Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Defeat is an Orphan

Matthew 21.5  Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you!

Everyone loves an winner. How often have we heard someone praised as "a real winner"? And how often have we heard someone put down with the words, "She's a real loser" or "He's just a loser. Pay no attention"? Somehow we feel better when we're one-up on someone else. Being at the top of the pile is better than being at the bottom.

An Italian, facing the Allied advance during World War 2, wrote, "Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan." Losing is neither comfortable nor popular. We've all had the experience. None of us wants it again, if possible. Even the small defeats of ordinary life don't bear repeating if we can help it. Our most admired figures tend to be those who have triumphed, who are victors over the herd. We wish we could be like them.

Sometimes we look back on a defeat and try to rewrite history. We find excuses, we find reasons, we find causes and circumstances - all designed to sweeten a bitter pill. Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do is to be honest with ourselves about defeat. Just as it's tempting to define others as losers, so it's easy to try to turn our own defeats into victories even when the facts testify otherwise. It's not unfair to conclude that the author of Matthew, writing some 50 years after the death if Jesus, was trying to put a shine on defeat in the way he dealt with this event.

Traditionally, Christians look upon the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as triumphant. The author of Matthew's Gospel presents the crowds excitedly proclaiming Jesus as the long-expected Messiah, the one who would at last bring God's righteous rule to earth. He portrays people who have spotted a winner and are rejoicing accordingly: "Praise to David's son! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God!"

But a dark shadow lurks behind the rejoicing crowds. In Jerusalem during religious feasts anyone who drew a crowd was quickly marked as a potential troublemaker. The city was packed with pilgrims, many of whom hated the Roman regime. Excited multitudes were considered a volatile element which might threaten peace and stability. Quick, ruthless action to stamp out trouble was a normal official Roman response in such situations.

So the truth is that Jesus, by attracting the attention of the authorities as he entered Jerusalem, was signing his death warrant. The event was not a triumph but the first step to utter defeat, a defeat so swift and complete that it's not noted by any reliable historical source other than the Gospels. The Roman authorities did their job well. Jesus was removed from the scene with a minimum of fuss, quickly condemned, and as speedily killed. Exit a potential winner as a miserable loser.

Defeat somehow diminishes us. Defeated, we become losers, if only in our own eyes. For some of us, defeat begins early in our lives and lasts all our years. For others, the nature and circumstances of a particular defeat saps energy and commitment day by day. A very few seem never to be affected by it.

But the point is that many of us are losers in the eyes of society, though not many must endure as all-encompassing a defeat as did Jesus. Because of that, it's to losers rather than winners that Jesus speaks most clearly. Like us he suffered the pain of defeat. We may not be too impressed by traditional ways of proclaiming Jesus as a triumphant Messiah (Christ). Nor may we be able to think in traditional terms of a victorious Jesus seated in triumph at the right hand of God in heaven while we unfortunates pig it out down here.

But we can identify with the Jesus who went to alone to a final and cruel defeat rather than drag his friends down with him. To identify with him is to realise that we have the capacity to renew ourselves and pass through defeat to life on the other side.

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