Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sundays 4, 11, 18 January 2015

It being the holiday season this post (which will be developed as and when non-beach, non-cricket listening/watching, non-laziness overcomes me) encompasses three Sundays, respectively, 2nd Sunday of Christmas [making a choice to keep Epiphany to its mid-week fall on Tuesday 6th January), Baptism of the Lord, and 2nd Sunday of Epiphany. Comments likely will be briefer than during the main part of the year.

Sunday 4 January - 2nd Sunday of Christmas

Theme(s): The Word (of God) / Glory and grace / Christ blesses us / The deep meaning of Christmas

Sentence: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

Collect:

O God,
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of your Son Jesus Christ
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Comments:

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Through Jeremiah, God looks forward to a better day for Israel. Israel scattered through exile will be returned and restored, the fulfilment of the promises of ancient days to the patriarchs.

As Christians we read this prophecy in the light of the coming of Jesus to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God for Israel. But the better day for Israel, through Christ, will become a better day for the whole world. See, for example, from our gospel reading, "the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world."

Psalm 147:12-20

The psalmist envisages the prosperity of Israel and does so in terms of the creation itself. When the world was created, new life came into being through the command of God, through the word of God making things happen (Genesis 1). Now God's word (15, 18, 19, 20) acts on nature for the good of God's people.

The same word of God, incidentally, as spoken of through 15-20 commands nature and constitutes the commands as know as 'the Law' (19-20).

This psalm, of course, is chosen with an eye on our gospel reading about the Word of God which is God and which became human flesh in order that God's people might be blessed.

Ephesians 1:3-14

Ephesians is a great theological document in its own right as it sets out a vision of the universal, comprehensive scope of God's plan for the world, including the comprehension of all of time, from beginning to end.

Today we read it in tandem with our gospel reading and find some important connections. 'In the beginning was the Word' (John 1:1) connects with 'he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world' (Ephesians 1:4). Talk of becoming the children of God in John 1:12-13 intersects with Ephesians 1:5. John sets out the glory and grace of Christ in one way (1:14-17) while Paul writing in Ephesians 1:6-7 does so in another way. Both passages have in view the concept of fullness - both the fullness of time and the fullness of life (see, respectively, John 1:1-5, 14, 16; Ephesians 1:3, 7, 10).

John 1:1-18

A whole book could be written on this passage, sometimes called the Prologue to the Gospel of John. In large part the book would be a set of 18 reflections, each verse full of profound content for our understanding of God, of Christ, of God's plan for Christ (and therefore for us), of light and life and truth. Another part of the book would attend to a range of "issues." The background to the Prologue, for instance, with special reference to God's Wisdom and Word in the Old Testament as well as to the Logos (= Word) in Greek philosophy. There is a literary question to consider around the source or sources to the Prologue. Then something simply has to be said about the 'foreground' to the Prologue, that is, about the role it has played in the development of the church's theological understanding of who Jesus Christ was and is (i.e. 'Christology'). In a nutshell, without this passage we almost certainly would not be reciting the Nicene Creed in our services!

Here we will not provide the book but make the observation that while this passage can be read profitably at any time of the year, we read it within the Christmas season because it offers profound insight into 'the reason for the season.' Although the Prologue says absolutely nothing about the conception or birth of Jesus, let alone about his parents, angels, shepherds, wise men, sheep, oxen, straw or swaddling clothes, it says everything about why he came into the world (5, 7, 9, 12, 16, 17, 18) and what the nature of his coming was: nothing less than 'The Word became flesh' (14).

In summary, the Prologue says that at Christmas, God was born into the world in the baby Jesus. More succinctly, God became human.

The point of this amazing transformation of God is not that we should goggle-eyed yelp in amazement at a stupendous miracle. Rather, the point is that we should join our lives with the One who came to live among us, understanding who the unseen God is, now made visible in the man Jesus Christ, shifting from darkness to life, from destiny to death to embracing the unsurpassed grace of God given to us in Christ.



Sunday 11 January - Baptism of the Lord

Theme(s): Baptism // Baptism of Jesus and our baptism // Baptism in water and the Holy Spirit

Sentence: 'I have baptized you with water; but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit' (Mark 1:8)

Collect:

Open the heavens, Holy Spirit,
for us to see Jesus interceding for us;
may we be strengthened to share his cup,
and ready to serve him forever. Amen.

Readings:

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Comments:

Genesis 1:1-5

We read the first part of the creation story today because the 'beginning' of creation is the beginning of the story of humanity which goes horribly wrong and the 'beginning' of the gospel begins as Jesus comes to John to be baptised, a beginning of a new story of creation in which Jesus dying on the cross begins to unravel what has gone horribly wrong.

In that first beginning the Spirit of God 'was hovering over the waters' (Genesis 1:2). In the second beginning, Jesus is baptised with water and the Spirit (in a sense) hovers over Jesus in his baptism and descends on him as a sign of God's favour and as an action in which Jesus is empowered for his work in unraveling what has gone wrong for humanity.

Psalm 29

This psalm is about the 'voice of the Lord' (3 etc). This voice is powerful and gives effect to God's will. The psalmist could speak simply of God's 'word' and its effects (including the commands which bring forth creation, Genesis 1) but by focusing on the 'voice' which utters the word of God, the psalmist emphasises the power of God's speech.

Acts 19:1-7

This is a very curious and very interesting episode in the history of the early church. It's curiosity lies in the bits of the narrative that raise more questions than answers. What kind of disciples or 'disciples' hear about Jesus but get baptised with John's baptism and not with Jesus' baptism? Were these disciples followers of John (with some knowledge of Jesus) or followers of Jesus (with some absence of knowledge of Jesus and his ways)?

The interest in the passage lies in its witness to the spread and endurance of the influence of John the Baptist. Here in Ephesus (i.e. in Turkey) either Ephesian people have been baptised into John's baptism or people who have been baptised into John's baptism have dispersed from Galilee/Judea to a city faraway.

Setting aside the historical interest in the influence of John the Baptist and (arguably) on the muddied waters of teaching and practice for some believers as they received both Baptist and Jesus traditions, the point Luke is getting across to his readers is a familiar one from other stories he tells: the hallmark of a believing disciple of Jesus (i.e. of a Christian) is reception of the Holy Spirit.

This is the same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus when he was baptised. Between the gospel reading and this reading today, we should gain and hold to a conclusion that baptism with water 'in the name of the Lord Jesus' is integrally associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit which Jesus pours out on all who believe in him.

Mark 1:4-11

If the 'beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah' occurs in the prophetic imagination of Isaiah (and Malachi), Mark 1:1-3, the beginning in terms of Jesus' own life, according to Mark, lies in the appearance of the adult John the Baptist (4).

John comes, as predicted by the prophets, to prepare the way for the Messiah called Jesus. He does so with a ministry of preaching, baptism and special premonition about the superiority of the one whose way he is preparing (4-8).

That Jesus is in an entirely different league to John the Baptist (who, to all appearances, interpreted in the light of the scriptures of Israel, is a prophet in the mode of Elijah) is underscored not only by John's description of his place relative to Jesus (7) but by the significant, category difference between their respective baptisms (8). John baptises with water, Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. One offers an outward sign of inner change (note that people were baptised by John in conjunction with repentance from and confessing of sin, 4-5); the other will offer divine power to change from within (8).

With the scene set by Mark, Jesus arrives (9). Jesus belongs to Nazareth, a town in Galilee (9) and he finds John at the Jordan river where John baptises him (9). So far so like everyone else ministered to by John. But as Jesus comes out of the water 'he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove' (10). The implication is that only Jesus experiences John's baptism in this way, that is, with a baptism of the Holy Spirit superimposed on his baptism with water. To seal the matter of the specialness of the occasion, 'a voice came from heaven' (i.e. the divine voice) citing words recalling (at least) Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:7, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (11).

What do these words mean? We should take care not to read too much into these words! As Mark tells the story of Jesus (perhaps around 60 or 70 AD), he is not telling us that the Trinitarian Father God declares that the Trinitarian God the Son is now present on earth. (Though we need not jump in an opposite direction and declare that these words are inconsistent with the later agreement of the church about the Trinity). Rather, Mark likely is understanding that Jesus is a fusion of the 'king of Israel' (knowing that the words in Psalm 2 similar to these applied to the ancient kings of Israel) and of the promised 'suffering servant' of Isaiah's 'Servant Songs', of which Isaiah 42:7 is a part.

In short, the declaration of verse 11 is coherent with Mark already declaring that Jesus is 'the Messiah' or Anointed One of God (see 1:1). Indeed the coming down of the Spirit on Jesus is the anointing direct from God of that symbolised by the pouring of oil in ancient Israelite enthronements.

The Messiah has come. Israel has a new king. But this king is not as other kings have been, and God is with this king in a special way, marked both by the descent of the Spirit on him and by the declaration of 'love' and 'pleasure' in verse 11.

Sometimes we talk about 'love coming down at Christmas' and Christmas messages often emphasise 'God loves everyone.' The twist in this reading is that God's love comes down on 'my Son' and if we ever doubt that God's love for everyone could possibly include you or me, then we can be sure of this: that when we belong to Christ we belong to the One whom God loves and so we too are loved.

From another perspective, this reading might challenge us about the meaning of baptism for each baptised believer in Christ. Christ came to baptise with the Holy Spirit. Christ himself at his baptism received the Holy Spirit. The reality of water baptism is that it offers through a human ritual access to the very Spirit of God. Arguments about how much water or (for that matter) whether a little bit of water from the Jordan River itself makes a difference to the effectiveness of the baptism are beside the point. The great question of baptism is not how much water we have been baptised with but whether the Spirit of God is at work in our lives.

Sunday 18 January - 2nd Sunday of Epiphany

Theme(s): Disclosure of God's knowledge // Hearing God's Word // God's truth or our opinion?

Sentence: You will see greater things than these (John 1:50)

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. Amen.



Readings:

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Comments:

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Appropriately in this season of Epiphany or revelation, we read of the calling of Samuel to be prophet. In one way the story is 'cute': a small boy, dedicated to the Lord by a devout mother, lives in the Temple and at a very young age is distinctively and memorably called by God to future service. Those of us who first heard the story in Sunday School will have never forgotten it.

In another way the story is part of a larger tragic story. Verse 1 sets the sad scene, 'The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.'

Eli, under whom Samuel is serving, is part of the problem (2:12-17; 22-25; 27-36), as his family is greedily misusing their position of priestly privilege. In turn that family represents troubled Israel who in the next few chapters will press God to do their will (they want a king like other nations) rather than the other way around.

So it is wonderful that God calls Samuel to serve him but sad that he has to call him rather than permit the ministry of Eli to continue through his own sons.

Remembering that we are in the season of Epiphany, we read this story not only as a 'call' story (with all the inspiration and challenge which such biblical stories have for us) but also as a story of God's revelation to God's people. We have already noted that the narrator of 1 Samuel tells us that the context of this calling is a period in Israel's history when 'the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread' (1). This means that we are reading about a period in Israel's history when the spoken word of God (whether voiced through prophets or communicated through visionaries) brings guidance to Israel rather than the written word of God.

In the midst of the telling of the exchange between Samuel, the (unrecognised) Lord, and Eli, we read this description of Samuel: 'Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him' (7). Samuel serves the Lord in the Lord's temple but the narrator tells both ancient and present readers that such outward service is not the same as personal knowledge of God. Yet the subtlety of the description is such that the responsibility for this situation is not Samuel's alone: 'the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.' One of the great mysteries of Scripture, whether we read it here, or later reflect on Jesus' own words about those who do and who do not understand his teaching, or ponder Paul's teaching on predestination, is the manner in which people come to 'know' God and the role God plays in that knowledge.

At another level, this verse is also about Samuel who will be a seer or prophet of Israel. In that role he will hear from God what he is to say to God's people. He has not yet begun to hear from God. But now he will do so.

We might ponder for ourselves what we know of God.

We might also marvel at the sheer beauty of this story. Note, for instance, the subtlety of verse 3, 'the lamp of God had not yet gone out.' On one level of narration this is simply saying that the lights were still on as sleepiness overtook the occupants of the temple. On another level of narration we are being told that despite the ineptitude and decreptitude of Eli and his sons, the light of God was not extinguished. A faint flicker remained. God is about to fan it back into life.

If things are tough for you and your church today (as indeed they are very tough for, say, the church in Iraq and Syria), take courage and be hopeful: the lamp of God has not yet gone out.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

God knows everything! Revelation concerns receiving some of that knowledge. The psalmist acknowledges that the all-knowing God knows everything about the psalmist (that is, about every individual human).

In a world of exponentially expanding knowledge about life, the universe and everything in between (thanks Google!), this psalm reminds us to be humble. We know heaps more in 2014 than the psalmist knew, but it amounts to nothing much compared to what God knows!

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

To be frank, I am not quite sure why this reading has been chosen for today. (It is not part of a series of readings from 1 Corinthians through preceding and succeeding Sundays).

The major theme running through 1 Corinthians 5-7 is human sexuality and this passage nails down some very, very important matters for Christians to understand both carefully and full of care. (For instance, (1) our freedom in Christ is not freedom to indulge in sexual licence; (2) there is to be no casual sex for Christians (e.g. with a prostitute) for sex unites the bodies of two people into 'one body'/'one flesh' and such uniting is to be within marriage (chapter 7), not only for the reasons of the Law of Moses but also for theological reasons about the new dimension to understanding each Christian's body: it belongs to the Lord, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit. To indulge in casual sex is to indulge the Lord himself in casual sex. No!)

But, very, very important though such matters are for our consideration as Christians living in a world of sexual indulgence and casual sex, that scarcely seems to be the reason why this passage is chosen for the second Sunday of Epiphany!

My best guess is that the passage is chosen because it carries another theme within it, a theme which concerns revelation of true knowledge in the face of competing claims, in this case the true knowledge of what our bodies are 'for' now that we belong to Jesus Christ. Thus the key question in the reading in the context of this particular Sunday in Epiphany is 'Do you not know?' (15, 16, 19).

In a world which glorifies our bodies as temples of nature (see dieting, gym membership, exercise regimes and, dare I say it as a mid fifties guys, "Lycra"), as temples of sex (see the way we "sell" products through sexually attractive people, pills which make for more sexual pleasure, magazines that offer improvements in our love life), and as temples of self (see the way we seek to prolong life through medicine), it is not at all obvious what the answers to the three 'Do you not know?' questions are.

No one would ever guess from a day watching TV, reading the newspaper, flicking through glossy magazines, let alone visiting various websites in the pursuit of a better life, that:

(1) 'your bodies are members of Christ' (15)
(2) 'But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him' (17)
(3) 'your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own' (19).

Once this is revealed to us, how then shall we live?

John 1:43-51

Epiphany is the season of, well, epiphany, or appearance and disclosure of what has previously been unseen, especially in respect of the truth about Jesus Christ.

In this reading we start innocently enough with Jesus deciding to go to Galilee. But not for an outing. He goes to find Philip and he calls Philip to follow him (43). Philip is from the same city as Andrew and Peter, whom we have previously been introduced to in this chapter (40-42). The band of disciples is growing because just as Jesus 'found' Philip, Philip, we are told, 'found' Nathanael. He does not quite persuade Nathanael that Jesus is the one 'about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote' (45) but he does persuade him to 'Come and see' Jesus for himself.

So far, so like any growing human enterprise which draws people on board. There is, incidentally, a special Johannine way of telling this story because the phrase 'Come and see' (or variations) recurs in John's Gospel as people encounter or are encouraged to encounter Jesus and the truth about him (see John 1:39; 4:29; 21:12).

But the story takes an 'epiphanic' turn as Jesus offers special insight into the character of Nathanael. As Nathanael 'comes' to Jesus, Jesus 'sees' what is within him and reveals this insight, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" (47).

Naturally Nathanael wonders how Jesus can say this (48) since they have not previously met. Jesus answers, verse 48b, both enigmatically (we wonder what he means), symbolically (the fig tree is a symbol of Israel) and mysteriously (he has seen Nathanael with special sight before Philip even mentions coming to Jesus).

In a few sentences we, as readers, have been taken from a natural situation to a supernatural situation (almost literally because it is as though Jesus is 'super' or 'over' nature with a helicopter view of life). But, more importantly for the theology of the gospel, we have been taken from the gospel as an account of history (what people have done and have said) to the gospel as an apocalyptic document (what God sees and now reveals to us through an especially appointed agent of revelation).

First, however, we note Nathanael's reply to Jesus' revelation about him (49). Nathanael 'gets it'. Jesus is more than a rabbi or teaching theologian of Israel. "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel." John the gospel writer uses Nathanael both to stake (further) a major claim of the whole Gospel, Jesus is the (eternal, one with the Father) Son of God (so, already in this chapter, verses 14, 18, 34; later see 20:31), to identify Jesus as (at least) the Son of God in the sense of 'the King of Israel' (sometimes referred to in Old Testament writings as 'the Son of God'), and thus to identify Jesus as the Christ or Messiah.

Back to the apocalyptic character of the gospel: John is telling us the (hi)story of Jesus of Nazareth while simultaneously telling us what Jesus the agent of divine revelation reveals to us who live (so to speak) inside human history about the eternal plan and purpose of God, otherwise hidden from ordinary human insight and sight. In this passage we are carefully taken through a story of encounter between a couple of people and a human teacher to a story of encounter between God and humanity. In that encounter Nathanael (and other disciples) will "see greater things than these" (50).

For Jesus to 'see' Nathanael under the fig tree is remarkable but the revelation of God is much greater than this and Jesus goes on to offer Nathanael a glimpse of what this will be.

"Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (51).

Naturally this is puzzling, strange talk and we need to pause to make sense of it (if we can!)

To 'see heaven opened' is classic apocalyptic language: the truth of what is really going on from God's perspective is hidden from the earth, locked away in the dwelling place of God. When heaven is opened and humans are enabled to 'see' into it, revelation and disclosure take place (as, for instance, in the Book of Revelation).

Jacob's remarkable vision of a ladder to heaven, Genesis 28:12, is invoked by talk of 'the angels of God ascending and descending.' In that vision Jacob encounters the very presence of God: so, in this gospel, already noted in 1:18, to see Jesus is to see God.

But here there is no talk of a ladder. The ascending and descending angels move 'upon the Son of Man.' The Son of Man is the ladder, the connection between heaven and earth.

But why mention 'the Son of Man' when previously in this chapter Jesus has been identified as 'the Son of God'? In the context of revelation, of angels, of the opened heaven, reference to the Son of Man takes us more deeply into apocalyptic literature, bringing to our minds the Book of Daniel, chapter 7 in particular, in which the enigmatic 'one like a son of man' figure appears (7:13) in conjunction with the 'Ancient of Days' (7:9), in the midst of angelic figures. In that context, though debated, 'one like a son of man' appears to be a representative of Israel (or, perhaps better, 'the representation' of Israel). In the Danielic vision, the son of man figure brings Israel before God. In this Johannine verse, Jesus is saying that he (the Son of Man) will connect God to Israel and Israel to God in a new, definitive and everlasting manner. (Incidentally, no reflection on the Son of Man in this gospel is complete without reflecting on John 3, especially verses 13-15).

We the readers of this gospel are now ready to read on through chapters 2-21. We will be constantly reading in two dimensions: the (hi)story of Jesus Christ and the revelation (epiphany) Jesus Christ brings from heaven to earth.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday 28 December - 1st Sunday of Christmas

Theme(s): Salvation / Messiah has come / Purification of Jesus / Praise God for his great gift of life

Sentence: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law. Galatians 4:4-5a

Collect: Ep 2:2

Holy and eternal God,
your Son Jesus Christ has taught us
to learn from the simple trust of children;
give us pure hearts and steadfast faith
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

Comments:

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

This joyful song of praise in the mouth of the prophet looks ahead to a great day, a day such as a wedding day, when Israel/Zion/Jerusalem is restored and renewed to be what God intended it to be.

In the context of this day when we read in the gospel of Jesus being received and recognised in the Temple in Jerusalem as Israel's Messiah, the joyful day has arrived: the Messiah has blessed Jerusalem with his presence.

Psalm 148

This glorious psalm envisages each and every part of the universe rising up in praise to God.

Note its division into two halves: 'Praise the Lord from the heavens' (1) and 'Praise the Lord from the earth' (7), with the whole psalm encompassed between repeated 'Praise the Lord' instructions (1, 14).

Its connection with today's theme, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem and to the Temple is found in one tiny conception in v. 14, 'He has raised up a horn [the Messiah] for his people.'

Galatians 4:4-7

Paul notoriously offers few signs of knowing the biographical outline of the life of Jesus (as found in and across the four gospels). But there are a few, and today we read one of them, 'born of a woman, born under the law' (4). Paul being Paul this sign of historical knowledge of Jesus is embedded in a theological claim about the purpose of Jesus' being born 'in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children' (5).

The good news of and about Jesus is tremendously good news as we read on in verses 6 and 7. The greatest gift we can receive at Christmas time is not found under a Christmas tree or in a Christmas stocking. It is the gift of life as Spirit-filled children of God, no more slaves to sin but heirs to all the God who is now our 'Abba, Father' gives us.

Note a particular connection to our gospel reading which tells us of an instance in the early life of Jesus when his parents followed the requirements of the Law of Moses, thus underlining Paul's statement that Jesus was 'born under the law' (4).

Luke 2:22-40

The purification of Jesus is an interesting story, technically speaking, inasmuch as it is ambiguous what ceremony is being followed in terms of the Law as we read it in the Old Testament.

Luke 2:23 refers to Exodus 13:2, 12, 15 (which is a general instruction re consecration of every firstborn male) and Luke 2:24 refers to Leviticus 5:11 (but this Levitical instruction concerns a sin offering) and to Leviticus 12:8. But the latter refers to the purification of the mother alone and not to the father or the newborn - note that Luke talks about 'their purification' in verse 22.

Thus from a technical, legal, scriptural perspective we may wonder whether Luke is referring to a ceremony not prescribed in the Law.

But from Luke's own perspective, as a theological historian concerned to centre the story of Jesus on Jerusalem (and the spread of the gospel as a movement from Jerusalem to Rome), this rite of purification enables him to locate the infant Jesus in Jerusalem soon after his birth, and in the Temple in particular.

When we think in that way, that is, from a narrative point of view, we see Luke using this incident to develop his theme of Jesus as the true lord or king in a world dominated by the Roman Caesar.

First, King/Lord Jesus as an infant grows up in the right way, connected to the city of God, to the Temple of God and, via Anna and Simeon as elders of Israel, to the people of God. Note how Simeon looks forward to seeing 'the Lord's Messiah' (26). In this context, 'Messiah' means the anticipated anointed king or lord sent by the Lord God to Israel to take up and fulfil the promise made to David that he would always have a dynasty. Anna and Simeon constitute a powerful recognition and reception of baby King Jesus: from the beginning, as befits a true king, the king is recognised and received as king.

Secondly, King/Lord Jesus grows up in the right way, both as one who fulfils the Law and its requirements (39), and as one who grows in wisdom and receives continuously the favour of God (40).

Thirdly, Luke weaves into the story the future life of the infant, one in which suffering will feature in order that Israel might be restored (34-35, 38). This king is a rival to Caesar, but not as kingly rivalry was understood in those days, in terms of competing power, privilege and prestige.

A strong clue that this king is of a different kind to Caesar lies in the characters of Anna and Simeon. They themselves are not part of the power structure of Israel, let alone of the Empire. Relative to established power structures of the day, they are nobodies. Neither is described in terms of any role, not even in respect of some kind of priestly service within the Temple. Each is simply a faithful believer in the God of Israel who devotedly pursues through quiet activity such as 'fasting and prayer' (37) the fulfilment of the ancient promises of God. They 'see' what the authorities do not and their faith is rewarded (Hebrews 11 applies to them).

In other words, Jesus the king/lord of Israel is not going to be the kind of king who is recognised as his sword gleams in the light of the sun as it is waved to signal the start of a battle. He will be recognised by the eye of faith, he will be received by those intent on doing God's will. His power will be expressed in suffering and exerted in the hearts and minds of those able through the Holy Spirit to see his true character as God's Messiah.

The preaching challenge here is not to express all this as an abstract exercise in types of kingship, contextualised into academic thoughts about Luke's aims as a narrator. Rather, we should preach the Jesus Christ who continues 2000 years later to challenge all worldly power, offering a different way to be human than to be enslaved to human power, let alone be ambitious to secure it for ourselves.

Nearly at the turn of another year, we usefully can reflect on what kind of people we will be in 2015, noting how horrible 2014 has been as people have exercised power malevolently and all too often in the name of 'religion.'


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Day 2104

Christmas Day is complicated re readings and what have you - see the Lectionary which helps with readings for (say) Midnight, two morning services or two Christmas Eve services, one morning service - and this blog concentrates on Sunday readings.

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

Also for collects - ecumenical - see Bosco Peter's post here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday 21 December 2014 - Advent 4

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

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

Collect:

God of all hope and joy,
open our hearts in welcome,
that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming
may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

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

Comments:

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

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm = Luke 1:47-55

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

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

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

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

Romans 16:25-27

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

Here Paul nails the answer to all these questions!

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

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

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

Luke 1:26-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday 14 December 2104 - Advent 3

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

Comments:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

Psalm 126

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

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

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

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

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

How can we grumble when we have such a God?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday 7 December 2014 - Second Sunday in Advent

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

Comments:

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

Isaiah 40:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

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

2 Peter 3:8-15a

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

What is the apostolic response to this impatience?

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

Mark 1:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday 30 November 2014 - 1st Sunday of Advent

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

Comment:

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

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

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

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

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

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

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

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

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

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

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

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

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


Mark 13:24-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here lie several difficulties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The clarities are:

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Readings:

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

Comments:

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

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

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

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

Psalm 100

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

Ephesians 1:15-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 25:31-46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Readings:

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

Related: [comments below]

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

Comments:

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

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

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

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

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

Psalm 90:1-8, 12

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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

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

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

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

Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Talents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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