Friday, February 5, 2016

Sunday 14 February 2016 - Lent 1

Theme                  When we are tempted


Sentence             Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our          salvation in time of distress. (Isaiah 33:2) [NZPB, p. 574]         

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. [NZPB, p. 574]         
Readings                                             
        Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 God's protection
        Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Offering of first fruits
        Romans 10:8b-13 Who will be saved
                                  Luke 4:1-13 Temptation of Jesus

Jesus is tempted, Luke 4:1-13, at the beginning of his ministry. A kind of initiation trial tests his resolve and intention as God's Messiah. After this, Jesus' resolve to obey God's will is not further tested until the last night of his life (the 'opportune time' in 4:13 is found in Luke 22:3, 28, 53 and 22:39-46). 

Observe that the trial is a combination of deprivation (he does not eat for forty days) and temptations (actually, likely more than the three we are told about since it was 'for forty days he was tempted by the devil', v. 2)

Of what character are the temptations? What is offered is the slightest of deviations from the will of God for Jesus' Messiahship. 

The first and third temptations (if succumbed to) would involve miracles with strong similarity to what actually occurs in Jesus' ministry (he feeds people bread, he is protected from harm until his trial and crucifixion). 

The second temptation offers Jesus a vast kingdom in the world over which he will rule, that is, a kingdom to all intents and purposes like the kingdom of God, but it would be the kingdom of the devil, not of God. As disciples of Jesus the strongest temptations we will experience are those that give the impression that what the devil wants is the same as what God wants. 

The way Jesus responds to the temptations is a model for how disciples should respond when tempted: to the devil's perverse, twisted 'theology', Jesus responds with a Scripture-based theology: one does not live by bread alone, only God is to be worshipped, and God is not to be tested. 

To the third temptation with its subtle development that the devil himself quotes from Scripture (from our Psalm reading), Jesus replies as previously by citing from Scripture. How does one Scripture trump another Scripture? The implication on this occasion is that a general promise of God that he will protect his servants applies to the servants living their lives in the usual way. They are not instructed to deliberately provoke God to fulfil this promise. Rather they are to live their lives trusting that God sees their need and will respond in God's time.

Interestingly, when Jesus' citations of Scripture all come from Deuteronomy, our Old Testament reading is yet another passage from Deuteronomy, 26:1-11, a passage which speaks of the offering of first fruits of the harvest to God as a sign of thanksgiving for God's gracious care of Israel. Nevertheless there is a connection between that passage and our gospel passage: Israel can offer the first fruits because it has come into its inheritance of the promised land only after experiencing the trials and tribulations of life in Egypt. The kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims, and which disciples enter, is only going to be experienced in its fullness once Jesus' experience of death and resurrection has been completed and once disciples also have walked with Jesus and shared also in his sufferings (see Luke 22:28).

In the context of these readings, Romans 10:8b-13 is a mirror to Psalm 91. Through the psalmist God promises salvation to those who make their shelter in the Almighty; through the apostle Paul declares that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. The difference lies in the scope of salvation envisaged. The psalmist has Israel (i.e. the Jews) in mind; Paul explicitly preaches that salvation is for 'Jew and Greek'. In this way, the victory of Jesus over the devil's temptations has been important: the true rule of God over every part of the earth, that is, over all nations has come by strict obedience to God's plan for salvation and not by succumbing to the devil's lookalike plan.

Finally, we should observe the role of the Holy Spirit in the temptation of Jesus. The Spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness, that is, what is going to happen there is part of God's plan. While not said explicitly, the implication of Jesus being 'full of the Holy Spirit' is that this power within him was vital to the battle which followed. The Holy Spirit both strengthens Jesus and brings to his mind the truth of God as expressed in the Scriptures he cites. Dare we engage in Lenten disciplines without the filling of the Holy Spirit?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday 7 February 2016 - 5th Sunday (of Epiphany?) (in Ordinary Time?)

Theme                  If God says so, will we let down the nets? / Change is possible when Jesus speaks          

Sentence            The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14; NZPB, p. 568).

Collect                  Lord Jesus Christ,
                             before whose judgment seat we shall appear;
                             enable us to see ourselves as you see us,
                              to repent and to change,
                              and to be found worthy to bear your name.

Readings                                             
Isaiah 6:1-8 The call and commissioning of Isaiah
Psalm 138 David praises God
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 The resurrection
                          Luke 5:1-11 The call of the fishermen

If we begin with our gospel reading, Luke 5:1-11, then we have a story of call, commissioning and change, each of which theme is illuminated by the other readings.

Luke, noticeably offering a variant to the calling of the (fishermen) disciples in Matthew's and Mark's gospels, tells us that when Simon Peter, James and John were called to be disciples of Jesus, they had an unusual encounter with Jesus. Plying their trade as fishermen, they found Jesus in one of their boats. After teaching the crowds, he suggested to the fishermen that they catch some fish. The fishermen, to say the least, were not impressed. They had just finished a forlorn night catching nothing. Nevertheless they honoured (or even humoured) Jesus by following his suggestion. We can only imagine their surprise at the haul they brought up, and their consternation that it threatened to capsize their boats. 

The shock of this unexpected and surprising outcome (a miraculous event) drives Peter to his knees to express his confession: Jesus should leave him, for he was a sinful man. We do not now what sin Peter had in mind, or the extent of his awareness of his sinfulness, but at the least we can imagine Peter confessing his failure to honour Jesus by implicitly trusting him instead of querulously saying that they had fished all night without success.

The catch of fish leads neatly into Jesus' commissioning the disciples: their call is to follow him, their commission is to from now on catch people. This call and commission is decisive for their lives and livelihoods: 'they left everything and followed him' (v. 11).

Psalm 138 illuminates the occasion: the God of Jesus Christ is a God who has regard for the lowly (in this world's eyes).

1 Corinthians 15:1-11, about change from death to life, underlines the dramatic change in the fishing story. In that story, a night without fish becomes a day with a super-abundant catch. Put another way, in the gospel reading we meet humanity in despair: great effort has met with no success. Surely all is lost and only despair is possible. But Jesus comes and turns the situation upside down: many fish are caught and hope for a flourishing life is restored. Resurrection, the change from death to life, is a parallel change from despair to hope. Wherever Jesus, the One Raised By God, is, there is hope. What situations are we encountering in which all seems lost and continuing seems pointless? Is Jesus telling us to let down our nets one further time?

Finally, one of the most famous call and commissioning stories in the Old Testament, that of Isaiah's, is recounted in Isaiah 6. In its own way it is as dramatic as our gospel story. Essentially the commission of Isaiah and of the disciples is the same: to speak out God's word is to catch people. People are 'caught' into God's kingdom through responding to the proclamation of the Word of God.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday 31 January 2016 - The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Theme               My eyes have seen your salvation          

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 ( p. 644, NZPB)

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.  ( p. 645, NZPB) 

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

Not everything in Malachi 3:1-5 aligned with the coming of John the Baptist but there was enough in the reading (especially verse 1) to alert intelligent early Christian readers to make a connection with him (e.g. Mark 1:2. But the overall thrust of these verses connects with the sense that from out of nowhere both John the Baptist and Jesus come to Israel with a message from God. In Jesus' case, his presentation in the temple accurately fulfils the words (when read plainly) 'the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple' (3:1).

When the infant Jesus is brought to the temple, in our gospel passage today, Luke 2:22-40, 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 Jesus' life, this did not take place. But from another perspective, as Hebrews 2:14-18 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 (Luke 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 are presented with 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?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sunday 24 January 2016 - Epiphany 3

Theme                  The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus         

Sentence                You Lord will surely comfort your people. You will make their deserts like Eden, their wastelands like a garden. Joy and gladness will be found among them, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. (Isaiah 51:3 adapted, NZPB p. 566)

Collect                 Merciful God,
                           in Christ you make all things new;
                           transform the poverty of our nature
                           by the riches of your grace,
                           and in the renewal of our lives
                           make known your heavenly glory;
                           through Jesus Christ our redeemer.

Readings                                             
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
                           Luke 4:14-21

The details in the Nehemiah reading are quite hard work. As pure description of an ancient event they appear to yield nothing to our present situation. Then in verse 8 we have a description of preaching in any age: 'So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.' This links to our gospel reading in which Jesus reads, from the prophet Isaiah rather than the law of Moses, and gives the sense of it. More on that in a moment. Reading a little further on to the end of the Nehemiah reading our eyes light on a wonderful phrase, 'for the joy of the Lord is your strength' (v. 10). Everything is harder to do when we are down and depressed. Life is easier when there is a spring in our step: here the spring is 'the joy of the Lord.' Are we joyful in the Lord? How do we receive that joy? One clue in Nehemiah, backed up by Psalm 19, is that the reading of God's Word brings joy because it sets out the reasons why we may have confidence that life is good - God is with us in the world God has made and the course of the world works to God's plan.

There is more to Psalm 19 to consider. This delightful song to the Lord God as creator, revealer and judge primarily lifts our spirits to praise our God. But within the song three profound theological lessons are taught. First, the natural world is truly beautiful yet in its extraordinary beauty it tells of a greater beauty, 'the glory of God' (v. 1). Secondly, nature tells of God's glory but tells us nothing else, least of all how we should live, so God the creator has given us his perfect law. The praise of the law as it parallels the praise of creation implies that the law is as wonderful, beautiful and expressive of God as creation. The psalmist loves the law and delights in it. Only from such devotion to the law could praise of this kind be expressed. Thirdly, the law tells us what to do and signifies the role of God as judge. In a sense the psalmist at this point moves from joy to fear: 'who can detect their errors?' So the psalm ends with two prayers 'Keep back your servant from the insolent ...' (v. 13) and 'Let the words of my mouth ...' (v. 14). God, in other words, is an activist judge: eager to help the potential accused live a blameless life. Appropriately the psalm ends with an ascription of the God who makes the perfectly beautiful and ordered world and law and who works to enable his people to live righteously as 'O Lord, my rock and my redeemer' (v. 14).

The epistle is a psalm also - a song of praise for the body of Christ! A connection point with the gospel reading is reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit. If the gospel takes us outward in vision, to a world in desperate plight to which those anointed by the Spirit are called to bring healing relief and liberation, the epistle, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, takes us inward in vision, to a church which should understand itself as the body of Christ, made so by the baptism of the Spirit (v. 13). The details of the passage largely work through what it means to belong to the body of Christ: to respect one another as equal members of the one body (even if some members have a more important role than other members), to recognise the different responsibilities God has given us and (recalling last week's epistle reading, the first part of 1 Corinthians 12) the different gifts spread amongst us. The unity of the two visions, in gospel and in epistle, comes from considering that the working of the body of Christ is the working of Christ's mission in the world. Our love for one another as members of the one body, our taking up of responsibilities and exercising of gifts, is not for the sake of the body only, but for the sake of the world which Christ came to serve.

So we come to the gospel reading. A sermon working from this passage, should concentrate on one message to be drawn from it. 

Luke 4:14-21 is unique to Luke's gospel. Matthew and Mark report Jesus' ministering in synagogues and preaching, but neither offer this story of Jesus preaching from Isaiah 61 (= Luke 4:18-19). Thus we pay attention to the role this passage plays in Luke's overall gospel narrative. Long story short, this passage (perhaps, better, the longer passage, 4:14-30) is Jesus' 'kingdom manifesto' or a 'programmatic statement' of the purpose of Jesus' ministry. He comes in fulfilment of an ancient prophecy. His power to act out his programme/to inaugurate the kingdom of God is the power of the Holy Spirit and his plan is God's plan - a plan, no less, for the restoration of creation: good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. As the remainder of the gospel in Luke's telling unfolds we will see this programme enacted (note especially Luke 7:22). 

Luke 4:18 draws our attention to Jesus claiming for himself the status and role of 'the Anointed' or 'the Lord's Anointed', that is, the Messiah or Christ (Greek equivalent, think of 'chrism oil' which is the oil for anointing people). The solemn importance of this claim is underlined in the last verse of the reading when Jesus says (with the 'eyes of all in the synagogue ... fixed on him', v. 21a),

"Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21b).

At this point we might consider the possibility that Jesus was mad (making a ludicrous claim) or an imposter (trying to deceive his hearers) or making a lucid claim that could be tested in terms of what follows. Luke's presentation to us in the remaining chapters is a presentation that the claim passed the test. What Jesus said he was, the Messiah, was in fact true. Just as the hearers in the synagogue were greatly challenged by that claim (as the remainder of the passage through to verse 30 tells us), so is our world today as we make that claim for Jesus Christ as his witnesses.

In turn the programme or manifesto of Jesus challenges us: in what ways are we working as Jesus' hands and feet in the world today to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, etc? Again, this is not an idle extension from the passage to our day: the way Luke tell his larger story, the story of Jesus in his gospel and Jesus' witnesses in his Acts of the Apostles, we are left in no doubt that the mission of Jesus continues in the world today as his witnesses carry it forward.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Sunday 17 January 2015 Epiphany 2

Theme                  Jesus transforms our water into his wine             

Sentence            With awesome deeds you answer our prayers for deliverance, O God our Saviour; you that are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the far off seas.Psalm 65:5-6 (NZPB p. 564)

Collect                God of all mercy, 
                          your Son brought good news to the despairing,
                          freedom to the oppressed
                          and joy to the sad;
                          fill us with your Spirit,
                          that the people of our day may see in us his likeness
                          and glorify your name.  (NZPB  p. 564)

Readings                                             
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
                          John 2:1-11

What business is God in? A consistent answer to this question through John's Gospel is the business of transformation. The 'miracle at Cana' - our gospel reading today - in which water is transformed into wine is repeated throughout that gospel as hungry people are fed, paralysed people get up and walk, blind people see and even the dead are raised to life. Even in the Epilogue to the gospel (John 21) a night's fishing without success becomes a morning's abundant catch! 

Isaiah looks ahead to God transforming Israel: no longer to be called Forsaken or Desolate, God's people will known as My Delight Is in Her and Married. 

The psalmist does not speak of transformation as such but celebrates the continuing foundation of Israel's faith in God the Transformative God: God's steadfast love. In two verses, 8 and 9, the psalmist anticipates an aspect of the Cana miracle in which water is turned into abundant, fine wine: when people take refuge in the God of Steadfast Love, 'they feast on the abundance of your house' and thus 'drink from the river of your delights.'

Paul's teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 could yield many sermons (on spiritual gifts, on what each gift consists of, on the contribution of spiritual gifts to the life of the church, on the core confession and creed of the church, Jesus is Lord, etc). If we take the perspective of Transformation as our guide then this passage speaks of the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, enabling people to become Christians (see verses 2-3, 'pagans' to those who confess, "Jesus is Lord",) activating gifts within Christians which serve 'the common good' (12:7) of the church, each of which has transformative potential (not least a gift Jesus himself demonstrated at Cana, 'the working of miracles' (12:10), and all of which contribute to the change in which individuals are transformed into the 'body' of Christ (though this last matter is the subject of the remainder of 1 Corinthians 12).

As for the wedding at Cana itself in John 2:1-11, the bare story of water being turned into wine is a marvellous story of God's power to transform situations. But in John's narratival hands the story also conveys other messages. Here we note 
(1) the miracle is a 'sign' (verse 11; the first of, depending how we count them, seven or eight signs in this gospel), that is, it has significance beyond a demonstration of God's power; 
(2) the sign 'revealed his glory' (also verse 11 but see also verse 4), that is, Jesus the ordinary bloke is, in fact, Someone else as well, which we the readers already know (e.g. because of the Prologue to the gospel, John 1:1-18) but which the disciples are scarcely recognising (although they knew enough to have become his disciples); 
(3) the sign, like all the signs in this gospel, is purposed to elicit 'belief', and so we find that the disciples 'believed in him' (verse 11); but all this 
(4) is a partial or anticipatory disclosure of the fullness of God's glory which awaits 'My hour' which 'has not yet come' (verse 4): that is, only in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ will full and final disclosure take place of who He is.

In other words, one aspect of transformation in this story is the transformation of the disciples. Turning water into wine is (in a literal sense, as here in today's passage) a party trick if it happens in such a way that people marvel at it and then carry on their lives as previously. But the water transformed into wine is symbolic of lives transformed through encounter with Jesus. Further, the miracle is an abundant transformation (lots of water is changed, and what it is changed into is high quality wine), this too symbolises lives being transformed through Christ because what he brings is 'abundant life' (John 10:10).

To what transformation in our lives through Christ can we testify?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sunday 10 January 2015 - Epiphany 1: Baptism of the Lord

Theme                  The baptism of Jesus and his baptism of us, with the Holy Spirit and fire

Sentence            My people, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, 'You are my servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you.' (Isaiah 41:8, 9, NZPB p. 561)

Collect                 Open the heavens, Holy Spirit,
                           for us to see Jesus interceding for us;
                           may we be strengthened to share his baptism,
                           strengthened to share his cup,
                           and ready to serve him forever. (NZPB p. 562) 

Readings                                             
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
                          Luke 3:15-22

There are many things to be said about baptism. One of them is the simple observation that in baptism, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the baptised, 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine' (43:1). Baptism joins us to God and God to us: each baptised individual is known to God and belongs to God. All this, we might continue to read in the Isaiah passage, is the working out of God's universal vision for the increase of God's family. The depth of God's love is measured by its broad inclusiveness and its particularity: each individual is known to God by name. All this, 43:7 declares, is for the glory of God who says that we have been 'created for my glory.'

Jesus' own experience of baptism involves God voicing his approval, love and affirmation of Jesus as 'my Son, the Beloved' (Luke 3:22). Obviously this is a special moment in the unfolding story of Jesus, both affirming Jesus in his relationship to God and confirming Jesus's relationship with God to those witnessing the baptism. But we should not neglect that the baptism of Jesus is also a model of our baptism in which God affirms us as his sons and daughters, as beloved ones who belong to God.

From this perspective, the voice of God declaring love for God's family is a powerful, transformative voice. We change people's lives when we tell them we love them (or, sadly, change lives in the opposite direction when we tell people we hate them). How much more powerful is the voice of God declaring God's love. Psalm 29 celebrates the mighty power of the voice of God.

Another of the many things to be said about baptism is that Christian baptism involves both water and the Holy Spirit. John prophesies of Jesus that he will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). The baptism itself of Jesus includes the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him (3:22). In Acts 8:4-17 a point being made is that full Christian baptism is baptism with water and the Holy Spirit - the latter was missing and Peter and John pray for the lack to be made up by laying hands on disciples in Samaria.

Christian baptism is not the splashing of water alone but the outward rite of washing with water and the inner filling of the baptised person with the Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit coming into our lives necessarily means God making us holy means, in turn, that John's prophecy referring to 'fire' alongside the Holy Spirit is effectively an underlining of the work which Holy Spirit does in our lives. The fire of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit burning away all that is not holy.

The next verse in Luke after today's reading says that 'Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work' (3:23). Baptism inaugurates the ministry or service of Jesus. It has both set him apart for serving God and empowered him for that work. Similarly for each of us who are baptised. But there is one difference between Jesus and us: we never hear of Jesus being refilled with the Holy Spirit. By contrast St Paul urges us to be filled (i.e. continually filled) with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:8). Today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, do we need a new filling of the Holy Spirit to empower us for our work for God?

Postscript: our reading in Acts raises a tough question, sometimes coming up for debate in our day, Is the formula for baptism sufficient if the baptism is 'in the name of Jesus' only, or is sufficiency only when the baptism is 'in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit'? 

Deliberately, causa brevitatis, I avoid this question here!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Epiphany, celebrated on Sunday 3 January 2016

Note:  The ACANZP Lectionary 2016 provides for Sunday 3 January to be celebrated as either Christmas 2 (and Epiphany celebrated on its normal calendrical day, 6 January) or as Epiphany. The latter is chosen here.


Theme                  The width and breadth of the gospel     

Sentence             The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the         covenant in whom you delight is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1b, NZPB p. 560)

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. (NZPB p. 560)
Readings                                             
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
                          Matthew 2:1-12

Rightly Matthew is described as the most Jewish of the gospels. Its interests in the law of Moses and Jesus' relationship to the law (e.g. 5:17-20) suggest a Jewish writer of a gospel whose primary audience are Jewish Christians. Yet this gospel, in keeping with the other gospels, has a wide vision of the kingdom of God. It is for Jews and for Gentiles. The first appearances of Gentiles in this gospel are in chapter 1 where Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah, all Gentiles, feature in the genealogy of Jesus.* Today's gospel reading takes us to the second Matthean reference to Gentiles, the three wise men (Greek, magi: astrologers, sages) who come 'from the East.' Their coming to Jesus with gifts in order to pay homage is both an act of worship of one born to be king and the development of Matthew's gospel vision: the gospel is for all people, the kingdom of God includes Gentiles with Jews.

If we ask about the historicity of this visit, we have no other confirming details anywhere else in Scripture. For other parts of the birth narrative, Matthew links events to Old Testament prophecies (Mary's giving birth despite her virginity,1:23; Bethlehem as the birthplace, 2:6; the family's flight to Egypt, 2:15; the massacre of the innocent children, 2:18; growing up in Nazareth, 2:23). For some scholars this raises the question whether Matthew creates details in the story to match prophecies (with the purpose of developing the theme that Jesus is the (long ago predicted, much anticipated) Messiah/Christ.) But for the wise men, no such prophecy is brought forward by Matthew, even though, noting our Old Testament reading, at least one such reading is to hand. Isaiah 60:3 could have fitted neatly as a quotation in today's gospel reading, as could 60:6 with its mention of gold and frankincense! The situation is suggestive that a real visitation by strangers from the East took place, even if the manner of telling this part of the birth narrative drew on a passage such as Isaiah 60:1-6.

Isaiah 60:1-6, therefore, offers a background to the visit of the Magi: one day the glory of the Lord would shine in a specific manner, chasing the darkness away which covered the earth - a darkness, reading, e.g. Isaiah 59, occasioned by manifest injustice and unrighteousness. To this light, a light shining out of Israel, the 'nations shall come' (60:3). Represented by the three wise men and the star, this ancient prophecy about nations coming to the light is fulfilled. So, also we note, today is 'Epiphany', the manifestation of the glory of the Lord to the whole world.

Making Psalm 72 the psalm for this day is an astute lectionary decision. Originally, we believe, the psalm was composed for Solomon who, in his own way, was a shining star (of enlightening wisdom) to whom rulers of nations came for advice. But in the context of Matthew 2:1-12 in which the Magi come bearing gifts for a new king who will (among many attributes) be wise, this psalm reads very well, especially noting verses 10-11.

Ephesians 3:1-12 is a natural epistle reading to include in Epiphany readings. Its themes are the inclusion of the Gentiles, the making known of the mystery of God's will through revelation, the wisdom of God and the commission to make the gospel known to all. Where Matthew's Jesus eventually leaves his readers, with the Great Commission in 28:20, the apostle Paul continues on to fulfil that commission.

What then does a preacher say on such a day as this with readings so tightly bound together in relation to the significant Feast of the Epiphany yet so wide-ranging in themes? Options abound! 

Some are drawn to the details, such as the nature of the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh and their implications for the future life of Jesus (myrrh being used for the anointing of dead bodies). Though here, in background notes, we must note the intriguing fact that Matthew makes no further mention of myrrh in relation to Jesus' death. Compare Matthew 27:34 (wine 'mixed with gall' is offered to Jesus before he is crucified) with Mark 15:23 (wine 'mixed with myrrh'); and the (absence of spices) burial according to Matthew 27:57-61 with the particular details of John 19:39 where Nicodemus' role in Jesus' burial includes 'myrrh.'

Options for preaching on these passages include themes of light, the universality of the gospel, the unfinished mission of Jesus (e.g. the 'darkness' still enshrouding the world today because of injustice and unrighteousness), and the wisdom of God embodied in Jesus.