Monday, December 19, 2016

Sundays 8, 15, 22 in January 2017

Due to holidays and other reasons I am offering in the one post reflections on three Sundays in January 2017.

I am treating Sunday 8 January as Epiphany = 6 January in the first instance and then offering an alternative, Sunday 8 January = Baptism of the Lord.

15 January and 22 January are then the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Epiphany respectively

Sunday 8 January 2017 Epiphany


Theme: Coming of the Wise Men / Light to the Gentiles / Light of the World

Sentence: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. (Matthew 2:2)

Collect:

O God, by the leading of a star
you revealed your Son Jesus Christ to the gentiles;
grant that your Church may be a light to the nations
so that the whole world may come to see
the splendour of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Commentary:

Isaiah 60:1-6

The resonances with Matthew 2:1-12 are easy to see. Most obviously in v. 6 'gold and frankincense', among the gifts of the wise men. But the theme of light and darkness is also important. The prophet sees Israel as a beacon to the nations. Jesus will focus Israel and draw the same homage from the nations, represented through the visit of the wise men after his birth to present their Isaianic gifts.

Psalm 72

In original intent this psalm is a prayer for the prosperity of Israel's king ('of Solomon' in the superscription). It envisages among other signs of that prosperity that foreign kings will bring expensive tribute to him. The reason for connecting this psalm with the Epiphany when wise men (possibly kings) brought tribute to baby King Jesus is obvious.

Ephesians 3:1-12

The coming of the wise men from foreign lands in Matthew's Gospel, celebrated as the 'Epiphany' or revelation of the gospel to the Gentiles, is a landmark in the history of God's people. Israel has been the chosen nation living in the promised land: an exclusive people, partly required by allegiance to their god, YHWH, unique to them and distinctive among all the gods of surrounding peoples, and partly resulting from the circumstances of being enslaved in Egypt, exiled to Babylon and encircled by oppressive empires of Greece and Rome, each exerting force against their holy way of life. YHWH, the God of Israel was God of the world, but the world was generally expected to convert to Israel if it wanted to follow Israel's God. In other words, a Gentile needed to become a Jew to be truly counted among God's people.

Matthew tell us the story of the Gentile gift-bearers as part of an explicit but soft line within his gospel in which he makes clear that God is happy to include Gentiles as Gentiles among his people now redefined as the kingdom of God/heaven (alongside Matthew 2:1-12 note also the references to Gentiles in the genealogy of Jesus, 1:1-17, and the Great Commission, 28:16-20). Likely Matthew completes his gospel writing after Paul's apostleship is completed. That apostleship, described in this Ephesian passage, broke open the Jesus movement which was strongly Jewish, and challenged it to include Gentile followers of Jesus who remained Gentile (e.g. by not being circumcised).

Paul's contribution, both as a theologian with new insight into God's global purpose and plan and as an evangelist with a divine commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, was to boldly challenge the assumptions of his fellow apostles that Christianity was inescapably Jewish. Not so, said Paul. Ephesians (including today's passage), Galatians and Romans are the epistles in which Paul's reasoning for inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles in God's people are laid out.

Matthew 2:1-12

In this story Matthew opens up several important themes for his gospel. One, already noted in comments above, is that the coming of Jesus as the Christ of God is an event of significance for the whole world, for Gentiles as well as for Jews. That Gentile or foreign world which surrounds Israel is represented by the Magi or wise men who come bearing gifts. (Note, by the way, that there were three gifts but no mention of how many wise men!)

Two, Jesus is a light for the Gentiles, thus a star is seen guiding them towards the presence of God on earth (Emmanuel). Hence 'Epiphany' or manifestation: a revelation of a significant divine intervention in the world comes to the Magi who respond by seeking out the 'one who has been born king of the Jews' (v. 2). This revelation draws them not to seek further wisdom but to worship the king. Luke betrays no knowledge of the Magi coming to worship Jesus but he records for us the acclamation of Simeon when Jesus is presented in the Temple. This acclamation accords with the Matthean story: 'For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles' (Luke 2:30-32).

Three, Jesus is caught in conflict from the beginning of his life. Any story in which the protagonist dies an unnatural death needs to provide an explanation as to why the protagonist dies. Each of the gospel writers provides this explanation (spoiler alert: it's complicated). But each of the gospel writers has a slightly different starting point for when the conflict either begins or begins to be signalled as imminent. Thus, to return to Luke, Simeon forecasts future conflict for Jesus and sorrow for Mary (2:34-35). Mark offers a hint of conflict to come in an early story of exorcism (1:21-24) but the first murmurings of opposition come in 2:6-7).

Here in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is a rival to Herod. His birth, announced by the wise men as the birth of the king of Israel (2:2), disturbs Herod and sends him into a literally murderous rage (2:16-18). Neither this Herod (the Great) nor one of his successors will kill Jesus, but his execution will come because something to do with the kingly status and manner of Jesus disturbs the power structures of Israel, both religious and political structures. Pilate will place a charge against him on the cross, 'This is Jesus, the king of the Jews' (Matthew 27:37; also Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).

Alternative: Sunday 8 January 2017 Epiphany 1


Theme: Baptism of the Lord

Sentence: I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me ... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

Collect:

Almighty God,
you anointed Jesus at his baptism
with the Holy Spirit,
and revealed him as your beloved Son;
grant that we who are baptised into his name
may give up our lives to your service,
and be found worthy of our calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Commentary:

Isaiah 42:1-9

This is the first of four passages in Isaiah with similarities which have led to scholars naming them the 'servant songs'. The others are 49:1-6; 50:4-11; and, best known, 52:13-53:12. Naturally we ask who the servant is.

For the first hearers/readers of Isaiah it is likely (and reasonable) that the servant would have been understood as Israel itself. Israel the servant thus has important purposes in the great plan of God for the world, with a special role as agent of justice and bearer of light for the world (v.3, 6 respectively) and a way which involves suffering (notably in the fourth song, 52:13-53:12).

For Christians, and especially because of the way 52:13-53:12 dovetails into the passion narrative of the last days and hours of Jesus' life, the servant is Jesus Christ.

In this first song we see features of Jesus' mission foreseen (and later noted by Matthew or Luke). In particular and relevant to today's gospel reading, Matthew 3:17 works in elements of Isaiah 42:1 into the divine approval of Jesus as the Beloved Son at his baptism.

Psalm 29

In this psalm attention is paid to 'the voice of the Lord' (verses 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9). When we read in v. 3 about the voice of the Lord being over 'the waters' we readily understand the link between this psalm and the baptism of Jesus.

Why attend to the voice of the Lord as the psalmist does? One reason goes back to the story of creation in Genesis 1: when the Lord spoke, things came into being. At the command of the Lord the world begins. Here the same voice continues to rule creation. Likely the 'voice' is understood as being expressed through the howling winds of storms which break cedars, shake the desert and twist oaks. In a thunderstorm it seems that the 'the Lord thunders over the mighty waters' (v. 3).

Acts 10:34-43

Peter preaches to Cornelius and the crowd gathered with him. In these nine verses he offers a summary of the gospel narrative of Jesus' ministry. Though it does not refer directly to the baptism of Jesus, Peter's summary does refer 'how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power' (v. 38).

If this were our only gospel narrative we would be well justified in thinking of Jesus as a human being especially endowed by God with the Holy Spirit but not as the divine Son of God. Our belief in Jesus as the Son of God rests on the cumulative testimony of the four gospels, as well as Acts and the epistles.

Why might Luke not pay more attention to Jesus' divinity in such a summary? One response could be that Luke does not completely downplay it! To refer to Jesus as 'Lord of all' in 10:36 is a very significant statement. For Peter subsequently to order that the new believers be 'baptized in the name of Jesus Christ' (10:48) raises the question whether a 'mere mortal' could be in a position in which his name was invoked for such a life-changing event as baptism.

Another response is that Acts is a theological narrative about the Holy Spirit (as well as about the early Christian movement). By referring to Jesus as one anointed with the 'Holy Spirit and with power,' Luke's report of Peter's sermon invites his readers a few verses further on to recognize that one and same Holy Spirit at work in Jesus falls upon Cornelius and the new believers with him. What readers are invited to consider at this point is not what Luke thinks about the status of Jesus (i.e. Luke's christology) but what God is up to by endowing believers in Jesus with the same Holy Spirit which was at work in Jesus.

Matthew 3:13-17

Since the Epiphany a week ago, Jesus has grown rapidly into an adult!

The silence over those growing years suggests that whatever 'internal development' may have been happening in Jesus' life, nothing happened which Matthew thinks we need to know. What is now told about Jesus' life is presumably important and to be noted by all disciples of Jesus.

John has been baptising people (3:1-12) and this seems to have been some kind of renewal mission: Israel was called by John to a re-commitment to live a holy life and baptism was the ceremony which symbolised the forgiveness of past failure and the beginning of a renewed holiness. Simultaneously John has also preached the coming of a greater missioner than himself (3:11-12), one who will bring the kingdom of heaven (3:1-2).

Now that missioner comes and John, understandably, thinks that if baptism is a ceremony marking this new stage in the unfolding of God's plan, then he should be baptised by Jesus. Unexpectedly Jesus wants things to be different: he will be baptised by John. Not the other way around. Why?

Jesus enigmatically says, 'it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness' (v. 15). What is going on here? One thing is that Jesus identifies with his fellow Jew. As far as baptism for the forgiveness of sins is concerned, Jesus has no need. He was righteous. But as far as being a true Israelite, committed to holy living in God's name, Jesus sets himself to identify with his fellow citizens. He will be baptized as a symbol of his commitment to living a righteous life. Another things is that Jesus has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) and to live a life whose 'righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees' (5:20). Jesus will submit to baptism as a sign of his commitment to righteous living. Even if this did not identify with fellow Israelites (e.g. they did not get baptized), Jesus would do this, would do anything to demonstrate his zeal for the Lord's will.

Nevertheless, this statement remains enigmatic. How, for instance, does baptism at the hands of John 'fulfill all righteousness'? It was not a requirement of the law.

The reading concludes not with Israel celebrating Jesus' commitment to righteousness but with God expressing his pleasure. The Spirit of God descends on Jesus and the divine voice (recalling Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1; also anticipating the Transfiguration, Matthew 17:5) says, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'

Here, at the beginning of Jesus' mission and ministry, we meet Jesus as the Son of God. The infant worshipped by the sages in Matthew 2 has always been the Beloved Son but now this status is declared in the public event of baptism.

A final note: we include the story of the Baptism of the Lord in the season of Epiphany = Manifestation / Revelation / Appearance because at Jesus' baptism a manifestation takes place (the coming down of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove) and a revelation is given (the divine voice's approval of Jesus as the Beloved Son).

Sunday 15 January 2017 Epiphany 2


Theme: Jesus the Lamb of God / Jesus the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit

Sentence: He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).

Collect:

O God,
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of your Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Commentary:

Isaiah 49:1-7

Noting the remarks above (Sunday 8 January: Baptism of the Lord readings) about Isaiah's 'servant songs'; this is the second of the four servant songs.

If, generally speaking 'the servant' originally referred to Israel and her role in God's great purposes for the world, here in these verses an opening is made for the possibility that the servant is a particular agent of God (while still remaining Israel as well). Note that one formed in the womb (v. 5) for the purpose of bringing Jacob/Israel back to God is odd if it is also referring to Israel: at this point the servant seems to be an individual agent of God, a prophet perhaps charged with calling Israel back to God. Yet in the same vein the verses go on to speak of the servant as having a role beyond the 'light' thing that Jacob/Israel is raised up. 'I will give you as a light to the nations' (v. 6). But it is difficult to see how this could have been understood in Isaiah's day as a role for an individual rather than a role for (restored, reinvigorated) Israel.

Again, as Christians we look back through the lens of Jesus Christ and understand the passage to refer to the one we believe in as 'the light of the world.'

Psalm 40:1-11

Why is this psalm chosen for an Epiphany Sunday? Presumably because there is talk of not hiding, that is, of revealing God's plan of salvation (v. 9-10).

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

In the season of Epiphany we think about the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Here Paul writes his introduction to 1 Corinthians and talks of 'the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ'. In that particular verse, 5, the emphasis falls on the revelation to come when Christ returns. But Paul also talks about what has been revealed in and through Jesus so that the Corinthians have been 'enriched in him' (v. 5), and 'not lacking any spiritual gift' (v. 7). Soon Paul will talk about the wisdom found in Christ (1:18-31) and later will talk about the spiritual gifts which include those which reveal divine knowledge (chapters 12 and 14).

What has been revealed to the Corinthians is not knowledge for knowledge's sake but that which 'strengthens' them 'to the end' (v. 8).

John 1:29-42

'I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel' (1:31)

In the baptism of Jesus, something is 'revealed' about him (see notes for 12 January) and thus Epiphany spends a few of its Sundays on the baptism of the Lord.

Here John the Baptist talks about Jesus (greater than himself) and the baptism of Jesus (including the fact that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit) in ways reminiscent of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But look closely at the Johannine text: nowhere is the actual baptism of Jesus as an event described directly - only in the report of John the baptizer.

What is revealed here which we do not find in the other gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus?

(At least)

1. Jesus is described as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' (1:29, 36)
2. Jesus is explicitly identified as 'the Son of God' (1:34)
3. There was something about Jesus ... note how in 1:37 two disciples of John hear John acclaim Jesus as 'the Lamb of God' and immediately 'followed Jesus.' They do not even need an invitation from Jesus.
4. Jesus issues an invitation to these two disciples but, really, to all readers of the gospel, 'Come and see' (1:39, see also 1:46). In and through Jesus, God has come into the world to transform the world: will we come and see this? Of course through the gospel lots of people see what Jesus is doing but only a few see=understand what Jesus is doing. Something is being made manifest in Jesus which can be seen, but not all can see it. One key to true seeing of Jesus is to 'remain' or 'abide' with him. This great theme (see especially John 15) is introduced here in a subtle, and matter of fact way. The two disciples respond to the invitation: 'they came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day' (1:39). In our language we might say that they hung out with Jesus!
5. The opportunity to join with Jesus is open to all and works with each current follower of Jesus inviting others to follow Jesus, preferably with the excitement and enthusiasm of Andrew inviting his brother Simon (1:40-42).

(Incidentally, there is food for thought putting together this account of the calling of Andrew and Simon to be disciples with the variant account in Matthew, Mark and Luke in which Andrew and Simon are fishermen plying their trade when Jesus calls them to 'Follow me.')

Sunday 22 January 2017 - Epiphany 3

Theme(s): Light in the darkness / Proclaiming the gospel / The kingdom of heaven comes near

Sentence: The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)

Collect:

Almighty God,
your Son revealed in signs and wonders
the greatness of your saving love;
renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings:

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Commentary:

Isaiah 9:1-4

Readers and listeners to readings following Isaiah these past few weeks will see a connecting link here re 'light.'. The anointed one of God will bring light to the world. (Ultimately John's Gospel will report Jesus as declaring, "I am the light of the world.") Isaiah looks ahead to this great day - great because when the light comes, the darkness goes - and Matthew acknowledges that in today's gospel reading by citing extensively from this passage.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

The troubles of the psalmist (e.g. v. 5, 6) are like darkness surrounding him. The starting point for the psalm is a ringing declaration, "The Lord is my light ..." (v. 1). Light dispels darkness, the psalmist has no need to worry, he is and will be saved from his troubles: "... and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" (v. 1).

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

HEALTH WARNING!! This might not be a passage to read/hear for those used to, even enjoying conflict and division in the church or who simply accept ongoing divisions between Christians ... whoops, that is most Christians today (so it seems). Paul lays down a huge challenge for his original conflicting Corinthian readers/hearers when he writes,

"... that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose" (v. 10).

It is possible that we could then reflect on divisions in the church then and now, how we might overcome them, or why today's divisions are not that important if seen in a certain light (e.g. our organic unity is valuable even when we are institutionally divided, etc).

Here I take a different tack and simply focus on Paul's 'why' as he presses for unity. (Noting, incidentally, that this is not a one-off concern of Paul's, see, for instance, Philippians 2:1-5.)

First, observe that Paul makes his appeal in 1:10 'by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.' The church of Christ is the church of one leader and thus is one church. So Paul goes on to argue, in verses 11-13 that this one leader has not been divided. Local leaders such as Chloe, Paul, Cephas should not be confused with the leader or lord of the church, Jesus Christ. Why be united? Christians follow one leader.

Secondly, although he does not say this explicitly in verses 17-18, Paul implies that from the one Christ and his one great saving action (death on the cross) only one message or gospel flows: 'the gospel' (1:17) ... 'the message' (1:18). The single-mindedness of the united church which he appeals for is the single-mindedness of the church which is united in its desire to proclaim the one message and to live out its life as the church in the world according to that one message.

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus has been initiated into his divine mission, being baptised (Matthew 3:13-17) and tempted/tested (4:1-11). Now he gets into his stride as God's missioner.

1. Matthew explains the initial sphere of the mission: Galilee because that is safe to proceed through. (Matthew also takes the opportunity to demonstrate that pretty much everything about the course of the life and mission of Jesus is fulfilment of previous announcements from God via his prophets, 4:14-16).

2. Jesus preached and the content of his message is simply summed up: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:17).

But if we ask for a bit more detail, some sense of the content of both 'repent' and 'kingdom of heaven coming near', we get some help by recalling that this was the same message as John the Baptist preached (3:2) and by reading the succeeding verses. Thus:

2.1 'repent' involves turning from sin (see the outcome of John's preaching in Matthew 3:1-12) and going forward with Jesus (see the immediate action following Jesus' proclamation: the first disciples are called to 'follow' him, 4:19).

2.2 'the kingdom of heaven coming near' must mean something about God's will in heaven being done on earth (see, later, 6:10), about darkness turning to light (4:12-16), about the suffering of creation being ended, the general plight of humanity being turned around and life being restored to sufferers: so we see that as Jesus proclaims 'the good news of the kingdom' he also 'cures every disease and every sickness among the people' (4:23).

It is no wonder that crowds flock towards him (4:25). His mission has notable early success.

The Naming of Jesus / Second Sunday of Christmas - Sunday 1 January 2017

This Sunday could be "The Naming of Jesus" which is a principal feast which may be transferred to Monday 2 January.

This Sunday can also be the "2nd Sunday of Christmas" and the sentence, collect, readings and comments are given for that day below.

Theme(s): Vulnerability of Christ / Holy Innocents / God's new way in the face of evil /Jesus became like us to save us

Sentence:

I will cause a righteous branch to spring forth for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Then Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. (Jeremiah 33:15, 16).

Collect:

O God,
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of your Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm 148

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

Commentary:

Isaiah 63:7-9

Here the prophet recalls the deliverance of Israel from Egypt by the hand of God, through God's own presence saving Israel (v. 9). In our gospel reading, Jesus, like Israel the son of God, is forced to go down to Egypt and brought back to Israel by God. So this passage is apt. It connects with Jesus being brought out of Egypt, like Israel of old. It also generally conveys a message of God as immediate deliverer and saviour of Israel by his presence, as God will save Israel by his presence in Jesus Christ the Emmanuel, God with us.

Psalm 148

This is - obviously - a song of praise. In organ terms, it pulls out all the stops as it invokes praise of God from every corner of the world and through every aspect of nature.

Why should each and every part of creation be cajoled into joining this great chorus of praise? Well, they exist by command of the Lord! 'Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.' (v.5)

Why this psalm on this day? It is the season of Christmas so a season to praise God for the gift of Jesus Christ. But it is also a day when we get very close with out gospel passage to the guiding star of the wise men. So we note the presence of the phrase 'all you shining stars' (v. 3).

Hebrews 2:10-18

Why did Jesus come as a human being? Couldn't (say) an angel save us? Writing to an audience of Jewish Christians (and/or Christians) tempted to revert to a stricter Jewish way of obedience to God, specifically through the system of temple sacrifices, the author of this epistle repeatedly, from many angles, nails down the supremacy of Jesus, greater than the angels, in a different and better order of priests and thus the uniqueness of his sacrifice.

In this passage, relevant to Christmas and celebrating Jesus being born a real human being, the writer tells us that Jesus was really and truly one of us. For instance,

'Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, to that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil ... (vss. 14-15), and

'For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect ... (vss. 16-18).

Further, these verses tell us that Jesus became like us in order to help us.

Actually, the author to the Hebrews goes even further than that. Jesus became a human being in order that (generally speaking) he might save humanity but he was also tested by what he suffered so that 'he is able to help those who are being tested' (v. 18).

Are you wondering what the fuss of Christmas is all about? It is about you!

Are you wondering if in the particular predicament in life which you face right now, Jesus can help you? He can! (It would be worth turning a couple of pages in Hebrews to chapter 4 verses 14-16, where we are encouraged to take what troubles us to the Lord in prayer so that 'we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.').

Matthew 2:13-23

An oddity of church history combined with the lectionary means that this Sunday we read Matthew 2:13-23 (Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt) and next Sunday (should we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany two days late) we would read Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ).

Matthew is consistently Josephine in his narratival point of view. Here Joseph receives another appearance of an angel of the Lord in a dream and there will be a third such appearance before the end of this passage. Joseph, like Mary in Luke's birth and infancy narratives, is obedient to the Lord. He takes 'the child and his mother by night and went to Egypt' (v. 14).

Note that Herod (whether Herod the Great as in this story or his various successor sons) is something of a dangerous 'type' in the gospel stories. Here the danger is greatest when Jesus is at his most vulnerable. Accordingly the narrative takes Jesus out of the danger zone around Bethlehem (with one dream warning to Joseph) and later brings him back to the mission zone of Israel (with another dream).

Laced through this passage is Matthew running riot with his Israelite scriptures! He has already relied heavily on them to compose his opening, seventeen verses concerning the genealogy of Jesus, connected, delved into the prophets to connect the special circumstances of Jesus' conception with God's previously foretold plan (1:23/Isaiah 7:14) and to connect the obscure and humble place of his birth, Bethlehem, with that same plan (2:6/Micah 5:1,3; cf. 2 Samuel 5:2). In our passage today, Matthew:

Links the flight to Egypt (2:14-15) with Hosea 11:1 (and in the process creates an identification between Jesus son of God and Israel (to whom Hosea refers) son of God.

Explains the horrific Herodian massacre of infants in and around Bethlehem as a fulfillment of a prophecy of Jeremiah (2:18/Jeremiah 31:15).

Explains the shift of home for Joseph and his family, from Judea to Galilee, to Nazareth in particular as yet another fulfillment of prophecy (2:23/echoing Isaiah 11:12 and Judges 13:5).

What is Matthew up to, here and elsewhere in his gospel as he sees fulfillment of the Israelite scripures writ large in the life and times of Jesus? Two thoughts.

One, for a largely Jewish readership, Matthew is proving that Jesus is the Christ, the long ago foretold anointed new King David sent from God. (Whether we think such an approach 'proves' anything is something to think about, but we should not mistake any doubts we have about this method with any doubts we have about whether this was a good way to proceed in Matthew's day).

Two, for a largely Jewish Christian readership, Matthew embeds the new things God is doing through Christ and his movement with what God had done through his patriarchs and prophets of old. This (Christ, Christian movement) was that (foretold and anticipated long beforehand by the God of Israel's servants).

Nevertheless, upbeat though we are, reading about Jesus as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, we confront a terrible, terrible event which illustrates acutely and desperately the age old problem of evil in a world created and presided over by a good God: the slaughter of the innocent children (remembered on Saturday 28 December as 'Holy Innocents' for which the gospel reading is Matthew 2:13-18). The tragedy is all the more appalling, we could say, because if Jesus had not been born, these children would never have died.

A long answer to questions raised by this massacre within the narrative would be very long (i.e. the attempt by theologians through the centuries to resolve the 'problem of evil' or 'problem of suffering.'

A shorter answer is to note some things Matthew says explicitly or implicitly through his gospel, if not within the passage itself.

(1) Matthew does not say that Jeremiah explicitly foretold in detail a slaughter of the kind which happened, as though a more attentive reading of Scripture might have led to more responsible people avoiding this tragedy. He draws attention to a saying of Jeremiah about a situation in which Rachel (whose tomb was near Bethlehem) and thus Judah is in great sorrow. No one could have predicted from Jeremiah that the Herodian massacre would take place, let alone be tied to the birth of Jesus. Matthew with hindsight recognises Jeremiah as seeing ahead to a time of sorrow and realises that that time had now happened.

(2) Matthew pins the blame for this shattering event on the choice of a powerful human, Herod the despotic and tyrannical king. God has not orchestrated this to happen (e.g. in order to fulfil the saying of Jeremiah). 'Man's inhumanity to man' results from human capacity to choose to inflict pain on others.

(3) Matthew tells of such awful horrors precisely within a larger account of God's plan through Jesus to transform the world. God is not powerless to alter the course of history but (it is implied) does not intervene in each and every bad moment within that history. Through the coming of Jesus a new way of life, the kingdom of God, is entering the world as a counter to the old and often terrible and terrfying way of life, illustrated by the kingdom of Herod. In short: there is good news to tell about Jesus because there is bad news to tell about life without Jesus.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas Day - Sunday 25 December 2016

Theme: that is pretty obvious, isn't it? :)

Sentence: To you is born this day in the city of Davd, a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11).

Collect: (from NZ Lectionary 2017)

God of light and life,
you are born among us as a baby, in the flesh, as one of us.
As we rejoice in our bodies in the beauty of summer
grant that we may also celebrate the wonder of your incarnation
and rejoice in the mystery of God becoming one flesh.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who shares our human nature and'who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: [I am just giving one set from the NZ Lectionary]

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

Comments:

Isaiah 9:2-7

In this prophecy, as originally given, the hope and expectation concerns restoration of the greatness and supremacy of the Davidic throne.

At the point of writing, Israel's situation is oppressive: note the implicit violence of the language of "yoke," "bar," "rod," and "boots" in verses 4-5.

Verse 4's reference to "Midian" is a recollection of story of Gideon's defeat of Midian (Judges 7:15-25).

Verses 6 onwards celebrate the birth of a new David (perhaps, at the time of writing, the birth of Hezekiah). Christian readers of these verses have read these verses as perfectly correlated with the birth of Jesus and his subsequent growth to be the adult preacher and leader of the Kingdom of God.

Psalm 96

This psalm is coherent with the hope and expectation of the restoration of Israel, foreshadowed in the Isaiah reading above.

Titus 2:11-14

11: In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the grace of God has appeared (been manifested) to the world. "Bringing salvation to all" is enigmatic: does it imply that all will be saved? At the very least it is stating that the salvation the Saviour brings is available to all humanity.

12: The coming of the Saviour (the birth and life of Jesus Christ) and the expectation of his return to earth (v. 13) creates a "present age" in which we (followers of Jesus Christ) need to know how to live. Paul thus speak of the same "grace of God" which has saved us also working within us to train us to "renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly."

13: This training scheme (so to speak) endures "while we wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ." Christ is unseen in our midst during this time but we will know when he comes in glory because it will be manifest among us. Note the rare occasion here when Jesus Christ is identified within the New Testament as God.

14: Who is Jesus Christ? Three notable characteristics are mentioned in this verse. First, "who gave himself for us" (see also Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Timothy 2:6). Christ came for our sakes and in his coming gave himself over to death that we might live. Secondly, "redeem us" or, in the context of Paul's day, buy us out of slavery (to Satan, to sin): see also Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:20; 7:23; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Mark 10:45). Christ gave himself in costly sacrifice that we might be redeemed. Thirdly, "purify for himself a people of his own": see also Deuteronomy 7:6-8; exodus 9:5-16; 1 Peter 2:9. Christ came to restore and enlarge the people of God, according to the promises made long ago to Israel (see above, Isaiah and Psalm readings).

Luke 2:1-14

There is a wonderful but quite technical debate within the first few verses of this passage concerning the reference to Quirinius and thus to the time of this registration (census). In short, the debate concerns whether we can match what we know of Quirinius as a Roman official and the time when we think Jesus was born (according to Matthew's chronology which places Jesus' birth before the death of Herod the Great). See here for a discussion of the issues.

What is undebatable is what Luke is attempting in these first few verses. First, he is locating the birth of King Jesus in the world ruled by another king, the Roman emperor Augustus (1). The whole story of Luke-Acts tells us how the king born in Bethlehem, via the preaching of his apostles, became a rival king to the Emperor in Rome itself. Secondly, he is explaining how Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. Jesus who grew up in Nazareth) nevertheless was born in Bethlehem, some distance away (2-4). Thirdly, he is connecting the birth of Jesus as king with the house of David, the greatest King of Israel (4, 11).

Of course for there to be a bay there needs to be a birth, and with the preliminaries of time and place out of the way, we finally read that Jesus is born (6-7). Note how the specific location of his first days/weeks of life "in a manger" is a tiny detail within these verses. Do we make too much of this when we talk much of Jesus being born in a stable, seemly unwanted in the inn? Nevertheless, in a passage mentioning Augustus and David, the reference to Jesus being placed after birth in a feeding trough underlines the obscurity of Jesus' beginning to his life: he is born in Palestine (at the edge of the Roman Empire), in Bethlehem (an insignificant village relative to the great city of Jerusalem) and placed in a manger (outside of ordinary human residency).

Why do we then meet shepherds (8-14) as the first, in Luke's telling, to greet the newborn king? Obviously we must speculate as Luke gives no hints. But shepherds in the context of associating Jesus with King David (the shepherd king) suggests that shepherds are very appropriate as a group to recognise the new Shepherd King Jesus.

They are good shepherds, incidentally, because in the middle of the night they are "keeping watch over their flock" (8) Understandably they are afraid when unexpectedly an angel appears, the glory of the Lord shines around them and they hear a voice (9-10). Everything here, including the fear, is redolent of many instances in the Old Testament when the angel of the Lord appears to a person or a couple or a group. As then so now the first words of the angel are "Do not be afraid" (10). The angel has not come to judge the shepherds but to announce good news to them and to ask them to be part of the celebration of that announcement, which is "good news of great joy for all the people"  (10-11).

Verse 11 piles on the titles for Jesus! He is "A Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord." With these three titles the angel is saying that the newborn baby is the full fulfilment of all Old Testament prophecies about the one who would come to restore Israel (see, again, our passage from Isaiah above, as one such prophecy). And "Lord" is particularly significant as it equates Jesus with God himself (since the exclusive name of the God of Israel, YHWH, is translated by the same Greek word, kyrios, in the Greek Old Testament).

Verse 12 adds a little to the meaning of the manger. How will the shepherds know where to find this baby? (Remember, no GPS, no cellphones in those days!) Presumably more than one baby was born at that time. But only one had been placed in a manger. The others would have been in their cots and cribs in their homes. A few questions in the nosy, gossipy community of Bethlehem and the shepherds would have easily found the baby-in-a-manger.

With a final burst of song, verses 13-14, the angels were gone and the shepherds were on their way to Bethlehem (15). But what a burst of song it was. What would we give in the world today for the simple matter of "peace"?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday 18 December 2016 - Advent 4

Theme(s): A better future / Jesus our saviour / God's plan for us /A God near at hand

Sentence: You heavens above rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up. (Isaiah 45:8)

Collect:

God of all hope and joy,
open our hearts in welcome,
that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming
may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Commentary:

Isaiah 7:10-16

At a difficult time for God's people, God promises King Ahaz a sign of a better future: the birth of a son to a young woman (Isaiah's own wife? See 8:3. Or Ahaz's wife?).

We read this passage in conjunction with today's gospel reading because this birth foretold centuries beforehand is taken by Matthew to look ahead to the birth of the eternal king of Israel, Jesus Christ.

As Matthew tells the story of that birth he tells the story of a virgin conceiving the baby who will become the Emmanuel of Isaiah's prophecy.

Some scholars get (in my view) a bit stuck on an old record of "originally Isaiah didn't envisage it was a virgin". That is true as far as it goes: the NRSV for Isaiah 7:14 accurately, according to the Hebrew, has 'young woman' rather than the particularity of 'a virgin(al young woman)'. That particularity is captured in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. Matthew uses that text rather than the Hebrew version of Isaiah. Why would he do that? Presumably not to prove that Mary was a virgin. There is no reason for Matthew to emphasise Mary's virginity unless he believed her to be one. Certainly there is no pressing reason from Isaiah for Matthew to invent such a statement.

The simpler approach is to recognise that Matthew, telling a story of Jesus' conception and birth which involved divine paternity, recognises that the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 neatly foresees such an event, so he invokes it and includes it in his narrative. He could just as easily have made no reference to Isaiah. After all, the odd thing about the reference is that Emmanuel as a name for Jesus is never again used in Matthew's Gospel (or any other gospel for that matter).

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

In this psalm there is a strong plea for restoration. For God to do a work among his people which not only saves God's people from their plight but also restores them to the splendour and goodness they once enjoyed.

This plea is well made by us through this reading three days out from Christmas. Jesus came to save us, to bring new life and to establish the kingdom of God.

Romans 1:1-7

Paul launches into his most famous epistle. When all the great books and commentaries on this epistle are digested the simple fact is that Paul sets out to tell us what the gospel of Jesus Christ is in a world in which the message of a Jewish rabbi has spread beyond the confines of Judaism. The gospel went global and now the question arises, what is the global meaning of the gospel?

In this launch into the subject Paul says something simple and directly relevant to the Christmas story: the gospel concerns the Son of God and the Son of God was 'descended from David according to the flesh ...'. There is more to say (and linked to the Easter story). But vital to the gospel is the birth of Jesus as a real flesh and blood descendant of King David. Even in a globalization of the gospel, this fact is important.

One reason for this importance is that it underscores the importance of God's previous words to humanity, to Israel in particular via his prophets: a messiah/king in the line of David would come to bring salvation. That has happened: God's Word is true.

Matthew 1:18-25

It may seem a bit odd reading this reading when it is not Christmas Day but don't worry, there are Christmas readings in the lectionary for Christmas Day!

In this brief reading we do not need to get stuck on any particular point (though preachers do do that!). Essentially Matthew tells us three salient facts:
- the conception of Jesus was a divine act according to a divine plan;
- the name of Jesus meant something important: it summarised his purpose, to save people from their sin;
- Jesus was born as a normal baby with a mum like any other baby.

What response could we make to this baby?

(1) We could celebrate and rejoice that God was at work in our world, doing something hugely important to change the course of history, while at the same time wonderfully fulfilling words previously spoken to us by ancient prophets.

(2) We could ask Jesus to be our personal saviour, to be the one who saves us from our sins.

(3) We could marvel that in this tiny baby God was present in a way previously unknown. (No other baby in the Bible, even when miracles were performed to overcome barrenness, was born without a human father).

An alternative line of thought from this passage is to focus on the name Emmanuel. Although only used this once in the gospels, this name brought forward by Matthew from Isaiah's prophecy, speaks of a great gospel theme: that in Jesus Christ, God is 'with' humanity.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sunday 11 December 2016 - Advent 3

Theme(s): Restoration / Healing / John the Baptist /Jesus the true Messiah

Sentence: For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert ... and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35:6,10).

Collect:

(1) Original as given by our church as part of a set of trialed 'traditional' collects:

"God of the unexpected,
your ways are not our ways.  
Open our ears to the prophets you send, 
help us to hear the good news from unforeseen messengers.
Empower us to join the healing work of the one whose coming draws near, 
our Lord Jesus Christ, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

(2) My improvement:

"God of the unexpected,
whose ways are not our ways,  
open our ears to the prophets you send, 
help us to hear the good news.
Empower us to join the healing work of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

[Even that is not very good: I think a collect should have one request at its core. So let's try again].

(3) God of the unexpected
whose ways are not our ways,
open our ears to the prophets you send
that we might hear your gospel and act on it
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and always. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Commentary:

Isaiah 35:1-10

We cannot understand the Old Testament if we do not keep in view the cataclysmic event of Israel being exiled (the northern kingdom, 721 BC; the southern kingdom, 597/587 BC).

The people of God living in the 'promised land' provided by God were now living as subjects of a foreign power in a foreign land. Theologically this seemed to be a complete denial of all the promises of God. In a world of competing gods of nations, did YHWH the God of Israel even exist? If YHWH did exist, what kind of pathetic power did he have? Israel - it appeared - was no more. Or not. In passages such as this one we have a 'prophetic oracle of salvation' which conveys a sweeping and thrilling vision of 'the return' of God's people, 'redeemed' by God out of new slavery, to live again in 'Zion.'

In other words, Israel, theologically and psychologically could hold their heads up high. The promises of God were true, the exile was a catastrophe but not the end of Israel or of Israel's God. Indeed the future spelled out here in certain ways was to be more glorious than the most glorious past of Israel (i.e. when David was king).

Later aspects of this passage will feature in the reception of Jesus and his 'restorative' ministry of healing and mighty acts (e.g. Matthew 11:5 which is part of our gospel reading today).

The (arguably) most famous New Testament scholar in the world today, N.T. or Tom Wright, has made much in his gospel scholarship of the theme of 'return from exile', arguing that the gospels present Jesus as the one who truly and completely brings Israel (finally) out of exile.

The reality of Israel's return from exile (as we can read in books such as Nehemiah, Ezra, 1 and 2 Maccabees) was a 'mixed bag': there was a return of people and a rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem but there was also further subjection by foreign rulers, first Greece and then Rome. Thus Wright's approach (much debated) has something in it: to the extent that the return from exile was envisaged in all its dimensions in Isaiah 35, much was missing and unfulfilled by the time Jesus appeared in Israel to preach the 'kingdom of God.'

Psalm 146:5-10

This psalm conveys a similar message to the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 35 (see above).

The completeness of God's care for his people is emphasised: God will execute justice AND give food to the hungry; set the prisoner free AND open the eyes of the blind; etc.

James 5:7-10

When we consider Advent in respect of the return of Christ inevitably we ponder the question of 'how long?' A thousand years may be as one day in the Lord's sight but to us it is a very long time and two thousand years is twice as long! In this passage James urges us to be patient. A timely lesson in more ways than one.

Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist in prison finds his mind going round the bend. He has discharged his prophetic ministry at great cost. The central theme of that ministry was announcing the coming of the Lord's Anointed One (or Messiah). He thought the Messiah was Jesus. Now he is not so sure. As any of us would do when in a state of uncertainty, he decides to check up on what is happening. Perhaps Jesus was just a bit like the Messiah-of-expectation but not the actual Messiah?

Jesus responds in a kind of code language which also reports accurately on what has been happening. The list of what had been happening, verse 5, to be reported back to John, was framed in the language of the great restoration, return and redemption vision in Isaiah 35. Jesus knew that John would understand the meaning of the report: messianic deeds were happening because the Messiah was here and at work. Doubt no longer!

In turn, Jesus sets out his understanding of the impact and importance of John the Baptist, vss. 7-14. John the Baptist is the last and greatest prophet of the old order or pre-kingdom history of Israel. God is doing a new thing and John's honour was to usher that new thing into being.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Sunday 4 December 2016 - Advent 2

Here is a really nice track to listen to while you prepare your sermon! Alison Krauss with Down to the River to Pray.

Theme(s): Justice and Judgment // Just a prophet (!) // Prophetic justice // Jesus comes as judge

Sentence: 'With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.' (Isaiah 11:4)

Collect: taken from here.

"Loving God,
you send prophets to warn, disturb and revive your people. 
Help us listen to those who prepare us for your kingdom. 
Give us courage to remove the chaff from our lives
so that we may be ready to meet the Lord.
We ask this through him whose coming draws near, 
our Lord Jesus Christ, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

Readings:

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Commentary:

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Some psalms are prayerful and this is one of them. The psalmist prayer for the king of Israel, likely Solomon (according to an ascription at the beginning, 'Of Solomon'). His prayer covers 'all the bases' of what we would expect from a ruler. Reading this psalm in Advent we naturally read into it the character of King Jesus.

The last two verses remind us that great kings are a blessing from an even greater God!

Isaiah 11:1-10

This prophecy is 'thick' with content. Looking ahead from a context of a shattered kingdom of David, the prophet sees 'a shoot' growing out of the 'stump of Jesse [=David's father]'. (Alternatively the shoot is depicted as a 'branch' growing out of the roots of the stump, v. 1, and later the shoot/branch will be referred to as 'the root of Jesse', v. 10). As Christians we understand that shoot to be Jesus. Isaiah sees ahead what we see in hindsight: this shoot was full of the spirit of the Lord.

But the shoot will be a Spirit-endowed, wise king who will 'judge' the world. Unlike judges who may rely on human senses of sight and hearing, the shoot of Jesse will judge 'with righteousness' (v. 4, 5). This judgment will be severe: the wicked will not survive it (v. 4b).

But that is not all Isaiah sees. Beyond judgment, Isaiah sees a new world of peace, harmony and wellness. He depicts this with inspiring word pictures: 'the world shall live with the lamb ... the cow and the bear shall graze ... the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den' (vss. 6-8).

Romans 15:4-13

This epistle is chosen for today because it cites Isaiah 11:10 (in verse 12). That is, relative to Isaiah, the epistle passage offers evidence of fulfilment of the ancient prophecy about Jesus as the root or shoot of Jesse. Paul (apostle to the Gentiles or nations beyond Israel) can confidently declare the fulfilment of the Isaianic prophecy because he himself has been party to the fulfilment as he has preached the kingdom of God around the Mediterranean world.

There is much more to the passage than this connection with Isaiah, but the theme of Christ fulfilling Old Testament prophecy is resounding through 15:8-12.

A couple of themes to note in the remaining verses:

1. Verse 4 is an endorsement of the importance of the Old Testament for Christians: 'whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scripture we might have hope.'

Within this passage this verse also functions to chart where Paul is about to go in verses 8-12: the glory and greatness of Christ includes the wonderful note that his coming into the world is fulfilment of scriptural promises and visions.

2. Verses 5-7 and 12 offer a picture of wholesome life in the church when we understand who Christ is: steadfastness and encouragement; harmony and unity; welcoming fellowship together; marked by joy, peace, and hope. What is not to like!

Recall that chapter 15 is at the end of this long epistle. Paul is setting out his closing thoughts as he brings an amazing theological journey (chapters 1-11) joined with a challenging application pathway (chapters 12-16) to an end. Like a musical composer who brings notes sounded at the beginning into the ending of his piece, and maps out the ending with notes at the beginning that will be reinforced as the whole ending is played out, Paul says some things which recall what has gone before while charting how the future of the church should look.

In particular, verse 7, 'Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God' is a summary of Paul's theological argument about the inclusive nature of the gospel of justification by faith in which both Jew and Gentile are welcomed into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 3:1-12

What is (the adult) John the Baptist doing in the run up to Christmas?! There are two possible ways to think about this reading in Advent (the season of coming).

First, John the Baptist is preparing for the coming of Jesus' mission and ministry so this gospel reading reminds us that Jesus didn't just come to be an adorable baby but to do something for God.

Secondly, as we think in Advent about Jesus' second coming, we think about judgment and this reading is full of judgment! 'You brood of vipers!' Etc.

Here I will concentrate on themes of judgment in the reading.

1. To proclaim the gospel is to proclaim judgment: verse 2, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." To accept the good news, to respond to the invite to enter the kingdom is to end one way of life and to begin another way of life. That is a judgment on the old way of life: it is not up to kingdom standards! (E.g. self-centredness does not match up to the kingdom standard of generous regard for others).

2. To live a different lifestyle is to proclaim judgment: verse 4, "Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey." John lived differently and challenged the 'normal' way people were living. It appears that it was not only the message he proclaimed but the lifestyle he lived which drew people to leave their homes and journey to the wilderness. They did not come to gawk but to be baptized as they confessed their sins: that is, they accepted the judgment proclaimed by John in word and deed.

3. To preach a message of judgment is to proclaim judgment. In verses 7-10, John holds nothing back in a specific, pointed denunciation of Pharisees and Sadducees. Sometimes religious people, including religious leaders and leading religious groups get things wrong. Implicit in John's message to these folk seems to be a denunciation of superficiality (they were not bearing fruit worthy of genuine repentance) and of complacency (they relied on Abraham's faith rather than having their own faith). What would John say to you and me today? To the faith community (local church and/or denomination) we belong to? It would be a bit surprising if there was no superficiality or complacency among us!

4. To preach the coming of Jesus is to preach the coming of God's Judge: verse 12, "His [Jesus Christ's] winnowing fork is in his hand ... he will burn with unquenchable fire." John uses strong, even frightening pictures to talk about the mission of Jesus. At first sight they may not resemble much of what we perceive about Jesus' activity as compassionate healer, sympathetic provider of food, carefulness in treating children and women well. But the larger story of Jesus includes his battles with Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he often denounced for their hypocrisy and manipulative zealousness. Perhaps more importantly, wherever Jesus went he divided people into those who were for or against him. Finally, heading towards execution on the cross, he exposed the crowds with whom he was popular as superficial in their allegiance, for they too turned on him. Jesus was indeed a winnowing fork, sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday 27 November 2016 - Advent 1

Theme(s): Watchfulness // Watching for Jesus // Preparing for the Coming of Jesus // You do not know the day or the hour

Sentence:

To you O Lord I lift up my soul; my God I have put my trust in you; you are my God my Saviour; for you have I waited all the day long (Psalm 25:1,4)

Collect:

God of hope,
when Christ your Son appears
may he not find us asleep or idle,
but active in his service and ready,
empowered by the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Commentary:

Isaiah 2:1-5

This comment might be best read after reading the comments on the three passages below!

When we look forward in God's purposes to future judgment, the return of Christ, the establishment of the kingdom of God in fullness, all summarised in the phrase "your will be done on earth as in heaven," what kind of picture might form in our minds?

Isaiah 2:1-5 is just such a picture. It is 'The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.' This word is a vision of a glorious future for Judah and Jerusalem, the place where God dwells on earth. In this vision Jerusalem is the place to be, where everyone streams to, eager to meet God, to learn the ways of God in order to walk in his paths. In the context of Israel, ruled by the Law, this part of the vision is of a people (actually, the whole globe) living in harmony and peace.

The vision goes on to include nations themselves. They will not 'learn war any more.' Nothing not to like! But the impact of these words has reverberated through the centuries as nations have struggled to end war and peacemakers have invoked these words in pursuit of a better way.

As a whole vision these verses express a hope for the fulfilment of God's own purpose for creation. Advent is a season for renewing that hope.

Psalm 122

This is a Song of Ascent, a psalm sung on the way up to Jerusalem and the Temple. We can understand that readily and see the devotion the psalmist has to the city which he urges us all to pray for.

More challenging could be understanding why this psalm for this first Sunday in Advent. On possibility is to note v. 5: Jerusalem is to be the place where judgment (a great theme of Advent) will take place.

Romans 13:11-14

Paul addresses the problem of time in relation to God's plan and does so as though he has just read today's gospel reading! "You know what time it is." Paul understands himself and his readers as nearer in time to the day of the Lord (the return of Christ) than "when we became believers." Although he does not explicitly refer to the day of the Lord, that is the meaning of "the night is far gone, the day is near."

So the passage is a wake up call re readiness for that day, almost literally, "it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep." The specifics of this readiness are to "live honourably as in the day", putting aside the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light. Works of darkness include "reveling and drunkenness ... debauchery and licentiousness ... quarreling and jealousy."

Keeping these items in mind helps us interpret v. 14, "make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" is not (for instance) "make no provision for the hunger pains in your stomach by baking bread." Rather it is about not giving way to the demands of the flesh (the desires of our selfish and self-centred human nature) which are fulfilled through reveling, drunkenness, etc.

What Paul is pressing for is that Christian believers live now the kind of lives we will live 'in the day.' In simple terms, there will be no quarreling in heaven, so let us cease quarreling on earth.

In relation to the gospel challenge below to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man, our readiness includes living holy lives now.

Matthew 24:36-44

This passage is full of pictures and concludes with a parable (or, if the point is argued, a parable-like illustration). We need to sift the pictures from the reality being forecast by Jesus.

The centre of that future occasion is 'the coming of the Son of Man' (vss. 37, 39 also 42, 44). The pictures painted in words are dramatic, e.g. "two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left."

The warnings given are specific about suddenness of the coming, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming ... Therefore you also must be ready for the SOn of Man is coming at an unexpected hour" (vss. 42 ...44).

In other words, what is being illustrated by two in a field/one will be taken is the suddenness of the coming of the Son of Man, not necessarily what will actually happen.

The question then is, what is this event of 'coming'? Is it a chronologically future event which still has not happened? Is it an event which was future when Jesus spoke but has now taken place? If we answer Yes to the first question then we watch, wait and keep alert making sure we are ready for the return or Second Coming of Jesus. If we answer Yes to the second question then we have a further question, When was that event? No attempt will be made to work through possible answers here but they include the resurrection (an event of vindication of Jesus, which links with the Danielic vision of the one like a son of man, Daniel 7:13) and Pentecost (a return of sorts of Jesus in the form of the Holy Spirit (of Jesus).) We could also reckon with the possibility that the passage refers to events such as the resurrection and Pentecost as well as the future return of Jesus.

The weakness of the second question and answer (if it is the approach to be taken) is that the fuller context of the passage, the passages before and after it, speak of a time of reckoning, when accounts will be squared and the elect will be gathered together. It is difficult to understand where we find that event in history to date.

So this passage is a brilliant start to the season of Advent when we think of the 'coming' of Jesus. Obviously, commercially-speaking, we can scarcely escape the inevitable consideration of the coming of Jesus, the incarnate Word born a baby in Bethlehem. The gospel invites if not compels us to consider the second coming of Jesus Christ and challenges us to be ready for that coming, including ready to give account for our lives (see further 24:45-51).