Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sunday 26 March 2017 - Lent 4

Theme(s): Light and darkness // Blindness and sight // Having eyes but not seeing // Jesus the light of the world // Recognising Jesus

Sentence: I am the light of the world (John 9:5)

Collect:  Heavenly Father,
You see how your children hunger for food, and fellowship, and faith.
Help us to meet one another's needs of body, mind and spirit,
In the love and light of Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings:

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Commentary:

1 Samuel 16:1-13

This reading intrigues as we wonder what brings readings together on this day.

The story of the choosing and anointing of David to be king of Israel ties in with the choice of Psalm 23 (the Lord as shepherd who guides the shepherd through the perils and pitfalls of life). Is there a connection with the gospel (which is about the healing of a blind man and ties in with the epistle and its theme of light and darkness)?

In this reading, many things are of interest, because here the greatest king of ancient Israel is chosen. God intervenes in the sad history of Israel under Saul to discern a new and better king. But our special interest is whether and how this reading forms a 'seamless robe' of scriptural text for the fourth Sunday of Lent.

From the perspective of the healing of the blind man in John's Gospel which necessarily is also a lesson in healing of spiritual blindness or the inability to see Jesus for Who He Really Is, the choice of this reading makes sense. Samuel, religious leader that he is, seer and prophet by way of office or role in Israel, cannot see with his own eyes whom God has chosen to succeed Saul. However with God's assistance he can see that the fine sons of Jesse brought before him are not God's chosen one. Persistence yields reward. There is one more son, obscure by being the youngest and by being the one furthest away from the scene. David will be king.

Later, Jesus will be Messiah, the new king of Israel who will fulfil God's promise to David that his throne will be everlasting (2 Samuel 7). In the gospel reading the question of Messiahship lies at the heart of the controversy told in John 9:1-41.

The choosing of David expresses a great theme in the biblical narrative: God is the God of surprises, choosing the unexpected ones to be the decisive leaders of his people (Abraham from nowhere; Jacob rather than Esau; Amos to be a prophet when not a prophet, etc).

Psalm 23

If we associate any psalm with David, it is this psalm! But it is a good choice for a Sunday in Lent. Where is the new David, Jesus heading through these days?

'Even though I walk through the darkest valley ...'

The cross is the darkest valley. But it is not final destruction. God will restore Jesus to life. A hint of the resurrection lies in these phrases in Psalm 23:

'he restores my soul (3) ... You prepare a table before me (5) ... I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (6).'

Ephesians 5:8-14

Some people are not keen on binary alternatives: good/bad, black/white, hero/enemy, cops/robbers. The world, it is objected, is a messy place with more shades of grey than division into black/white alternatives suggest. There is a bit of good and bad in each of us, it is said. Action films of the James Bond type with instantly distinguishable goodies and baddies have their place but more thoughtful films explore the subtle realities of flawed humanity. Thus, it is argued, the great films are more The Shawshank Redemption than Goldfinger.

All this seems a bit lost on Paul in these verses! He launches into a neat division of the world,

'For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light' (8). 

Our reflection on this from a world keen on shades of grey could start by asking what the big issue is. For Paul the big issue is whether we are on God's side or not, whether we intend to live worthily of the Lord (see 4:1) or not. There are no greys between living for the Lord and living against the Lord or between living in the light or in the darkness or between trying to find out what pleases the Lord and trying not to find out what pleases the Lord (10). The edge here is that

'because of these things [sinful deeds, 5:3-5] the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient' (6).

This is sober talk about a serious matter: how Christians are to live. The summary here could be: live in the light with no compromise with darkness. A further couple of observations are these. First, the temptation to live with compromises with darkness can be fostered by false teachers (6) and Paul says we are not to associate with them (7). Secondly, when Paul writes in v. 12, 'For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly', have we who live in the 21st century drifted into shamefulness through our culture's obsession with news about sexual immorality (a particular aspect of 'darkness' Paul is concerned about, 3-5).

In relation to our gospel reading, the overall message of the passage about light and darkness connects with the overall theme of the gospel reading in which those with sight cannot see the light of Christ and one who has been blind is enabled to see who Jesus is.

John 9:1-41

All four gospel writers are telling a story about how Jesus died. To make sense the story needs to explain how Jesus died. All four broadly tell the same story: conflict with religious authorities escalated to the point where the authorities determined that Jesus must die and found a way for him to be executed by legal authority. In John's Gospel the conflict has been escalating through chapter 8. In chapter 9 it goes up a notch and (interestingly) does so with some themes common to the other three gospels, particularly conflict over Jesus healing on the Sabbath (9:14-17). Soon, in chapter 11, the conflict will hit 'red alert' with the raising of Lazarus from the dead (an event not reported by the other three gospels). So John 9, today's reading, is an important stage in John's account of Jesus' journey to the cross.

The sub-plot in the chapter itself is fairly straightforward: Jesus heals a beggar who was blind from birth (1-12), this is drawn to the attention of 'the Pharisees' (13) who spot a problem with the healing: it has taken place on the sabbath (14-16). Some questions arise around the true nature of the miracle and its implications ('how can a man who is a sinner perform such signs? (16); 'The Jews did not believe that he had been blind' (17)) with the outcome being persecution of the healed man (34). Jesus finds the man and leads him deeper into belief in himself (38) while 'Some of the Pharisees' are told by Jesus that they are trapped in sin as people who claim they can 'see' when in fact they are 'blind' (40-41).

Less straightforward and requiring careful and close reading are all the theological themes being developed in the chapter. For a Sunday with a super-long reading and a need (I presume) to keep the sermon to reasonable length I suggest here that just one theme is focused on. Here are some of the themes:

- who is Jesus? Trace the blind man's responses to Jesus through the story: 'The man called Jesus' (11); 'He is a prophet' (17); 'If this man were not from God, he could do nothing' (33); 'Lord, I believe [that you are the Son of Man]' (38 [35]).

- the nature of suffering: The story starts with a standard explanation of suffering, 'Someone has sinned' and thus the only question worth asking Jesus is whether it was the blind man or his parents who had sinned (1-2). Jesus replies, enigmatically, 'he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him' (3). This can be read in at least two ways. One, seemingly cruel, is 'some are selected for disability and disease so magnificent healings bring glory to God.' This reading does not particularly explain why many are born without disability and avoid diseases. Two is 'the point of suffering is not to ask why it has occurred but to ask what God can make of it.' The second reading coheres with verse 4, 'We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.' Human suffering is an opportunity for God's work to be done in the world.

- becoming and being a disciple (complementary to the question about, 'Who is Jesus?'): the blind-now-seeing man's journey into discipleship begins with bare recognition 'The man called Jesus' (11) and deepens to the point of calling Jesus 'Lord' and believing that Jesus is 'the Son of Man' (35-39), noting that in John's Gospel 'Son of Man' (notwithstanding many debates about what this phrase refers to in other gospels) is about Jesus' heavenly status and journey from heaven to earth (see especially John 3:1-16). The 'believing' of this new disciple is no idle matter: he is persecuted for his belief (34). Note the parallel between the gradual 'seeing' of Jesus which comes to the man and the gradual manner of his healing from blindness (1-11).

- light and darkness (especially verses 4 and 5, and the claim of Jesus repeated from 8:12, 'I am the light of the world').

- true sight and real blindness: the blind man received physical sight and (eventually) spiritual sight; the Pharisees/Jews have physical sight but are blind to who Jesus is, from where/whom he has come and to what God is doing through him (note 40-41).

Finally, note that this chapter is enigmatic in respect of trying to trace the story of John writing this gospel. Verse 22 tells us that 'His parents said this because they were afraid that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.'

Many scholars think this comment could only refer to events from about 80 AD onwards when conflict between Jews and Christian Jews over the messianic status of Jesus drove Christians out of the synagogues.

Some go further and suggest that both the gospel as a whole and the writing of individual episodes such as John 9 reflect conflict between Jews and Christians at the time of John's composition (late first century AD?). John, it is argued, writes into the old story of Jesus the characteristics of present or recent conflict. Further questions then arise, such as whether John is splicing genuinely old stories about Jesus with new stories about present or recent conflict. If so, in this chapter a possible sign is the way in which 'Pharisees' is used (13, 40) in contrast and comparison to 'the Jews (18, 22)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday 19 March 2017 - Lent 3

Theme(s): God's gracious love / Living water / Jesus Saviour of the World

Sentence: But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)

Collect:

Give us courage to hope, and to risk disappointment.
Teach us to pray expectantly,
and when our prayers seem to fail,
bring us to pray again and again;
for you are our God,
who acts and will act again
through Christ in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

Readings:

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Commentary:

Exodus 17:1-7

Water is a recurring theme in Scripture and rightly so as water is necessary for life. In the gospel reading Jesus offers 'living water' meaning the possibility of eternal life (i.e. life undefeated by any opposing force, including death). Here Israel in its journey from Egypt to the promised land is in desperate straits. The 'wilderness' in the Middle East is no place to be short of water.

Understandably the Israelites complained and Moses forwarded the complaint to the Lord. Moses is reluctant to do this as he sees Israel 'testing' the Lord which is a role reversal. The Lord is the Lord and thus able to impose a test on Israel; Israel ought not to be taking the role of the Lord and imposing a test on the Lord.

The provision of water at Rephidim is an act of kindness on the Lord's part while also offering supply and sustenance for Israel on its journey to the promised land which is the Lord's plan for Israel. In a sense the Lord has no choice but to provide the water but Israel has exercised a poor choice: it could have trusted the Lord to provide for their needs without putting him to the test. This kind of poor choice is exercised both through the wilderness years and later in the history of Israel when living in its promised land.

We are reminded in the psalm for today that this testing had consequences for Israel. (See also Numbers 20:2-13).

Psalm 95

This psalm is a joyful expression of thanks to God for God's goodness but it has a kick in its tail which relates to our Old Testament reading: Israel the beneficiary of God's grace must 'listen to his voice' and (by implication) trust that voice. The alternative, testing God as an expression of lack of faith, has consequences for future blessings, as lack of trust in the wilderness had consequences for the length of the journey to the promised land.

Romans 5:1-11

If we graph the Epistle to the Romans in such a way that peaks on the line represent gathering up points or provisional conclusions along the way to the grand conclusion, then chapter 5 would be one of those peaks. The clue is to look for the word 'Therefore' (and, as an old saying goes, ask 'What are the 'therefores' there for?').

After four chapters expounding the history of faith in Israel in relation to the crisis in Rome over the fate of Judaism and the future of nascent Christianity, an exposition which sets out the nature of justification (that is, what it takes to make us just or righteous in God's sight), Paul writes in 5:1,

'Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ ...'. 

In the next ten or so verses Paul plumbs the depths of this conclusion before restating it in 5:11,

'But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.'
 (Incidentally, 'reconciliation' and 'justification' are theological synonyms: to be justified by God is to be reconciled with God).

Space does not permit anything like a full commentary on these wonderful verses which assure us of the generous grace of God but note these aspects:
- grace (5:2) and expansion of this theme through 5:6-10
- reflection on the role of suffering in the life of the believer (5:3-5)
- hope (5:2,4,5) and talk of 'hope' as an assurance of God being for us (rather than 'hope' as a vague anticipation of the future), signalled for the believer through the experience of 'God's love ... poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us' (5:5)
- God's love for us (5:5,8)

Perhaps the most vital message here in respect of salvation is in 5:9, 'Much more surely then ...'.

There is no need for any believer in Jesus Christ to be anxious about whether we are saved or not.

John 4:5-42

This is a long reading but it does tell a complete story of a unique-to-John's Gospel encounter with a Samaritan woman.

Much can be taken out of this reading. Possible major themes to consider are: mission, women in ministry, women in the particular ministry of apostle (here, Apostle to the Samaritans, 4:28-30, 39-42), living water, life in the Spirit, the nature of Christian worship, christology: Jesus as prophet, Messiah, Saviour of the World and, significantly, one of the 'I am' statements (4:26).

There is some controversy in scholarship concerning this story: does it 'promote' women because it shows Jesus honouring a woman with dignified and intelligent conversation (i.e. counter to cultural 'male to male' norms for those days in Palestine/Samaria) as well as (effectively) commissioning her to be an apostle of the gospel?

Or, does this story reflect poorly on Jesus who places her in a position of shame re the conversation drawing out from her the admission of her much married and now unmarried sexual relationship status (4:16-18)? (On that possibility note that the woman's own response is not to protest but to acknowledge Jesus' status as a 'prophet'. However, is that a respectful recognition or her own mocking riposte to Jesus' frank declaration of her personal history?)

Further, note that John's own telling of the story invites criticism: the woman is not given a name.

In our journey through Lent, this story is about journeying: Jesus is on the move and needs to stop for a rest and for food and drink. As we look ahead to the cross we look to the event in which Jesus dies to save us - in this story we meet the Saviour and are invited to understand the global scope of salvation, 'we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world' (4:42).

But our own 'food and drink' for our journey is at hand: through Jesus we drink the living water and eat the living bread of God's life (especially explained in John 6). In this perspective the Samaritan woman at the well is each of us: battered and bruised by life we go about our ordinary lives only to unexpectedly meet the extraordinary Jesus Christ who offers us an extraordinary life.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Sunday 12 March 2017 - Lent 2

Theme(s): gospel of grace / inclusiveness of the gospel / Jesus the Beloved Son / the cross of glory and shame / the glory of Christ

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress (Isaiah 33:2)

Collect:

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Readings:

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Matthew 17:1-9 [or John 3:1-17 but this being the year of Matthew, I will stick with Matthew]

Commentary:

Genesis 12:1-4a

Linked to the epistle reading, here we read of God's promise to Abraham. Without offering any justification such as Abraham being virtuous or virile or very worthy through some attribute such as intelligence, wealth or skill, that is, as a matter of gracious election, God promises to Abraham that he will become:

- a great nation

- a great name

- a blessing (so that God will bless those who bless Abraham, curse those who curse him, and so that through Abraham 'all the families of the earth shall be blessed' (3).)

Here lies the whole future of Israel (the great nation which will be famous for it bears witness to the Lord God as unique among all other claimants to divine status and which will influence the whole course of the world).

Later (e.g. in our epistle reading) those who love God and receive God's revelation will understand this promise to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 121

This psalm is 'A Song of Ascents', a psalm recited by pilgrims to Jerusalem as they drew near to the Temple and this (according to the topography of Jerusalem) climbed up God's holy hill, Zion. Mention of plural 'hills' in verse 1 perhaps implies this psalm is to be recited some way off from Jerusalem when several hills/mountains can be seen by the pilgrim.

As the pilgrim lifts his eyes to the hills, from where does help come?

One answer in those days could have been 'from the gods believed to dwell on the shrines placed on each hill.' To any such thought the answer is a resounding 'No!' The pilgrim's help comes from 'the Lord, who made heaven and earth' - the God, that is, of all the world, not any local god with local concerns. Another answer, focusing on the Temple on Zion, perhaps out of sight at this point in the journey, is that help does not come from here or there or somewhere else but from one source and only one source, from the One who dwells in the Temple, the Lord who made heaven and earth.

This Lord needs no arousal (e.g. through shouted prayers or loud songs) because the Lord 'will neither slumber nor sleep' (4). In the heat of the day, climbing up towards Jerusalem, who keeps, protects and sustains the hot, sweaty and weary pilgrim? The Lord will do so (5-6).

The pilgrim is confident as he or she journeys towards the Temple in the holy city that nevertheless the Lord is at hand.

So too we might have a shared and similar faith in the Lord as our protector and keeper this Lent as we journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Last week we were in Romans 5 and this week we continue to read Romans ...backwards! However the connections between the two passages are clear: Paul is exploring and expounding the gospel of grace. The connection with our Lenten journey is also clear: as we walk with Jesus to the cross, we walk to the place where God in Christ acts generously that we might be freely forgiven and generously reconciled to God.

In these verses Paul is making a point within the many points of his great argument in this epistle that the gospel is a gospel in which the grace of Jesus Christ trumps the law of Moses, faith in response to that grace saves when obedience to the law does not. The point is captured in these words from v. 13,

'For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law but through righteousness of faith.'

That is, in the context of arguments between Jews and Christians and between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians about the significance of the law of Moses after the coming of Christ, Paul points out that the great promise of God to Israel made to their father Abraham was made to one who lived apart from the law but was counted righteous by God because of his faith.

Paul is saying that the gospel of grace has its roots in the story of Abraham. As a Jew and Jewish Christian he reaches into the story of Israel in order to assert the superiority of the gospel. His argument rests on going further back into that story than to Moses. He goes to the founding father of Israel himself, Abraham.

There is then a related point which is made and worth noting here. Through verses 16-17 Paul works in the theme of inclusion. If faith in God is more important than works of the law (1-5) then to whom does the promise of God to Abraham apply? Answer: the promise applies 'to all his descendants' but these are not confined to 'adherents of the law' (i.e. Jews) (16). No, the promise applies 'also to those who share the faith of Abraham' (16), that is, to all who believe in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles, Israelites and Romans, Greeks and barbarians.

Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration at first sight is an odd reading for the Season of Lent (why not in the Season of Epiphany?). Yet it is an event in the journey of Jesus to the cross.

(And, as an aside, if we read the alternative gospel, John 3:1-17, then we meet Jesus talking about his heavenly experiences (compare with the "transfiguring" of Jesus into a heavenly kind of figure) and connecting them to the cross).

In particular Jesus says to the disciples at the end of the Matthean passage,

"Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." 

That is our clue (and cue) to think about how this reading sheds light on the cross and resurrection.

One insight is shared by N.T. (Tom) Wright in Matthew for Everyone (Part 2 Chapters 16-28), pp. 14-15: the transfiguration is the story of Jesus being glorified on a mountain, clothes shining white, between two great figures of Israel, Moses and Elijah and declared God's Son by God himself whereas the cross is the story of Jesus being shamed on a hill, stripped of his clothes, flanked between two bandits and declared God's Son by a Roman centurion.

Wright writes,

'The mountain-top explains the hill-top - and vice versa. Perhaps we only really understand either of them when we see it side by side with te other. Learn to see the glory in the cross; learn to see the cross in the glory; and you will have begun to bring together the laughter and the tears of the God who hides in the cloud, the God who is to be known in the strange person of Jesus himself' (p. 15).

Another insight flows from recognising the parallel between the divine affirmation in 17:5 and the divine affirmation at the baptism of Jesus, Matthew 3:17.

If the death and resurrection of a mortal man mean anything (noting that thousands were crucified by the Romans, and that resurrection from the dead was not unique to Jesus (compare the son of the widow of Nain and Lazarus)) then that is due to a specific, special person within the plan of God being killed and raised to new life.

At both baptism and transfiguration the special status of Jesus is disclosed and confirmed: Jesus is 'my Son, the Beloved' (5). Here in the transfiguration, alongside Moses and Elijah, representing the revelation of God in the law and the prophets respectively, Jesus is declared God's voice for Israel, 'Listen to him' (5) As Moses and Elijah were set apart by God for special purposes in God's plan for the world, so is Jesus. But only Jesus is 'my Son, the Beloved' so one who is greater than Moses or Elijah is present.

Later, down from the mountain, the disciples will enquire further. Their questions about Elijah (an enigmatic figure at that time as expectations ran that Elijah would return to rescue Israel from its imperial oppression) elicit from Jesus an interpretation of John the Baptist: he was Elijah returned. But Jesus goes on to point out that just as John suffered, so also he will suffer.

Thus, unlike Moses and Elijah whom God took to himself (the former at the point of death and the latter without death), Jesus will suffer before rising to God in the resurrection-and-ascension.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday 5 March 2017 - Lent 1

Theme(s): Facing temptation / Prayer and Fasting / Confronting sin through Christ / Study God's Word to resist the Devil

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress (Isaiah 33:2)

Collect:

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our redeemer. Amen.

Readings:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Commentary:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Some controversy attends the story popularly known as 'the Fall' because, in an age of evolutionary understanding of the history of life, it appears incredible that Christians could subscribe to a view which seemingly requires us to believe that no death occurred in nature after Creation until the Fall. Further, the way the story of the Fall is told, it can be read as a story which contributes to the subjection of women to men (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12-15). Neither space nor time permit an extensive reflection on such controversies here - probably sermons this Sunday do not permit that either, limited as most preachers are by time! So the following approach to this passage acknowledges such controversies while largely sidestepping them ...

In the big story of the world, told through Scripture in terms of the world's relationship to God the Creator, the story of the Fall marks and acknowledges a very simple fact about human life: we sin, we stuff up, we get things wrong, we fail, we let God, others and ourselves down. From sin flows pain and sorrow. Every day in the news media we are confronted with evidence of this simple fact.

In Scripture this simple fact of life closes the door to the first part of the story of the world, the story of the Creator creating the world, and opens the door to the next part, the Creator becoming the Redeemer to redeem the world. In the latter story the Redeemer undies the effects of the Fall (forgive sin, heal pain, turn sorrow into joy) and begins the restoration of the world to what God intended the created world to be, a place of perfect fellowship between God and humanity and between people.

To retell this part of the story today, the first Sunday in Lent, is to acknowledge that we (once again) journey with Jesus to the cross which is the culminating action of God the Redeemer, and beyond the cross to the resurrection which is the inaugurating action of God the Healer of fallen Creation.

Psalm 32

If we take seriously the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross because of our wrong-doing, then we will take seriously our sinful, fallen nature - our part in, our responsibility for the state of the world. When we acknowledge our sin we cannot be seriously concerned about that if we do nothing. To do something about our sin is to be penitent, active in repentance in which our lives turn from sin to holy living. Psalm 32 is a penitential psalm which captures neatly the stress of continuing in unrepented sin while charting the happy state of those without imputed sin, who live lives attuned to God's ways.

Romans 5:12-19

One way to understand this passage is to understand it as Paul's account of what I have tried to express above in my comments about the Genesis reading for today: the big picture story of the world in relationship to God is Creation, Fall, Redemption. In Paul's account he draws in the symmetry of the fall through 'one man' (12), specifically named as 'Adam' (14), and salvation through 'the one man, Jesus Christ' (15, 17). He also names two parts to the period in which 'death exercised dominion' following the fall (14), the period from Adam to Moses when there was sin without the law (13-14) and the period from Moses to Jesus Christ when sin continued, with the law (given by God to Israel via Moses) intended to constrain sin actually having 'the result that the trespass multiplied' (20).

(Note, as an aside, that Paul writing in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 can focus on the role Eve played in the dynamics between the snake, Adam and Eve, but here subsumes Adam and Eve as a couple into 'one man', presumably to make the symmetry re Jesus Christ: through one man came sin, through one man came salvation.)

In the battle between good and evil, between life and death, between sin and righteousness, Paul here states clearly, carefully (i.e. logically) and conclusively (i.e. no Christian need be in any doubt about the matter) that goodness, life and righteousness are the winners. Sin abounds, but grace abounds more (15, 20). Death exercised dominion but now righteousness and life (17) as well as grace exercise dominion (21).

All this comes about because 'at the right time Christ died for the ungodly' (6). So we journey through Lent with Jesus to the cross, not because we celebrate suffering and sacrifice for its own sake, but because through the cross comes life.

Matthew 4:1-11

Lent as a period of 40 days relates precisely to this period of testing in Jesus' own life (2). But that period itself is a mimicry of Israel's 40 years in the wilderness as it journeyed towards the Promised Land. In both periods, 40 days / 40 years, there were tests and tribulations. Would Israel trust in God (for water, for food, for healing, for conquest of their Promised Land)? Will Jesus' trust in God?

In these verses in Matthew we learn of Jesus' own tests and tribulations. First, the general test of fasting and ending up in a famished state (2). Then, secondly, the particular tribulations at the hands of the tempter (who appears to intentionally test or tempt Jesus when he is weak rather than strong, verses 3-10).

Clearly Jesus is tempted on matters concerning his messiahship, here focused in Matthew's telling on the matter of his title and status as 'the Son of God' (3, 6). What better way to be acclaimed as Messiah than through a miracle concerning food or a dramatic rescue which fulfilled ancient prophecy (3-7). Jesus is resolute, so the tempter a.k.a the devil (5) or Satan (10) tries a third and final time to tempt Jesus to submit to his rather than to God's authority. In this third temptation Jesus is offered, literally, the world (8-11). Not just Israel would be his domain.

The fact that Jesus rebuts and rejects these temptations shows us that his messiahship will not be expressed in a worldly way (courting popularity, demonstrating powerfulness).

Apart from that lesson, what might Christian disciples learn from the example of their Teacher?

An important observation is that Jesus rejects the voice of the devil with the words of God: 'it is written' (4, 7, 10). Indeed one of the citations is a citation about the words of God, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (4).

The power to live a holy life draws on the power of God's written Word in Scripture. Knowledge of the truth counters the lies and deceptions of the devil. Obedience to God's laws gives life which obedience to the devil's lures would not. Jesus trusts God and trusts the promises of God made to him via the written Word of God.

If Lent is a period for fasting, it is also a period for study of God's Word.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sunday 26 February 2017 - 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Motherly nature of God, provision, anxiety, idolatry.

Sentence: Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

Collect:

God of life,
you have created this beautiful world with great care.
As we wonder at Creation around us
help us to discern your great care for each one of us.
Free us from anxiety about worldly things
that we may concentrate on your kingdom.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Commentary:

Isaiah 49:8-16a

Looking ahead to the gospel, what kind of God cares for us and provides for our needs? This passage in Isaiah presents Israel with a vision of God as carer and provider (8-13). Israel (having experienced the devastating pain of Babylonian exile) rightly and plaintively cries, "The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me" (14). Through the prophet, the Lord responds in strongly emotional terms. What mother could forget the child she has fed at her breasts? Could any mother lack compassion for a child she has borne in her womb? (15a). God is a better, more perfect mother to Israel: "even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (15b).

Psalm 131

This is a lovely psalm with the central image of a weaned (and contented) child. Worth pondering is the implied female imagery for God here. That is, the imagery is of God as the mother who has weaned the child after daily nurture through breast-feeding.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

This is the concluding chapter in Paul's defensive and offensive (i.e. proactive) explanation and justification of his ministry to the critical Corinthians. In these five verses Paul makes three simple points. The first two of these are applicable to all who minister in Christ's name in any situation. The third makes a specific point to the Corinthians while including a general point of application.

(1) What is a minister? (a) a 'servant of Christ' (b) a 'steward of God's mysteries' (verse 1). In other words, those of us who are 'ministers' or 'in ministry' are should have a non-exalted view of "ministry". It is not a superior way to serve God/the world/church/others. It is plain 'service'. In the context in which Paul writes the language of "service" was tied up with household servants and slaves, with those who as "stewards" served businesses. Servants, slaves and stewards served. They were not heads of households or owners of businesses.

We serve Christ and in that service we make available the mysteries of God (i.e. the gospel which announces that God's hidden plan of salvation is now revealed through the coming, death and resurrection of Christ).

(2) A 'steward' or servant assigned to be manager of a household or business must be 'trustworthy' (verse 2). So too a servant of Christ who is a steward of God's mysteries. The mysteries must be faithfully made available to the world; the steward so assigned is asked to be trustworthy - at all times relied on to do this work.

So Paul (with an implied assertion that he is just such as servant and steward) makes a point specific to the Corinthians' critical approach to his work:

(3) Humans judge ministers of the church but what counts is the judgment of the Lord (verses 3-5). So Paul is untroubled by the critical, judgmental view of the Corinthians. His concern is that the Lord approves of what he has been doing.

Matthew 6:24-34

Loads of sermons here! That is because quite a few interrelated themes are woven into this part of the Sermon. Wealth, both as a potential idolatrous rival to God (24) and as a cause of anxiety (i.e. do we have enough material wealth to pay for our daily needs, 25-34). Anxiety (25, 34) which is a fear that God is insufficient for and/or inattentive to our needs (see also 'you of little faith', 30). Life and what it consists of (25). God's provision of our needs (26-31). Our worth to God (26, 30).

Note that through this talk of Jesus bits of wisdom are also woven (which may connect with the invocation of Solomon, 29). So we find, "And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (27) and "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today" (34).

But the greatest theme through these verses is the character of God. Our Isaiah and Psalm readings have prepared us for what we find in the gospel reading. God is carer and provider to Israel, including the expanded 'Israel' of Christ's kingdom, whose citizens are the disciples addressed in his sermon. Whether we wonder where our next meal or drink or cloak is coming from, God will provide. Disciples of Jesus are not to worry about such things. Confidence in God as provider comes from consideration of creation itself. Birds without storage barns are fed by God via the way the world has been created. Flowers are beautifully adorned without ever weaving a thread. Yet birds and flowers are (relatively speaking) nothing compared to people, in God's sight.

Surely, though, one does not live as one wishes and expects bread on the table and clothes in the wardrobe? True, there is a condition imposed on the disciples: "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well" (33).

But here 'condition' is not quite the right word, as though God won't help us until we fulfil this condition. Rather the point Jesus is making is that God will help his disciples as they go about the business of the kingdom. Preachers of the gospel of the kingdom need not worry about their material needs being provided for. God will look after them. Missioners active in spreading the kingdom through healing and deliverance ministry can focus on that work. Disciples following Jesus who have left trades and professions behind will be looked after.

Just as many of us have experienced our mothers as knowing what we need before we know it ourselves, so (putting our readings from Isaiah, Psalm and Matthew together), God our mother knows our needs and provides for them.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Sunday 19 February 2017 - Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Love you neighbour / God builds the church / Working with God on the church / Love your enemies

Sentence: If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (Matthew 5:39)

Collect:

Bountiful God,
you send the sun and rain to the righteous and unrighteous.
Let your grace fall upon your people,
enable us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us,
so that we may truly be your children.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[slightly abbreviated from NZL 2017, p. 40]

Readings:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Commentary:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

What is the single decisive intersection between the Sermon on the Mount (see our Gospel reading) and the Law of Moses (a part of which is the Old Testament reading today)?

A good case can be made that both concern holy living - the way of living which sets the godly person apart from the ungodly person, or, we could also say, the distinctive way of life which marks a believer in the God of Israel who is the God of Jesus Christ from those who do not so believe.

Leviticus 19 begins with a clear call to holiness: 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy' (2).

In what follows (including the omitted verses, 3-8), holy living is set out in detail.

It includes acts of mercy and kindness (9-10, 14), actions most if not all cultures value re truth, honesty, respect for possessions of others and fair dealings (11, 13, 15-16), a distinctive action - not swearing falsely by God's name (12), and love rather than hatred towards neighbours including not taking vengeance and bearing grudges (17-18).

The whole chapter covers even more ground in terms of human relationships, some of which makes perfectly good sense to this day (e.g. 31, 32), some of which we might want to debate (e.g. prohibition on tattoos, 28) and some of which might simply puzzle us (e.g. 27).

Sometimes the Law of Moses is derided as though it is out of date, out of touch primitive law-making for a people as far removed culturally from us as Mars is from Earth. But careful reading here impresses on us the Law's care and concern for holy living, for just, fair and honest dealings with people, for acts of kindness and mercy, and for love not hate towards others.

What is not to like?

Psalm 119:33-40

Look back to last week's post for comments on Psalm 119 in general as a psalm devoted to praising, receiving, and obeying the rules and commandments of God.

Here we might note the conviction of the psalmist that obedience to the Law of Moses is a means of life (35, 37, 40).

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Continuing from last week and the week before, Paul rounds off his argument (i.e. concern and anxiety for the well-being of the Corinthian church expressed through a persuasive argument) that the diverse work of Paul and Apollos is one work of God with a new image:
- last week, planting/watering/growing;
- this week, building.

Paul has laid a foundation and Apollos has built on that but it is one building, not two.

The imagery is both ambiguous and capable of extension. The ambiguity is that if the church is a building built by Paul and Apollos, it is also God's building, its true foundation being Jesus Christ (11) and its status is 'God's temple' (16-17). The extension is that if the foundation is Jesus Christ and the work of apostles (= church planters/builders, both ancient and modern, both the Twelve (+Paul) and the likes of Apollos) is that of builders, then one day there will be ... a building inspection!

'Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done' (12-13).

As we each contribute to the building of God's church (which we do, by being members of the church, this is not just about 'ministers' or 'priests'), what are we building?

A sobering thought, especially when we read on through verses 14 and 15.

But Paul is not done here as he provokes the Corinthians about their poor showing re the state of their church. Moving the image of a building (in general) along, Paul questions the Corinthians (as a prosecutor in court might question a witness):

'Do you not know that you are God's temple (in particular) and that (just as ancient Israel believed God dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem) God's Spirit dwells in you?' (16)

Disunity and division has capacity to 'destroy God's temple' (17). Well, Corinthians, note that God is not a neutral bystander when his (or we might say, 'HIS') temple is being destroyed (17).

Paul then reprises his talk of wisdom and foolishness from chapters one and two (18-20). That is, Corinthians: get up to speed here. You can be wise (and understand the true, unitary character of the one church of God built on the single foundation of Jesus Christ) or foolish (bitterly pursuing rivalries and competitions to destruction).

In short, Paul cuts to the conclusional chase, 'So let no one boast about human leaders'  (21).

Effectively, Paul says, you are very small-minded, you Corinthians. You need to open your eyes: you can have everything that God wants to give you and not settle for one thing (or one leader): 'all belong to you' (22).

Matthew 5:38-48

This passage is so well-known through the generations of its readers that phrases from it are embedded in the English language (e.g. 'turn the other cheek', 'going the second mile' and 'love your neighbour').

A detailed background in a full commentary will bring to life aspects of the passage (e.g. why Jesus referred to the right cheek, or who it was who might ask you to carry something for one mile).

Here, in a brief commentary, we simply highlight that these verses envision a kingdom of generosity. Less eye for eye and tooth for tooth, more shaming your adversary by doing more for them than they require of you. Give freely, love inclusively. Pray for persecutors, love the unlovely.

In sum, be like God (48). (That takes us back, incidentally, to Leviticus 19:1-2 and its call to holiness because we are the people of a holy God.)

We could get to the last verse and despair: a counsel for perfection is just too hard, isn't it?

Yes, it is too hard if what Jesus was meant that the moment his sermon ended, he expected his hearers to be perfect. Yes, it is too hard if we are meant to be perfect in our own strength.

But, no, it is not too hard if we read more widely in Scripture and recognise the promise of the Holy Spirit, that God the Spirit will come to each of God's people and work in us to bring us to maturity in Christ.

And, no, it is not too hard if we recognise that the kingdom of God works on people being wholly committed to the gracious and loving way of God. It would not be the kingdom of God if it was worked on the basis of 'Try your best. If you love most people but nurse hatred and bitterness towards a few, that's fine. Give to the beggars who are not utterly repulsive. Only go the extra mile if it suits and you are not too tired.' Of course not!

That is, Jesus is not so much asking perfection of us, but asking us to commit to the perfect vision of the kingdom: the kingdom in which all are loved and grace touches everyone, including evildoers and enemies.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sunday 12 February 2017 - 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Kingdom living / Church without party politics / Reckoning with God being in charge

Sentence: Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord (Psalm 119:1)

Collect:

God of Israel old and new,
write in our hearts the lessons of your law;
prepare our minds to receive the gospel
made visible in your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Commentary:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Do not read this passage if you think life consists of greys instead of black and white, or that God is kinda a real good dude who just wants to bless you whatever you choose to do. No!

'See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.' (15)

If we squirm at the thought of a binary (good/bad, life/death) approach to decision-making and its consequences, it may be worth considering what kind of a God would offer something different to what we read here. Would God be much of a god if the offer was, say, 'It would be neat if you chose to obey me, but it doesn't matter if you disobey me'?

Of course there is no need to be at all uncomfortable in the presence of the God who speaks to us through this passage. Its resounding plea is 'Choose life' (19).

Though today we might hear the voice of God speaking to us as individuals about the course and destination of our lives, this original plea was to Israel. What kind of people would she choose to be? God's people living in God's way and thus blessed by God in the land promised to them by God? Or a dying people (18) enjoying the shortest of stays in the land they entered with hearts turned away from God towards other gods (17)?

As a matter of fact, Israel's history was a mixed bag. There was obedience (and times of blessing, notably in the reigns of David and Solomon) and there was disobedience (and times of cursing, notably exile, from the perspective of which, Deuteronomy was written in the form we read it today). In other words, whatever our feelings in the 21st century about shades of grey versus black and white as we understand the times in which we live, ancient Israel, as its writings were compiled, edited and finalised into what we Christians read as the Old Testament, looked back on its history as a nation once blessed and now cursed. No greys!

Psalm 119:1-8

Famously every verse of this longest psalm refers to the Law (e.g. law, statute, precept, commandment, decree, word, ordinance, way). It celebrates the keeping of the 'law of the Lord' (1) and mixes up the promise of blessing for obedience (1-2) with prayer for steadfastness (5), reminder of God's will that his commandments be kept (4), and statement of intention to obey (7-8).

The connection with our gospel reading is clear: Jesus is outlining in Matthew 5:21-37 what he meant when he said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (5:17-20). A Christian following Jesus' teaching on the law of God can enter fully into the spirit of Psalm 119, eager to be an obedient citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

We continue through 1 Corinthians (with readings which are not intended to 'relate' to the gospel reading of the day).

Having eloquently spoken of the true spiritual wisdom found in (and only in) Christ (chapters 1 and 2), Paul is frank and robustly critical of his Corinthian audience.

He compares a potential 'spiritual' audience with the 'people of the flesh' to whom he writes (1, also 2,3).

On the one hand 'spiritual' is comparable to 'immature' or 'infantile' (so also comparison between feeding with 'with milk, not solid food' (2)).

On the other hand 'still of the flesh' is the state of 'jealousy and quarrelling' (3) specifically linked to a form of party allegiance: 'one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos" (4).

This dissension in the Corinthian ranks has already been introduced as a topic for the letter (chapter 1). Now Paul addresses it further, in an argument which will continue through to the end of chapter 4.

We could puzzle endlessly about the nature of the party allegiances. Was it an allegiance to perceived difference in teaching content between Paul and Apollos (and Cephas, mentioned in 3:22)? Was each teacher being treated as a kind of principal of a particular school of Greek philosophy (or rabbinical leader of a Jewish school of interpretation)? Or was the allegiance more human than that, so that the allegiance was heartfelt affection towards the apostle who brought the party loyalist into faith through baptism?

However the allegiances came about, Paul is clear that a strong sense of 'belonging' is involved (4). So he takes up this sense of belonging in verses 5-9. What are Paul and Apollos? We could perhaps use the word 'just' here: just servants of the Lord; just servants of the Lord who happened to be in Corinth at a certain time so that Corinthians came to belief through one or other as the Lord 'assigned to each' (5). Just so, no more, no less.

Paul then makes a distinction between the work of each. He 'planted', Apollos 'watered' (6). Perhaps Paul preached first and Apollos second. Not for the last time in the history of evangelism, the later preacher (so to speak) reaped the harvest from the seed sown by the first. (Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we might look back over two hundred years to Marsden preaching with little fruit re conversions in 1814 (and successive preaching trips) and then forward to the 1830s when many Maori converted to the Christian faith). But. Where does the real credit for the success of the apostolic mission in Corinth (Aotearoa New Zealand) lie? With God: 'but God gave the growth' (6).

Thus, Paul says, neither he nor Apollos (by comparison) amount to 'anything' (7). What matters is 'God who gives the growth' (7). This is where the Corinthians' allegiance should be placed.

With this unifying factor in place in his argument Paul draws out the implications in verses 8 and 9. Paul and Apollos have had a 'common purpose' in their work. They are not their own men but 'God's servants, working together.' The Corinthians are not many parties of Christians but one entity: 'you are God's field, God's building.'

But we do not read this passage for a lesson in Corinthian church history. What is God the Holy Spirit saying to the church today through this passage?

Is the message here about growth into Christian maturity as a congregation? Whether riven with party conflicts or not, congregations can be torn in two or three by other divisions. (Is there a question for the global church about its (im)maturity as a church of many denominations?)

Is the message about how we see ourselves in ministry? It is natural to seek limelight, even in the church. Theoretically we deplore party allegiances, secretly (unconsciously) we might wish we had a following! Do we need to take a sober reckoning of our personal ministry role as simply that of a servant of the Lord: what counts is God's work in the church.

If God's work in the church is what counts, where do we see that work occurring? If the work of the servants of the Lord counts for little by comparison with the work of God, then that frees us from worrying that (say) we do not seem to have giants of the faith around us today as we had in former days. One kind of anxiety in the church concerns where the Pauls and Apolloses of the 21st century are to be found. But does that matter? What is God up to? Surely the power of God at work in the world is no less today than two thousand years ago!

Matthew 5:21-37

There is a lot of material here! Topically we have murder/hate (21-22); reconciliation (23-24, 25-26); adultery/lust (27-28, with added comment re parts of our bodies which cause us to sin, 29-30); divorce (31-32); oaths (36-37). There is a challenging and meaty sermon series laid out for us to follow. However that is not our task with this passage, which is to preach one sermon on these seventeen verses.

It could be that we take the opportunity to major on just one topic - that would be a reasonable way to respond to the passage. In which case we might want to delve into a commentary for consideration of important subtleties: e.g. what was in the background concerning life in Jesus' day which led to the way he teaches about oaths, reconciliation and divorce? How do we honour Jesus' words about remarriage in verse 32 with due seriousness, words which bluntly state that remarriage of a divorced woman creates a state of adultery?

To an extent (being frank), a sermon which sweeps across the whole passage offers the option of not addressing difficult issues such as those within verse 32. Yet such a sermon cannot avoid the fact that taken together, these verses confront just about every member of the congregation with some challenge or another. Who among us is reconciled to every person we have ever had a quarrel with? What person is free of lust? (Speaking as a man, in a world where many images of sexually exciting women are staples of advertising in print and video media, verse 28 challenges!) We live in an age in which many marriages end in divorce. In the language of yesteryear, a gentleman's word used to be his bond and business deals were struck on the shake of a hand, but now, it seems, nothing can happen without some voluminous contract being vetted by expensive lawyers.

We might also reckon with the fact that many readers/hearers of verses 29-30 are genuinely troubled by what these verses mean. Do they literally apply so the solution to lust is plucking one's eyes out and the end of thievery is bound to follow from losing one's hands? (To respond quickly on this matter: as is the case elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. Self-mutilation is not required by Christians taking the Sermon seriously. But radical action may be the only solution to problems such as lust and theft. To cease lusting, do I need to stop watching TV and trawling the internet? A shoplifter needs to stop going into shops. Etc.)

So, what then for the preacher? I suggest we have a nice long cup of coffee or tea or smoothie and think through what it would mean to be faithful to Jesus to preach on his Sermon.

Would it be faithful to preach on this passage as though we were the kind of rabbi Jesus seemed to despise, the kind who found ways around the laws of God rather than insisted on obedience to them?

(Conversely) would it be faithful to Jesus to preach on this passage in such a way that we were like another kind of despised rabbi, the kind who makes their hearers feel more weighed down and oppressed by the end of the sermon than they were at the beginning, suffocating under the weight of obligation to be perfect now in both outward action and inward attitude?

If the Sermon is a charter or manifesto for the kingdom of God, then it sets out a vision for how we will live in a renewed society of God's people. A restored humanity within this society lives in harmony with one another: neither murder nor hatred nor unreconciled relationships are compatible with this vision. Betrayal in marriage through adultery, imbalanced relationships between the sexes because lust fuels domination of one sex over the other is not compatible either. Drastic action may be required to match the deeds and attitudes of members of the kingdom with the vision of the kingdom. Truth telling is also vital to the kingdom, whether we think of faithfulness to marriage vows in particular, or commitment to any vow made simply. The opposite of thieving in the kingdom is more than the cessation of stealing, it is generosity and sharing of material goods.

Can we, in our sermons this week, capture the seriousness of what is at stake in this teaching of Jesus with the inspiration of what God desires of his kingdom people?