Turning Tables

A mix of creative biblical rewrites and reflections on the God who continues to upend our own notions and ideas.


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An extract from the book

There was once a theatre company who were staging a play about the life of Jesus. One evening, as they were rehearsing, a stranger slipped into the hall and sat at the back watching. When the actors took a break for a drink the stranger came over. ‘What do you think of it?’ the director asked. ‘Well… yes… it’s very good,’ said the stranger, ‘just one question. Why is Jesus so serious all the time? Why doesn’t he smile a bit more? And he’s not very animated is he? Couldn’t he laugh from time to time? There are moments when he looks like he’s moving in slow motion, don’t you think?’ And before the director could argue, the stranger grabbed his script and began reading out a few of the lines. Before long the cast had gathered round, nodding and laughing, caught up in his lively delivery. ‘There you go, try that,’ he suggested and he wandered back to his seat. At some point he left. ‘Who was that?’ the director asked one of the cast, when the rehearsal was over. ‘No idea, but…’ she paused, frowning a little, ‘well, he looked a bit like Jesus, didn’t he?’ she said. ‘Really?’ said the director. ‘You think so? But he was quite ordinary. You know, down-to-earth and friendly.’ ‘Yea, I liked him,’ the actor said, ‘I wonder if we’ll see him again?’ The director nodded. ‘Hope so,’ he said.

God became flesh, so Gospel blog writer John tells us in the first post of his epic report. He put on humanity, decked himself out in a regular person’s garb, and made himself at home among us. Moved into the neighbourhood. Made his bed and lay in it. Pulled up a chair and joined the conversation. Got his hands dirty. Didn’t hold back, fearing ridicule or contamination. As someone who fiercely fears both I admire that, I really do. He got stuck in. So much so that he didn’t look like God at all. At least, not like anybody’s previous idea of God.

The locals were on a steep learning curve, as have been all the locals in history ever since. This wasn’t merely a disguise, or a costume, or an elaborate Facebook profile. This was him. All of him. Every last mysterious bit. He didn’t just paddle in the shallows but jumped right in. Totally immersed. Full of blood cells and bone marrow, brain matter and body tissue. He did it, the ultimate, earthy miracle.

It’s the one thing that some find unappealing, whilst others feel it’s surely too good to be true. He morphed into a person. One of us, like that guy on the bus, as Joan Osborne observed. Like the waitress in Pizza Hut. Like the librarian, the traffic warden, the schoolteacher, the ground worker, the lollipop lady.

He needed food, drink, a bed, a roof, the loo, understanding, love, raising by his parents, laughter, tears, inspiration, exercise, hugs, a handkerchief, consideration, a listening ear, strength for another day, solitude, prayer, a wash, vegetables and protein. If he didn’t he wasn’t human but Superman in a robe rather than tights, and I think we’ve already established surely, he wasn’t that. That was a Marvel kind of god, not ours.

He plunged into the waters of life, into its hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, pains, blame games, smear campaigns, shamings, parties and celebrations. Bust through the dividing wall of one dimension right into another.

He burnt his bridges, had no plan B shut up any escape route. So much so that it took a while for folks to cotton on to what was going on. It still does. We’d rather he be a mascot, a good luck charm; a juke-box God who will provide just the right tune if we learn to press just the right buttons in just the right order.

Frustratingly He’s never liked boxes and constantly punches His way out. This calloused-handed carpenter, this wry, witty storyteller, this miracle-working doctor, this hard-nosed justice campaigner.

He had a birthday (famously), along with favourite food, a sense of humour and bags under his eyes. He obviously had lots of other things, but that’s just a taster. We might want him to be cosy, fluffy, meek and yes ¬− PC. Not standing for anything that will rock the boat or kick up a storm.

Well, we can hope. The problem is he lived his life in a storm, so he’s used to them; knows how to cause them (think tables clattering and coins spinning in the temple) and how to calm them (think ferocious seas harnessed and ruined lives restored). And the thing is, some of what we now call PC was most likely just healthy living to him.

‘In this world you’ll have troubles,’ he once said, and boy did he know what he was talking about. He never shied away from conflict or played the ‘yes-man’ game. Life was too precious to him, people too vital.

He knew trouble and argument, malice and lies. And he lived with it all, full of grace and truth, long-suffering and kindness, compassion and warmth, steel and courage, humility and forgiveness. Not because the perpetrators deserved it. Whoever does? But because he was on a mission to reshape reality, to open a door. To offer a road for those wanting to find hope.

And the trail needed blazing. We see faint glimpses of his likeness in some of our heroes today. But the full picture? No. Because our heroes, like all the rest of us, need fresh starts too. Who doesn’t?

We can only catch glimpses, clutch at straws, spot pale reflections, notice the movement of his shadow, the breath of his spirit, at work in and through all these small, ordinary heroes around us. The windows of time are smeared with life’s grime and bird droppings. We have to find a gap or two and stand and peer through them. Still ourselves for a moment and catch sight once again, ever so briefly, of the continuing presence of the just, kind and present God.

The Problem with Following the Invisible God
He stands and stares at the skyline. Nothing. Not even tumbleweed floating by. Just an inner nudge, an elbow digging into the ribs of his soul, urging him on. If only he could have something he could see. A holy goal, a heavenly city, a divine finishing line. Back where he’s come from folks have tangible gods. Things made from metal and wood, plastic and silicon. Stuff they can hold and clutch and carry, with shape and size. Just like his friends and family used to, so much easier when you can see something. So tempting to replace the invisible, nudging, whispering God with something smaller. Something you can pin down and stick a label on. Something you can visit or keep in the cupboard or on the mantelpiece. He and his family been trudging past little clutches of civilisation. Folks in tents and caravans and communities. They all have their physical things. Probably don’t think of them as gods but there seems no doubt to him. Things that draw their energy and time and money. Pastimes, possessions, charms, careers, bling. He glances down, feels the sun burning the back of his neck. His shadow makes a vague shape on the ground before him. A smudged silhouette. A kind of cross. He shivers though he’s more than a little warm. Has no idea why.

There’s a loneliness, a dark isolation to all this. It’s clear to him, this call, and the others faithfully follow on, but he’s out front alone. Blazing this trail. They don’t get it, how could they? He wouldn’t blame them for wanting to go back to what’s safe, comfortable, known. He can’t prove to them that they will end up anywhere soon. Just that the journey is home for now. And everyone gets restless travelling, that hankering from deep within, calling to some place of settling. Well this is anything other than settling. The trail is the home. Each new day another step into the unknown. Some of them are getting used to it, and encourage him with their nods and winks. But others are muttering the ‘when will we be there?’ kind of cry. And that’s unsettling. Leads him to question whether this is just a wild idea. A manufactured hunch.

There are times though when he’s never been surer of anything. A sense deep within him, a presence. More real than anything carved out of wood or stone, or anything engineered or crafted. This invisible God. Uncontrollable, can’t be manhandled, can’t be harnessed or measured or weighed, can’t put a price on him. A God beyond any human imagining, yet one choosing to be with him. Constantly. Bidden or unbidden. Sensed or not.

He looks again at that shadow. Shivers once more. It’s like him and yet like something else too. Perhaps the shadow of his God with him. For a moment the lines lengthen, and the cross is clearly defined. Then it shrinks again. He walks on.
(Genesis 12 vv 1−9)

It would be easier perhaps if there was a to-do list, a code of conduct, a few regulations. Pray three times a day, wear this, go here, visit this place, dress in that way. Do this, that and the other.

And over the years some folks have tried to box the good news of Jesus in this way. Of course we have the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount and many other bits of guidance in the Bible. But these all come to fruition in following Jesus. The way is a man, not a manual.

And ultimately the grace of God is not housed in a neat strapline, or a few well-ordered rules and regulations. It is found in following a wise, courageous, caring carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus. And that’s a lot more ragged, a lot more challenging to define.

Because… the way Jesus leads you may not be identical to the way he leads me. He may take you down different roads, to different places, doing different things. That’s what the invisible God is like.
We find visible gods much easier, and at times are tempted to reduce the God of all things down to the God of one or two things. But God will not be framed in this way. Abraham followed that voice, that nudging call. Into the unknown. And for that very reason, all these years later, we find ourselves doing the same.

Wrestling in the Dark
It was one of those dreams where you know it’s a dream but you can’t wake up. And boy did he want to wake up. The sound of the water, the crackling flames, the scuffling of his feet in the dirt, the pounding of his heart. And the stranger coming at him in the dark. All over again. Grasping, shoving, twisting him round, overbalancing him so that he ended up with his face in the dirt and grit on his lips. He staggered up, and now a different figure seemed to come at him. A little smaller. More struggling, more twisting and overbalancing, and as he stood the first figure came at him again. On and on it went, taking forever. And then, as he wrenched himself out of the tussle, stood back and took a look while he caught his breath, he saw the two figures, one muscular, powerful, almost shining a little in the night, the other… well… looking just like him. A mirror image. As if he was wrestling not only God, but himself in the process. And then he woke. A sheen of sweat on his brow. It was so long ago, yet he still dreams of it, all these years later.
(Genesis 32 vv 22−31)

If you’re anything like me you may wonder from time to time why life is not more plain sailing, why being a Christian does not make life feel more like a walk in the park.

I grew up thinking that as I got better at this ‘being a Christian thing’ so life would get easier and easier. My prayers would be answered, I’d be a brilliant witness and get everything right. Hmm. I think I should have read my Bible a little more, because I realise now that so many of the great heroes of faith struggled.

Jacob in particular had a night of wrestling with God, a struggle out of which he came with a limp and a new name – Israel − One who wrestles with God. As I’ve pondered on this I wonder whether it’s not a bad description of life with God – we are blessed by him, but sometimes find this very ‘blessing’ slowing us down, drawing us to refocus, and to live differently.

Jacob had been a real Only Fools and Horses Del Boy of a character, an expert wheeler-dealer, pulling the wool over the eyes of his dad, his brother and his uncle. Now God was stopping him in his tracks, so that real life could begin.

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, once said, ‘Have the peace which passes understanding, but don’t be at peace with the world, because so many people in the world are not at peace.’ And I think that’s where the wrestling comes in.

Like Jacob, we are invited into a new life which calls us to wrestle with life, ourselves, the world, and even at times God. There was a whole lot of shaping going on that night by the Jabbok river, Jacob was being changed as he wrestled, and the evidence is right there when he meets his brother the next day.

Nick Page highlights this in his book The Dark Night of the Shed. ‘I have everything I need,’ Jacob says to Esau. Astonishing. The pre-wrestling Jake would never have been so magnanimous, so generous, or open-hearted. But he is changing. He has wrestled with God.

Early in Luke’s Gospel young Mary met an angel and immediately felt troubled. Queen Esther found herself fasting in a harem. Jacob’s son Joseph dreamt of stars and found himself languishing in prison. Jesus saw Jerusalem and wept. The Bible is full of those who find themselves wrestling with reality.

Paul famously came clean in his letter to the Romans, chapter 7, admitting that he could not do the things he knew he should do. He was wrestling with himself. I’m so glad he wrote about that wrestling, so many of us find ourselves in just that kind of situation.

I sometimes think of following Jesus as entering a life of contradiction. I believe in peace, hope, love and joy. Yet I am frequently grumpy, restless, despairing and unloving. What does Paul write of this? ‘Thank God,’ he says, ‘we have somewhere to take our wrestling, to Jesus…’ to that cross upon which the Man from Nazareth wrestled with everything that is wrong with the universe. Praise the Lord, he has absorbed our ragged stories, along with the story of everything that ever was.

Every day, if we need to, we can return to that place of death and new life, wrestling and resurrection. The two seem to go hand in hand.

When Jesus spoke of prayer he talked of a poor woman with nothing, hammering on the door of a judge who was swigging back the luxuries of life; and then he spoke of a friend who had to keep battering on the window of a neighbour to get some bread to share with visitors.

Pictures of wrestling, pictures of difficulty and struggle. ‘Keep going,’ Jesus seems to be saying, ‘don’t give up with your looking and searching and knocking… and wrestling.’ And there he is again, living it out on that cross, uttering surely one of the loneliest prayers in the history of the world. ‘My God, my God, where are you? Why have you left me? Why am I abandoned?’ He knows what it is for everything to seem empty, ruined, spoilt and lost.

I long to be successful, to have an easy life, to be like that judge in Jesus’s story, taking it easy, having everything sorted. But of course the hero of Jesus’s tale in Luke 18 is the woman, knocking, persevering, keeping going, in spite of her difficulties.

I guess if there is one thing we can learn from Jacob’s wrestling in Genesis 32, it’s surely that God knows how to wrestle too, and sometimes it’s his most intimate way of engaging with us. He comes close, in the trouble and the night.

I wonder if Jacob was struggling with himself as well as with his God. Often when I find myself wrestling with my Maker I’m wrestling with my own ego too. My desire to hang on to my bright ideas, my small strength, my narrow wisdom, my concerted efforts. Nothing wrong with the strength, ideas and wisdom God has given us, as long as we can set them aside when the need arises.

That’s Jacob’s big challenge – to set himself aside and make room for his God.

Jacob doesn’t realise for quite a while that he is wrestling with God. Like me at times. I can put my hand up to that one, been there, done that, not realised God is hard at work trying to change me. It may be that he just thinks he is being mugged. ‘Who are you?’ he asks. But not before God asks the same question of him. ‘Who are you?’

Nick Page again, in his book, points out that Jacob’s answer is vital, he must face himself, admit his name (which means Grabber) and once he is honest about who he is, then he can begin to move on. Daring to answer, Jacob gets a new start and finds hope in the flushed face of that divine wrestler.

One day there will be a new dawn without tears, or pain, sadness or struggle. But until then we may well frequently find ourselves in the dark at the river Jabbok. The writer of Psalm 46 vv 1−2 encourages us with the lines − ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.’ And, in Jesus, God has lived through the kind of troubles we face, and understands our wrestling.

(This piece was originally published in Lee Abbey’s Rapport magazine, May 2018)

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