we spend yet another 90 minutes eating cereal or toast or pasta. How can it take so long to eat a simple meal? Yet, the impact that has on my relationship with her is negative. It creates tension, rather than peace; friction, rather than happiness; sadness, rather than joy. It is something I am working on at the moment and it is hard work, as I sit with her and find endless new ways to keep smiling whilst I wait for her to swallow her food. Yet, if God can look at my poor track record in my journey with Him, and show love in His patience with me, I can surely try to do the same with my toddler.
What is it in your life which is stopping you from showing love? God looks at us and says, ‘It will never be enough.’ So why is it enough for us to say we love, yet to withhold it in myriad ways offered in 1 Corinthians 13. What would our relationships look like if we applied ourselves in these areas? How could our communities be restored if our love looked like God’s love?