Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Day 2104

Christmas Day is complicated re readings and what have you - see the Lectionary - and this blog concentrates on Sunday readings.

However I have a few thoughts on another blog about a sermon for Christmas, here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday 21 December 2014 - Advent 4

Theme(s): Promise and fulfilment / Mary's faithful obedience / Mary as model disciple / God's power and persistence

Sentence: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38)

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:

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm = Luke 1:47-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Comments:

We are getting towards the "business end" of Advent. Christmas is a few days away and these readings draw us closer to the "advent" of Jesus Christ as a baby born to be king.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

It is all but impossible to imagine what it would have been like to be an Israelite on the original Christmas eve, pondering this reading from the Israelite scriptures, trying to make sense of this promise in a land ruled by the Roman emperor via dodgy governors with some power delegated to a locally derived king, Herod, of whom many things could be said, but not the declaration "Herod is in the Davidic royal line."

Had God made a false promise to Israel in 2 Samuel 7:16? In what sense could anything about contemporary Israel be said to fulfil this promise? Of such questions without obvious answers was fervent expectation about the coming Messiah born - the expectation which would dog Jesus' ministry as people sensed he was the Messiah and pressed him to conform to their expectations!

We, today, can ask another kind of question of 2 Samuel 7: what kind of God says one thing in one passage and does another thing according to another passage? That is, what kind of God says - according to a plain reading of 2 Samuel - "there will always be a physical succession of kings descended from David" and then presides over a history of Israel which loses that succession and works through that unfolding history to bring a king into being who will forever be king, but not as a physical person seated on a human throne in a palace in Jerusalem?

First, the God of Israel is the God who takes human sin - rebellion against the will of God - seriously and treats it consequentially. Israel temporarily loses its Davidic line of kings because of its rebellion, partially expressed through David's kingly descendants who sinned as much if not more than their citizens and partially expressed through the Israelites themselves who continued after David to compromise their worship of the one true God with worship of false gods. (Yet this observation is itself complicated in respect of the Old Testament. The consequences of sin on the Davidic line is a major theme through the history told from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings, but an alternative history, told in 1 and 2 Chronicles consistently underplays the consequences of sin).

Secondly, the God of Israel reserves the right to fulfil the promises he makes to Israel on his own terms. God remains God over his promises and is not bound by how we have heard the promises. Thus God, in the long term of history, does fulfil his promise in 2 Samuel 7:16, but converts the succession of Davidic kings into a single but successful Davidic king, i.e. Jesus Christ, who will live forever.

Thirdly, we then see that the God of Israel is a God who never gives up on his people. The constant straying of God's people from the will of God aligned with the promises of God does not make God give up on his people, but it does mean God works in a new way to make his promises come true.

Psalm = Luke 1:47-55

Quite rightly today our psalm is not drawn from the Book of Psalms but from the lips of Mary the mother of our Lord as she bursts into joyful song as a response to what God is doing in her.

Note the way in which the opening line, "My soul magnifies the Lord" (46) sets the tone and the theme for the rest of the song. It is a magnificent magnifying of the greatness and goodness of the Lord.

Note also, in terms of the discussion above about God's promise to David (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), that Mary here reaches even further back in the promises of God concerning God's people to the "promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever" (55).

All the promises of God find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ!

Romans 16:25-27

What is God up to? Generally? Eternally? Through Christmas? On the cross? In the garden with the empty tomb? In the past of Israel in its history, from Abraham to the present time when Paul wrote these words?

Here Paul nails the answer to all these questions!

God has been working out a purpose for the whole of humanity (Jews and Gentiles) which for a period has been "kept secret". That purpose "is now disclosed." The disclosure is described by Paul in two ways. First it is the content of "my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ." Secondly it is revealed "through the prophetic writings [] made known to all the Gentiles." This second description must mean that the exposition of the prophetic writings of Israel in the light of Jesus Christ is the unveiling of the secret hidden there until the coming of Jesus Christ brought out the true meaning of these writings.

What is God's purpose for Jews and for Gentiles? Paul says it is "to bring about the obedience of faith." The phrase "the obedience of faith" has already occurred in Romans 1:5. When we find things said at the beginning and at the end of a biblical writing, they are very important! What God wants is a people in a relationship to God which goes beyond lip service and outward signs of compliance to an inward trust and heartfelt following of God's will.

In other terms, and bearing the whole 16 chapters of Romans in mind, the answer to the question of what God is up to is this: God wants a people characterised by "obedience of faith." He has sought this via covenantal relationship with Israel. He now seeks this for the whole world, for Israel and non-Israel. The key even in this being worked out is the coming of Jesus Christ as the crucified one, for through Jesus God is reconciled to the people, both Jew and Gentile, who have broken relationship with him.

Luke 1:26-38

There is at least a sermon, an apologetics essay and an exercise in prophetic correlation to be developed from this passage.

The sermon is about God's work in our lives and how we should respond to God. In this sermon we would draw out the example of Mary responding to the doubly shocking message that she, a virgin, would become pregnant, and the child she would bear would be the Son of God. In this example, Mary is very human (being perplexed and asking questions (29, 34). But she rises above her confusion to declare, as a model disciple, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (38) Are we available to God? Are we willing to work with God according to his will? Even if it turns our lives upside down?

The apologetics essay ... which I earnestly commend is not confused with the sermon. The Christmas season is not the time to indulge in speculative reasoning about how a virgin birth can (or cannot) take place. We gather in church at Christmas time to celebrate the birth of Jesus not to argue about the circumstances of his conception! Our progress through the season of Advent looks forward to the coming of Jesus and anticipates the celebration of his birth. Speculative thoughts on human biology can be dealt with on another occasion (and, in my view, not through a Sunday sermon but through a midweek parish Bible study).

With those thoughts as constraints as to where our arguments and speculations might be expressed, note what this passage attests to in respect of the conception of Jesus: the conception of Jesus is the work and will of God. God chooses Mary to be the mother of God's Child. The wisdom of God is displayed in choosing a woman who is about to be married and thus about to form a household in which the Child will be humanly brought up in security, stability and love.

That Mary is a virgin means there is no confusion about the father of the baby she will bear: God is the father (biologically) and God is the Father (spiritually, the source of all life in creation). Mary's virginity also enables no confusion about the status of Jesus as both a holy person and as 'Son of God' (35). From conception itself this baby, conceived through God the Holy Spirit 'come upon you' and (the same thought expressed differently, in parallel) 'the power of the Most High will overshadow you' (35), will be divine and human.

It seems terribly modern and up to date to display our scientific knowledge of how babies are conceived and thus to wonder just how such a conception could take place. From such a questioning stance it is then easy to entertain theories about an all too human conception which is conveniently-for-theology-about-Jesus repainted in terms of divine conception. But the passage tells us that Mary, Luke and (no doubt) Joseph knew as much as us about the basics of conception: both a man and a woman are needed for conception to take place. It is biology which informs Mary's question in verse 34, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

Thus the angel moves to assure Mary that the impossible is possible. First Mary is reminded of a nearby miracle of conception: Elizabeth, her relative, who was known to be barren, in old age has conceived a son. But this miracle is not quite what is being talked about with Mary. From earlier in Luke's Gospel we know that the miracle was that Zechariah and Elizabeth together conceived this child - a miracle in keeping with a succession of such conceptions in the Old Testament. So, secondly, the angel assures her that the power of God is even greater, "For nothing is impossible with God" (37).

An exercise in prophetic correlation: again, my suggestion is that this exercise is not confused with the sermon from this passage. It is important that we find in the gospels signs that Jesus Christ, in each and every important part of his life, from conception to resurrection, fulfils God's will foretold long ago. The importance concerns both the power of God's Word (what God says about the future comes into being because God's will is greater than the ordinary course of events in human history) and the meaning of God's Word (when God makes a promise, it is fulfilled - ultimately the promise of God being fulfilled in Jesus Christ is the promise that Israel is and will be God's people). But it is a moot point whether a congregation comes to hear God's Word at a Sunday sermon in terms of "Look over here, this Old Testament verse says X will happen, then look over there, this Gospel verse says X has happened." The danger with such an exercise is that we unwittingly convey the impression that God is a divine magician or manipulator whose impressive achievements consist of making history fit previous prediction.

Our challenge as preachers is to point our congregations to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, that is, to the God who may be trusted to keep his Word, including to fulfil all his promises to us. Further, our challenge is to present Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of those promises rather than to present a series of predictions of which we can say, "Look, these predictions have come true."

With that in mind, our Old Testament reading today lies in the background to this passage from Luke. God's promise to David that "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16) is specifically invoked in the angelic message to Mary (Luke 1:32-33). Even his family heritage through Joseph is Davidic (27).

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday 14 December 2104 - Advent 3

Theme(s): God's glorious future for God's people / John the Baptist as Witness to the Light / Being ready for Christ's return

Sentence: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

Collect:

Almighty God,
you sent your servant John the Baptist
to prepare your people for the coming of your Son;
grant that our feet may be guided in the way of peace by those who proclaim your word
so that we may stand in confidence before him
when he comes in his glorious kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Judge and Redeemer. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 (but Luke 1:47-55 is an alternate).
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Comments:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Centuries before the coming of Jesus Israel had been treated to extraordinary verbal pictures of God's future blessing. Some of these verbal pictures feature in the Old Testament readings in Advent. Here is one of the richest of these visions.

Effectively it says that through the Lord's Anointed (i.e the Messiah) all wrongs will be righted and all shortcomings of the world turned into splendid advantages.

In particular the picture is of Israel transformed from plight and blight endured through historical ravaging by conquering nations into a glorious nation, as beautiful and as blessed as garlanded bridegroom or bejewelled bride (10).

What then is always worth contemplating is the manner in which both gospels and epistles take up these once future visions and identify them with their now present experience of Jesus who lived among them and now lives as the Risen One in their midst. It is extraordinary that these visions for the future of Israel become focused in the early church on the One Person, Jesus Christ, and those who now believe that they are identified with him in a new life equivalent to being the new temple and new people of God.

Psalm 126

Of the words of this psalm we could refer to the words above about Isaiah 61! The sense of hope for a better and more glorious future are effectively one and the same.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

In chapter five Paul is concerned about the Thessalonians' concern to know when the day of the Lord will be (1). In our passage today, Paul is setting out 'how then shall we live?' when the time of our remaining on earth is uncertain. This setting out has begun in verse 12. In verses 16-22 we are treated to a rapid fire series of directions: rejoice ... pray ... give thanks ... do not quench ... etc.

Each such direction is worth a sermon in its own right. What kind of church would we be if we rejoiced always? (No grumblers!) What happens to our life in Christ as the church when we do quench the Spirit? How do we, in fact, 'not quench' the Spirit?

In verses 23-24 Paul changes tune, a little. We cannot be whom God intends us to be without God's help. So verse 23 is a blessing-cum-intercession. May God enable you to be ready for his coming. Verse 24 is an encouragement-cum-promise. The God to whom Paul prays in verse 23 'is faithful' and in respect of the prayer Paul has just made, 'he will do this.'

How can we grumble when we have such a God?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Given that last Sunday we had a focus on John the Baptist, our challenge with this reading is to think about the things that are said here which do not repeat last week's thoughts from Mark 1:1-8.

Given the many differences between John's Gospel and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is a hard challenge because this week we read one (combination) passage in which a lot of common ground exists between the four gospels!

First we might note the way in which the references to John the Baptist here also become the means to develop the full status of Jesus in its broadest terms.

Thus to be told in verses 6-8 that John is not himself the 'light' is a reinforcement of the claim that Jesus is (not merely the Messiah, Son of God but also) 'the light' (introduced in verses 4-5 and developed in verse 9). In verses 19-28 John's denial that he is Messiah or Elijah or prophet is simultaneously a way of saying that the One to whom he testifies is the one who fulfils expectations about those three figures in the theology, history and prophecy of Israel.

Secondly, we might pause on the words in verse 7, 'so that all might believe through him.' Are these words referring to 'He came as witness', that is, to John, in the first part of the verse, or to 'the light' at the end of the first clause of the verse? We should go with the usual Greek understanding that such a phrase refers to the subject of the verb in the first clause, so John has this extraordinary role in proclaiming who Jesus is, a role in bearing witness to Israel that has the ambition that all Israel might believe in Jesus.

The point then would not be to marvel at what John did as a preacher and baptiser nor to reflect on how well he achieved that ambition but to note an implication of what John the author is doing here: charting out a role for his readers, those who now have the role of bearing witness to the light, it is through us (and only us) that all will come to believe.

Thirdly, verses 19-28 underline the declaration in verse 11, '[Jesus] came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.' Although Jesus is 'The true light, which enlightens everyone' (9), from before the beginning of his ministry there is opposition. John the Baptist makes a (bad pun coming up) splash and the reaction of religious authorities in Jerusalem is to send an inquisitorial delegation not a congratulatory committee.

One of the great questions through John's Gospel which (uncomfortably for those of us who live in post-Holocaust times) constantly presents a clash between Jesus and the Jews is why 1:11 was truthful. Why didn't those who believed in the God of Israel find that God now dwelling among them in Jesus Christ? In turn, that is a great (and difficult) question for all Christians through all subsequent centuries, both in the particular reference to Israel, Why haven't the Jews turned together to Jesus as their Messiah? and in general reference to the world, Why has the world resisted the enlightenment of the Light?

While such questions could be catalytical for your sermon this Sunday, here I will only pause briefly to reflect on the actual opposition depicted in our reading. The questioning stance of the authorities in Jerusalem suggests an anxiety shared in common with past authorities about the ministry of prophetic figures, the anxiety of the establishment facing the possibility of the people turning away from the establishment to a new religious leadership. In turn this suggests that the established leadership of Israel were more concerned about their relationship with the people they led than with the God they served. The latter, surely, lends itself to openness to God doing a new thing among his people.

The obvious point - or perhaps it is not so obvious - is that we worry less about how the leaders of Israel could have gotten themselves into this spiritually precarious position and more about whether we in the church today are open to God being at work among us in new ways. Or, have we become used to a position which is now 'established' and thus threatened when change presents itself?


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday 7 December 2014 - Second Sunday in Advent

Theme(s): Repentance // John the Baptist // Restoration // Patience

Sentence: With the Lord one day is a like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. (2 Peter 3:8)

Collect:

God for whom we wait and watch,
you sent John the Baptist
to prepare for the coming of your Son;
give us courage to speak the truth
even to the point of suffering. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Comments:

As we move through the days of Advent, the season of coming towards Christmas/Christ's Return, we focus this week on John the Baptist, the forerunner to Christ, the prophetic trumpet to Israel announcing Christ's coming. Paradoxically, we note that John the Baptist was not the prophet of Christ's birth but of his mission.

Isaiah 40:1-11

The Book of Isaiah 'changes course' at the beginning of chapter 40. Nearly all scholars divide Isaiah into at least two parts, the second beginning with this passage. Many actually see Isaiah as tripartite, 1-39, 40-55, 56-66. Chapter 39 ends with King Hezekiah (i.e. pre the exile of Judah to Babylon) but Chapter 40 begins with God speaking tenderly to Jerusalem in a manner which presumes that it has served its term in exile.

But who is doing the speaking, for example, in verse 3 (see also 6) when the author records 'A voice cries out'?

The setting, scholars propose, is the heavenly council (look back to Isaiah 6). The voices which speak up are those of the high heavenly beings who comprise the council. In the dialogue we listen into as we read the passage we find themes and motifs which come together under the general theme of the restoration of Israel.

One of these motifs is that of the Exodus when enslaved and (voluntarily) exiled Israel was set free and restored to its promised land. Key words here are 'wilderness' and 'desert' (3) and 'the glory of the Lord' (5) which reminds us of the pillar of cloud by day and light by night which guided Israel in its journey through the Sinai desert. Note also 'highway' in verse 3 - the (so called) King's Highway in the area known as the Transjordan was part of the route followed by Israel in the last part of its wilderness journey.

Verses 6-8 takes us in a different direction. What is fleeting and what is permanent? Only the 'word of God will stand forever' (8). This alerts us to the word of God spoken through Isaiah in part 1: in 2:1-4; 31:4-5 and 33:20, the prophet says that God will restore Jerusalem. Now that word is coming to fruition.

Somewhat paradoxically the next verses honour Jerusalem (Zion) itself with the role of announcing to the rest of the cities of Israel the 'good tidings' (we could say, 'gospel') that God is present, comes with might, and 'will feed his flock like a shepherd' (9-11).

This last invocation, of the shepherd-king, is full of the promise of restoration. We might think of Psalm 23 and the vision there of the Lord as shepherd who restores the troubled flock to a place of safety, rest and plenty.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

In these verses we have a lovely complement to Isaiah 40:1-11 and to our gospel reading: God will restore the fortunes of his people, not least beginning with forgiveness for their iniquity.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

There is no doubt that this passage comes from a time in the life of the early church when Christians were beginning to get impatient about Christ's return. (This tends, incidentally, to favour the thought that a verse such as Mark 13:30 - part of last Sunday's gospel reading - was understood to literally be about 'one (40 or so years) generation').

What is the apostolic response to this impatience?

8: understand God's chronology is different to ours. Our 1000 years is akin to a day on God's calendar.
9: we may be impatient and ask why God does not hurry up but the question is whether God is impatient or patient. In fact God is the patient one, permitting a long period to elapse so that 'all come to repentance.' The implied hint here to the reader is: if you love others and long to see them saved, you will be patient too.
10: in keeping with Jesus' own teaching, the response here emphasises that when Jesus returns, whenever it is, it will be sudden, dramatic and unexpected.
11-12: a question is asked which answers itself as it is asked! If the world is going to end ('dissolved') then how might we best prepare for that? By being people 'leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming day of the Lord.' A question is left hanging here, What is it that we do which 'hastens' the day of the Lord? One possible answer, working from verse 9, is that we continue to preach the gospel - to call people to repentance which is what the Lord seeks to happen while he holds back from ending the world.
13: nevertheless, 'we wait'. By implication the holy and godly lives we are encouraged to lead is for the reason that the 'new heavens and ... new earth' are characterised as a place where 'righteousness is at home.' Better get used now to the way life will be.
14: What are we to do while we wait? 'Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot of blemish.'
15a: Finally, 'regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.' This takes us back to verse 9. There is a great purpose to God delaying the return of Christ.

Mark 1:1-8

Notably among the four Gospels, Mark has no sense of the 'beginning' of Jesus Christ being either at or before his birth. Neither birth narrative nor genealogy (Matthew, Luke) nor theological reflection on origin in God and before time (John) feature in Mark's opening verses. Yet this gospel has a strong sense of 'beginning' as it boldly begins, 'The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1).

Mark is going to tell us the good news announced and enacted by Jesus Christ - so we read his teaching and his actions subsequently.

Mark is going to tell us the good news about Jesus Christ - there was a man called Jesus Christ, his story is a great story, in fact, more than a great story, it is euangelion, good news, wonderful news for the world.

When we talk among ourselves about sharing the gospel, we do well to think about sharing the gospel as sharing the announcement of what God is up to in the world, as brought by Jesus and as sharing the story of Jesus.

Combining the two modes of the good news which begins in Mark 1:1, we can say that Jesus Christ is the good news of God!

To every story there is a back story. Mark tells us the back story to the good news story in verses 2 and 3. The prophet Isaiah looked ahead to the coming of the Lord when he predicted the coming of one who would prepare the way for the Lord to come. The coming of Jesus is not a random event but one planned from long ago by God.

If we attempt to track back from verses 2 and 3 to find where Isaiah said these words we find a curious thing: he did not quite say these words! These verses are a conflation of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Mark may simply be reproducing a popular saying which was routinely ascribed to just Isaiah or he himself may have written this summary of prophetic foretelling and somewhat lazily acknowledged only one authority behind it, in which case he goes for the most popular prophet in the eyes of early Christians.

If we pick out of the prophecy certain words and phrases, 'prepare the way of the Lord' and 'wilderness', as well as reflect on the context and aims of Isaiah 40, then we are drawn to consider that Mark understands Jesus to be at the vanguard of a new 'exodus' for Israel. That is, Israel is in captivity and Jesus will lead her from the place of slavery to the place of freedom. As we follow through the miracle stories Mark tells us, we consistently find Jesus releasing people from various forms of bondage.

When Mark tells us in verse 4 that 'John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness' he is both identifying the subject of the prophecy, John is the messenger of verse 2, and underlining the authenticity of John as a prophet by locating him in the place where prophets should come from, the 'wilderness.'

John proclaims a specific message, 'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins' (4b). How to prepare for God's new future? Return to God through repentance and forgiveness of sins. Israel knew of various rites for forgiveness, centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a little bit different: leave Jerusalem for the wild places - note verse 5 'all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him' - and be washed in the waters of the (holy, historic) River Jordan.

Again, thinking backwards for significance to emerge, what happened in the first Exodus? Israel escaped via the Red Sea waters being parted and then, many years later, crossed the Jordan River to enter the promised land. Reference to 'wilderness' in verse 4 and 'the river Jordan' in verse 5 take the discerning reader on a journey through the memories of Israel.

What else do we see as we read this story full of symbolic clues and hints? John is described in detail in verse 6. The way he is clothed draws us to think of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah was not the first of the prophets nor unarguably the greatest of them but he stands out from the prophets of Israel's history in at least a couple of ways relevant to the story of John the Baptist and of Jesus.

First, Elijah was a prophet who stood apart from the established rulership and state religion. He was raised up by God to challenge kings and priests. Both John the Baptist and Jesus will do this. Jesus, in fact, will often be taken to be Elijah (6:15; 8:28;15:35-36). Secondly, Elijah was a prophet who performed mighty miracles, some of which resemble the miracles Jesus will perform. Thirdly, we note that Elijah was part of a kind of double act: he was succeeded by a prophet cut from similar cloth, Elisha. John the Baptist will be succeeded by Jesus. (Nevertheless, links and connections here are not neat analogies. Elisha is never directly invoked in the gospel. Elijah (arguably) was the greater prophet compared to Elisha.)

What we might reasonably conclude from this telling of the story of John the Baptist is that his coming - his message, his actions, his clothing - evokes memories of both the Exodus and of Elijah. But John will not himself lead the new Exodus, nor is he the new Elijah: those roles are taken up by Jesus.

Verses 7 and 8 seal this analysis. John is not the one who is important. A more powerful and more worthy one is coming. The baptism of that one is greater than his baptism. John's water baptism is an anticipation and sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit which will descend on the Coming One when he is baptised shortly afterwards (verses 9-11).

Advent (to invoke some great thoughts in a sermon I heard yesterday) is a season to consider what the Christian message is all about. In the run up to Christmas, if we can find a few moments of peace, What is it that Jesus came to do? Without an answer to that question there is no spiritual or eternal significance to Christmas - just the material point of food, festivity, family and presents.

To reflect on these verses is both to reflect on the significance of John the Baptist but that takes us to Jesus and the purpose of his coming: to baptise us with the Holy Spirit, that is, to lead us to a new life and a new future in God, indeed a new future in which God is with us and in us. The good news of Christmas is the good news of God's new life available to all - not just to the Judeans and citizens of Jerusalem who flocked to John the Baptist!

If we head back to the Isaiah reading and the comments there: Jesus comes to restore life to Israel and the whole world.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday 30 November 2014 - 1st Sunday of Advent

Theme(s): The Coming of Christ / The Second Coming of Jesus Christ / Return of Jesus / Facing crises

Sentence: Jesus will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:8).

Collect:

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
so that when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Comment:

Just like that we have switched from the Year of Matthew (A) to the Year of Mark (B)!

Advent is the season of 'coming' or 'coming to(wards)'. Who is coming? When is Jesus coming? And, naturally, gulp, Christmas is coming and cards/presents/food/drink needs purchasing. It is difficult in Advent to focus on Jesus coming to us and on time coming towards its end and the new heaven and new earth coming soon to us.

Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah yearns for God to act, to intervene in the world, as in former days. Yet he acknowledges that God has been angry with Israel (5b) and with good cause (6-7). His plea is that God might treat them like potter's clay (8): that clay, when not conforming to what the potter wants, is able to be reshaped. It gets a second chance at becoming a pot!

Please God, Isaiah says, 'Do not be exceedingly angry' (9). I am not quite sure why the reading ends with this verse - the next few verses fits well with one of the themes in today's gospel reading.

Note verse 6: the prophet notes that relative to the utterly, absolutely pure holiness of God 'all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth' (6b). Do we too easily think we live in ways God approves because, well, we think we are okay by our lights?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

If Mark 13:24-37 looks ahead to terrifying crises afflicting Christians, then this psalm may be read as a prayer to God to save us from the crisis and the terror.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

This reading is an 'advent' reading because after Paul's opening greeting (1-3) and complimentary prayer of thanks with a bit of teaching about spiritual gifts (4-7) he looks ahead to 'the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ' (7).

Currently Jesus Christ is obscured - seated at the right hand of God in heaven but invisible here on earth (save in the lives of his followers). Thus Paul looks ahead - as he often does in his letters - to the future revealing or making visible of Jesus Christ to the world. Ahead of us lies 'the day of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9).

To be ready for that great day we need to be going about the business of our Lord: it is a time of waiting but also a time in which we need every 'spiritual gift' which enables us to do God's will (7).

In this time of waiting yet exercising the spiritual gifts God has given us we should not be anxious. God is at work: 'He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9).

The use of 'blameless' is an implicit reminder that the coming of Jesus Christ on that day will be for the purpose of judging the world.


Mark 13:24-37

This is a really tough passage of Scripture to comment on so let's start with the easy comments to make.

When Jesus says, "Keep awake" (37), he concludes a part of the passage with a consistent, comprehensible message. That message is that a day is coming when he will return but the hour of the return, indeed the day itself is known only to God the Father. Thus being ready for that hour, at all times, is important. That is the message of verses 32-37. In the season of Advent, when we recall the first coming of Jesus Christ and look ahead to his second coming, we do well to hear and heed this message.

What is much harder to comment on are verses 24-31. In these verses, almost but not quite contradicting verse 32 'about that day or hour no one knows', Jesus encourages his followers to look around them and see signs which point to the imminence of the day and hour.

In verses 24-27 Jesus draws on Old Testament texts to make a prophecy about the future coming of the Son of Man. In doing so he reinterprets Daniel 7:13 which concerns one like a son of man who represents the elect of God and comes towards God: here 'the Son of Man' (i.e. Jesus) will come towards earth to gather in the elect. But when will this happen?

In verse 28 Jesus says to learn a lesson from the fig tree: the way it puts forth its leaves is a sign that summer is near. Thus, he goes on to say, "So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates" (29).

'These things' are the matters Jesus has been forecasting in verses 5-23: there will be false teachers (5-6), wars and rumours of wars (7-8), earthquakes and famines (8), persecution (9-13), the setting up of the 'desolating sacrilege' in the Temple (14), terrible suffering (19) and false messiahs and prophets (21-22).

But here lie several difficulties.

1. Only one of these matters is specific (the setting up of the 'desolating sacrilege'). The rest are recurring features of human or natural behaviour through the ages.

2. The specific matter will relate to the coming of the Romans to destroy Jerusalem in 70 AD. Is this what Jesus has in mind? Is it only what Jesus has in mind? Note that most if not all of Mark 13 could relate to this event because the beginning of the chapter concerns a prophecy of Jesus about the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) which did occur in 70 AD. It does make sense of 'he is near, at the very gates' (29) - if we think of 'he' as the Roman general leading the forces against Jerusalem and equate 'the gates' with the gates of Jerusalem.

3. But if Mark 13 only relates to one future historical event then talk of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory is difficult to interpret in relation to this event because in 70 AD the elect of God were not gathered in 'from the end of the earth to the ends of heaven' (27).

4. Then there is the matter of the enigmatic claim in v. 30 that 'this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.' If Mark 13 refers to events in 70 AD then there are no problems: some people alive hearing Jesus say these things in the year 30 AD (+/- one or two years) would have been alive in 70 AD. But if 'all these things' refers further ahead, to the return of the Son of Man to gather in the elect, an event which still has not taken place, then 'this generation will not pass away' requires some interpretational fancy footwork. Could genea mean 'race' so that Jesus is saying that the Jews will not pass away before he returns? Despite serious attempts to exterminate the Jews such as the Holocaust, the Jews remain with us. Could 'this generation' have a timeless reference, e.g. the phrase refers to the church as the continuing followers of Jesus who hear and re-hear these words?

5. Is Mark 13 a prophecy on two levels? On one level some words look ahead to the events of 70 AD and on another level other words look ahead to the end of history. But if this is so, then the words are woven in with one another. Rather than being enigmatic, from this perspective the prophecy seems to involve obscurity: at various points it is obscure which level the words are working on.

If we then acknowledge the difficulties in the passage, what are we to make of it?

We should not allow the difficulties to block our reception of the clarities within the passage. Acknowledging that Jesus is speaking in a manner which recalls to us other modes of apocalyptic communication, i.e. disclosures of God's plan for the present and the future in colourful, dramatic, metaphorical and thus often obscure language (think Daniel, Revelation), then we can hold the difficulties in tension with points of clarity rather than worry ourselves to death over their resolution.

The clarities are:

1. Jesus' followers face at least one, if not many crises prior to his return. In these crises extraordinary pressures, including devastating suffering are likely to be experienced. We see such crises for believers unfolding in the world today, especially in the Middle East and in Africa.

2. We are asked to 'endure to the end' whatever we face for the sake of Christ (13).

3. We should 'be alert' (23, 33) and 'keep awake' (35, 37) at all times, that is, be ready for the return of Christ. In application that means, Today, am I faithful to Jesus? Today, have I confessed and repented of all sin? Today, am I going about my master's business? (34-36)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday 23rd November 2014 - Christ the King Sunday / 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time / Sunday before Advent / Aotearoa Sunday

Theme(s): Christ the King / Preparation for the coming of Christ

Sentence: And I, the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them' (Ezekiel 34:24).

Collect: a traditional collect for this Sunday as the Sunday Before Advent, in modern form, but retaining the words leading to this Sunday being nicknamed 'Stir Up' Sunday follows, from NZPB p. 641:

Stir up, O Lord
The wills of your faithful people
That, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
They may by you be richly rewarded;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Comments:

I am particularly reading the readings through the lens of "Christ the King."

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

The combination in David of shepherd and king becomes an enduring theme in the Old Testament and spills over into the New Testament (where Christ is both king and good shepherd).

Here God speaking through Ezekiel promises Israel that he will be a shepherd to them, with special care for the lost and threatened sheep, But God the great shepherd of Israel will also appoint a shepherd in the Davidic mold (23-24). He will 'feed them and be their shepherd' (23). For Christians reading Ezekiel there is only one candidate for identification as this shepherd king: Jesus Christ.

Psalm 100

What does a true king, a ruler who loves and care for his subjects (like a shepherd caring for his sheep, 3) deserve more than anything? Payment of taxes is the wrong answer! The correct answer is our praise and adoration. Today's psalm (or its alternative, Psalm 95) is the perfect set of words to express our delight in Christ the King.

Ephesians 1:15-23

There would not be much point to Christ the King if he were not in charge of a kingdom. To be in charge of Israel, as a descendant of King David was a reasonable ambition, or so it seemed to those in the gospels who thought that Jesus was that kind of king.

Here, in the concluding part of Paul's great christological essay on the blessings of God poured out on the world through Christ, with specific reference to those elected by God to be 'in Christ,' we find the crescendo of praise and adoration building to a royal climax.

Christ, raised from the dead, has been seated by God 'at his right hand in the heavenly places' (20). This position of might and power is the ultimate kingship since Christ is now 'far above all rule and authority and power and dominion' (21a). There is more: Christ is above every name, not only those known in this age, but also in the age to come (21b). In case of doubt Paul offers this flourish: God has 'put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things' (22). A true summary would be 'Christ is King of kings and King over everything.'

But Paul is ever mindful that God's power is purposive. The majesty of Christ the King is not majesty for majesty's sake. The purpose of Christ's rule over all rule is expressed in three words deliberately omitted in the citation from v. 22 above: 'for the church.' What God is in and through Christ is for the sake of God's people. The church is the object of God's power and authority displayed in Christ. God wants nothing more that the church to be protected and provided for by the one who is in charge of everything.

And why not, because the church is not some group outside the being of God in Christ, mercifully and unexpectedly included in the Godhead. No! The church is Christ the King's 'body, the fullness of him who fills all in all' (23). Christ takes care of his body.

Our question as the church could be whether we have a big and bold vision of who we are in Christ?

Matthew 25:31-46

The starting point for this passage is the coming in glory of the Son of Man (31) with the nations gathered before him (32). By v. 34 the Son of Man has become 'the king' and thus we have a great passage for Christ the King Sunday -Christ reigns over the nations and brings judgment to them.

This passage is sometimes called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This is partially true because Jesus makes a comparison (or 'similitude') in vss. 32-33 between the separated people before him as king and a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. But the greater truth is to describe the passage as a vision of the future judgment.

It is hard (in my view) to read this passage properly because it has (in my experience) been used in sermons to forward various agendas which do not receive direct support from the passage though they are worthy agendas in their own right. The problem is that the passage looks like a passage supporting  general social services and social justice when it does no such thing. The provision of social services and the work of social justice in the world at large does receive support from other passages in Scripture, but not here.

The reason for saying this is that Jesus specifically makes the criterion for judgment between the sheep and the goats the criterion of action or inaction towards 'the least of these who are members of my family' (40, 45). Unless we wrench the meaning of other Scriptures to define 'members of my family' as 'everyone', this passage is about the world's treatment of Christians and not how Christians treat non-Christians or non-Christians treat other people.

Understanding this matter is vital for the standing of the whole gospel as a Christian gospel in the context of the New Testament's message that salvation comes through the grace of God and not through good works. On the face of it, overlooking verses 40 and 45, Matthew 25:31-46 looks like a straightforward endorsement of good works as a means to salvation: feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, welcomes strangers into your home and God will be pleased with you. And the converse applies: you have been warned. But this is not so.

Effectively Jesus is expanding on something he has already said about the treatment of his disciples being the treatment of Jesus and thus of God himself:

"Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me."

This is Matthew 10:40 (read the larger section, 10:40-42) and can be read alongside Matthew 18:1-7. In these passages Jesus begins to develop a theme which comes to a climax in our present passage: how disciples of Christ are treated is extraordinarily powerful in respect of consequences. God is in Christ, Christ is in Christians, bless (or curse) a Christian and you are blessing (or cursing) God.

So in Matthew 25:31-46 we have the extraordinary spectacle of the nations being gathered before Christ the kingly judge and the judgment turning on how they have treated Christians. As we look around the world today we rightly think that some nations should be terrified of that future judgment because their treatment of Christians has been utterly appalling.

Of course some Christians have treated other Christians very kindly and some have treated them very badly. That also is pause for considerable thought about what Christ the kingly judge will make of our treatment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

How then does the passage read in terms of 'faith versus works'?

The previous two passages (Bridesmaids, 25:1-13; Talents, 25:14-30) have worked on recognition or knowledge between God/Jesus and people. The rejected bridesmaids are not known to the bridegroom and the worthless slave who buries his talent does not recognise who the master really is and what his character is like.

It is the faith which recognises God as God which counts. But Jesus offers a twist of considerable mercy in this third passage: at least recognising a Christian as a bearer of the life of God counts as saving faith in God himself.

For clarity: there are plenty of reasons for Christians to treat all people well, and especially those on the margins of life, whether or not you agree with the explanation given above!


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday 16th November 2014 - 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Growing in the faith / Sharing our faith with others / Alert and awake for Christ's coming

Sentence: So let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober (1 Thessalonians 5:6)

Collect: (used with permission Rev. Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

God our end,
as the sun of righteousness rises with healing in its wings,
save us in our time of trial,
so that we do not succumb,
but endure in your eternal embrace;
through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Readings:

Continuous: Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Related: [comments below]

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Comments:

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Ouch! Zephaniah leaves nothing out as he forth-tells the terrifying prospects of the 'day of the Lord' (7).

But the terrifying prospects are not to the genuinely righteous (i.e. in a healthy, right relationship with God) but to those who are complacent (12) and rely on their accumulated wealth to save them.

Whether the complacency of the wealthy is because they think their money can save them from the wrath of God or because they think it a sign that God has blessed them and thus they are safe, we cannot tell.

The connection with our gospel reading as a 'related' reading is tangential. The third slave in the parable is complacent. But he does not rely on his meagre talent saving him per se.

Psalm 90:1-8, 12

This psalm speaks to the delay in time as we wait for the coming of Christ. Versus 4 makes the relevant statement that time is different for God compared to our experience of it.

Verse 12 concludes the reading with a careful warning to use the time of our lives well: learning from God so that we gain a 'wise heart.'

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

When will the Lord return? Paul says that his readers do not need any information because they already know that the 'day of the Lord' will 'come like a thief in the night' (2). That is, we do not know except that it could be at any time.

What we do need a bit of reminding, as Paul goes on to do, is that we must not become complacent (3a) and certainly should not think that the end will never come (3b - there is no escape from labour pains for the pregnant woman who is tempted late in pregnancy to think her baby is never going to arrive).

Consequently, awake and alert believers should not be surprised (4). Picking up the idea of the suddenness of the coming of the Lord being like a thief in the night, Paul then urges his readers to behave as people behave in the daytime rather than in the night, a period associated with wicked behaviour (5-7).

The key to warding off complacency and sinful behaviour is not greater effort to do good but the Christian basics of 'putting on the breastplate of faith and love' and 'the helmet of the hope of salvation' (8). The latter is decisive: for what lies ahead of us, we live our lives in the here and now in such a way as to be ready for the coming of the Lord. God destines us for salvation (9) so let us not miss out. Great help lies within the Christian community: we should encourage one another and build up each other in faith, love and hope (11).

Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Talents

As with the previous parable, this parable is memorable partly because of the maths. Then it was 10 bridesmaids who are divided into two binary groups of 5, the wise and the foolish. Here elements of wisdom versus foolishness are implicit but not named (e.g. the foolish slave is described as 'wicked and lazy' (26).) The maths moves from 10/2/5 to 3/5/2/1: 3 men, given 5,2 and 1 talents respectively with the first two men making a matching 5 and 2 talents.

There is a binary element, however, in that the first two slaves are deemed 'trustworthy' (21, 23) and the third, as noted above is 'wicked and lazy.

Whether Jesus took some existing story doing the rounds within Middle Eastern story or created a story fit for his teaching purposes, a few phrases alert us, well before the concluding verses, to the inherent purpose of the story. The master goes off 'on a journey' (14) and returns 'after a long time' (19) means the story is about the return of Jesus. The invitation to the first two slaves to 'enter into the joy of your master' (21, 23) points forward to the great messianic feast or banquet (e.g. the wedding feast of previous parables, including last Sundays 25:1-13, and 22:1-14).

Much as the parable is interesting about how we might use the resources God gives us, whether we focus on talent = money and discuss the merits of trading versus storing banknotes under a mattress versus faith in the capitalist system via investing funds in an interest bearing account, or talent = talent, the gifts and abilities God grants us, our focus on the point of the parable must engage with verse 29.

We have already encountered 25:29 at 13:12. There the increase/decrease of what we have or do not have is associated with the reception of the parabolic teaching of Jesus. That suggests that we do not think long about the economic of social capital aspects of the parable - nor even about the ecclesiastical aspects of it. (With respect to the last, tempting though it is to use this parable as an occasion to rally the parishioners to give more of time and talents to the life of the parish, that is not why Jesus told the parable!)

Rather, Jesus, continuing a theme developed in 25:1-13, challenges his hearers to be ready for his return by growing in the faith he is teaching them. Through his teaching, the disciples (then and now) have been 'entrusted his property' (14). The delay between his ascension and his return is our opportunity to use the property well and gain an investment return on it. Fast forwarding to the Great Commission, 28:16-20, we properly understand the parable when we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, bear witness to him in the world, and make disciples so that the body of followers of Jesus grows.

To keep our faith to ourselves, to make no progress in growing into Christian maturity, and generally to ignore Jesus' commands about how we are to live in the world is the equivalent of the third slave who 'hid your talent in the ground' (25).