Saturday, November 26, 2016

Sunday 4 December 2016 - Advent 2

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

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

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

Collect: taken from here.

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

Readings:

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

Commentary:

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

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

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

Isaiah 11:1-10

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

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

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

Romans 15:4-13

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

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

A couple of themes to note in the remaining verses:

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 3:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday 27 November 2016 - Advent 1

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

Sentence:

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

Commentary:

Isaiah 2:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 122

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

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

Romans 13:11-14

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 24:36-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sunday 20 November 2016 - Christ the King (or The Reign of Christ) Sunday - 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday is also Aotearoa Sunday and it is the Sunday Before Advent, also known as Stir Up Sunday, and the Collect supplied below for the Sunday before Advent gives it that name.

Theme(s): Christ the King / The Lord Reigns / Stir Up Sunday

Sentence: He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 23:5)

Collect:

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 King. 

Readings, related:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Commentary:

Sometimes this Sunday is also celebrated as 'Stir Up Sunday', this informal name for the day being drawn from the collect above, the collect for the Sunday before Advent. If we pray the collect truthfully then we are asking the Lord to stir us out of complacency and disobedience to be aligned with the will of God and thus, with an eye on the theme of Advent, ready for the return of Christ the King whenever that takes place.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

An ongoing problem for Israel was its leadership. Whether we think of Israel's religious leaders (priests, prophets) or political leaders (kings), there were too many leaders (shepherds) causing destruction rather than construction in respect of Israel's fortunes.

Jeremiah, speaking for God, rails against these shepherds and forecasts a day when the Lord will bring back the Israelites (sheep) scattered far and wide and raise up for them shepherds who are genuine shepherds (23:1-4).

This general vision of shepherds plural is a prelude to a specific vision of days which are 'surely coming' when one shepherd 'for David' will be raised up as a 'righteous Branch', a king who deals wisely, executes justice and righteousness (v. 5). This king, Christians now see and understand is Jesus Christ (the Anointed of God). 'In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety' (v. 6).

Psalm 46

In the midst of tumult (think, e.g. about being a Christian in the midst of Trump's America or in the midst of civil war in Syria) it is a severe challenge to believe that 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble' (v.1).

The specific context of this psalm is tumult overwhelming Jerusalem 'the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High' (v.4). Ever since the church has drawn comfort from this psalm: God is our refuge. The epitome of this comfort is the hymn of Luther, A Mighty Fortress is our God.

For ourselves, our challenge may be that we find, in the midst of life's storms, the still centre within God and God within us: 'Be still, and know that I am God' (v.10).

Colossians 1:11-20

On this 'Christ the King' Sunday, we find in this passage from Colossians a lovely yet robust statement of who Jesus Christ is: king of creation and king of church. 

The word 'king' is not actually used, but the talk is of 'the kingdom of his beloved Son' (1:13) and descriptions of the king of this kingdom include: 'firstborn of all creation' (v. 15), 'He himself is before all things' (v. 17), 'He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead' (v. 18).

The beginning of the passage is a prayer for the readers of Colossians (including you and me, reading today!). The prayer is for the continuing transformation of our lives towards the goal of 'inheritance of the saints in the light' = 'kingdom of his beloved Son' (vss. 12-13).

One important point of the adoring affirmation of who Christ is which follows (vss. 15-20) is that this same Christ is the one at work within us. If that is not encouraging ... :)

Luke 23:33-43 "This is the King of the Jews"

This gospel passage has its most apt context as a whole passage in the telling of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus (and thus rightly forms part of cycles of readings on Good Friday).

In the context of 'Christ the King' we read the passage as an affirmation of Jesus' kingship, expressed in his suffering, offering the paradox of being in charge of the world precisely at the point of being most subject to the world and its vicious, abusive power.

Thus the title tacked to the cross, 'King of the Jews' is ironically accurate and apt. An attempt at mocking this 'criminal' by the authority which cravenly gave in to crowd pleasing, the title captures the simple truth that this descendant of David was indeed an Israelite king. Its only inaccuracy is that Jesus was more than king of the Jews: he was and is king of all peoples.

Note the way in which Jesus acts in a royal fashion: when the thief who recognises his innocence and his kingship ('when you come into your kingdom', v. 42) asks that Jesus 'remember' him, Jesus bestows upon him the greatest blessing any king could give. 'Today you will be with me in Paradise' (v. 43).

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Sunday 13 November 2016 - Ordinary 33

Theme(s): Faithfulness / Persistence / Working for food / Endurance / God's future

Sentence: Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Collect:

God our ruler and guide,
when we come to the place where the road divides,
keep us true to the way of Christ,
alive to present opportunities,
and confident of eternal life,

all through the continuing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings, related:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Commentary:

Malachi 4:1-2a

There will be a day of judgment. This is a persistent, recurring theme in the Old Testament. Here Malachi announces this day with fiery symbolism. Just as an oven in his day needed fuel for burning to heat the oven, so the day of judgment will be a day which burns up 'all the arrogant and all evildoers.' By contrast, those who 'revere' the Lord's name will be healed, not destroyed. A different kind of fire, 'the sun of righteousness' will rise. Not to burn the righteous who revere his name but to heal them.

Psalm 98

This psalm fits perfectly with the gospel reading. The Lord will be victorious. Challengers to the might of the Lord, brought against his people Israel will be beaten off. The psalm celebrates this anticipated victory. The Lord will be judge. On the day of judgment, this awesome event should be celebrated by nature itself giving applause (vss. 7-9). The gospel reading looks ahead to the great day of Christ's return. It forecasts many challenges and trials before that day. The psalm offers encouragement. The Lord will be victorious. Judgment will come. All will be well.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

How does or should a Christian live? Some answers come through the teaching of Jesus (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount). Other answers are found in the second half of Paul's epistles (which generally follow a pattern of 'Theology then Application'). This passage is a perfect example of Paul offering not just 'guidance' but a 'command' about practical Christian living. Probably this command is sparked by knowledge of an unhappy local situation in Thessalonika.

In this case idle Christians and worse, idle-and-busybody Christians seem to have been disrupting church life. (Possibly their belief in the second coming of Jesus led them to believe that they no longer had to work for a living). Paul makes his case for each Christian working hard so as not to be a burden to other members of the fellowship. His case includes both what he had previously taught the Thessalonians (v. 6) and the example of Paul and his companions when they stayed for a while in Thessalonika (v. 7-9).

We may presume that Paul is NOT dealing with the situation in which someone wishes to work but cannot. Welfare should be shared with such members of our community. But Paul is valuing the dignity of work (a value which goes back to the creation story itself in the first chapters of Genesis) and he offers a simple economic formula for community well-being: the provision of food for all to live requires that those who eat contribute to the community through their work.

Verse 13 repays careful reflection. Being a Christian involves doing what is right. Not in order to earn God's favour but in order both to express our new life as recipients of God's grace and to live out the divine life working within us as the Spirit of God fills us. 

Physically, doing right is wearying. Going the extra mile is more strenuous than stopping after one mile! Baking an extra cake to give to a new family in the district is more effort than catering for our own family. We can be tempted to allow weariness in doing right to lead us to give up doing right.

Do not do so, says Paul. Find new joy in service of God and others (seems to be implied here).

Luke 21:5-19 

Jesus looks ahead and sees many challenges. The context for his words are the temple in Jerusalem and the time is the last few days of his life. The temple was an extraordinary architectural feat (v. 5) but Jesus could see ahead to a day when it would be destroyed (v. 6), as it was in 70 AD by the Romans (and to this day, it has not been rebuilt).

Naturally the interest of his disciples as piqued, so they ask the same question we would ask, 'When will this be?'

Jesus then offers (as also recorded in parallels in Matthew and Mark) some remarks about signs to look out for and signs to carefully understand and not misinterpret. These remarks remain challenging to us. 

One challenge is that they clearly indicate a general state of affairs in which, so to speak, things will get worse before they get better. 

Another challenge is the possibility of false Christs appearing who beguile us into thinking that the true Christ has returned. 

But the sharpest challenge is Jesus' conviction that 'before all this occurs' (v. 12), his followers will be arrested, persecuted, betrayed, even killed and 'hated by all because of my name' (v. 17).

Many years later we see some hyperbole at work in this passage. Specifically, not all Christians have been persecuted (and, if we want to be picky, it is not clear that even all of the Twelve were persecuted). Conversely, looking at v. 18, some Christians have had their hair destroyed through persecution (e.g. being burnt at the stake). Nevertheless Jesus rightly foresaw that faithfulness to him and to his gospel message would lead to trouble with religious and state authorities. This occurred in both the immediate growth of the Jesus' movement (see stories in Acts, and references in epistles), through many subsequent periods and continues to this day.

For ourselves, whether we face intense persecution or a low level of disapproval from fellow workers and citizens, two points from the passage encourage us. 

First, the promise of Jesus that he will give us the words and wisdom we need when we explain ourselves to others (v. 15). 

Secondly, the encouragement to 'endure' (v. 19). Unspoken by Jesus at this point is that he himself will provide the outstanding example of endurance in the face of persecution, betrayal and execution in a few days time.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sunday 6 November 2016 - Ordinary 32

Theme(s): Resurrection / Resurrection life / Our glorious future if we hold fast / Holding fast to the truth / Hope in God is never misplaced

Sentence: I know that my Redeemer lives (Job 19:25)

Collect:

Father,
you sent your Son to bring us truth
and your Spirit to make us holy;
open your hearts to exalt you,
open our lives to reveal you,
our one true God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Readings, related:

Job 19:23-27a

Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38


Commentary:

Job 19:23-27a

This is a fascinating passage to read. 

On one level it can be read wholly in the terms of Job's present life: his hope is that before he dies, his innocence will be proven by God himself. 

On another level (and one which obviously relates to the gospel reading today, about resurrection life), the passage can be read as Job's intense belief that he will be found innocent, even if it is after death.

Verse 25 in particular can be read (and has been read by Christians, including, famously, as lines in Handel's Messiah) as a prophecy of Christ the Redeemer's resurrection to victorious, eternal life.

Psalm 17:1-9

This prayer of David is both desperate (his deadly enemies surround him) and confident (for God will answer him). 

The prayer is prayed to the God who vindicates the righteous. It can be our prayer as ones made righteous by Christ who are confident that if not in this life then in the life to come, God will vindicate us.

2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17

The first part of this reading attends to the 'coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.' (Appropriate as we are a few weeks away from the season of Advent). 

Intriguing here is reference to the preceding appearance of 'the lawless one' prior to the coming of 'that day.' The imagery in Paul's day of a supreme, anti-God ruler would have reminded Jewish readers of Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple (167 BC) while also bringing to mind all the claims to divinity of successive Roman emperors. 

Yet Paul obviously has in mind neither a past nor a present figure but one who is to come. Is the lawless one present in our world today? There are quite a few candidates! We can think of some nasty rulers, some malevolent global business leaders, and widely known 'opinion-makers'. In all likelihood such a specific 'anti-God/anti-Christ' figure has not yet been revealed. (Those words were first written in 2013 and, notwithstanding the Trump/Clinton/Putin "circus" in the run up to the 2016 US election, they remain true today).

The second part of the reading strikes a different note, but we see that if we follow Paul here, standing firm in our faith, we will be ready for the great coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, whenever that takes place.

Paul reminds his readers that we are Christians because of God's initiative and as Christians we have a purpose, to 'obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.' So Paul prays for us, verses 16-17, that we may be comforted and strengthened by God 'in every good work and word.'

One interesting note in these verses is Paul's talk in verse 15 of holding fast to 'the traditions you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.' Paul the apostle is conscious that what he teaches is truth to hold fast to. Whether through oral teaching or written letter, the words he conveys are authoritative. Thus in this short letter, 'holy scripture' is being formed.


Luke 20:27-38

Originally this story, taking place in the last week of Jesus' life, was a story about the reality of the resurrection. The Sadducees (Israel's elite leadership class), who did not believe in the resurrection, not seeing it taught in the only ancient scriptures they recognised as authoritative (Penteteuch = Genesis to Deuteronomy), sought to check out Jesus' views on the matter.

Was the question they asked Jesus an attempt to entrap him, to steer him towards a nonsensical answer exposing the folly of the resurrection? Was it a genuine question betraying their intellectual doubts about the resurrection based on hypotheses which troubled them such as the 'what if' of a woman with seven successive husbands. (Incidentally the idea of a woman marrying brothers successively is known as 'levirate marriage' for which see Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Genesis 38:8).

Either way, it is a good question which might be our question. That is, we too ask such "what if" questions about the resurrection. Thus we might ask today, 

'If there is resurrection, what happens when someone has had more than one spouse? Do they share heaven with both spouses?' [See below for Jesus' answer.]

Or, 'What happens if someone is eaten by a shark or if their body is cremated? Can they still receive a resurrection bod.' [I suggest God's power is greater than consequences of the shark's bite!]

Jesus answers the question asked of him very neatly and simply. The life we experience in this age is one in which marriage takes place and the life in the age of resurrection is one in which marriage does not take place. Although he does not explain the implication of this for the hypothetical woman, what he says implies the seven brothers will not be competing for her affections in the new age. This distinction between the kind of life we experience here and now and there and later is further expounded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

There is more. Jesus goes on to make a subtle exegetical point about the scriptures cherished by the Sadducees: in these scriptures (Exodus 3:6) Moses speaks of God with reference to the great patriarchs in a way which supposes the patriarchs to be alive. The tables are turned on the resurrection-denying Sadducees: they do not read their own scriptures correctly.

As a kind of postscript, we could note that today, this response of Jesus is being used as a contribution to current debates about marriage. Along these lines: 'See, Jesus, clearly teaches that marriage is a limited institution, confined to this life and of no bearing on life beyond the grave.' From that finitude of marriage some wish to draw other implications. It is not part of this commentary to comment on the debate into which this passage is being drawn but I think it worth observing that the story is being read, by some readers, in a new way today.

In general terms, what might be a lesson we draw from this reading for life today? Likely we are not majorly interested in the inner logic of Sadduceean theology, or in the complexities of family life in heaven.

What might be of interest is Jesus' last statement, in verse 38:

'Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.'

From our perspective, life in heaven can seem like a projection of a human wish in the face of a fear: we wish to live, we fear death, life beyond the grave fulfils the wish and deals with the fear. Thus some non-believers despise Christian believers as weak people unwilling to face the brute reality of life: we die, that is the end. As (I think it was) Bertrand Russell said, 'When I die, I rot.'

But Jesus brings a different perspective. The resurrection is not a myth due to our weakness in the face of death. The resurrection is the reality of the power of God which is unable to be defeated by any other power, even death. Resurrection is the living God's gift of life. It would be foolish to refuse the gift!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sunday 30 October 2016 - All Saints Day (transf.) or Ordinary 31

All Saints Day is 1 November and the NZL makes provision for today being observed as either Ordinary 31 or All Saints Day. Below I give the readings for Ordinary 31 (without Theme, Sentence, Collect or Commentary) and the Theme etc in the usual way but for All Saints Day.

Readings (related) for Ordinary 31

Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Material for All Saints Day 2016

Theme: All Saints (For All the Saints) // Who are the Saints?

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)

Collect:

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 through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings:
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Commentary:

Introduction - different to most Sundays, all the readings relate to the feast day theme, All Saints

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Relating to 'All Saints' the keywords are 'the holy ones of the Most High' (v.18).

The verses read here set the scene of a terrifying vision Daniel receives in the context of Babylonian exile which look ahead to four great kingdoms dominating and opposing God's holy ones, Israel. 

Readers familiar with 'end times' speculations regarding the meanings of such visions will be familiar with proposals for interpreting the four beasts. One example: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. 

It is widely thought by Daniel scholars that the vision occurred in the period when Greece was the imperial power dictating terms to Israel and acting in profane ways in the Jerusalem Temple. Its setting in the story of Daniel as a court official in Babylon enables the readers of Daniel to believe that God will prevail for the Babylonian kingdom fell and the Babylonian Exile of the Jews came to an end. 

Thus verse 18 is a ringing affirmation of the biblical truth that God always wins in the battle between good and evil and the holy ones or saints of God never suffer or die in vain.

Psalm 149

This psalm starts off in cracking form re the saints of God singing God's praises. As the holy ones of God are his special people may it indeed be so, 'Let Israel be glad in its Maker.' What a great encouragement for all the saints that 'the Lord takes pleasure in his people.'

But the psalm takes a darker hue when in the second half of v. 6, which has begun 

'Let the high praises of God be in their throats,' 

we read 

'and two-edged swords in their hands.' 

The rest of the psalm is about the vengeance of Israel on the nations. Thus it is a tricky psalm to say without some explanation, but we should presume that the psalm has a reasonable explanation for its second part.

One thing to note is that this is the second to last psalm and if we go to the second from the beginning psalm (Psalm 2) we find a strong theme of sovereignty for Israel, expressed through talk of the royal Davidic ruler of Israel. 

At the least we might understand Psalm 149 as a psalm written after Israel has suffered an infringement of its sovereignty. The oppressors against Israel have had judgment decreed against them (149:9) and now Israel executes the judgment and restores its sovereign status. Read in this way, the psalm is in keeping with much talk in the Old Testament of Israel's many battles with invading forces from near neighbours or far off empires.

As Christians we might read 'two-edged sword' as the written Word of God, the Bible, and think of ourselves as a people who praise God and proclaim the Word of God. 

Vengeance on the nations, on this understanding, would be the Word of God undermining the prevailing 'word of humanity' or ideology which drove the nations forward in their malevolent ways.

Ephesians 1:11-23

Ephesians is, arguably, the purest 'gospel theology' of all Paul's letters. It has a clear and coherent argument from start to finish (we might contrast the enigmatic 'bump' in the argument of Romans when we read chapters 9-11). 

One great theme is the comprehensiveness of the gospel: it is a message to the whole world setting out God's plan for all of the universe; a message to which calls all people to participate in Christ who is the totality of the whole life of God. Our passage today is a substantive portion of Ephesians chapter one in which this great theme is introduced and developed.

On this Sunday, 'All Saints', our eye is caught by v. 15, 

'I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints ...'. 

Here is a sharp reminder that saints are 'just God's people', you and me, the ordinary people of God for whom God has extraordinary plans (as Ephesians articulates, especially through chapters 1-3). Paul rejoices here in the members of the church to which he writes: they have faith in Jesus and they love one another without exception.

Among many wonderful theological pearls we might pause to admire in this passage, two more deserve mention in connection with 'All Saints'.

1. Paul prays that his readers may know 

'... what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe ...' (vv. 18-19). 

God's future is never for us as individuals only. Our glorious inheritance is not a personal, individual pass to paradise. Rather it is an inheritance of fullness of divine life in the corporate family of all God's people. We live Christianly in the church on earth (with all its difficulties and tensions) as preparation for the greater day when we live eternally as the bride of Christ in the heavenly realms. 'All Saints' is a reminder, on this matter, that we are called to be in fellowship with all God's people.

2. '... for the church ...' (v. 22) Despite the many frailties of the church, which were an experience of church life then as well as now (see various concerns through Ephesians about failure in the church), God's amazing plan for the universe involves the church (i.e. all the saints as the body of Christ). Christ is head over all things for the church. The church is the body of this supreme Christ, filled with the very life of God itself.

How good is that!


Luke 6:20-31

Who are the saints of God now that Jesus has come proclaiming his gospel? They are the ones who are disciples of Jesus, learning the way of God's kingdom while also enduring life in the kingdom. These ones are blessed. 

Yet the blessing of 'the poor' and the contrasting woe of 'the rich' points to a characteristic of disciples, reworked as a theme throughout Luke's gospel, that they have left material possessions behind and entered into the kingdom trusting in God for provision of material needs. On such understanding, saints are those for whom their most treasured possession is the kingdom itself, that is, life lived under God's rule.

Holiness, then, for the holy ones of God is the distinctive way of life which receives the blessing of God and the opprobrium of the world (vv. 22-23). In this distinctive way of life, the response of the saints to opposition is not like for like retaliation but love for enemies, good for those who hate, blessing on those who curse and prayer for abuser (vv. 27-28). Generosity of spirit and purse (vv. 29-30), thus, is the way of Christ's holy ones.

We might make one very important final observation: whatever the merits of calling particular people of God, 'St. Someone', there is an important demerit to this churchy custom. It implies that the calling to saintly or holy living is for the special few and not for all who follow Jesus. All today's passages are addressed to all God's people. We are 'all saints'.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sunday 23rd October 2016 - Ordinary 30

Theme(s): God justifies sinners / Fight the good fight

Sentence: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. Psalm 84:1

Collect:

Jesus our Lord,
you have taught us that judgment begins at the house of God;
save us from our self-satisfaction, rigidity and corruption,
so that we may stand ready to do your will through the power of the Spirit.

Amen.

Readings, related:

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-7
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14


Commentary:

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

In these verses we have a corporate version of the tax collector in the gospel reading: Jeremiah speaks words of confession of Israel/Judah's many sins. 

In the first part of the reading God is mindful to 'remember their iniquity and punish their sins' (v. 10) but in the second part of the reading, Jeremiah cries more deeply the confession of sin and pleads that God might 'not spurn us' (v. 21).

Psalm 84:1-7

This psalm connects to our reading in the gospel by exalting the virtues of the temple (in which the two men in the gospel parable are praying).

In these seven verses we have a wonderful eulogy to the temple as the earthly house of God in which the Lord dwells. Who would not desire to be there to be with the Lord? Who would not be happy, ever singing God's praise in such a place?

The reading misses the lovely verse 10: 'For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.'

2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18

Paul is writing at the end of what? His life? (vss. 6-8) or his ministry to this point? (vss. 16-18). 

A 'libation' is drink poured out sacrificially on an altar. Paul has given his life for Christ and now, through death, he seeks (changing metaphors) a 'crown of righteousness.'

We might usefully cross-check with the gospel reading and ask whether Paul is in danger of declaring himself to be righteous like his Pharisaical colleague (Paul, remember, was a Pharisee). But Paul voids this danger through the words he uses which unmistakably point to the role of God in enabling him to have fought the good fight of faith and to have finished the race (see v. 17: 'the Lord stood by me and gave me strength').

V. 16 has more than a hint of identification with Christ on the cross (whose disciples deserted him). Enigmatically, the reference to being rescued from 'the lion's mouth' implies Paul had his own brush with another form of Roman execution. We do not know whether the rescue was in the form of his release from imprisonment before going to the Colosseum, or from the mortal attack of a lion in the arena itself.

For ourselves the question might be whether we too are fighting the good fight faithfully?

Luke 18:9-14


There is nothing quite like this parable to make sinners feel self-righteous (about not being 'up themselves' like the Pharisee) ... which is perhaps not the intention of Jesus!

The opening to the telling of the parable (v. 9) parallels the opening to the telling of the parable at the beginning of the chapter (v. 1). Presumably Luke has to hand two parables he wants to share with us, whether or not he sees a connecting theme between them. (There is a slight connecting theme of 'prayer' but only slight because prayer is the theme of the first parable and an incidental detail in the second).

The points of the parable are twofold and, well, pointed. It is told against those who either 'trusted in themselves that they were righteous' and/or 'regard others with contempt'. Few of us have never suffered from either fault. We do well to listen carefully.

The structure of the parable is simple. Two deliberately contrasting figures, a Pharisee (i.e. respected religious adherent of the Jewish faith) and a tax collector (i.e. a despised, likely greedy lackey of the imperialist Romans, at odds with fellow Jews) perform the same action, going up to the temple to pray. 

The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving, which is directed at himself and his many virtues. We might note that his virtues are not that virtuous: I guess most readers here could also say that we are not a thief, rogue, adulterer or cheat-on-our-fellow-citizens. Many of us would tithe and some of us might fast regularly. We could note, with careful observation of detail, that the Pharisee does not pray, 'Thank you God for enabling me to not be like ...' Rather the prayer has the effect of drawing God's attention to how successful the Pharisee has been in being virtuous. In sum, the Pharisee exalts himself before God (and, in terms of the narrative, before those hearing his prayer).

The tax collector prays a prayer of confession which is directed to God and God's many mercies. 'God be merciful to me, a sinner!' His demeanour matches his words as we are told that he stood far off (in an obscure corner of the temple?), refused to look to heaven and beat his breast. His prayer is both a prayer of confession, as he declares he is a sinner, and a prayer of intercession, as he pleads for God to be merciful to him.

Jesus tells us that that man went home 'justified rather than the other.' To that key judgment of the situation is added a familiar saying from elsewhere in the gospels, that the humble will be exalted and the exalted humbled (e.g. 13:30; 14:11; Matt 18:4; 23:12).

It is worth pausing on the word 'justified.' Sometimes the writings of Paul with his key theme that God justifies sinners (and sinners do not justify themselves through good works) are pitted against Jesus and his teaching. But here Jesus and Paul are one: our apparent righteous status does not justify us, nor do our good works and hard earned virtues. Only throwing ourselves on the mercy of God leads to justification.