Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday 5 March 2017 - Lent 1

Theme(s): Facing temptation / Prayer and Fasting / Confronting sin through Christ / Study God's Word to resist the Devil

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress (Isaiah 33:2)

Collect:

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our redeemer. Amen.

Readings:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Commentary:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Some controversy attends the story popularly known as 'the Fall' because, in an age of evolutionary understanding of the history of life, it appears incredible that Christians could subscribe to a view which seemingly requires us to believe that no death occurred in nature after Creation until the Fall. Further, the way the story of the Fall is told, it can be read as a story which contributes to the subjection of women to men (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12-15). Neither space nor time permit an extensive reflection on such controversies here - probably sermons this Sunday do not permit that either, limited as most preachers are by time! So the following approach to this passage acknowledges such controversies while largely sidestepping them ...

In the big story of the world, told through Scripture in terms of the world's relationship to God the Creator, the story of the Fall marks and acknowledges a very simple fact about human life: we sin, we stuff up, we get things wrong, we fail, we let God, others and ourselves down. From sin flows pain and sorrow. Every day in the news media we are confronted with evidence of this simple fact.

In Scripture this simple fact of life closes the door to the first part of the story of the world, the story of the Creator creating the world, and opens the door to the next part, the Creator becoming the Redeemer to redeem the world. In the latter story the Redeemer undies the effects of the Fall (forgive sin, heal pain, turn sorrow into joy) and begins the restoration of the world to what God intended the created world to be, a place of perfect fellowship between God and humanity and between people.

To retell this part of the story today, the first Sunday in Lent, is to acknowledge that we (once again) journey with Jesus to the cross which is the culminating action of God the Redeemer, and beyond the cross to the resurrection which is the inaugurating action of God the Healer of fallen Creation.

Psalm 32

If we take seriously the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross because of our wrong-doing, then we will take seriously our sinful, fallen nature - our part in, our responsibility for the state of the world. When we acknowledge our sin we cannot be seriously concerned about that if we do nothing. To do something about our sin is to be penitent, active in repentance in which our lives turn from sin to holy living. Psalm 32 is a penitential psalm which captures neatly the stress of continuing in unrepented sin while charting the happy state of those without imputed sin, who live lives attuned to God's ways.

Romans 5:12-19

One way to understand this passage is to understand it as Paul's account of what I have tried to express above in my comments about the Genesis reading for today: the big picture story of the world in relationship to God is Creation, Fall, Redemption. In Paul's account he draws in the symmetry of the fall through 'one man' (12), specifically named as 'Adam' (14), and salvation through 'the one man, Jesus Christ' (15, 17). He also names two parts to the period in which 'death exercised dominion' following the fall (14), the period from Adam to Moses when there was sin without the law (13-14) and the period from Moses to Jesus Christ when sin continued, with the law (given by God to Israel via Moses) intended to constrain sin actually having 'the result that the trespass multiplied' (20).

(Note, as an aside, that Paul writing in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 can focus on the role Eve played in the dynamics between the snake, Adam and Eve, but here subsumes Adam and Eve as a couple into 'one man', presumably to make the symmetry re Jesus Christ: through one man came sin, through one man came salvation.)

In the battle between good and evil, between life and death, between sin and righteousness, Paul here states clearly, carefully (i.e. logically) and conclusively (i.e. no Christian need be in any doubt about the matter) that goodness, life and righteousness are the winners. Sin abounds, but grace abounds more (15, 20). Death exercised dominion but now righteousness and life (17) as well as grace exercise dominion (21).

All this comes about because 'at the right time Christ died for the ungodly' (6). So we journey through Lent with Jesus to the cross, not because we celebrate suffering and sacrifice for its own sake, but because through the cross comes life.

Matthew 4:1-11

Lent as a period of 40 days relates precisely to this period of testing in Jesus' own life (2). But that period itself is a mimicry of Israel's 40 years in the wilderness as it journeyed towards the Promised Land. In both periods, 40 days / 40 years, there were tests and tribulations. Would Israel trust in God (for water, for food, for healing, for conquest of their Promised Land)? Will Jesus' trust in God?

In these verses in Matthew we learn of Jesus' own tests and tribulations. First, the general test of fasting and ending up in a famished state (2). Then, secondly, the particular tribulations at the hands of the tempter (who appears to intentionally test or tempt Jesus when he is weak rather than strong, verses 3-10).

Clearly Jesus is tempted on matters concerning his messiahship, here focused in Matthew's telling on the matter of his title and status as 'the Son of God' (3, 6). What better way to be acclaimed as Messiah than through a miracle concerning food or a dramatic rescue which fulfilled ancient prophecy (3-7). Jesus is resolute, so the tempter a.k.a the devil (5) or Satan (10) tries a third and final time to tempt Jesus to submit to his rather than to God's authority. In this third temptation Jesus is offered, literally, the world (8-11). Not just Israel would be his domain.

The fact that Jesus rebuts and rejects these temptations shows us that his messiahship will not be expressed in a worldly way (courting popularity, demonstrating powerfulness).

Apart from that lesson, what might Christian disciples learn from the example of their Teacher?

An important observation is that Jesus rejects the voice of the devil with the words of God: 'it is written' (4, 7, 10). Indeed one of the citations is a citation about the words of God, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (4).

The power to live a holy life draws on the power of God's written Word in Scripture. Knowledge of the truth counters the lies and deceptions of the devil. Obedience to God's laws gives life which obedience to the devil's lures would not. Jesus trusts God and trusts the promises of God made to him via the written Word of God.

If Lent is a period for fasting, it is also a period for study of God's Word.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sunday 26 February 2017 - 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Motherly nature of God, provision, anxiety, idolatry.

Sentence: Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

Collect:

God of life,
you have created this beautiful world with great care.
As we wonder at Creation around us
help us to discern your great care for each one of us.
Free us from anxiety about worldly things
that we may concentrate on your kingdom.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Commentary:

Isaiah 49:8-16a

Looking ahead to the gospel, what kind of God cares for us and provides for our needs? This passage in Isaiah presents Israel with a vision of God as carer and provider (8-13). Israel (having experienced the devastating pain of Babylonian exile) rightly and plaintively cries, "The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me" (14). Through the prophet, the Lord responds in strongly emotional terms. What mother could forget the child she has fed at her breasts? Could any mother lack compassion for a child she has borne in her womb? (15a). God is a better, more perfect mother to Israel: "even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (15b).

Psalm 131

This is a lovely psalm with the central image of a weaned (and contented) child. Worth pondering is the implied female imagery for God here. That is, the imagery is of God as the mother who has weaned the child after daily nurture through breast-feeding.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

This is the concluding chapter in Paul's defensive and offensive (i.e. proactive) explanation and justification of his ministry to the critical Corinthians. In these five verses Paul makes three simple points. The first two of these are applicable to all who minister in Christ's name in any situation. The third makes a specific point to the Corinthians while including a general point of application.

(1) What is a minister? (a) a 'servant of Christ' (b) a 'steward of God's mysteries' (verse 1). In other words, those of us who are 'ministers' or 'in ministry' are should have a non-exalted view of "ministry". It is not a superior way to serve God/the world/church/others. It is plain 'service'. In the context in which Paul writes the language of "service" was tied up with household servants and slaves, with those who as "stewards" served businesses. Servants, slaves and stewards served. They were not heads of households or owners of businesses.

We serve Christ and in that service we make available the mysteries of God (i.e. the gospel which announces that God's hidden plan of salvation is now revealed through the coming, death and resurrection of Christ).

(2) A 'steward' or servant assigned to be manager of a household or business must be 'trustworthy' (verse 2). So too a servant of Christ who is a steward of God's mysteries. The mysteries must be faithfully made available to the world; the steward so assigned is asked to be trustworthy - at all times relied on to do this work.

So Paul (with an implied assertion that he is just such as servant and steward) makes a point specific to the Corinthians' critical approach to his work:

(3) Humans judge ministers of the church but what counts is the judgment of the Lord (verses 3-5). So Paul is untroubled by the critical, judgmental view of the Corinthians. His concern is that the Lord approves of what he has been doing.

Matthew 6:24-34

Loads of sermons here! That is because quite a few interrelated themes are woven into this part of the Sermon. Wealth, both as a potential idolatrous rival to God (24) and as a cause of anxiety (i.e. do we have enough material wealth to pay for our daily needs, 25-34). Anxiety (25, 34) which is a fear that God is insufficient for and/or inattentive to our needs (see also 'you of little faith', 30). Life and what it consists of (25). God's provision of our needs (26-31). Our worth to God (26, 30).

Note that through this talk of Jesus bits of wisdom are also woven (which may connect with the invocation of Solomon, 29). So we find, "And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (27) and "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today" (34).

But the greatest theme through these verses is the character of God. Our Isaiah and Psalm readings have prepared us for what we find in the gospel reading. God is carer and provider to Israel, including the expanded 'Israel' of Christ's kingdom, whose citizens are the disciples addressed in his sermon. Whether we wonder where our next meal or drink or cloak is coming from, God will provide. Disciples of Jesus are not to worry about such things. Confidence in God as provider comes from consideration of creation itself. Birds without storage barns are fed by God via the way the world has been created. Flowers are beautifully adorned without ever weaving a thread. Yet birds and flowers are (relatively speaking) nothing compared to people, in God's sight.

Surely, though, one does not live as one wishes and expects bread on the table and clothes in the wardrobe? True, there is a condition imposed on the disciples: "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well" (33).

But here 'condition' is not quite the right word, as though God won't help us until we fulfil this condition. Rather the point Jesus is making is that God will help his disciples as they go about the business of the kingdom. Preachers of the gospel of the kingdom need not worry about their material needs being provided for. God will look after them. Missioners active in spreading the kingdom through healing and deliverance ministry can focus on that work. Disciples following Jesus who have left trades and professions behind will be looked after.

Just as many of us have experienced our mothers as knowing what we need before we know it ourselves, so (putting our readings from Isaiah, Psalm and Matthew together), God our mother knows our needs and provides for them.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Sunday 19 February 2017 - Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Love you neighbour / God builds the church / Working with God on the church / Love your enemies

Sentence: If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (Matthew 5:39)

Collect:

Bountiful God,
you send the sun and rain to the righteous and unrighteous.
Let your grace fall upon your people,
enable us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us,
so that we may truly be your children.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[slightly abbreviated from NZL 2017, p. 40]

Readings:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Commentary:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

What is the single decisive intersection between the Sermon on the Mount (see our Gospel reading) and the Law of Moses (a part of which is the Old Testament reading today)?

A good case can be made that both concern holy living - the way of living which sets the godly person apart from the ungodly person, or, we could also say, the distinctive way of life which marks a believer in the God of Israel who is the God of Jesus Christ from those who do not so believe.

Leviticus 19 begins with a clear call to holiness: 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy' (2).

In what follows (including the omitted verses, 3-8), holy living is set out in detail.

It includes acts of mercy and kindness (9-10, 14), actions most if not all cultures value re truth, honesty, respect for possessions of others and fair dealings (11, 13, 15-16), a distinctive action - not swearing falsely by God's name (12), and love rather than hatred towards neighbours including not taking vengeance and bearing grudges (17-18).

The whole chapter covers even more ground in terms of human relationships, some of which makes perfectly good sense to this day (e.g. 31, 32), some of which we might want to debate (e.g. prohibition on tattoos, 28) and some of which might simply puzzle us (e.g. 27).

Sometimes the Law of Moses is derided as though it is out of date, out of touch primitive law-making for a people as far removed culturally from us as Mars is from Earth. But careful reading here impresses on us the Law's care and concern for holy living, for just, fair and honest dealings with people, for acts of kindness and mercy, and for love not hate towards others.

What is not to like?

Psalm 119:33-40

Look back to last week's post for comments on Psalm 119 in general as a psalm devoted to praising, receiving, and obeying the rules and commandments of God.

Here we might note the conviction of the psalmist that obedience to the Law of Moses is a means of life (35, 37, 40).

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Continuing from last week and the week before, Paul rounds off his argument (i.e. concern and anxiety for the well-being of the Corinthian church expressed through a persuasive argument) that the diverse work of Paul and Apollos is one work of God with a new image:
- last week, planting/watering/growing;
- this week, building.

Paul has laid a foundation and Apollos has built on that but it is one building, not two.

The imagery is both ambiguous and capable of extension. The ambiguity is that if the church is a building built by Paul and Apollos, it is also God's building, its true foundation being Jesus Christ (11) and its status is 'God's temple' (16-17). The extension is that if the foundation is Jesus Christ and the work of apostles (= church planters/builders, both ancient and modern, both the Twelve (+Paul) and the likes of Apollos) is that of builders, then one day there will be ... a building inspection!

'Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done' (12-13).

As we each contribute to the building of God's church (which we do, by being members of the church, this is not just about 'ministers' or 'priests'), what are we building?

A sobering thought, especially when we read on through verses 14 and 15.

But Paul is not done here as he provokes the Corinthians about their poor showing re the state of their church. Moving the image of a building (in general) along, Paul questions the Corinthians (as a prosecutor in court might question a witness):

'Do you not know that you are God's temple (in particular) and that (just as ancient Israel believed God dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem) God's Spirit dwells in you?' (16)

Disunity and division has capacity to 'destroy God's temple' (17). Well, Corinthians, note that God is not a neutral bystander when his (or we might say, 'HIS') temple is being destroyed (17).

Paul then reprises his talk of wisdom and foolishness from chapters one and two (18-20). That is, Corinthians: get up to speed here. You can be wise (and understand the true, unitary character of the one church of God built on the single foundation of Jesus Christ) or foolish (bitterly pursuing rivalries and competitions to destruction).

In short, Paul cuts to the conclusional chase, 'So let no one boast about human leaders'  (21).

Effectively, Paul says, you are very small-minded, you Corinthians. You need to open your eyes: you can have everything that God wants to give you and not settle for one thing (or one leader): 'all belong to you' (22).

Matthew 5:38-48

This passage is so well-known through the generations of its readers that phrases from it are embedded in the English language (e.g. 'turn the other cheek', 'going the second mile' and 'love your neighbour').

A detailed background in a full commentary will bring to life aspects of the passage (e.g. why Jesus referred to the right cheek, or who it was who might ask you to carry something for one mile).

Here, in a brief commentary, we simply highlight that these verses envision a kingdom of generosity. Less eye for eye and tooth for tooth, more shaming your adversary by doing more for them than they require of you. Give freely, love inclusively. Pray for persecutors, love the unlovely.

In sum, be like God (48). (That takes us back, incidentally, to Leviticus 19:1-2 and its call to holiness because we are the people of a holy God.)

We could get to the last verse and despair: a counsel for perfection is just too hard, isn't it?

Yes, it is too hard if what Jesus was meant that the moment his sermon ended, he expected his hearers to be perfect. Yes, it is too hard if we are meant to be perfect in our own strength.

But, no, it is not too hard if we read more widely in Scripture and recognise the promise of the Holy Spirit, that God the Spirit will come to each of God's people and work in us to bring us to maturity in Christ.

And, no, it is not too hard if we recognise that the kingdom of God works on people being wholly committed to the gracious and loving way of God. It would not be the kingdom of God if it was worked on the basis of 'Try your best. If you love most people but nurse hatred and bitterness towards a few, that's fine. Give to the beggars who are not utterly repulsive. Only go the extra mile if it suits and you are not too tired.' Of course not!

That is, Jesus is not so much asking perfection of us, but asking us to commit to the perfect vision of the kingdom: the kingdom in which all are loved and grace touches everyone, including evildoers and enemies.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sunday 12 February 2017 - 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Kingdom living / Church without party politics / Reckoning with God being in charge

Sentence: Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord (Psalm 119:1)

Collect:

God of Israel old and new,
write in our hearts the lessons of your law;
prepare our minds to receive the gospel
made visible in your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Commentary:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Do not read this passage if you think life consists of greys instead of black and white, or that God is kinda a real good dude who just wants to bless you whatever you choose to do. No!

'See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.' (15)

If we squirm at the thought of a binary (good/bad, life/death) approach to decision-making and its consequences, it may be worth considering what kind of a God would offer something different to what we read here. Would God be much of a god if the offer was, say, 'It would be neat if you chose to obey me, but it doesn't matter if you disobey me'?

Of course there is no need to be at all uncomfortable in the presence of the God who speaks to us through this passage. Its resounding plea is 'Choose life' (19).

Though today we might hear the voice of God speaking to us as individuals about the course and destination of our lives, this original plea was to Israel. What kind of people would she choose to be? God's people living in God's way and thus blessed by God in the land promised to them by God? Or a dying people (18) enjoying the shortest of stays in the land they entered with hearts turned away from God towards other gods (17)?

As a matter of fact, Israel's history was a mixed bag. There was obedience (and times of blessing, notably in the reigns of David and Solomon) and there was disobedience (and times of cursing, notably exile, from the perspective of which, Deuteronomy was written in the form we read it today). In other words, whatever our feelings in the 21st century about shades of grey versus black and white as we understand the times in which we live, ancient Israel, as its writings were compiled, edited and finalised into what we Christians read as the Old Testament, looked back on its history as a nation once blessed and now cursed. No greys!

Psalm 119:1-8

Famously every verse of this longest psalm refers to the Law (e.g. law, statute, precept, commandment, decree, word, ordinance, way). It celebrates the keeping of the 'law of the Lord' (1) and mixes up the promise of blessing for obedience (1-2) with prayer for steadfastness (5), reminder of God's will that his commandments be kept (4), and statement of intention to obey (7-8).

The connection with our gospel reading is clear: Jesus is outlining in Matthew 5:21-37 what he meant when he said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (5:17-20). A Christian following Jesus' teaching on the law of God can enter fully into the spirit of Psalm 119, eager to be an obedient citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

We continue through 1 Corinthians (with readings which are not intended to 'relate' to the gospel reading of the day).

Having eloquently spoken of the true spiritual wisdom found in (and only in) Christ (chapters 1 and 2), Paul is frank and robustly critical of his Corinthian audience.

He compares a potential 'spiritual' audience with the 'people of the flesh' to whom he writes (1, also 2,3).

On the one hand 'spiritual' is comparable to 'immature' or 'infantile' (so also comparison between feeding with 'with milk, not solid food' (2)).

On the other hand 'still of the flesh' is the state of 'jealousy and quarrelling' (3) specifically linked to a form of party allegiance: 'one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos" (4).

This dissension in the Corinthian ranks has already been introduced as a topic for the letter (chapter 1). Now Paul addresses it further, in an argument which will continue through to the end of chapter 4.

We could puzzle endlessly about the nature of the party allegiances. Was it an allegiance to perceived difference in teaching content between Paul and Apollos (and Cephas, mentioned in 3:22)? Was each teacher being treated as a kind of principal of a particular school of Greek philosophy (or rabbinical leader of a Jewish school of interpretation)? Or was the allegiance more human than that, so that the allegiance was heartfelt affection towards the apostle who brought the party loyalist into faith through baptism?

However the allegiances came about, Paul is clear that a strong sense of 'belonging' is involved (4). So he takes up this sense of belonging in verses 5-9. What are Paul and Apollos? We could perhaps use the word 'just' here: just servants of the Lord; just servants of the Lord who happened to be in Corinth at a certain time so that Corinthians came to belief through one or other as the Lord 'assigned to each' (5). Just so, no more, no less.

Paul then makes a distinction between the work of each. He 'planted', Apollos 'watered' (6). Perhaps Paul preached first and Apollos second. Not for the last time in the history of evangelism, the later preacher (so to speak) reaped the harvest from the seed sown by the first. (Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we might look back over two hundred years to Marsden preaching with little fruit re conversions in 1814 (and successive preaching trips) and then forward to the 1830s when many Maori converted to the Christian faith). But. Where does the real credit for the success of the apostolic mission in Corinth (Aotearoa New Zealand) lie? With God: 'but God gave the growth' (6).

Thus, Paul says, neither he nor Apollos (by comparison) amount to 'anything' (7). What matters is 'God who gives the growth' (7). This is where the Corinthians' allegiance should be placed.

With this unifying factor in place in his argument Paul draws out the implications in verses 8 and 9. Paul and Apollos have had a 'common purpose' in their work. They are not their own men but 'God's servants, working together.' The Corinthians are not many parties of Christians but one entity: 'you are God's field, God's building.'

But we do not read this passage for a lesson in Corinthian church history. What is God the Holy Spirit saying to the church today through this passage?

Is the message here about growth into Christian maturity as a congregation? Whether riven with party conflicts or not, congregations can be torn in two or three by other divisions. (Is there a question for the global church about its (im)maturity as a church of many denominations?)

Is the message about how we see ourselves in ministry? It is natural to seek limelight, even in the church. Theoretically we deplore party allegiances, secretly (unconsciously) we might wish we had a following! Do we need to take a sober reckoning of our personal ministry role as simply that of a servant of the Lord: what counts is God's work in the church.

If God's work in the church is what counts, where do we see that work occurring? If the work of the servants of the Lord counts for little by comparison with the work of God, then that frees us from worrying that (say) we do not seem to have giants of the faith around us today as we had in former days. One kind of anxiety in the church concerns where the Pauls and Apolloses of the 21st century are to be found. But does that matter? What is God up to? Surely the power of God at work in the world is no less today than two thousand years ago!

Matthew 5:21-37

There is a lot of material here! Topically we have murder/hate (21-22); reconciliation (23-24, 25-26); adultery/lust (27-28, with added comment re parts of our bodies which cause us to sin, 29-30); divorce (31-32); oaths (36-37). There is a challenging and meaty sermon series laid out for us to follow. However that is not our task with this passage, which is to preach one sermon on these seventeen verses.

It could be that we take the opportunity to major on just one topic - that would be a reasonable way to respond to the passage. In which case we might want to delve into a commentary for consideration of important subtleties: e.g. what was in the background concerning life in Jesus' day which led to the way he teaches about oaths, reconciliation and divorce? How do we honour Jesus' words about remarriage in verse 32 with due seriousness, words which bluntly state that remarriage of a divorced woman creates a state of adultery?

To an extent (being frank), a sermon which sweeps across the whole passage offers the option of not addressing difficult issues such as those within verse 32. Yet such a sermon cannot avoid the fact that taken together, these verses confront just about every member of the congregation with some challenge or another. Who among us is reconciled to every person we have ever had a quarrel with? What person is free of lust? (Speaking as a man, in a world where many images of sexually exciting women are staples of advertising in print and video media, verse 28 challenges!) We live in an age in which many marriages end in divorce. In the language of yesteryear, a gentleman's word used to be his bond and business deals were struck on the shake of a hand, but now, it seems, nothing can happen without some voluminous contract being vetted by expensive lawyers.

We might also reckon with the fact that many readers/hearers of verses 29-30 are genuinely troubled by what these verses mean. Do they literally apply so the solution to lust is plucking one's eyes out and the end of thievery is bound to follow from losing one's hands? (To respond quickly on this matter: as is the case elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. Self-mutilation is not required by Christians taking the Sermon seriously. But radical action may be the only solution to problems such as lust and theft. To cease lusting, do I need to stop watching TV and trawling the internet? A shoplifter needs to stop going into shops. Etc.)

So, what then for the preacher? I suggest we have a nice long cup of coffee or tea or smoothie and think through what it would mean to be faithful to Jesus to preach on his Sermon.

Would it be faithful to preach on this passage as though we were the kind of rabbi Jesus seemed to despise, the kind who found ways around the laws of God rather than insisted on obedience to them?

(Conversely) would it be faithful to Jesus to preach on this passage in such a way that we were like another kind of despised rabbi, the kind who makes their hearers feel more weighed down and oppressed by the end of the sermon than they were at the beginning, suffocating under the weight of obligation to be perfect now in both outward action and inward attitude?

If the Sermon is a charter or manifesto for the kingdom of God, then it sets out a vision for how we will live in a renewed society of God's people. A restored humanity within this society lives in harmony with one another: neither murder nor hatred nor unreconciled relationships are compatible with this vision. Betrayal in marriage through adultery, imbalanced relationships between the sexes because lust fuels domination of one sex over the other is not compatible either. Drastic action may be required to match the deeds and attitudes of members of the kingdom with the vision of the kingdom. Truth telling is also vital to the kingdom, whether we think of faithfulness to marriage vows in particular, or commitment to any vow made simply. The opposite of thieving in the kingdom is more than the cessation of stealing, it is generosity and sharing of material goods.

Can we, in our sermons this week, capture the seriousness of what is at stake in this teaching of Jesus with the inspiration of what God desires of his kingdom people?

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Sunday 5 February 2017 - Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Salt / Light / Righteousness according to Jesus / Wisdom / Discipleship / Christian character / Spiritual truth / True spirituality

Sentence: Shine forth from your throne upon the cherubim; restore us O God; show us the light of your face and we shall be saved. (Psalm 80:1,3)

Collect:

We praise you, God,
that the light of Christ shines in our darkness
and is never overcome;
show us the way we must go to eternal day;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalm 112:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

Commentary:

Isaiah 58:1-9a

With an eye on the gospel reading (from the Sermon on the Mount) in which Jesus teaches what the real oil is on what God expects of God's people about the way they live, we read this stirring passage as a challenge in a similar vein: what does God really, really expect of us?

The prophet fastens on fasting as an issue. He paints a picture of his fellow Israelites fasting intently and faithfully and then complaining that God seemingly offers no accreditation (v.3). To them he says, as the voice of God speaks through him, your fasting is a sham. Verses 3-7 outline both the problem (fasting covers over unjust treatment of others) and the remedy (understand the true fast of God and do that instead of going without food).

Once the prophet launches into his memorable method of outlining what true fasting is, by asking an emotively powerful set of rhetorical questions, all Jewish and Christian ethics would never be the same again.

'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice .. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house ...' (vss. 6-7)

Psalm 112:1-9

This psalm ties neatly into the Old Testament reading re just living (vss. 5-6, 9) and with the gospel, especially Jesus telling the disciples that they are the light of the world = 'They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous' (vs. 4).

Indeed one way to summarise the whole of the Sermon on the Mount could be to say that those disciples who live accordingly will be 'gracious, merciful and righteous.'

One feature of the life encouraged by the psalm is that the righteous live lives of 'happy stability' (see vss. 1, 6-8).

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

This is a very deep passage on which we could linger in theological reflection at many points. Its depth comes from Paul exploring the 'mystery of God' in the context of Corinth, a seaside city of many cultures with a church of several allegiances informed by two great philosophies of the day, Hellenism with its interest in 'wisdom' and Judaism with its interest in 'signs' (1:22).

Wisdom communicated itself in those days with 'lofty words' (2:1) and 'plausible words' (2:4), that is, in the rhetorical (persuasive) style of speech familiar to the Hellenistic world. On the one hand Paul seems to have been poor at such an approach (2:3-4). On the other hand, he is proud of this inability for what he has to say (the gospel of the crucified Christ) is not an argument to be presented persuasively ('so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God', v.5) but a 'demonstration of the Spirit and of power' (v.4).

Picking up the flow of Paul's themes developed in this and the previous chapter, he is saying that the pitiful weakness of a crucified man (and an obscure resident of Palestine on the edge of the empire at that) is 'foolish' for Greeks (1:23 etc) and a 'stumbling block' to Jews (1.23 etc) has no power in the usual way of persuasion to persuade hearers of the gospel that on the cross true wisdom lies and in the cross is the greatest sign of God at work in the world. No, the effectiveness of preaching the gospel lies with the Spirit's power to convict hearers that truth lies in the 'mystery of God' at work in Jesus Christ crucified rather than the opposite (e.g. if Jesus were a great philosopher in the mode of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and a miracle worker in the style of Elijah and Elisha).

Understanding this, Paul goes on to say, Jesus Christ is the actual wisdom from God (1:30; 2:6-7).

What then follows in the passage, 2:9-12 (and 2:13-16) is an account of how God's truth is discovered: God reveals it (2:7, 10); the Spirit of God is the agent of revelation (2:10-13); the Spirit is able to reveal because only the Spirit of God 'comprehends what is truly God's' (2:11).

Note how the emphasis falls in this passage on truth being a gift from God, enabled by God and made available by God according to God's timing. On this matter Paul would have been in accord with his Jewish readers/hearers but out of sync with his Greek hearers/readers whose Hellenistic background assumed 'wisdom' was discoverable by insightful human intellectual exploration.

Much more could be said on this passage. One specific point of reflection would be to consider what this passage says to the church today about communicating the gospel. To offer one tiny illustration of where such reflection might go: is the church tempted to think that its problems with communication of the gospel are about getting the right advertising agency involved in marketing the gospel? If so, to what extent is an "advertising agency involved in marketing" a 21st century equivalent of 1st century Hellenistic philosophers plying their rhetorical (persuasive) trade?

Matthew 5:13-20

[NB A downside to following the lectionary is that allowing for the Presentation of Jesus last Sunday (thus drawing on the only gospel reading which can apply, a reading from Luke 2) and using Matthew 5:1-13 on All Saints Day (this year, 2 November) we end up with an interrupted reading of the gospel. Two weeks ago we were setting off on Jesus' mission after his baptism (Matthew 4). Those churches last Sunday who did not observe the Presentation of Jesus would have had the RCL gospel, Matthew 5:1-12].

Now we have dived into the Sermon on the Mount without a Sunday to reflect on how the sermon begins, Matthew 5:1-12, and what that beginning says, especially what it says in terms of setting the tone for what follows (e.g. the theme of blessing, the unexpectedness of who is blessed and thus preparing us for the 'upside down' ethical world of the kingdom of God).

We also miss the setting in which Jesus draws his disciples aside yet we must compare this with what we learn at the end of the Sermon, that the crowds 'were astounded at his teaching' (7:28): thus is a tension created which the church has wrestled with ever since: is the high demands of the Sermon for all Christians or for a more select group (e.g. those called to monastic orders)].

Once again we are in biblical territory where many themes are densely packed into a few verses. We could easily preach a whole sermon on being salt of the earth (v. 13) or light of the world (v.14-15) or the relationship between good works (v. 16) and faith. Books get published on the meaning of 5:17-20 in respect of Jesus' understanding of the importance and continuing relevance of the Law of Moses for Christians living in the age of a new covenant with God.

Perhaps more so than other weeks, the few following remarks make no pretence to offer a route of avoidance of effort looking up a decent commentary or three!

What we might usefully consider as one reflection on this passage is to ask a question about what is at stake here.

Jesus has begun the task of bringing the kingdom of God into the world (or, if you prefer, bringing the world into the kingdom of God). He has preached the gospel of the kingdom and enacted kingdom business: that is, whether we think of the kingdom as the intimate (and immanent) reign of God over the affairs of the world, or as the restoration of creation, Jesus has announced that reign is at hand and has begun to restore creation through healings and deliverance (4:17-25).

Now in this wide-ranging sermon Jesus addresses the question of how those in the kingdom (disciples who have responded to Jesus' call to follow him) should live. Kingdom living, by implication from chapter 4, will be life lived which demonstrates the rule of God over disciples and which lives out the original vision of creation of humanity being in loving harmony with one another.

Even just a few living in this way will be like salt in food: its presence makes a difference to the food. A little light (even a few disciples living in the kingdom way) destroys a lot of darkness. Living saltily and lightfully will draw people to praise God.

We could pause right here in our sermon and ask of ourselves as well as of our hearers, Does anyone in our community/workplace/sports club know that we are Christians? What is different about our lives which demonstrates the rule of God over us and which offers a sign of creation being restored?

In similar vein we could tackle 5:17-20 (on which, we remember, books have been written). If we go back to what the 'law or the prophets' (v. 17) were about, they were not about Israel living by a random set of strange rules, the stranger the better for demonstrating how faithful Israel was to a strange God. No! They were on about Israel living in a fallen world a community life in which people sought to live harmoniously with one another while honouring the rule of God over their lives, with the plus that some rules provided for ways of restoration (of people to God and to one another) when things went wrong). The prophets often made the point that one other thing could go wrong with trying to live in this way: the rules might be misunderstood so that the comparatively tiny ones (e.g. about the finer points of ceremony) could outweigh the actually important ones (like living justly and treating others mercifully).

With this in mind we could understand 5:17-20 in this way: Jesus is saying that the vision for life underlying the law and the prophets was his vision too. Accordingly he has not come to change anything about the law and the prophets as they relate to living under God's rule and to living in harmony with one another. We need to put those italicised words into the picture because clearly Jesus did change some rules (e.g. about clean/unclean foods).

What we then find Jesus doing in 5:21 and following is not undo the law but to intensify it. Looking ahead to just one such treatment, re murder, 5:21-22, Jesus affirms that murder is wrong (it dishonours God who has made each of us equal in his sight; it (obviously) breaks harmony in society) and then goes beyond that. Hatred of another also dishonours God and disrupts social harmony.

Back to 5:13-20. Jesus can end this section by saying the disciples' righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (see also 'You must be perfect' at the end of chapter 6) because life in the kingdom is no less a vision for living under the rule of God and for living in harmony with one another than the vision that drives the scribes and the Pharisees to live as they do.

What is (and could or should be) interesting about the weeks ahead in Matthew's Gospel is asking the question, what difference does Jesus make to these two ways to live out the same vision?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sunday 29 January 2017 - Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

[Apologies for lateness of posting this week]

Theme(s): Jesus in the temple / The King of glory / Welcoming Jesus

Sentence: Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in righteousness and true holiness. (Ephesians 4:23-24)

Collect:

Everliving God,
your Son Jesus Christ was presented as a child in the temple
to be the hope of your people;
grant us pure hearts and minds
that we may be transformed into his likeness,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Malachi 3:1-5
Psalm 24:7-10
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Comment:

Malachi 3:1-5

If Malachi 3:1-5 is a goldmine then gospel writers have dug into it for material concerning John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:17,76; 7:27). But the connecting nugget with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the second rather than first part of 3:1: "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple."

However this is a connection utilised by the lectionary compilers and not (as far as I can see) one noticed by Luke himself.

The passage in its own right is striking. The Lord is judge, is its theme. This judge is concerned to refine and purify 'the descendants of Levi' (v. 3b), that is, the priests who run the temple. Then the offering of the city and nation, 'Judah and Jerusalem' will please the Lord (v.3c). Yet the judgment of God is not single focused, as though sorting out the temple is sufficient to please the Lord.

Verse 5 is a challenging indictment of a range of wrong behaviours, with a very strong condemnation of those who treat others unjustly and without mercy.

Between temple and community, religion and society, ancient Judah is forthrightly spoken to by God through his prophet.

Psalm 24:7-10

We could read these verses in the context of today's feast as a call to the gates/doors of Jerusalem (a walled city with gates at intervals for entry/exit) to open up so that the child Christ "aka King of glory" can enter in!

In its original context these verses anthropomorphise God (make out as though God is a human) and depict God as a king returning from a glorious victory. The gates have been shut to keep the city defended, now they must be opened up to hail the returning victor.

In the gospels, Jesus is the king whose true glory is hidden (save for moments of revelation to a select few, e.g. the Transfiguration). When he is in Jerusalem, the holy city does not know who he is. In the gospel reading today Jesus is just another lad entering the temple with his family, but to two people Jesus is seen for his true status: he is the King of glory.

Hebrews 2:14-18

If the Malachi and Psalm readings look ahead in one (implicit) way or another to the entry of Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and focus on his status as Lord/King, this reading turns our attention to Jesus the great high priest (a dominant theme in the whole epistle). The deduction we make from the lectionary perspective (i.e. the perspective of reading today's four passages together) is that Jesus the great high priest forms his first connection with the temple of Jerusalem when his parents present him there.

Otherwise we read this passage as we read it on Sunday 29 December 2013: Jesus was a real human being, 'flesh and blood' so that various benefits for us might become ours, including freedom from the fear of death and assistance to ourselves asm being creatures of 'flesh and blood' we battle the temptations and tribulations which beset our fleshly frailty.


Luke 2:22-40

When the infant Jesus is brought to the temple no one really knows or understands that 'the King of glory', as described in the psalm, has come into the temple. Simeon and Anna have some understanding. They have prayerfully waited for 'the Lord's Messiah' (Luke 2: 26). But it is a moot point whether they would have thought of the one they waited for as 'the King of glory' which is a way of speaking of the coming of God in all God's might, majesty and power. Nevertheless if we read an earlier part of the psalm, Simeon and Anna seem to fit the character (Psalm 24:4) of those worthy of ascending the 'hill of the Lord' in order to 'stand in his holy place' (24:3). Thus, in part, the gospel reading offers a 'vindication' (24:5) of their patient waiting in hope for the word of the Lord to them.

Those words in Luke, 'the Lord's Messiah' steer us away from a reasonable implication of the story of the presentation in the temple. That is, that one day Jesus himself will be a priest in service in the temple. (We might think of a parallel with the life of Samuel). In the earthly history of his life, this did not take place. But from another perspective, as Hebrews brilliantly conveys it, Jesus was 'a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God' (2:17). The Temple existed, among various purposes, for the atonement for the sins of the people through sacrifices obedient to Mosaic regulations. Hebrews is a long essay arguing that a full and final atonement has now been made, thus effectively ending one of the reasons for the Temple's existence. Jesus may not have been a high priest in the eyes of his fellow Israelites, but in God's eyes he was high priest and he was able to 'make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people' (2:17). 

Luke is in harmony with the writer of Hebrews at this point, though Luke's language talks about 'salvation' (2:30) and 'redemption' (2:38). This is not to say that Luke is identical in his focus with the Hebrews' writer. Luke refrains generally from language which explicitly or implicitly asserts that Jesus died in order to make an atoning sacrifice. Nevertheless when Simeon tells Jesus' mother, 'and a sword will pierce your own soul too' (2:35), we should reflect on why he speaks thus. What violent end will Jesus suffer and why?

What actually happened at 'the presentation of Jesus in the Temple'? 


Here things can get a little confusing (and best not to place this confusion in the sermon)! 

The Mosaic Law does speak about 'sanctification of the first born to God's possession (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15; 34:19; Numbers 3:13)' but 'This was no longer taken literally, the tribe of Levi having been set aside for Yahweh's permanent possession instead (Numbers 8:17 following)' [Evans, Luke, 213]. 

A custom of paying five shekels to a priest did exist, but there was no requirement that this was paid at the Temple in Jerusalem. So Luke anchors this story in the Law (2:22-24, 39) but does not tell us whether Joseph and Mary were being uniquely zealous in taking up a cue from the law which others did not. Nor does he give us information which challenges the historians who tell us that the law was generally no longer taken literally. 

Thus we read about a presentation which fits the circumstances of Jesus' conception and birth: an extraordinary beginning to his life and magnificent welcome via angels and shepherds. What devout parents in such a situation would not take their child to the Temple of the Lord?

It is always worth pondering the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna. Who among us can wait so patiently on the Lord for his will to be done and his word to be fulfilled?

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.