Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday 1 February 2015 - 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

(An alternative is to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or Candlemas, otherwise set down for 2 February 2015).

Theme(s): Authority / Power / Authoritative teaching / Preaching with power / Exorcism / Spiritual warfare.

Sentence: They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)

Collect:

Teach us, Jesus
how to live and worship
without being worldly or greedy.
Drive from our lives what spoils them
and make us temples of the Spirit.

Readings:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Comments:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The words of this passage are background to the gospel reading today. While we may properly explore the ways in which Jesus was 'more than' a prophet, he was never less than a prophet of God, one, that is, distinctively called of God to proclaim the message of God often in contrast or even opposition to prevailing understanding of God and God's will according to the religious establishment of Israel. Thus here, where there is both prediction that God 'will raise up for you a prophet like me' (15) and prospectus (so to speak) of what the prophet will be like and how Israel will know that this prediction has been fulfilled, we are invited to read the passage and measure Jesus against it.

Psalm 111

The words of this psalm are background to the gospel reading today. When Jesus acts in power and teaches with authority he does so as the representative, indeed as the embodiment of the God of Israel, the God who, according to this psalm, performs great works which are 'studied by all who delight in him' (2), who (like Jesus in the gospel reading) 'has gained renown by his wonderful deeds' (4). A recurring theme here is God's covenant with Israel (5, 9): when Jesus comes to Israel, he comes in fulfilment of the great covenant of God, revealed in different ways and on different occasions, through Abraham, Moses and David, yet essentially the one covenant, that God will be ISrael's God and Israel will be God's people.

When Jesus performs miraculous deeds, he demonstrates that God remains Israel's loving God.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In just 13 verses Paul traverses significant ground - ecclesiology, theology, christology - while talking about what Christians eat!

1 Corinthians is a series of responses to a series of issues in or questions raised by the Corinthian church. In chapter 8 we switch away from sexuality and marriage (chapters 5-7) to the question of 'food sacrificed to idols' (1). This question must have been deeply troubling to the early churches. Not only does it feature here but Paul comes back to it in 1 Corinthians 10. Across in Rome it was an issue because the matter is tackled in Romans 14-15. It is also a feature of the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2-3).

The gist of what Paul is saying is that in a community of Christians, some of whom come from Gentile backgrounds and thus used to worship idols, some of whom come from Jewish backgrounds and thus are used to thinking idols are nothing (the gods they represent do not exist), some of whom are rich (and thus may afford meat not offered to idols and/or regularly receive invites to dinner with their Gentile-idol worshipping business and social colleagues) and some of whom are poor (and thus may rarely eat meat, and then it may be meat distributed after public festivals dedicated to idols), care needs to be taken not to destroy faith in other believers.

In verses 1- 3 Paul is challenging those Christians who use their 'knowledge' or assurance that idols do not really exist (4) and who thus cheerfully eat meat dedicated previously to idols to work out their life choices on the basis of love and not knowledge: 'Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up' (1), a theme which is touched on again in chapter 13.

In verse 7 Paul makes the observation that 'It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge.' These are the folk whom love needs to build up! In the remainder of verse 7 he spells out who these members of the Corinthian church are: Gentiles whose minds are so imbued with their previous worship of idols that they cannot freely partake of meat offered to those idols. They are the 'weak' whom the 'strong'- those who have 'liberty' (9) on the matter - may yet destroy (11).

Paul has a particular concern in verse 10 that those who are strong, in this case strong enough to actually go into a temple of an idol and partake in a meal there, may lead astray the weak because the weak (on this matter) might not just have a sensitive conscience re eating meat offered to idols, but be led to actually eat such meat with a damaging effect on their consciences.

Paul goes on to underline the severity of the sin of the strong on this matter: 'you sin against Christ' (12). Then he spells out the radical action he recommends, that is the action he himself would do if he were in Corinth: 'I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall' (13).

This is strong stuff! It works from the demands of life in the church (ecclesiology) to establish a general principle of church life (love builds up) to a specific recommendation: when meat is the cause of stumbling, stick to vegetables.

Observant readers here will have noted that I have passed over verses 4-6. Here Paul takes a kind of sidetrack. Having reminded his readers in verse 4 that when we know that 'there is no God but one' then (consequently) 'no idol in the world really exists', he goes on to make several statements about gods, God and Jesus Christ. In doing this he sets out what has proved over time to be a significant Pauline statement about theology and christology, providing grist for the mill of many doctoral theses and erudite scholarly monographs and articles!

Here, understandably, we have neither time nor space to reproduce these works. But we can make these observations:
- Verse 5 reads (e.g.) in the NRSV as a contradiction because Paul seems to admit that (despite his contrary statement in 4) that there 'may be so-called gods'. We should read this as a statement bookended by v. 4 and v. 6, that is, Paul is not saying there are many gods but that many gods are worshipped by many people, as though they do exist, and thus the reality of this worship of false gods is a strong factor in human experience.
- Verse 6 is likely an early Christian confession already in existence when Paul cited it here. (See Romans 11:36 and Colossians 1:15-16 for (relatively) comparable creedal statements).
- the two parts of verse 6 are parallel statements re 'oneness' which are significant as we search the New Testament for signs of early belief that Jesus Christ was believed to be identified with God as included in the one God of Israel; yet there are subtle differences which distinguish 'God, the Father' from 'one Lord, Jesus Christ.' In the former case creation is 'from whom are all things and for whom we exist' and in the latter case creation is 'through whom are all things and through whom we exist.'

Mark 1:21-28

The disciples are following Jesus (see last week's gospel reading). Within a few days they are in the thick of Jesus' ministry: thick with teaching, miraculous action and publicity.

Jesus the teacher presumably has some kind of relationship with the synagogue of Capernaum before his appearance on this occasion (21). Perhaps beforehand his teaching had caused no particular excitement. Now, baptised, tested in the wilderness and with a company of disciples, Jesus teaches and his congregation is 'astounded' (22) because 'he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes' (22).

We rightly ask, as readers, what does 'taught as one having authority' mean. One insight comes from realising the Greek word translated as 'authority' can also mean 'power.' In part the astonishment may concern the fact that Jesus was an ordinary Galilean, not one of the scribes (i.e. members of the Jewish establishment). Nevertheless something seems out of the ordinary because of the note re astonishment.

Whatever the power of Jesus' teaching means in respect of his words, we are soon told by Mark that his powerful/authoritative teaching was backed up by powerful deeds. On this occasion the power is the ability to rebuke an evil or 'unclean' spirit inhabiting a man present in the synagogue and to command that spirit to leave the man (23-26). Here Jesus performs the role of exorcist.

Note that Mark also tells us that the unclean spirit recognises who Jesus is and makes a confession about his status, 'I know who you are, the Holy One of God' (24). Thus Mark the narrator and theologian is cleverly communicating a lot of stuff to his readers. This is what Jesus said and did, this is how people responded to Jesus (27), this is who Jesus is. Mark is convincing his readers that Jesus is no ordinary man or teacher. Jesus is a powerful, dynamic person: actually, by the end of the gospel, Jesus is the Son of God.

Conversely, note what Mark does not tell us about this sabbath incident: at this stage there is no controversy over acting on the sabbath (that will come later, 2:23-3:6). Mark in this first chapter is intent on introducing Jesus to his audience, setting out the basic claim about who he is. Beginning with chapter 2 we see Jesus meeting human opposition and thus Mark begins to explain how the wonderful, astounding, authoritative, popular Son of God ends up dying on a cross.

A final note is that while Jesus does not yet meet human opposition, this encounter is an instance of spiritual opposition. In the encounter with the unclean spirit Jesus engages in 'spiritual warfare': Satan has already tempted him (1:12), now one of Satan' minions challenges him. The challenge is met, the opposition is silenced, the disturbed man is released from captivity to the spirit.

Do we receive the teaching of Jesus as authoritative?

Do we trust in Jesus as the victor in all aspects of spiritual warfare?


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday 25 January 2015 - 3rd Sunday of the Epiphany

(An alternative today is to celebrate the Conversion of St Paul, but I am choosing to go with the readings for the 3rd Sunday of the Epiphany.)

Theme(s): God's king / the kingdom of God / repentance / Repent and Believe / A new world

Sentence: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news (Mark 1:15)

Collect:

Jesus, our Redeemer,
give us your power to reveal and proclaim the good news,
so that wherever we may go
the sick may be healed, lepers embraced,
and the dead and dying given new life.

Readings:

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Comments:

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Jesus and Jonah both preach messages of repentance (and both are "buried" for three days)!

Jonah is one of the rare biblical prophets for whom people take notice and act on the prophetic message being proclaimed.

The last verse of the reading tells us of God's response to their repentance: he 'changed his mind' (10). In the context of the story of Jonah this is simply a statement about God adapting his will to the choice made by those to whom he speaks through his prophet: save debates about whether God has the kind of 'mind' which changes or whether God is somehow fickle and changeable to another day!

Psalm 62:5-12

This is not an easy reading to connect to the themes in today's gospel reading! The key link appears to be the reliance the psalmist puts on "God alone" (5, 6). Such a reliable, trustworthy God - by implication - is One who through his Son Jesus Christ calls us to "Follow him."

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[NB In last week's comment I made a mistake, stating that the 1 Corinthians reading on Sunday 18 January was not part of a series on 1 Corinthians through these weeks. It was and it is, as the provision of this next reading in the series makes clear].

1 Corinthians 5-7 is a sustained theology of marriage and sex. It only really works as a scriptural passage on marriage and sex if we read all of it (and then do so with our Bibles open in places such as Genesis as well). Nevertheless, constrained by the lectionary, today we read three verses, and important verses they are!

Why does Paul at various points in his exposition on marriage and sex urge radical action, including commending celibacy? These verses give the answer: "the appointed time has grown short" (29). The Greek word used can refer to curtains being gathered together or sails being furled: now that Christ has come, time is being wrapped up, the end is nigh!

Mostly we conclude from such phrases that Paul genuinely believed that chronological time was being wrapped up, that the Lord would return in a few years or even a few days time, and thus whether one married or did not marry (see verses 25-28) was immaterial. Yet Paul is not only thinking chronologically. When he writes "For the present form of this world is passing away" (31) he is talking about the in-breaking of the kingdom into the present age. Whether this age ends in a few years or days, or a thousand years from now, it is not the 'time' or 'period' it was before Christ came, died and rose again. Life is different now, and we should live differently if we belong to the kingdom of Christ as it breaks into the present form of this world.

All this, nevertheless, connects to the beginning of our gospel reading in which Jesus proclaims that "The time if fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:14).

Mark 1:14-20

Verses 14-15

The opening of Mark's gospel is over: John has prepared the way for Jesus and baptised him. Jesus has been tested in the wilderness. Now the work of mission to the world begins. Poignantly it begins at a point in time, according to Mark, when John has been arrested. Literally, John is moved aside for Jesus to take centre stage.

What does Jesus do? He preaches the gospel. Mark, in other words, introduces us to the mission of Jesus as primarily a mission of 'Word' or 'Message' ahead of 'Action' or 'Power'. The action/power (soon to come in v. 21) will illustrate and endorse the message, but the message is primary.

Thus the response to the preaching involves where the message is received, in the mind: "Repent, and believe in the good news" (15) where "Repent" is about changing the direction the mind is heading in and "believe" is about making a choice to entrust one's life to that which is being believed.

What is the message? It looks like it is this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near" (15).

If so, we rejoice in a short, brief and to the point sermon ... and despair over understanding what it means! However it is worth asking whether the words "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news" (15) is Mark's summary of the preaching of Jesus (so the 'and' at the beginning of verse 15 is equivalent to "that is") or Mark's reporting the repeated conclusion to Jesus' preaching the good news (so the 'and' at the beginning of verse 15 is literally 'and' meaning Jesus preached the good news and this message as well, "The time is fulfilled ..."). On the latter understanding, we might turn to chapter 4 for some of the content of Jesus' preaching the good news.

Either way, the words in verse 15 are clearly very important in respect of the message of Jesus: they are the only particular words Mark reproduces for us.

Back to the question of what these words in the first part of verse 15 mean. Given the heavy influence of prophetic material in the preceding verses (e.g. citation of prophecy, John's role and demeanour as a prophet) we must assume that 'the time is fulfilled' relates to what the prophets previously had foretold would happen, that is, what the prophets foresaw as God's great restorative and re-creating intervention through his Messiah/Christ.

In turn, this means that 'the kingdom of God has come near' is about the lordship or sovereignty of God over the and within the world is no longer distant but close at hand. Indeed, the remainder of the gospel, as Jesus teaches with authority and acts in deliverance, healing and control over nature with power, demonstrates the personal character of the 'kingdom of God': the kingdom has come near because God's king is now present in the world.

Verses 16-20

Mark's is a gospel of immediacy - he is always telling us that Jesus immediately went from one thing to another. So in Mark's terms, unsurprisingly he tells the story of the calling of the first disciples simply (they fish, Jesus calls, nets are dropped, they follow) and bluntly (there are no introductions, no tentative first moves in getting to know one another).

Matthew copies Mark, Luke offers a different version (in which fishing remains central) and John mentions nothing about fishing and tells a quite different story about how Jesus met his first disciples. In all likelihood (not least because it is not human nature to act so abruptly) the disciples did not meet Jesus for the first time when he called them to follow him.

If so, then Mark is not so much telling us about the first time Jesus meets the disciples and they meet him, rather he is telling us about the decisiveness of the call of Jesus to discipleship. Whatever the "backstory" was to this encounter, on this day Jesus calls for total commitment and the fishermen give it. They leave their nets. They will no longer fish for fish. They will fish for people.

Of course later we read of other encounters in the gospel in which people encounter Jesus but he sends them back to their homes and does not ask them to follow him on the road. Many disciples today follow Jesus without a dramatic career change. Yet Mark does not tell us today's story with a "on the one hand there are those who ... and on the other hand there are those who ..." ending. So we can ask ourselves, What is Mark communicating to all disciple-readers of his gospel in 1:14-20?

What he is communicating is the importance of disciples responding to Jesus completely and fully, with a decisive break from former ways of living (i.e. "repentance") and total commitment to the new way of Jesus. Whether one serves in one's home village or on the road with Jesus himself is up to Jesus, but what he asks of every disciple is that they commit wholly to Jesus.

When the king of the kingdom of God is present we should take notice and when that king calls us to do something, we should obey!

A great question to pose and answer in a sermon on this passage, in the light of the above is 'How is all this good news?'

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?