Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday 6 December 2015 - Advent 2

Theme(s): John the Baptist / Purification / Completion of God's Work in Us

Sentence: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3)


Praise and honour to you living God for John the Baptist,
and for all those voices crying in the wilderness
who prepare your way.
May we listen when a prophet speaks your word,
and obey with the strength of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm = Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6


The focus on "coming" this Sunday in Advent is on John the Baptist the one who prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ to minister. We have to be chronologically imaginative through these weeks. Last Sunday we focused on Christ's Second Coming (still in our future). This Sunday (Luke 3:1-6) and next (Luke 3:7-18) we are not so much preparing for the coming of Christ at his birth but at his baptism (Luke 3:21).

Malachi 3:1-4

Malachi (which, incidentally, means "my messenger") foresees the Lord sending his messenger "to prepare the way before me [i.e. the Lord]" (1). In the Gospel of Mark (noted below) this messenger is identified as John the Baptist. Later in Malachi, 4:5-6 this messenger is identified as Elijah, an identification unsurprisingly made also in the gospels (Matthew 11:10; Luke 1:17; 7:27). A little confusingly some also think that Jesus is Elijah come again (e.g. Matthew 16:14). But that sense of multiple identification is a tribute to both Elijah as a "refining" prophet par excellence and to the "refining" work of both John and Jesus.

Malachi sees the one who prepares the way of the Lord as "like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; ... and purifier of silver" (2b-3). John's message (as we will see next Sunday) was a no holds barred, get your life sorted out message. Jesus was no less compromising when he preached. "Fullers' soap" refers to an agent used in the making of cloth which cleansed and whitening the material.

For Malachi this purification of Israel ("the descendants of Levi", 3; "Judah and Jerusalem", 4) will enable righteous offerings which are (finally) pleasing to the Lord (3-4). Later, Christians will understand that the (so to speak) combined efforts of John the Baptist and of Jesus result in the one pure and final offering, made by Jesus when crucified at the hands of the kingdoms his kingdom came to supplant.

Psalm = Luke 1:68-79

Zechariah bursts into song after a period of muteness (1:20-22; 64). He blesses God (68) for raising up his child as a special prophet (76). A great theme of this song is mercy: God looks "favourably" on his people (68), by raising up a mighty saviour (69) he has "shown the mercy promised to our ancestors (72), thus sins will be forgiven (77) and "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us" (78).

Philippians 1:3-11

I am going to focus on just one element in this reading and relate that element to our other readings.
In those other readings there is a very strong sense of God working out a "plan of salvation." Through Isaiah and Malachi a future day of preparation for a saviour is seen as well as the future salvation through that saviour. Zechariah foresees the impact and outcome of his new son's future prophetic ministry. Across centuries God's plan is being worked out, towards an outcome in which light supplants darkness, justice reverses injustice, impurity is purified and sins are forgiven (i.e. restoration of the sinner takes place).

In this reading, Paul, rejoicing constantly because of the progress of the Philippian Christians offers them an encouragement, flowing from his own convictions, and encouragement which will also inspire and motivate his continuing prayers for them (1:3-4, 9-11):

"I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (6).

For Paul, the God who has worked a good work of saving the world, through centuries of human history, is the same God at work in each Philippian Christian (and, by extension, in you and me). Just as God is bringing that "global" work to completion, so (Paul is utterly confident) God will bring that "individual" work to completion. In other words, the gospel is both universal and local (or, perhaps, better, personal), it is about what God is doing in and for the whole world (see, e.g. Ephesians 1:9-10) and what God is doing in you and me. And what God is doing, we may be, we should be confident is a sure and certain work which will be completed. God is not finished with any of us and we should not be discouraged if we feel incomplete.

In the season of Advent we notice the twice mentioned "day of (Jesus) Christ" (6, 10). The Second Coming of Christ will result in a definitive moment in time when the world as we experience it will be brought to an end and the work of God in the world will be seen. For each Christian our hope is that on that day God's work within each of us will be complete and we will be found "pure and blameless" (10).

Luke 3:1-6

Luke tells us in his gospel about both the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist (not even Matthew's Gospel tells us the latter). So when "John son of Zechariah" is mentioned in 3:2 we feel that we know all about John, and Zechariah already.

In verses 1 and 2 Luke is consciously historical. When the events in Jesus' life took place, they could be cross-matched to other events and to other 'lords'. Interestingly, Luke is fairly general about dates prior to these verses. Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive John "In the days of King Herod of Judea" (1:5) and Jesus is born during a time of "registration" which was "taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (2:2). But here in our passage there is great precision about the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, etc" (3:1). [However, from our calendrical point of view, there are different ways of reckoning what this "fifteenth year" indicated, so we are talking about a year between 26 AD and 29 AD]. We also see Luke being historical about geography and rulership: "Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of ..." (1) as well as about Jewish religious leadership, "during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas" (2a). The ministry of Jesus inaugurating the kingdom of God occurs within history, marked by reference to rival "kingdoms", political and religious.

But God intervenes in this historical account: "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (2b). This is in keeping with prophets of former days in Israel when the prophet's call and/or initiation of ministry was referenced to rulers of their day (e.g. Isaiah 6:1-8).

We are not told but presumably a word from God has already sent him into the "wilderness" where Luke placed him at the end of his growing years (1:80). This word of God sets John on the move, "into all the region around the Jordan", and gives him a message to preach, "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3).

Noting (above) a possible intended parallel between John the Baptist's initial ministry and Isaiah's initial ministry as a prophet, we also note that Luke sees John the Baptist fulfilling words in the Book of Isaiah, 4-6 = Isaiah 40:3-5 (see also Matthew 3:3= Luke 3:4 thus Luke extends his citation from Isaiah; also Mark 1:2 who combines Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3). On multiple occasions New Testament scriptures witness to a very strong interest in the Book of Isaiah as forecasting key moments in the coming of Christ and concerning his ministry and final events of his life.

So, John is the "preparer" for the coming of Christ as "the salvation of God" (3:6). But talk of salvation presupposes a problem from which people need saving. There have been hints of this already in Luke's history of Jesus and the kingdom (e.g. in both the Song of Mary (Magnificat), 1:46-55; in the Song of Zechariah, 1:68-79; and in the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis), 2:30, 32): a dark world will be enlightened (1:79; 2:32) and an unequal world will be made just (1:51-53). In other words, the kingdoms of this world, whether the Roman empire (see mention of Tiberias and his governor Pontius Pilate), or the local kingdoms with delegated authority (see mention of Herod, Philip, etc), or the religio-political-cultural authority vested in Annas and Caiaphas, are not capable of saving the world. Indeed as the gospel story proceeds and we see the forces which oppose and eventually kill Jesus, these kingdoms are part of the problem.

Finally, note that John's preparational work, according to Isaiah is to enable "all flesh [to] see the salvation of God" (3:6). Luke's Gospel and its sequel in Acts is always telling us that the kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom for all, for Jews and Gentiles. A continuing challenge for God's church - in the sense of the people who belong to God and who hold the gospel message through time - is to keep facing outwards, to continue to live for the sake of the world which is not yet in the kingdom of God. This Advent that challenge is as sharp as ever as violent persecution against Christians in some places and general cultural sidelining of Christians in other places (such as NZ) could be allowed to nudge us to turn inwards and look only on ourselves.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday 29 November 2015 - Advent 1

Theme(s): Advent - Coming of Christ / Alert and Ready / Now and Not Yet

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


Come, O come Emmanuel,
You are the way, the truth and the life;
you are the true vine and the bread of life.
Come, living Saviour,
come to your world which waits for you. Amen.


Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36


Jeremiah 33:14-16

Jeremiah prophesies a "righteous Branch to spring up for David" (15) and we readily, reading backwards from the New Testament, understand this Branch to be Jesus Christ. Thus the Lord's promise has been fulfilled (14). Yet an honest reading of the passage must allow that not all Jeremiah's prophecy has come to pass: "justice and righteousness in the land" have not yet been fully "executed" and the days of "Judah and Jerusalem [living] in safety" have not yet come to pass. See further, below, re the Now and Not Yet of the kingdom of God.

Psalm 25:1-10

This is a prayer of waiting (3) in which the psalmist prays on behalf of all those who earnestly seek the ways of the Lord in order to follow in them (4), with a prayer that sins not be remembered (7) in order that one day fulfilment in the Lord may be reached. In short, an Advent prayer!

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

We need to read this whole passage through to the last half of the last sentence to realise why it is set down for Advent! Paul prays for his Thessalonian congregational readers/listeners, both thankfully and hopefully. (Do we pray like this for our fellow Christians: thankful for the joy their progress in the Lord gives us (9) and hopeful for the Lord to work in their hearts (and ours) in order that we may "increase and abound in love" (12), with hearts "strengthened ... in holiness" (13)?) He has a target in mind for his prayers that they might be found "blameless before our God and Father" (13): there is a day coming when the Lord Jesus will appear "with all his saints" and by that day all Christians will wish, with Paul, to be ready to meet Jesus in his full presence (13).

On that coming day, in respect of the Thessalonian correspondence, we might usefully read the following passages as background to today's passage: 1 Thess 1:10; 4:13-18; 5:1-10; 2 Thess 1:7-12; 2:1-12.

Luke 21:25-36

We are in to a new Church Year, a new year in the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle, Year C, so we have a new gospel to proclaim: Luke. But it is Advent so we begin in an odd place, not with chapter 1 (we'll be there on 20 December, and we could be there next week if we choose Luke 1:68-79 as an alternate to the psalm). Before we get to Luke 21:25-26 let's remember four things about Luke's Gospel:
- It sets out to be a faithful witness to the stories and sayings of Jesus, even improving earlier versions (most likely Mark, possibly Matthew also): Luke 1:1-4.
- It has special interests compared to the other gospels: women, the poor, the Holy Spirit.
- It has treasured material not found in the other gospels (e.g. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son - stories which have shaped the language and cultures of Christian nations and peoples).
- It has a sequel, the Book of Acts which means the story it tells of Jesus is matched by another story it tells of the advance of the kingdom Jesus established.

So, to Luke 21:25-36 on Advent or "Coming" Sunday 1:

In Luke 21 (as also in Mark 13 and Matthew 24) Jesus is responding  to the question "When" in verse 7, asked by the disciples in response to Jesus saying that the temple would be destroyed (6). Verses 20-24 envisage what actually happened in AD 70 ("... Jerusalem surrounded by armies ... Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles ..."). Verse 24 ends with "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." Such description could refer to the time of Roman domination ending (but, if so, then we have not seen the temple restored in Jerusalem, though we have seen the reestablishment of a Jewish state with Jerusalem as capital). It might be better to think of Jesus prophesying that Jerusalem's temple would remain a desolate site without a temple until a much later period, for instance, until the time of the gospel spreading throughout the Gentile world comes to an end.

Verses 25 - 36, our passage, could then be understood as referring mostly to the end of the "times of the Gentiles".* This end, according to this passage, will be a time of world shaking events, both natural, supernatural and geopolitical. But the precise understanding of what will take place is difficult to pin down. The language running through verses 25-27 is drawn from Joel 3:3-4; Isaiah 24:19 (according to the Greek form of the Old Testament); Isaiah 34:7; Daniel 7:13-14; Psalms 65:8; 46:4 89:10; Wisdom 5:22; Jonah 1:15; Isaiah 13:10; Joel 2:10 and Zephaniah 1:15. In other words Jesus is invoking the grand prophetic theme of the coming great day of judgement rather than scattering cryptic clues about a timetable for history. (*But, as we will see below, things are a bit more complicated than that).

Verse 28 makes the simple point that when such events come to pass we who love the Lord Jesus should not be scared but confident, holding our heads up high "because the day of your redemption is drawing near."

Verses 29-31 reinforce the point being advanced about knowing when these things are taking place that the kingdom is near. But 32 is a problem (as with its parallels in Matthew and Mark). What does "this generation" mean and what is its significance at this point in the passage?

We should not beat about the bush. "This generation", interpreted in the light of Luke 9:27, is the generation of people listening to Jesus speak. So, some aspects (at least) of what Jesus expected to happen as "shaking" events were expected to happen within a reasonable span of years. That, in fact, is what happened, since Jesus spoke around 30 AD and Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in 70 AD - 40 years, which was one measure of a generation.

Yet just as clearly we can say that the following has not yet happened: (1) we have not seen the visible return of Jesus Christ (e.g. as 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud', 27); (2) we have not experienced the fullness of the kingdom of God; (3) the Last Judgement has not taken place.

That we need to explain this situation of 'something happened' and 'some things have not yet happened' is heightened by the fact that verse 33 offers a form of "lifetime" guarantee that what Jesus is saying is true, "... my words will not pass away."

The simplest, most repeated explanation offered by biblical scholars is that whenever Jesus speaks about the 'coming' of himself/kingdom/judgment there is a "both-and" set of aspects to consider and hold in mind. First, the "Now" aspect: through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ has already 'come' again into the world, following his death, resurrection and ascension; the kingdom came with Jesus of Nazareth, it is growing in the world (according to Jesus' own teaching through kingdom parables); God is always judging the world: the consequences of sin have their own effects on sinners in this life. Secondly, the "Not Yet" aspect: the day is coming and is not yet here when Jesus Christ will return to earth in full visible glory and power, judgement of the living and the dead will occur and the kingdom in all its fullness, completion and perfection will be experienced.

So, what then? Verses 34-36 offer a stirring warning and challenge: "Be on guard ... Be alert at all times ..." Whether we are wondering (say, in 65 AD) when Rome will sack Jerusalem or (say, today as we read this) when Jesus Christ will require us in judgement to "stand before the Son of Man", we are warned by Jesus to be ready for calamity and judgment. We do that best by avoiding evil living (dissipation, drunkenness), praying for strength re calamity and generally living faithfully as Jesus' disciples.

Advent is the season when we especially invite each other to both remember and celebrate Christ's first coming and to remember and carefully note Christ's teaching about his second coming.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday 22 November 2015 - Christ the King / The Reign of Christ / Sunday before Advent

[Note: this Sunday could also be Aotearoa Sunday]

Theme: Christ the King / Christ Reigns Over the World / Christ Reigns in Me / Stir Up Sunday [i.e. preparation for Advent]

Sentence: But as for me, I keep watch for the Lord; I wait in hope for God my Saviour; my God will hear me. (Micah 7:7 adapted)

Collects: (The collect for Stir Up Sunday is so lovely it is a pity not to cite it here].

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.

Christ our Redeemer King,
you have crushed the serpent's head;
you have freed us from our sin;
rescue all your suffering world from the evil that attracts us still. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Rev 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37


Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Daniel is an extraordinary book on any reckoning, combining as it does court tales from Persia, miraculous deeds of rescue and protection, extraordinary stories of discernment and interpretation of dreams and visions, as well as descriptions in the second half of the book of Daniel's own visions of impending events. In these visions the common thread (itself coherent with great themes in the first half of the book) is the question of rulership. Who rules over Israel? Is it one of the invading, oppressing empires, symbolised by the wild beasts of Daniel 7:1-8? Is it the Lord God of Israel?

The answer is not surprising: God rules! But the form it is given in is surprising for readers unused to the colourful, if not bizarre language and imagery of apocalyptic literature. In our first two verses we see God as 'the Ancient of Days', ('Ancient One' in NRSV) described in human, earthly terms familiar to us: clothing, hair, throne, wheels, white, snow, wool, flames, fire. We do not for a moment think that God looks like this, or indeed, is merely an 'ancient' being rather than a timeless being (i.e. a being unshackled by time). So we ask, what does this vision of God convey to us? It conveys (at least) unshakeable power and lots of it. The Ancient of Days has a throne, takes his place on it (9) and exudes power as fire issues and flows from it and as a vast multitude serves him and stands on attendance to him. Moreover, this retinue constitutes a court of judgement (10). In the context of the "wannabe" kingdoms envisaged in the first eight verses of the chapter, verses 9-10 should give all readers (who are on God's side) confidence and hope. Indeed, in verses 11-12 we see judgement leted out to the beasts.

But there is a twist to the vision of divine power in verses 9-10. In verses 13-14 we are introduced to another impressive, powerful figure, 'one like a human being.' This figure is clearly powerful ('coming with the clouds of heaven,' 'To him was given dominion and glory and kingship ... his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed'). This figure is also clearly subordinate to the Ancient of Days: 'he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.' Who is this kingly figure? Scholarly debate ranges over three identifications. Briefly, this human like figure has been identified as (1) the archangel Michael, that is, as the principal angel whose focus of guardianship is Israel (see Daniel 10:13, also Revelation 12:7); (2) the (forthcoming) Messiah, that is a new Davidic rule, reminiscent of the power and might of the great King David; (3) a representation of Israel, that is, this single figure in some way sums up the whole corporation of Israel - see verse 18 where 'the holy ones of the Most High' receive a kingdom similarly to what the human like figure receives in verses 13 and 14. But there is a further identification, which Christian readers are open to reading back into the text, prompted by Jesus self-identification as 'The Son of Man:' this vision is a prophetic view of one who comes in the future, one with Davidic Messianic character (as Jesus had), who in some sense represents Israel (as Jesus did) and who has heavenly characteristics, reminiscent of great angels such as Michael (as Jesus had - in the first Christian centuries there was quite a bit of discussion about whether Jesus was an angel or not)!

Psalm 93

In this psalm we sing the praises of the Lord who is king (1). The character of the Lord's kingship is worth noting, especially in these days when the world is terrorised by bombs and indiscriminate shootings. 'He has established the world; it shall never be moved;' (1b). Challenging times ask of us what faith we have and what we have faith in. The psalmist invites us to have faith in the Lord girded with such strength (1a) that the world - notwithstanding any appearances to the contrary - is established, it shall not be moved.

Rev 1:4b-8

The Book of Revelation is mostly understood as an example par excellence of 'apocalyptic literature', full as it is of visions (revelations). Since these visions have a prophetic character in the sense that they convey the judgement of God against injustice, Revelation is also an example of prophetic literature (see 1:3). Less noticed and discussed is that Revelation also has the form of a letter. But this observation begins with this passage. In verse 4 John writes like Paul, Peter and James: "John to the seven churches that are in Asia." The greeting in verse 4b is particularly reminiscent of Paul writing to the churches: "Grace to and and peace from him ..."

But the description of the God in whose name this greeting comes is quite a bit different from anything Paul writes at comparable points in his letters. Where we might meet 'God the Father' we are greeted by 'who is and who was and who is to come' and where we might have invocation of the Spirit or Holy Spirit we hear 'from the seven spirits who are before his throne'. What is being communicated here has occasioned quite a bit of debate. Are there seven spirits, really? Surely John means the 'sevenfold' Spirit? Are the 'spirits' effectively the 'angels', groups of seven of which reappear in Revelation? We will pass by such discussions since today's reading has been chosen for 'Christ the King Sunday.'

The greeting from Jesus Christ is a bit closer to what we find in Paul's writings, who speaks of Christ's faithfulness, of his being the first born from the dead and one who has dominion over all things (noting especially Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1). But the specific phrase, "the ruler of the kings of the earth" is unique to John's language about Christ. Why this phrase in this book? As the visions unfold it becomes clear that God is communicating through John to the churches that when they are pressed and pressured by 'kings of the earth', principally the great king or caesar of Rome, their trial is temporary not permanent, for these kings are subject to another king, to Jesus Christ who is ruler of the kings of the earth.

John 18:33-37

Is Jesus a king? Yes and no, as we read this passage. When asked the question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (33), Jesus does not give a straight answer (34-35). The nearest he gets is to talk about "My kingdom" (36) and to acknowledge that Pilate has made a statement which he does not deny, "You say that I am a king" (37). But since Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world" (36) we readily understand why he does not give a simple answer to the initial question about being 'the king of the Jews'. In everyday terms, referring to a human ruler of human citizens, Jesus is not king of the Jews or any other sort of earthly king, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews" (36). Yet Jesus has a kingdom, even if it 'is not of this world,' so he is a king of a kind we do not ordinarily experience on earth. What kind is that? That is, what does Jesus mean when he says he has a kingdom but the kingdom is not from this world?

Sticking to the passage, we are given a clue in verse 37: "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Working backwards the logic seems to be this: a king has loyal followers, that is, people who "listen" to the king's voice; such people "belong to the truth"; in order to be such a king "I came into the world, [not to conquer it, nor to inherit some pre-existing kingdom, but] to testify to the truth." Jesus is not "king of the Jews"as such but "king of the belongers to the truth, of the listeners to his voice (including those Jews who so belong)."

But that begs the question, which Pilate helpfully asks on our behalf, "What is truth?" (38) No answer is given in the succeeding passage, but the answer, in one important sense, is given by the Gospel of John understood as a whole: the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Jesus is the king of those who believe in him, who assent to this truth and who abide in the One of whom this is the truth.

In our world today - accentuated by news from Beirut and Paris these past few days as I write - we see the clash of kingdoms of the kind whose followers are willing to fight (see 36). But the willingness to fight for a kingdom presupposes a belief in the ultimate importance of that kingdom. Jesus' kingdom may not be 'from this world' but it is connected to the kingdoms of this world because the kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom which embodies ultimate truth, truth at variance with the beliefs on which other kingdoms are founded.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Sunday 15 November 2015 - 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): You have been warned! / Be faithful, whatever happens / Christ's amazing achievement on our behalf / Joy in the presence of the Lord

Sentence: 'In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore' (Psalm 16:11)


God our creator,
you entrust each of us with great treasure.
Help us to be responsible stewards of the gifts and skills you have given us.
May we honour the trust you have in us
and use our talents as generously as you have given them.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8


Daniel 12:1-3

As we move through Mark chapter 13 (sometimes described as 'the Little Apocalypse') we tune into Jesus' teaching about the future, coming tribulation, vulnerability of God's people and are repeatedly reminded of the importance of being faithful through all such trials. Such a message, delivered with such strong picture language (i.e. on the face of it, the future is a bit scary!), is a familiar aspect of apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel, Revelation and Mark 13.

In this reading we have Daniel, a century or two before Jesus, in the context of the "God trashing" empire of Greece, sharing his vision of what is going to happen. He sees Michael, the archangel of Israel, being the protector of Israel. (We might now substitute Jesus for Michael). There will be a time of anguish (as Jesus also sees) but all will end well for 'those who are wise' (3), that is, for those who wisely live righteously and so side with God and not with the God-trashers.

Psalm 16

I love this psalm. Perhaps you do too. What makes it special? I suggest it is because it is intensely personal as it conveys the devotion of the psalmist to God (likely David, and not hard to imagine David composing these words). Yet that intensity of devotion has a light, joyful tone to it. David is secure and confident in his relationship with God. The devotion, for example, comes through in 5a, 'The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup' and the security and confidence are expressed in 6, 'The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.'

My favourite verse in this favourite (i.e. one of many favourites!) psalm is the last verse, within which is this poignant line, 'In your presence there is fullness of joy.' Is that our daily experience of the Lord?

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25

This is one of the greatest passages in the Bible! It sets down, repeats and underlines the basis of assurance that our sins are forgiven and forgotten, that we are perfectly sanctified (made holy).

What is that basis? Christ's 'single sacrifice for sins' (12). His 'single offering' 'by (which) he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified' (14). Since this single offering has accomplished the forgiveness of sins, 'there is no longer any offering for sin' (18).

Now there are things to debate here: what does it mean that we are perfectly sanctified (surely none of us are experiencing this here and now in this life)? Does God truly forget our sins and lawless deeds (for, does he not recall them on the day of judgment)? But I suggest that we might set those debates aside for another day, a workshop or similar. Today let's bask in the wonder of what Christ has accomplished for us and let's praise him for his finished, complete, never needs to be repeated single offering for the forgiveness of our sins.

Mark 13:1-8

Having excoriated the scribes in chapter 12, and compared them to a poor widow putting all she had into the temple treasury (41-44), Jesus now pronounces the end of the temple (2). Despite its magnificence (1), the temple is doomed. We now know that this pronunciation became truthful when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and razed the temple in 70 A.D. But when Jesus said these words the disciples had no idea 'when this will be' (4) and so they ask him (4).

The reply Jesus gives is found in verses 5-8 but these verses turn out to also be an introduction to a much larger teaching by Jesus on the future for his followers (persecution, 9-13; tribulation, 14-23; coming of the Son of Man, 24-37; with a resounding concluding instruction, 'Keep awake', 37).

When we finish today's passage we may wake up to a kind of trick Jesus played on the disciples. They asked him a question. He gave a reply which was interesting and stirring. But he did not answer their question. They want to know when  the event of the destruction of the temple will happen. He wants them to remain faithful to him and his gospel message. A date in the diary is not vital to Christian engagement with the future. What is vital is not being led astray in the run through the future. So, for instance, we read at the end of the next section, 'But the one who endures to the end will be saved.' (13)

Our trick in understanding the passage is not to take the events Jesus speaks of and compose a timeline from them but to note inwardly the variety and intensity of the challenges we may face as Christians. It would be good to pray today for Christian brothers and sisters who are facing war and rumours of war, stricken by earthquakes and suffering famine.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sunday 8 November 2015 - 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Spiritual modesty versus showing off / True devotion to God / Finality and completeness of Christ's sacrifice

Sentence: Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26)


God our desire and our judge,
we look for your coming and know that when we meet you
we will have to account for our lives.
Assist us to live so we are ready to greet our Lord with joy,
fully prepared for the feast which lasts forever.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44


1 Kings 17:8-16

This story has obvious connection with the second part of the gospel passage: 'a widow' with very meagre resources, indeed with the last food in her house, after which she faces death, is asked by Elijah to use all those resources in the service of God.

In this story - unlike in the gospel story - we find out what happens when the widow gives all she has. Instead of the last of the food in her pantry running out, 'she as well as he and her household ate for many days' (15). In fact, 'The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah' (16).

Many of God's people have told similar stories since: with God's power a little has gone a long way, and God's provisions for our needs have never failed. In this context we see relevant background to the petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Give us today our daily bread."

Psalm 146

The perfect psalm to go with our Old Testament and Gospel passages!

Hebrews 9:24-28

Hebrews is a fascinating book for many reasons.One reason is that while on the face of it, the author is a Christian engaging with the Old Testament and (so to speak) bringing it up to date in understanding in respect of Christ as its fulfilment, there is another engagement going on which is not quite so obvious. The former is obvious because lots of Old Testament passages, characters and themes are either directly cited or indirectly alluded to. The latter is not so obvious because the author never says, 'As Plato once wrote.' The not so obvious engagement is with a theme in ancient Greek philosophy, associated with Plato and possibly mediated into the world of Christian-and-Jewish thinking by a Greek speaking Jewish theologian/philosopher based in Alexandria, called Philo. That theme is the true nature of 'reality': what we see and touch here on earth tempts us to think of it as ('concrete', physical) reality but, Plato argued, it is not reality, but only a copy of shadow of the reality which exists in another world. Thus here in verse 24 the writer betrays this kind of thinking when he writes that 'Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered heaven itself.' The 'tent' (or 'tabernacle') discussed in previous verses, entered by ordinary high priests, was not the real tent/tabernacle of God. That one exists in heaven and not on earth, and it is that one that Christ the extraordinary high priest has entered (24). (Note also verse 23, not part of our designated passages which speaks of the cleansing of the tent/tabernacle through prescribed ritual as 'sketches of the heavenly things'.)

Whether or not we now think it helpful to think in Platonic terms of plural worlds, one of which is a copy or shadow or sketch of the other, we can follow the writer of Hebrews in terms of what Christ has achieved through his death on the cross. When we understand this as a high priestly action of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins we see it as a superior action relative to the sacrifices of the ordinary high priests, an action not simpler 'better' but also now 'final - no further sacrifices required.' in that sense, the most real or substantive sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is the sacrifice of Jesus.

The remainder of the passage, 25-28, reinforces the finality and completeness of Christ's sacrifice in terms which do not invoke Platonic underpinnings. The language has been deeply influential in some eucharistic prayers (notably that in the Book of Common Prayer and, with reference to the New Zealand Anglican church's prayer book (1989), that found on pp. 436ff).

- 'nor was it to offer himself again and again' (25)
- 'he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself' (26)
- 'so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him' (28).

Incidentally, in my recent comment about Hebrews 7:23-28 I wrote this:

"Verse 25 is straightforward in one way: Jesus saves those who approach God through him. In another way it is enigmatic and has given rise to various theological developments: the words 'since he always lives to make intercession for them' has raised questions about the relationship between our time and heavenly time and thus led to consideration that in certain ways the sacrifice of Jesus (as a form of 'intercession' that people might be saved) is continually 're-presented' before God, with the possible implication - much argued over - that when we celebrate the eucharist we may properly 're-present' the sacrifice of Jesus, the earthly mirroring the heavenly."

That is, Hebrews 7:23-28 opens up the possibility that our eucharistic actions here on earth in some way connect with the sacrifice of Jesus which is eternally present in the heavenly realm. But Hebrews 9:24-28 firmly and very clearly reminds us that the sacrifice of Jesus was and remains, at least from our time perspective, a one off, never to be repeated and never needing to be repeated event. By all means we may explore - with all our human limitations - the relationship between 'history' (human, earthbound, chronologically sequential events) and 'eternity' (divine, heavenly, all history being present to God). But we should take care in our eucharistic language never to diminish the uniqueness of the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross: in one action Jesus did what all other repeated actions did not accomplish. No repetition is required. Our eucharistic language should always bear witness to the singularity of the cross.

In respect of application of this passage to our lives, we might usefully reflect on the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice: all has be done to remove our guilt, to ensure the forgiveness of our sins and to provide the way of new and holy life. There is no further theological assurance required though some of us may need - through prayer and spiritual counsel - further psychological assurance.

Mark 12:38-44

When we find a passage such as this has two distinct parts, 38-40 and 41-42, it is worth asking why they are joined together (at least in the sense that one follows the other). On the face of it a warning to 'Beware of the scribes who like to ...' and a commendation 'Truly I tell you, this poor widow ...' are not connected. But if we first observe the wording of each part we find at least one common word, 'widow' (40, 42). That may be enough to connect two such passages because we can imagine that as the first Christians transmitted sayings and stories of Jesus to one another they connected two or more pieces of the overall story via common words, sometimes called 'catchwords.' Putting it colloquially we are invited to imagine one Christian telling others about the time when Jesus warned against the scribes and 'Oh, speaking of widows, that reminds me of the story of a poor widow Jesus once saw putting the last of her money into the collection plate.'

(Additionally we note that 'scribes' have been mentioned in preceding passages, 12:28-34 and 12:35-37).

Secondly, however, we can also reflect on the thematic content of the passages and see at least one further connection. The scribes of 38-40 are show offs. They do good works and make sure people know it. Though behind these outward scenes they scandalously 'devour widows' house' (40). By contrast, when people see the ostentatious rich people putting large sums into the temple treasury (41), Jesus sees one who puts in virtually nothing, is not a show off, has ripped off no one and in fact is one of the widows, and he sees more deeply that she 'has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury' (43). If 'widow' provides a catchword connection between the two parts, then the contrasting themes of 'showing off' and 'modesty' provide another connection.

We can readily understand the condemnation of the show off scribes but we likely would like to know how they devoured widow's houses. We can also readily understand the commendation of the widow: the rich have given a proportion of their wealth but the widow has given 'everything' (44); they have 'contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty' (44) but we might like to know more about what the 'treasury' funded.

Devouring widow's houses

One line of thinking, represented in the New Annotated Oxford Bible, suggests the scribes induced widows 'to give their meagre resources to the Temple'. This makes sense and receives some support by the presence of the next passage, 12:41-44. But a recent, 2012, commentary by French scholar Camille Focant, The Gospel According to Mark: A Commentary (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick), makes the point 'it is not easy to see what specific practices the criticism could make reference to' (p. 511). Focant canvases views of various commentators but finds their speculations are not backed up by contemporary evidence. It would appear that we simply accept that Jesus knew that scribes in some way or another preyed on the vulnerability of widows and consumed their 'houses' (i.e. resources available to them after the death of their husbands). The destruction of the temple soon to be forecast in Matthew 13:1-2 seals their fate.


Focant (see above), p. 518, says that Mark is referring to 'one of the thirteen chests in which people deposited their offerings. They were narrow at the base and large at the top, which gave them the form of a trumpet.' On each chest the 'destination of the gifts was written in Aramaic.'


The contrast between the modest widow and the show off scribes and show off rich folks suggests that Mark tells us this story as an example for disciples. The total commitment of the woman is in keeping with the total commitment of Jesus himself. The application is at least twofold: (a) in keeping with (e.g. Matthew 6:1-4), we should avoid the example of the show offs and do our works of devotion to God with modesty; (b) proportionate giving no doubt contributes to the work of God in the world, but God longs for signs that we are wholly committed to the kingdom.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday 1 November 2015 - All Saints Day

Theme(s): All Saints / God's holy people / God's new and exciting future for all God's people

Sentence: Know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe. (Ephesians 1:18-19)


Eternal God,
you have always taken men and women
of every nation, age and colour
and made them saints;
like them, transformed,
like them, baptised in Jesus' name,
take us to share your glory. Amen.


Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24:1-6
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44


Isaiah 25:6-9

This passage is background to the Revelation passage below. It looks ahead to what the seer of Revelation 21:1-6 sees. In the Isaiah passage the future new world for the saints of God is seen in an especially lovely way in verse 6: ' ... a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.' Perhaps it is just as well this is a metaphorical attempt to envisage the unknown and unknowable future: the extravagance of the feast - if literally true - does not sound the best of things to do in respect of arteries, heart and liver!

Psalm 24:1-6

Saints are sanctified people, holy persons. In gospel terms, all those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are made holy through Christ's death on the cross which cleanses us from sin. Whatever view we have about offering the title 'St.' to an especially revered person, we should be clear: saints are you and me (as well as St Peter, St Mary, St Francis, St Teresa and so on). To be a saint - saved and sanctified by Jesus - is to be a person who can answer the question in verse 3 of this psalm: 'Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?'

The psalm's answer is 'Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully' (4). In a sense the gospel turns the order of verses 4 and 5 around. In the psalm, holy people (saints) according to verse 4 'will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation' according to verse 5.

The gospel says that we are blessed by the Lord and our salvation is assured on the basis of what Christ has done for us and then expects that we will live a life worthy of that blessing and that salvation. Such a life is a holy life, a life lived with clean hands and pure heart,

Revelation 21:1-6a

The celebration of 'all saints' is a celebration of what is coming as much as it is a celebration of what has come to pass (that all God's people, past and present, belong in one fellowship, unbroken by death - see below). What is coming is a full fellowship of the departed and the living, of the resurrected and the yet to be resurrected saints in one 'space.' So John in his final vision sees that 'space' which he describes as 'a new heaven and a new earth' (1) AND as 'the holy city, the new Jerusalem' (2). In this new 'space' all the saints dwell with God, 'they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them' (3); there will be no more separation brought on by death, for 'Death will be no more' (4). This glorious and God-filled future is a sure bet, a promise we may trust because 'these words are trustworthy and true' (5).

We might, if we paused at this point in the passage, reflect on the way in which the visionary promise of the new heaven/earth/Jerusalem is a kind of glorious confusion of spaces/'spaces' merging into one new 'space' for God's people that we end up being none the wiser exactly what this location will actually be like. Perhaps there are clouds with harp playing angels and perhaps there are not. Perhaps Revelation 4-5 (another vision, of the opened heaven centred on God's throne) is more accurate. But even that vision, on close inspection has its obscurities, since what God looks like is very obscure (4:3) and will we really see Jesus as the seven-horned lamb with seven eyes (5:6)? What is easier to grasp is that in this 'space' some things will be so and some not: in particular, no death, no mourning, no pain and no tears (21:4). A good space then to which we can look forward, without worrying whether we like harp music or not!

Lastly, we reflect on 6a: 'Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." How can what is yet to be already be 'done'? Throughout Revelation, somewhat muted, is a recurring theme of Christ's victory over sin and its effects through the shedding of his blood on the cross. That past victory, around 30 or 33 AD, is the work that needs doing for the new Jerusalem to be the place in which death etc is no more. And that work is DONE! The words are 'trustworthy and true' because what needs to be done has actually taken place. That the full realization of that achievement is yet to be is not in doubt because God-in-Christ is 'the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,' that is, the Lord of time has the future sorted as much as the past.

John 11:32-44

I am approaching this reading as a reading for 'All Saints' and not as a reading in a sequence of readings in John's Gospel, for which we might approach the passage in terms of the connections between the resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus, the provocation of this miracle in the run up to Jesus' arrest ad trial and so forth.

From the perspective of 'All Saints' we read this passage as an invitation to believe in the resurrection of the saints. We all face death, we all grieve the death of loved ones, and we all fear aspects of death, including the prosaic, but real fact that if we do not do something about burying the dead, there will be an awful stench (39). Mary and Martha understand the reality of death (33) but they also understand the power of Jesus (23-27). He could have prevented this death (32). Surely there is nothing he can do now? Even Jesus himself weeps (35). Rolling back the stone (39a) won't do anything except reveal the stench (39b). Jesus presses the point he wishes to make: do the sisters truly believe in him? (40) He proceeds to call on God and Lazarus is raised from the dead (41-44). The sisters have their brother back.

The point of the passage is not whether we would see more resurrections of loved ones if (really/truly/definitely) believe. The point is that God working through Jesus has power over death which is no longer the end of life. Thus we are invited to believe in the resurrection of the saints. They are alive with the Lord in heaven even as we, in another way, are alive with the Lord on earth. All the saints are all those who live in relationship with Jesus Christ, the departed and the living, the dead-but-now-raised and those alive today. Death does not break down our fellowship with the saints.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday 25 October 2015 - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Intercession / Faith & Following

Sentence: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and tongue with shouts of joy (Psalm 126:1-2)


God of love,
your Son teaches us the heart of the law.
Open our minds, souls and hearts to discern what you ask of us.
Empower us to love you with our whole being,
to love our neighbour as ourselves and thus fulfil your law.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52


Jeremiah 31:7-9

In the background to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, as 'Son of David' (see gospel reading below), are a series of visions of glorious, better days for Israel.This passage is one of those visions. The Lord speaks through Jeremiah of a return of the 'remnant of Israel' (i.e. of those scattered by exile, 7). Among them will be 'the blind and the lame' (8). The healing story in today's gospel is a fulfilment of this vision.

Psalm 126

Ditto for this psalm much of the comment above re the Jeremiah passage. Here is another vision of 'When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion' (1). The psalm is a little complicated because the first verses seem to presume the restoration has occurred and the last verses (from verse 4) seem to be praying for restoration. An explanation is that a partial restoration has occurred (e.g. when the fist exiles in Babylon returned to Judea) but there are more to come and so the prayer is for the restoration to be completed.

Hebrews 7:23-28

We need to approach each passage of Hebrews through these weeks - noting that sometimes significant omissions have occurred between passages - recalling that the overall argument is that Jesus is superior to all significant people and significant roles within Israel (greater than the angels, than Moses, than the high priest etc).

Since last week's Hebrews 5 passage (which introduced the priesthood of Melchizedek) the writer has: (1) warned of the peril of falling away (5:11-6:12); (2) discussed the making of oaths, with special reference to Abraham and come back to Melchizedek and the fact of Jesus being a high priest in the order of Melchizedek (6:13-20); described the ministry of Melchizedek (in glowing terms), pointed out that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the priesthood of Levi (i.e. the priesthood of the temple of Israel, 7:1-10); and reiterated the point of the stronger priesthood through Melchizedek such that, 7:22, 'Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant' (7:11-22).

Thus we can read and, hopefully, understand our passage today.

Essentially the passage summarises the perfections of Jesus' priesthood:
- he is a permanent priest 'because he continues forever', 24, contrasted with the mortal lives of priests;
- 'he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them' (25);
- he is 'holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens' (26);
- he has 'no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people' because 'this he did once for all when he offered himself' (27);
- he is 'a Son who has been made perfect forever' (28).

A song of praise would be an appropriate ending to the sermon based on this passage!

Note that verse 27 uses language picked up in the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service.

Verse 25 is straightforward in one way: Jesus saves those who approach God through him. In another way it is enigmatic and has given rise to various theological developments: the words 'since he always lives to make intercession for them' has raised questions about the relationship between our time and heavenly time and thus led to consideration that in certain ways the sacrifice of Jesus (as a form of 'intercession' that people might be saved) is continually 're-presented' before God, with the possible implication - much argued over - that when we celebrate the eucharist we may properly 're-present' the sacrifice of Jesus, the earthly mirroring the heavenly.

Mark 10:46-52

This is the last event in the journey of Jesus towards Jerusalem. At first glance it looks like 'another miracle' but there are aspects to consider. First, when we go back to 8:22-30, we find that there is a similar healing miracle there, also healing of blindness. Scholars suggest, reasonably, that the two healing of blindness events frame the intervening material which, as we have been seeing in recent weeks, highlights the spiritual blindness of the disciples. They do not understand who Jesus is. By contrast the physically blind man in today's story has good 'spiritual' sight. He 'sees' (i.e. understands) that Jesus is 'the Son of David' (47, 48). Unlike the disciples in the most recent Sunday passage (10:35-45), the blind man wants 'mercy' from Jesus and not 'glory.'

So Jesus heeds the call and responds to the spiritual sight of the man (49ff).

But Jesus does not instantly heal him. He pauses and asks a question first,

'What do you want me to do for you?'

This sounds like an oddity. Surely Jesus knew what the man wanted. His disability would have been obvious. Yet he asks the question nevertheless. We may puzzle over that, but Jesus has left all readers with an important question. When Jesus comes to us, What do we want him to do for us? He is open to us telling him!

In conclusion, note that the blind man, now physically seeing as well as spiritually seeing 'followed him on the way' (52).