Saturday, January 16, 2021

Sunday 24 January 2021 - Epiphany 3

 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:

God of Good News,
Bearer of the Gospel,
call us to repentance,
call us to belief,
so that we may fish for people in our generation
and draw them to your love.
For you are alive and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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 is  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

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 1-2 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 same as 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!

The words in verse 15 are clearly very important in respect of the message of Jesus: they are the only particular words of his message which Mark reproduces for us.

But what do the 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!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sunday 17 January 2021 - Epiphany 2

 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 2021 than the psalmist knew, but it amounts to nothing much compared to what God knows!

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

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 late middle aged man, "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 - without Paul's help - 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 10 January 2021 - Epiphany 1

 EPIPHANY 1 = 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 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.

Wenesday 6 January 2021 - Epiphany

Theme: Coming of the Wise Men / Light to the Gentiles / Light of the World

Sentence: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. (Matthew 2:2)

Collect:

O God, by the leading of a star
you revealed your Son Jesus Christ to the gentiles;
grant that your Church may be a light to the nations
so that the whole world may come to see
the splendour of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Commentary:

Isaiah 60:1-6

The resonances with Matthew 2:1-12 are easy to see. Most obviously in v. 6 'gold and frankincense', among the gifts of the wise men. But the theme of light and darkness is also important. The prophet sees Israel as a beacon to the nations. Jesus will draw homage from the nations, represented through the visit of the wise men after his birth to present their Isaianic gifts.

Psalm 72

In original intent this psalm is a prayer for the prosperity of Israel's king ('of Solomon' in the superscription). It envisages among other signs of that prosperity that foreign kings will bring expensive tribute to him. The reason for connecting this psalm with the Epiphany when wise men (possibly kings) brought tribute to baby King Jesus is obvious.

Ephesians 3:1-12

The coming of the wise men from foreign lands in Matthew's Gospel, celebrated as the 'Epiphany' or revelation of the gospel to the Gentiles, is a landmark in the history of God's people. Israel has been the chosen nation living in the promised land: an exclusive people, partly required by allegiance to their god, YHWH, unique to them and distinctive among all the gods of surrounding peoples, and partly resulting from the circumstances of being enslaved in Egypt, exiled to Babylon and encircled by oppressive empires of Greece and Rome, each exerting force against their holy way of life. YHWH, the God of Israel was God of the world, but the world was generally expected to convert to Israel if it wanted to follow Israel's God. In other words, a Gentile needed to become a Jew to be truly counted among God's people.

Matthew tell us the story of the Gentile gift-bearers as part of an explicit but soft line within his gospel in which he makes clear that God is happy to include Gentiles as Gentiles among his people now redefined as the kingdom of God/heaven (alongside Matthew 2:1-12 note also the references to Gentiles in the genealogy of Jesus, 1:1-17; and the Great Commission, 28:16-20). Likely Matthew completes his gospel writing after Paul's apostleship is completed. That apostleship, described in this Ephesian passage, broke open the Jesus movement which was strongly Jewish, and challenged it to include Gentile followers of Jesus who remained Gentile (e.g. by not being circumcised).

Paul's contribution, both as a theologian with new insight into God's global purpose and plan and as an evangelist with a divine commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, was to boldly challenge the assumptions of his fellow apostles that Christianity was inescapably Jewish. Not so, said Paul. Ephesians (including today's passage), Galatians and Romans are the epistles in which Paul's reasoning for inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles in God's people are laid out.

Matthew 2:1-12

In this story Matthew opens up several important themes for his gospel. One, already noted in comments above, is that the coming of Jesus as the Christ of God is an event of significance for the whole world, for Gentiles as well as for Jews. That Gentile or foreign world which surrounds Israel is represented by the Magi or wise men who come bearing gifts. (Note, by the way, that there were three gifts but no mention of how many wise men!)

Two, Jesus is a light for the Gentiles, thus a star is seen guiding them towards the presence of God on earth (Emmanuel). Hence 'Epiphany' or manifestation: a revelation of a significant divine intervention in the world comes to the Magi who respond by seeking out the 'one who has been born king of the Jews' (v. 2). This revelation draws them not to seek further wisdom but to worship the king. 

Luke betrays no knowledge of the Magi coming to worship Jesus but he records for us the acclamation of Simeon when Jesus is presented in the Temple. This acclamation accords with the Matthean story: 

'For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles' (Luke 2:30-32).

Three, Jesus is caught in conflict from the beginning of his life. Any story in which the protagonist dies an unnatural death needs to provide an explanation as to why the protagonist dies. Each of the gospel writers provides this explanation (spoiler alert: it's complicated). But each of the gospel writers has a slightly different starting point for when the conflict either begins or begins to be signalled as imminent. Thus, to return to Luke, Simeon forecasts future conflict for Jesus and sorrow for Mary (2:34-35). Mark offers a hint of conflict to come in an early story of exorcism (1:21-24) but the first murmurings of opposition come in 2:6-7).

Here in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is a rival to Herod. His birth, announced by the wise men as the birth of the king of Israel (2:2), disturbs Herod and sends him into a literally murderous rage (2:16-18). Neither this Herod (the Great) nor one of his successors will kill Jesus, but his execution will come because something to do with the kingly status and manner of Jesus disturbs the power structures of Israel, both religious and political structures. Pilate will place a charge against him on the cross, 'This is Jesus, the king of the Jews' (Matthew 27:37; also Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).

Sunday 3 January 2021 - Christmas 2

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 - more precisely: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

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 27 December 2020 - Christmas 1

 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 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 the New Year, noting how horrible the past year has been as people have exercised power malevolently and all too often in the name of 'religion.'

Christmas Eve/Day 2020

Amongst an array of possibilities for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sermons, I offer comments on four readings, Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 and John 1:1-14.


Isaiah 9:2-7

In this prophecy, as originally given, the hope and expectation concerns restoration of the greatness and supremacy of the Davidic throne.

At the point of writing, Israel's situation is oppressive: note the implicit violence of the language of "yoke," "bar," "rod," and "boots" in verses 4-5.

Verse 4's reference to "Midian" is a recollection of story of Gideon's defeat of Midian (Judges 7:15-25).

Verses 6 onwards celebrate the birth of a new David (perhaps, at the time of writing, the birth of Hezekiah). Christian readers of these verses have read these verses as perfectly correlated with the birth of Jesus and his subsequent growth to be the adult preacher and leader of the Kingdom of God

Titus 2:11-14

11: In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the grace of God has appeared (been manifested) to the world. "Bringing salvation to all" is enigmatic: does it imply that all will be saved? At the very least it is stating that the salvation the Saviour brings is available to all humanity.

12: The coming of the Saviour (the birth and life of Jesus Christ) and the expectation of his return to earth (v. 13) creates a "present age" in which we (followers of Jesus Christ) need to know how to live. Paul thus speak of the same "grace of God" which has saved us also working within us to train us to "renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly."

13: This training scheme (so to speak) endures "while we wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ." Christ is unseen in our midst during this time but we will know when he comes in glory because it will be manifest among us. Note the rare occasion here when Jesus Christ is identified within the New Testament as God.

14: Who is Jesus Christ? Three notable characteristics are mentioned in this verse.

First, "who gave himself for us" (see also Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Timothy 2:6). Christ came for our sakes and in his coming gave himself over to death that we might live.

Secondly, "redeem us" or, in the context of Paul's day, buy us out of slavery (to Satan, to sin): see also Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:20; 7:23; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Mark 10:45). Christ gave himself in costly sacrifice that we might be redeemed.

Thirdly, "purify for himself a people of his own": see also Deuteronomy 7:6-8; exodus 9:5-16; 1 Peter 2:9. Christ came to restore and enlarge the people of God, according to the promises made long ago to Israel (see above, Isaiah and Psalm readings).

Luke 2:1-14

There is a wonderful but quite technical debate within the first few verses of this passage concerning the reference to Quirinius and thus to the time of this registration (census). In short, the debate concerns whether we can match what we know of Quirinius as a Roman official and the time when we think Jesus was born (according to Matthew's chronology which places Jesus' birth before the death of Herod the Great). See here for a discussion of the issues.

Whether or not Luke is precisely accurate or a little muddled re the hyistory of Roman officialdom in the Middle East, we can be sure about what Luke is attempting in these first few verses. 

First, he is locating the birth of King Jesus in the world ruled by another king, the Roman emperor Augustus (1). The whole story of Luke-Acts tells us how the king born in Bethlehem, via the preaching of his apostles, became a rival king to the Emperor in Rome itself. 

Secondly, he is explaining how Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. Jesus who grew up in Nazareth) nevertheless was born in Bethlehem, some distance away (2-4). Thirdly, he is connecting the birth of Jesus as king with the house of David, the greatest King of Israel (4, 11).

Of course for there to be a baby there needs to be a birth, and with the preliminaries of time and place out of the way, we finally read that Jesus is born (6-7). 

Note how the specific location of his first days/weeks of life "in a manger" is a tiny detail within these verses. Do we make too much of this when we talk much of Jesus being born in a stable, seemly unwanted in the inn? 

Nevertheless, in a passage mentioning Augustus and David, the reference to Jesus being placed after birth in a feeding trough underlines the obscurity of Jesus' beginning to his life: he is born in Palestine (at the edge of the Roman Empire), in Bethlehem (an insignificant village relative to the great city of Jerusalem) and placed in a manger (outside of ordinary human residency).

Why do we then meet shepherds (8-14) as the first people, in Luke's telling, to greet the newborn king? Obviously we must speculate as Luke gives no hints. But shepherds in the context of associating Jesus with King David (the shepherd king) suggests that shepherds are very appropriate as a group to recognise the new Shepherd King Jesus.

They are good shepherds, incidentally, because in the middle of the night they are "keeping watch over their flock" (8). Understandably they are afraid when unexpectedly an angel appears, the glory of the Lord shines around them and they hear a voice (9-10). Everything here, including the fear, is redolent of many instances in the Old Testament when the angel of the Lord appears to a person or a couple or a group. As then so now the first words of the angel are "Do not be afraid" (10). The angel has not come to judge the shepherds but to announce good news to them and to ask them to be part of the celebration of that announcement, which is "good news of great joy for all the people"  (10-11).

Verse 11 piles on the titles for Jesus! He is "A Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord." With these three titles the angel is saying that the newborn baby is the full fulfilment of all Old Testament prophecies about the one who would come to restore Israel (see, again, our passage from Isaiah above, as one such prophecy). And "Lord" is particularly significant as it equates Jesus with God himself (since the exclusive name of the God of Israel, YHWH, is translated by the same Greek word, kyrios, in the Greek Old Testament).

Verse 12 adds a little to the meaning of the manger. How will the shepherds know where to find this baby? (Remember, no GPS, no cellphones in those days!) Presumably more than one baby was born at that time. But only one had been placed in a manger. The others would have been in their cots and cribs in their homes. A few questions in the nosy, gossipy community of Bethlehem and the shepherds would have easily found the baby-in-a-manger.

With a final burst of song, verses 13-14, the angels were gone and the shepherds were on their way to Bethlehem (15). But what a burst of song it was. What would we give in the world today for the simple matter of "peace"?

John 1:1-14

From the heart of God (verses 1, 18) comes the Son of God to be one of us (verse 14). As one of us, this Son, who is also the Word of God (verse 1), that is, the disclosure or revelation of the otherwise unknowable God, lived in a hostile world, in which the choice to accept or reject the Son is made (verses 10-13). Since the Son who is the Word has been with God from the beginning (i.e. before creation, verses 1-2), the Son has always been a lifegiver, a bringer into being of all things (verse 3) and this lifegiver has come into the world to bring life, the kind of divine liveliness that is also light in the darkness of the world which is naturally hostile to God (verses 3-5, 9).

All this inspiring, awesome talk of God (theology) and of the Son of God (Christology) is a very big picture approach to God at work in the world (providence), a form of theological-cosmological narrative, but this reading connects to the other gospel narratives which are forms of theological-historical narratives by virtue of reference to John (the Baptist) in verses 6-8. John is the "witness" who is not the light but testifies to the light.

But to see Jesus is to see much much more than an historical person. Through Jesus we see the glory of God (verse 14), in fact through Jesus we see as much of God as we can ever see as humans confined to the dimensions of ordinary life (verse 18).

ALTERNATIVELY: one comment on Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

What kind of news drives the shepherds to leave their flocks in the middle of the night to race to a stable to worship a baby? To call the news 'good news' is accurate - that is the meaning of 'gospel' - but not very helpful. A better sense would be to call this news the 'best news ever.' All the good news in the world - the birth of a new baby, a promotion with massive pay rise, the All Blacks winning the World Cup three times in a row - falls well short of the news which sets the shepherds racing to the stable. 

They hear the best news ever. We hear it too in our four readings. Isaiah, centuries ahead of the actual birth date of Jesus, celebrates the best king ever. The psalmist celebrates God as the best God ever and sneaks in a preview of God coming to earth. Paul writing to his friend and colleague Titus reminds him that what happened in the birth of Jesus was nothing less than the appearance of the generous, unconstrained love of God which brought salvation for all (v.11).

In Luke's gospel the angel announcing this best news ever says it is of 'great joy for all the people' (v. 10). There is that word 'all' again. What on earth could the best news ever be when it is best news for everyone?

Going back to Titus, Paul lays out this best news ever in terms of our relationship with God. What state is that relationship in for humanity? What state is that relationship in for you and for me? If all were well there would be no need for talk of salvation, for peace and goodwill. But all is not well. The relationship has been broken. Instead of peace there are wars between countries and bitter conflicts between individuals. Instead of prosperity for all there is a growing gap between rich and poor. Instead of sober, pure living we inhabit a world drenched with pornography and awash with liquor and drugs.

It is a wonder God has not washed his hands of us and left us to our own selfish devices. Or even wiped us from the face of the earth. That would be bad news. Instead we have the best news ever,

"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.'

God is not deterred that we have rejected him and spurned his will for our lives. Instead God has entered our world, hiding his glory, taking on the ordinary life of a baby who will grow to be a man. That man will die on a cross a death which absorbs all the bad stuff so the rift between us and God can be healed. Only with that healing can the world itself be healed.

Each Christmas we pause to celebrate this gift from God full of possibility for a new world. The challenging edge to this message is what we are going to do about it for the next 365 days! Something or nothing?