Saturday, January 22, 2022

Sunday 30 January 2022 - Epiphany 4 or Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

 Today is, strictly, Epiphany 4 and the Presentation is, strictly, Wednesday 2 February, but likely many parishes will celebrate the Presentation today, so the commentary here focuses on those readings.

Epiphany 4 readings are:

Jeremiah 4:1-10

Psalm 71:1-6

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Theme               My eyes have seen your salvation          

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

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

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

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

'the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple' (3:1).

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

Those words in Luke, 'the Lord's Messiah' steer us away from a reasonable implication of the story of the presentation in the temple. That is, that one day Jesus himself will be a priest in service in the temple. (We might think of a parallel with the life of Samuel). In the earthly history of Jesus' life, this did not take place. But from another perspective, as Hebrews 2:14-18 brilliantly conveys it, Jesus was 

'a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God' (2:17). 

The Temple existed, among various purposes, for the atonement for the sins of the people through sacrifices obedient to Mosaic regulations. Hebrews is a long essay arguing that a full and final atonement has now been made, thus effectively ending one of the reasons for the Temple's existence. Jesus may not have been a high priest in the eyes of his fellow Israelites, but in God's eyes he was high priest and he was able to 'make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people' (2:17). 

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

What actually happened at 'the presentation of Jesus in the Temple'? 

Here things can get a little confusing (and best not to place this confusion in the sermon)! 

The Mosaic Law does speak about 

'sanctification of the first born to God's possession (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15; 34:19; Numbers 3:13)' but 

'This was no longer taken literally, the tribe of Levi having been set aside for Yahweh's permanent possession instead (Numbers 8:17 following)' [Evans, Luke, 213]. 

A custom of paying five shekels to a priest did exist, but there was no requirement that this was paid at the Temple in Jerusalem. So Luke anchors this story in the Law (Luke 2:22-24, 39) but does not tell us whether Joseph and Mary were being uniquely zealous in taking up a cue from the law which others did not. Nor does he give us information which challenges the historians who tell us that the law was generally no longer taken literally. Thus we are presented with a presentation which fits the circumstances of Jesus' conception and birth: an extraordinary beginning to his life and magnificent welcome via angels and shepherds. What devout parents in such a situation would not take their child to the Temple of the Lord?

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

SUPERB NOTES HERE by Ian Paul on the Presentation.

Sunday 23 January 2022 - Epiphany 3

 Theme                  The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus         


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

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

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

The details in the Nehemiah reading are quite hard work. As pure description of an ancient event they appear to yield nothing to our present situation. Then in verse 8 we have a description of preaching in any age: 

'So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.' 

This links to our gospel reading in which Jesus reads, from the prophet Isaiah rather than the law of Moses, and gives the sense of it. More on that in a moment. 

Reading a little further on to the end of the Nehemiah passage, our eyes light on a wonderful phrase, 

'for the joy of the Lord is your strength' (v. 10). 

Everything is harder to do when we are down and depressed. Life is easier when there is a spring in our step: here the spring is 'the joy of the Lord.' Are we joyful in the Lord? How do we receive that joy? One clue in Nehemiah, backed up by Psalm 19, is that the reading of God's Word brings joy because it sets out the reasons why we may have confidence that life is good - God is with us in the world God has made and the course of the world works to God's plan.

There is more to Psalm 19 to consider. This delightful song to the Lord God as creator, revealer and judge primarily lifts our spirits to praise our God. But within the song three profound theological lessons are taught. 

First, the natural world is truly beautiful yet in its extraordinary beauty it tells of a greater beauty, 'the glory of God' (v. 1). 

Secondly, nature tells of God's glory but tells us nothing else, least of all how we should live, so God the creator has given us his perfect law. The praise of the law as it parallels the praise of creation implies that the law is as wonderful, beautiful and expressive of God as creation. The psalmist loves the law and delights in it. Only from such devotion to the law could praise of this kind be expressed. 

Thirdly, the law tells us what to do and signifies the role of God as judge. In a sense the psalmist at this point moves from joy to fear: 'who can detect their errors?' So the psalm ends with two prayers 

'Keep back your servant from the insolent ...' (v. 13) and 'Let the words of my mouth ...' (v. 14). 

God, in other words, is an activist judge: eager to help the potential accused live a blameless life. Appropriately the psalm ends with an ascription of the God who makes the perfectly beautiful and ordered world and law and who works to enable his people to live righteously as 'O Lord, my rock and my redeemer' (v. 14).

The epistle is a psalm also - a song of praise for the body of Christ! A connection point with the gospel reading is reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit. If the gospel takes us outward in vision, to a world in desperate plight to which those anointed by the Spirit are called to bring healing relief and liberation, the epistle, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, takes us inward in vision, to a church which should understand itself as the body of Christ, made so by the baptism of the Spirit (v. 13). 

The details of the passage largely work through what it means to belong to the body of Christ: to respect one another as equal members of the one body (even if some members have a more important role than other members), to recognise the different responsibilities God has given us and (recalling last week's epistle reading, the first part of 1 Corinthians 12) the different gifts spread amongst us. The unity of the two visions, in gospel and in epistle, comes from considering that the working of the body of Christ is the working of Christ's mission in the world. Our love for one another as members of the one body, our taking up of responsibilities and exercising of gifts, is not for the sake of the body only, but for the sake of the world which Christ came to serve.

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

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

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

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

At this point we might consider the possibility that Jesus was mad (making a ludicrous claim) or an imposter (trying to deceive his hearers) or making a lucid claim that could be tested in terms of what follows

Luke's presentation to us in the remaining chapters is a presentation that the claim passed the test. What Jesus said he was, the Messiah, was in fact true. Just as the hearers in the synagogue were greatly challenged by that claim (as the remainder of the passage through to verse 30 tells us), so is our world today as we make that claim for Jesus Christ as his witnesses.

In turn the programme or manifesto of Jesus challenges us: in what ways are we working as Jesus' hands and feet in the world today to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, etc? 

Again, this is not an idle extension from the passage to our day: the way Luke tell his larger story, the story of Jesus in his gospel and Jesus' witnesses in his Acts of the Apostles, we are left in no doubt that the mission of Jesus continues in the world today as his witnesses carry it forward.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Sundays 2, 9, 16 January 2022 - Christmas 2 or Epiphany (translated), Epiphany 1 (Baptism of the Lord), Epiphany 2

Tis the holiday season so three posts in one, re Sundays coming up.


SUNDAY 2nd JANUARY 2022: THE EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST (translated)

Theme                  The width and breadth of the revelation of the gospel     

Sentence             The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the         covenant in whom you delight is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1b, NZPB p. 560)

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. (NZPB p. 560)
Readings                                             
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
                          Matthew 2:1-12

[Christmas 2 readings, not commented on here:

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:10-18]

Commentary on Epiphany readings:

Rightly Matthew is described as the most Jewish of the gospels. Its interests in the law of Moses and Jesus' relationship to the law (e.g. 5:17-20) suggest a Jewish writer of a gospel whose primary audience are Jewish Christians. Yet this gospel, in keeping with the other gospels, has a wide vision of the kingdom of God. It is for Jews and for Gentiles. The first appearances of Gentiles in this gospel are in chapter 1 where Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah, all Gentiles, feature in the genealogy of Jesus.* Today's gospel reading takes us to the second Matthean reference to Gentiles, the three wise men (Greek, magi: astrologers, sages) who come 'from the East.' Their coming to Jesus with gifts in order to pay homage is both an act of worship of one born to be king and the development of Matthew's gospel vision: the gospel is for all people, the kingdom of God includes Gentiles with Jews.

If we ask about the historicity of this visit, we have no other confirming details anywhere else in Scripture. For other parts of the birth narrative, Matthew links events to Old Testament prophecies (Mary's giving birth despite her virginity,1:23; Bethlehem as the birthplace, 2:6; the family's flight to Egypt, 2:15; the massacre of the innocent children, 2:18; growing up in Nazareth, 2:23). For some scholars this raises the question whether Matthew creates details in the story to match prophecies (with the purpose of developing the theme that Jesus is the (long ago predicted, much anticipated) Messiah/Christ.) But for the wise men, no such prophecy is brought forward by Matthew, even though, noting our Old Testament reading, at least one such reading is to hand. Isaiah 60:3 could have fitted neatly as a quotation in today's gospel reading, as could 60:6 with its mention of gold and frankincense! The situation is suggestive that a real visitation by strangers from the East took place, even if the manner of telling this part of the birth narrative drew on a passage such as Isaiah 60:1-6.

Isaiah 60:1-6, therefore, offers a background to the visit of the Magi: one day the glory of the Lord would shine in a specific manner, chasing the darkness away which covered the earth - a darkness, reading, e.g. Isaiah 59, occasioned by manifest injustice and unrighteousness. To this light, a light shining out of Israel, the 'nations shall come' (60:3). Represented by the three wise men and the star, this ancient prophecy about nations coming to the light is fulfilled. So, also we note, today is 'Epiphany', the manifestation of the glory of the Lord to the whole world.

Making Psalm 72 the psalm for this day is an astute lectionary decision. Originally, we believe, the psalm was composed for Solomon who, in his own way, was a shining star (of enlightening wisdom) to whom rulers of nations came for advice. But in the context of Matthew 2:1-12 in which the Magi come bearing gifts for a new king who will (among many attributes) be wise, this psalm reads very well, especially noting verses 10-11.

Ephesians 3:1-12 is a natural epistle reading to include in Epiphany readings. Its themes are the inclusion of the Gentiles, the making known of the mystery of God's will through revelation, the wisdom of God and the commission to make the gospel known to all. Where Matthew's Jesus eventually leaves his readers, with the Great Commission in 28:20, the apostle Paul continues on to fulfil that commission.

What then does a preacher say on such a day as this with readings so tightly bound together in relation to the significant Feast of the Epiphany yet so wide-ranging in themes? Options abound! 

Some are drawn to the details, such as the nature of the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh and their implications for the future life of Jesus (myrrh being used for the anointing of dead bodies). Though here, in background notes, we must note the intriguing fact that Matthew makes no further mention of myrrh in relation to Jesus' death. Compare Matthew 27:34 (wine 'mixed with gall' is offered to Jesus before he is crucified) with Mark 15:23 (wine 'mixed with myrrh'); and the (absence of spices) burial according to Matthew 27:57-61 with the particular details of John 19:39 where Nicodemus' role in Jesus' burial includes 'myrrh.'

Options for preaching on these passages include themes of light, the universality of the gospel, the unfinished mission of Jesus (e.g. the 'darkness' still enshrouding the world today because of injustice and unrighteousness), and the wisdom of God embodied in Jesus.

SUNDAY 9TH JANUARY 2022: EPIPHANY 1 - THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberately, causa brevitatis, I avoid offering a full answer to this question here! We can say that Luke was writing before the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ was recognised and formulated in the church (that the God of Jesus Christ is God Father Son and Holy Spirit). Thus Luke's baptismal "formula" is not an alternative to the Trinitarian formula of the church (which is anchored into Scripture at Matthew 28:19). In the context of Acts, Luke was expressing the distinctiveness of Christian baptism when some were being baptised according to teaching associated with John the Baptist and when generally ritual washings were part of various religions including Judaism. Christian baptism was not one of these washings because Christian baptism was centred on Jesus Christ.

SUNDAY 16TH JANUARY 2022 - EPIPHANY 2

Theme                  Jesus transforms our water into his wine             

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul's teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 could yield many sermons (on spiritual gifts, on what each gift consists of, on the contribution of spiritual gifts to the life of the church, on the core confession and creed of the church, Jesus is Lord, etc). 

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Christmas Day and Christmas 1 - 24, 25, 26 December 2021

24 December (Midnight) and 25 December (Morning) - commenting on one set of readings only
Theme                The best news ever       
Sentence             NZPB p. 555
Collect                 

Christmas Eve service: NZ PB p. 555 

Son of God, light that shines in the dark,
child of joy and peace,
help us to come to you
and be born anew this holy night.
                               

Christmas Day service: NZPB p. 556 

Son of God, Child of Mary
born in the stable at Bethlehem,
be born again in us this day
that through us the world may know
the wonder of your love.     

Readings                                             
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
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 ("Come, 2019!!") [that didn't happen, by the way] - 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 364 days! Something or nothing? 

Christmas 1 (Sunday 26 December 2021)

This could be celebrated as "St Stephen, the first Christian Martyr" or "Christmas 1". The readings etc below are for the latter.

Theme: I must be in my father's house

Sentence: Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour (Luke 2:52).

Collect:

Heavenly Father, tender and compassionate,
create in us, your family, love so true and deep
that in this broken world
we may be a sign of unity.

Readings:

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 Samuel was ministering before the Lord and grew in stature and favour with the Lord and with the people
Psalm 148 Praise the Lord!
Colossians 3:12-17 Clothe yourselves with Love and let the word of Christ dwell in you richly
Luke 2:41-52 Did you not know I must be in my Father's house?

There has never been a child which has not given its parents some moments of anxiety. But few children have caused their parents anxiety by remaining in church longer than their parents! "Mum and Dad, stop talking to your friends, it's time to go home."

Jesus was clearly precocious. He not only had a striking devotion to being in his (heavenly) Father's house, he had an eager enquiring mind which sought out teachers, listened to what they taught and probed them with many questions.

Samuel, by contrast, took a role in devotion to God in the temple of his day due to his mother's striking commitment to God. In fervent prayer Hannah had pressed God to grant her a child, that prayer being answered, she now gave Samuel to the Lord, to be his temple servant. But something in Samuel's story catches Luke's attention: he draws on the impression Samuel made before God and the people to describe the impression Jesus made on God and the people (1 Samuel 2:26//Luke 2:52).

Our psalm overflows with praise to God. We could say it as part of our praise at Christmas time for the gift of Jesus Christ. We could also say it as an example of what constitutes the heart of temple worship, as experienced by Hannah and Samuel in one era and by Mary, Joseph and Jesus in another era: adoration of the Lord God of Israel.

Paul writing to the Christians in Colosse gives us a very rich or 'thick' passage: every verse yields a sermon (or two). Every verse is worth reading followed by a very long reflective pause. Do I understand that I am one of God's chosen ones, holy and beloved? If I understand that, have I clothed myself with compassion, kindness, etc? This is not some spiritual abstraction: with such 'clothing' we will bear with one another, forgive each other, doing so knowing we must because we are a forgiven people.

We could work through the remaining verses of the passage in this kind of slow way. Here we simply ask what connection we might find between this passage and the gospel reading? At least two connections spring to mind.

(1) When we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly (v. 16), that word is the teaching of Christ which is grounded in a deep knowledge of the scriptures of Israel.

(2) For Jesus the temple in Jerusalem was a place of worship and of learning. Praise and preaching go hand in hand. Here in Colossians, Paul's exhortation to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly is a both/and instruction as he goes on in the same verse to write, 'teach and admonish one another in all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.'

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Sunday 19 December 2021 - Advent 4

 Theme                God’s kingdom fulfils all God’s promises              

Sentence             NZPB p. 553 
Collect                NZPB p. 554 

Praise and honour to you living God;
your coming will be like a thief in the night,
like lightning flashing across the sky.
Grant that we may be ready,
and our hearts answer, Come Lord Jesus.
                           
Readings                                             
Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
                        Luke 1:39-45

There is a 'wow' factor when precise predictions are made which are later fulfilled.

Micah predicts that Bethlehem will be the place of origin of the future shepherd king of Israel. The psalmist, by contrast, is predicting nothing but crying out to God as the shepherd king of Israel, 'Stir up your might, and come to save us!' (v. 2b). His prayer is answered by Micah's prediction coming true according to the gospels of Matthew and Luke: both of which tell us the story of Jesus, the shepherd king of Israel, being born in Bethlehem.

The reading from Hebrews offers a different perspective on the role of Christ.

If Micah and Psalm readings lead us to think of Jesus Christ's role as shepherd king, this reading is about Christ as high priest. 
- As shepherd king, Christ leads Israel to become a great nation, with the twist that this greatness is expressed through a vast international movement of Christians rather than through a restored militarily and politically independent country. 
- As high priest Christ transforms the internal spiritual centre of Israel: no longer is it the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrificial system anchored to it, now it is Jesus Christ himself. The connection point (according to Hebrews 10:10) in this unfolding sequence from prayer to prediction, from prediction to fulfilment, from one way of being God's people to another way is 'God's will.'

God's will would be nothing at all if it were words predicting a future course of events which never came true. Luke's gospel from beginning to end is enthusiastic about God's will coming true, about the promises of God being fulfilled. Sometimes Luke demonstrates for us that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of ancient prophecies. Other times Luke show us that a promise or forecast at the beginning of Jesus' story is fulfilled later in that story.

The end of our gospel reading takes us straight to this enthusiasm of Luke: Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Mary, herself pregnant with an unexpected yet promised child, celebrates Mary's pregnancy: it is a fulfilment of a promise made to Mary and she is to be blessed because she believed that promise. In these and other ways through the gospel, Luke hammers home to his readers the simple point, What God promises, he fulfils; what God wills, comes to pass.

Our gospel reading stops short of Mary's famous song which we know as the Magnificat. That song is the national anthem (as it were) of the kingdom of God: in this kingdom the shepherd king acts to answer the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 80

'He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy' (1:54). 

But if our eyes continue to read through the whole of the gospel we find that through the coming of the baby born in Bethlehem, this kingdom is the fulfilment of all God's promises.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Sunday 12 December 2021 - Advent 3

Theme(s): Facing judgment through repentance and without anxiety / Judgment / Repentance / Rejoicing in the Lord / The Unsurpassed Peace of God / Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff.

Sentence: Bear fruits worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8)

Collect:

God our strength and our hope,
grant us the courage of John the Baptist,
constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice
and patiently to suffer for the truth's sake;
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Psalm = Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Comments:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

We are not often in Zephaniah in the three year RCL so let's make the most of it!

Background: Zephaniah is the 9th of 12 "minor prophets", the last twelve books of the Hebrew Old Testament.

Zephaniah prophesies in the time of the reign of Josiah, reforming king of Judah (d. 609 BCE), in the period between the exile by the Assyrians of the northern kingdom of ISrael/Samaria/Ephraim and the exile by the Babylonians of the southern kingdom of Judah.

Zephaniah accuses Judah of idolatry (1:4-7) and its officials and princes of dressing themselves "in foreign attire" (1:8). The "day of the Lord is at hand" (1:7) so Judah should listen and act accordingly.

Our passage, 3:14-20, looks beyond the day of judgment (15) to the salvation of "daughter Zion ... daughter Jerusalem" (3:14). This salvation includes the turning away of enemies (15), a renewed love relationship with the Lord (17), removal of disaster (18), dealing with oppressors (19), transformation of the lame and outcast (19) and restoration from exile (20). This last expectation may reflect a final editing of Zephaniah after the Exile of Judah (597/587 BC).

From our perspective, i.e. today's gospel Luke 3:7-18, prophecies of this kind lie in the background to John's prophetic call to repentance in order to be ready for the Day of the Lord, a repentance which means a new way of living which anticipates the new situation of God's people as God brings salvation through Christ.

Psalm = Isaiah 12:2-6

In these weeks of Advent we are making our way through Isaianic visions of restoration (here: see references to "salvation", 2, 3) at the end of all things ("in that day", 3).

The mood is one of peace or calmness that comes from knowing all will be well: "Surely, God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid ... With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation", 2-3).

The action is giving thanks and praise: this God who can be trusted, who brings salvation, therefore let us "make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted", 3).

Philippians 4:4-7

In keeping with the thoughts expressed above about the Isaiah reading, Paul expresses sentiments of joy ("Rejoice ... Rejoice",4), non-anxiety (6), and confidence in God's unsurpassed peace (7).

We could also say, in keeping with thoughts expressed through these Advent readings, of trials and tribulation before the Second Coming of Christ, of preparation for the coming of Christ in the ministry of John, and (today) of preparation for judgment through repentance and change, that Paul says some things which encourage us, especially if we are tempted to be anxious and fearful.

Do not be afraid, implies Paul, as he encourages us to "Rejoice in the Lord always" (note this is not generally "grin and bear it" but "confident of who the Lord is, and of the Lord's love for us, rejoice!"). Further, we are to live in gentleness (and not the anger which comes from insecurity), to not worry about anything (again, not a "stiff upper lip, grin and bear, nothing worries me" but an "I am not worried because I have taken all possible concerns to the Lord in prayer").

Above all, Paul says, when we are aligned with God through our prayers, we will find the Lord gives his peace, unsurpassed peace and that, most importantly, as we face the future "will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus".

Luke 3:7-18

If we read this passage feeling comfortable and self-satisfied then perhaps we have not actually understood the passage! 

John attacks the crowd who have come to hear him speak. He strays a long way from the guidance I would give in a Preaching 101 class on congregational rapport between preacher and people.

"You brood of vipers" is not a chapter heading in How to Win Friends and Influence People. This vigorous message actually has a positive effect. After slam-dunking the crowd with a "You must repent NOW to avoid imminent judgment and, by the way, do not rely on your ancestry to see you through" message, they respond, "What then should we do?" (10, also 12, 14)

(That question, incidentally, is one every sermon should lead a congregation to ask themselves.)

What the hearers should do is change their lifestyle. Sharing garments and food (11) is a new, communitarian way of life (as repeatedly encouraged through Luke and Acts). Tax collectors collecting tax (but no more than tax as prescribed by regulation) is a very new way of life for such agents of the Roman empire (13). Soldiers, seemingly underpaid, should stop extortion and learn contentment with what they have (14). What changes might we make to our lifestyles which demonstrate our readiness for judgment?

As the passage continues we get a sense that the crowd were as curious as to the (real) identity of John as they were to hear his invigorating message: "all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah" (15).

John, however,  denies that he is the Messiah and clarifies that his role is to be a signpost to the Messiah. John baptizes with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit (16).

Yet the Messiah will - relative to John and his message of judgment - also be a prophetic agent of God, sorting the wheat from the chaff (17). What a hearer of John would not have guessed from John's message about the Messiah sorting the wheat from the chaff is that this would not be through "action" so much as through "speech." Jesus will teach and preach a divisive message - divisive in the sense that people will accept/follow him or reject/conspire to kill him - and in this way the "wheat" (those who love God faithfully) will be separated from the "chaff" (those who are unfaithful to God).

 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Sunday 5 December 2021 - Advent 2

Theme(s): John the Baptist / Purification / Completion of God's Work in Us

Sentence: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3)

Collect:

Praise and honour to you living God for John the Baptist,
and for all those voices crying in the wilderness
who prepare your way.
May we listen when a prophet speaks your word,
and obey with the strength of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings:

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm = Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Comments:

The focus on "coming" this Sunday in Advent is on John the Baptist, the one who prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ to minister in Israel and to the world.

We have to be chronologically imaginative through these weeks. Last Sunday we focused on Christ's Second Coming (still in our future). This Sunday (Luke 3:1-6) and next (Luke 3:7-18) we are not so much preparing for the coming of Christ at his birth but for his coming (into adult ministry and mission) at his baptism (Luke 3:21).

Malachi 3:1-4

Malachi (which, incidentally, means "my messenger") foresees the Lord sending his messenger "to prepare the way before me [i.e. the Lord]" (1).

In the Gospel of Mark (noted below) this messenger is identified as John the Baptist. Later in Malachi, 4:5-6 this messenger is identified as Elijah, an identification unsurprisingly made also in the gospels (Matthew 11:10; Luke 1:17; 7:27). A little confusingly some also think that Jesus is Elijah come again (e.g. Matthew 16:14). But that sense of multiple identification is a tribute to both Elijah as a "refining" prophet par excellence and to the "refining" work of both John and Jesus.

Malachi sees the one who prepares the way of the Lord as "like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; ... and purifier of silver" (2b-3). John's message (as we will see next Sunday) was a no holds barred, get your life sorted out message. Jesus was no less compromising when he preached. "Fullers' soap" refers to an agent used in the making of cloth which cleansed and whitening the material.

For Malachi this purification of Israel ("the descendants of Levi", 3; "Judah and Jerusalem", 4) will enable righteous offerings which are (finally) pleasing to the Lord (3-4). Later, Christians will understand that the (so to speak) combined efforts of John the Baptist and of Jesus result in the one pure and final offering, made by Jesus when crucified at the hands of the kingdoms his kingdom came to supplant.

Psalm = Luke 1:68-79

Zechariah bursts into song after a period of muteness (1:20-22; 64). He blesses God (68) for raising up his child as a special prophet (76). A great theme of this song is mercy: God looks "favourably" on his people (68), by raising up a mighty saviour (69) he has "shown the mercy promised to our ancestors (72), thus sins will be forgiven (77) and "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us" (78).

Philippians 1:3-11

I am going to focus on just one element in this reading and relate that element to our other readings.
In those other readings there is a very strong sense of God working out a "plan of salvation." Through Isaiah and Malachi a future day of preparation for a saviour is seen as well as the future salvation through that saviour. Zechariah foresees the impact and outcome of his new son's future prophetic ministry. Across centuries God's plan is being worked out, towards an outcome in which light supplants darkness, justice reverses injustice, impurity is purified and sins are forgiven (i.e. restoration of the sinner takes place).

In this reading, Paul, rejoicing constantly because of the progress of the Philippian Christians, offers them an encouragement, flowing from his own convictions, and it's an encouragement which will also inspire and motivate his continuing prayers for them (1:3-4, 9-11):

"I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (6).

For Paul, the God who has worked a good work of saving the world, through centuries of human history, is the same God at work in each Philippian Christian (and, by extension, in you and me). Just as God is bringing that "global" work to completion, so (Paul is utterly confident) God will bring that "individual" work to completion.

In other words, the gospel is both universal and local (or, perhaps, better, personal), it is about what God is doing in and for the whole world (see, e.g. Ephesians 1:9-10) and what God is doing in you and me. And what God is doing, we may be, we should be confident is a sure and certain work which will be completed. God is not finished with any of us and we should not be discouraged if we feel incomplete.

In the season of Advent we notice the twice mentioned "day of (Jesus) Christ" (6, 10). The Second Coming of Christ will result in a definitive moment in time when the world as we experience it will be brought to an end and the work of God in the world will be seen. For each Christian our hope is that on that day God's work within each of us will be complete and we will be found "pure and blameless" (10).

Luke 3:1-6

In his first two chapters, Luke tells us in his gospel about both the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist (not even Matthew's Gospel tells us the latter). So when "John son of Zechariah" is mentioned in 3:2 we feel that we know all about John, and Zechariah already.

In verses 1 and 2 Luke is consciously historical. When the events in Jesus' life took place, they could be cross-matched to other events and to other 'lords'. Interestingly, Luke is fairly general about dates prior to these verses. Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive John "In the days of King Herod of Judea" (1:5) and Jesus is born during a time of "registration" which was "taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (2:2). But here in our passage there is great precision about the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, etc" (3:1). 

[Note: However, from our calendrical point of view, there are different ways of reckoning what this "fifteenth year" indicated, so we are talking about a year between 26 AD and 29 AD]. 

We also see Luke being historical about geography and rulership: "Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of ..." (1) as well as about Jewish religious leadership, "during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas" (2a). The ministry of Jesus inaugurating the kingdom of God occurs within history, marked by reference to rival "kingdoms", political and religious.

But God intervenes in this historical account: "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (2b). This is in keeping with prophets of former days in Israel when the prophet's call and/or initiation of ministry was referenced to rulers of their day (e.g. Isaiah 6:1-8).

We are not told but presumably a word from God has already sent him into the "wilderness" where Luke placed him at the end of his growing years (1:80). This word of God sets John on the move, "into all the region around the Jordan", and gives him a message to preach, "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3).

Noting (above) a possible intended parallel between John the Baptist's initial ministry and Isaiah's initial ministry as a prophet, we also note that Luke sees John the Baptist fulfilling words in the Book of Isaiah, 4-6 = Isaiah 40:3-5 (see also Matthew 3:3= Luke 3:4 thus Luke extends his citation from Isaiah; also Mark 1:2 who combines Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3). On multiple occasions New Testament scriptures witness to a very strong interest in the Book of Isaiah as forecasting key moments in the coming of Christ and concerning his ministry and final events of his life.

So, John is the "preparer" for the coming of Christ as "the salvation of God" (3:6).

But talk of salvation presupposes a problem from which people need saving. There have been hints of this already in Luke's history of Jesus and the kingdom (e.g. in both the Song of Mary (Magnificat), 1:46-55; in the Song of Zechariah, 1:68-79; and in the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis), 2:30, 32): a dark world will be enlightened (1:79; 2:32) and an unequal world will be made just (1:51-53).

In other words, the kingdoms of this world, whether the Roman empire (see mention of Tiberias and his governor Pontius Pilate), or the local kingdoms with delegated authority (see mention of Herod, Philip, etc), or the religio-political-cultural authority vested in Annas and Caiaphas, are not capable of saving the world. Indeed as the gospel story proceeds and we see the forces which oppose and eventually kill Jesus, these kingdoms are part of the problem.

Finally, note that John's preparational work, according to Isaiah is to enable "all flesh [to] see the salvation of God" (3:6).

Luke's Gospel and its sequel in Acts is always telling us that the kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom for all, for Jews and Gentiles. A continuing challenge for God's church - in the sense of the people who belong to God and who hold the gospel message through time - is to keep facing outwards, to continue to live for the sake of the world which is not yet in the kingdom of God.

This Advent that challenge is as sharp as ever, as violent persecution against Christians in some places and general cultural sidelining of Christians in other places (such as NZ) could nudge us to turn inwards and look only on ourselves. Can we look outside of ourselves? 

An outstanding blogpost in the Luke passage is at Psephizo.