Sunday, January 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 24, 2016

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

Theme               My eyes have seen your salvation          

Sentence           Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in righteousness and true holiness. Ephesians 4:23-24 ( p. 644, NZPB)

Collect                Everliving God,
                          your Son Jesus Christ was presented as a child in the temple
                          to be the hope of your people;
                          grant us pure hearts and minds
                          that we may be transformed into his likeness,
                          who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
                          one God for ever.  ( p. 645, NZPB) 

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

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

When the infant Jesus is brought to the temple, in our gospel passage today, Luke 2:22-40, no one really knows or understands that 'the King of glory', as described in the psalm, has come into the temple. Simeon and Anna have some understanding. They have prayerfully waited for 'the Lord's Messiah' (Luke 2: 26). But it is a moot point whether they would have thought of the one they waited for as 'the King of glory' which is a way of speaking of the coming of God in all God's might, majesty and power. Nevertheless if we read an earlier part of the psalm, Simeon and Anna seem to fit the character (Psalm 24:4) of those worthy of ascending the 'hill of the Lord' in order to 'stand in his holy place' (24:3). Thus, in part, the gospel reading offers a 'vindication' (24:5) of their patient waiting in hope for the word of the Lord to them.

Those words in Luke, 'the Lord's Messiah' steer us away from a reasonable implication of the story of the presentation in the temple. That is, that one day Jesus himself will be a priest in service in the temple. (We might think of a parallel with the life of Samuel). In the earthly history of Jesus' life, this did not take place. But from another perspective, as Hebrews 2:14-18 brilliantly conveys it, Jesus was 'a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God' (2:17). The Temple existed, among various purposes, for the atonement for the sins of the people through sacrifices obedient to Mosaic regulations. Hebrews is a long essay arguing that a full and final atonement has now been made, thus effectively ending one of the reasons for the Temple's existence. Jesus may not have been a high priest in the eyes of his fellow Israelites, but in God's eyes he was high priest and he was able to 'make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people' (2:17). 

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

What actually happened at 'the presentation of Jesus in the Temple'? Here things can get a little confusing (and best not to place this confusion in the sermon)! The Mosaic Law does speak about 'sanctification of the first born to God's possession (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15; 34:19; Numbers 3:13)' but 'This was no longer taken literally, the tribe of Levi having been set aside for Yahweh's permanent possession instead (Numbers 8:17 following)' [Evans, Luke, 213]. A custom of paying five shekels to a priest did exist, but there was no requirement that this was paid at the Temple in Jerusalem. So Luke anchors this story in the Law (Luke 2:22-24, 39) but does not tell us whether Joseph and Mary were being uniquely zealous in taking up a cue from the law which others did not. Nor does he give us information which challenges the historians who tell us that the law was generally no longer taken literally. Thus we are presented with a presentation which fits the circumstances of Jesus' conception and birth: an extraordinary beginning to his life and magnificent welcome via angels and shepherds. What devout parents in such a situation would not take their child to the Temple of the Lord?

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

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sunday 24 January 2016 - Epiphany 3

Theme                  The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus         

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Sunday 17 January 2015 Epiphany 2

Theme                  Jesus transforms our water into his wine             

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberately, causa brevitatis, I avoid this question here!