Sunday, February 5, 2023

Sunday 12 February 2023 - Ordinary 6

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 nearly* 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.

*Can you find the exceptions? Reputedly there are two!

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. 

Where does the real credit for the success of the apostolic mission in Corinth (or 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, I need to stop watching TV and trawling the internet. To cease shoplifting, I need 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? 

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Sunday 5 February 2023 - Ordinary 5

Theme(s): Salt / Light / Righteousness according to Jesus / Wisdom / Discipleship / Christian character / Spiritual truth / True spirituality

Sentence: Shine forth from your throne upon the cherubim; restore us O God; show us the light of your face and we shall be saved. (Psalm 80:1,3)

Collect:

We praise you, God,
that the light of Christ shines in our darkness
and is never overcome;
show us the way we must go to eternal day;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalm 112:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

Commentary:

Isaiah 58:1-9a

With an eye on the gospel reading (from the Sermon on the Mount) in which Jesus teaches what the real oil is on what God expects of God's people about the way they live, we read this stirring passage as a challenge in a similar vein: what does God really, really expect of us?

The prophet fastens on fasting as an issue. He paints a picture of his fellow Israelites fasting intently and faithfully and then complaining that God seemingly offers no accreditation (v.3). To them he says, as the voice of God speaks through him, your fasting is a sham. Verses 3-7 outline both the problem (fasting covers over unjust treatment of others) and the remedy (understand the true fast of God and do that instead of going without food).

Once the prophet launches into his memorable method of outlining what true fasting is, by asking an emotively powerful set of rhetorical questions, all Jewish and Christian ethics would never be the same again.

'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice .. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house ...' (vss. 6-7)

Psalm 112:1-9

This psalm ties neatly into the Old Testament reading re just living (vss. 5-6, 9) and with the gospel, especially Jesus telling the disciples that they are the light of the world = 'They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous' (vs. 4).

Indeed one way to summarise the whole of the Sermon on the Mount could be to say that those disciples who live accordingly will be 'gracious, merciful and righteous.'

One feature of the life encouraged by the psalm is that the righteous live lives of 'happy stability' (see vss. 1, 6-8).

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

This is a very deep passage on which we could linger in theological reflection at many points. Its depth comes from Paul exploring the 'mystery of God' in the context of Corinth, a seaside city of many cultures with a church of several allegiances informed by two great philosophies of the day, Hellenism with its interest in 'wisdom' and Judaism with its interest in 'signs' (1:22).

Wisdom communicated itself in those days with 'lofty words' (2:1) and 'plausible words' (2:4), that is, in the rhetorical (persuasive) style of speech familiar to the Hellenistic world. 

On the one hand Paul seems to have been poor at such an approach (2:3-4). 

On the other hand, he is proud of this inability for what he has to say (the gospel of the crucified Christ) is not an argument to be presented persuasively ('so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God', v.5) but a 'demonstration of the Spirit and of power' (v.4).

Picking up the flow of Paul's themes developed in this and the previous chapter, he is saying that the pitiful weakness of a crucified man (and an obscure resident of Palestine on the edge of the empire at that) is 'foolish' for Greeks (1:23 etc) and a 'stumbling block' to Jews (1.23 etc) has no power in the usual way of persuasion to persuade hearers of the gospel that on the cross true wisdom lies and in the cross is the greatest sign of God at work in the world. No, the effectiveness of preaching the gospel lies with the Spirit's power to convict hearers that truth lies in the 'mystery of God' at work in Jesus Christ crucified rather than the opposite (e.g. if Jesus were a great philosopher in the mode of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and a miracle worker in the style of Elijah and Elisha).

Understanding this, Paul goes on to say, Jesus Christ is the actual wisdom from God (1:30; 2:6-7).

What then follows in the passage, 2:9-12 (and 2:13-16) is an account of how God's truth is discovered: God reveals it (2:7, 10); the Spirit of God is the agent of revelation (2:10-13); the Spirit is able to reveal because only the Spirit of God 'comprehends what is truly God's' (2:11).

Note how the emphasis falls in this passage on truth being a gift from God, enabled by God and made available by God according to God's timing. On this matter Paul would have been in accord with his Jewish readers/hearers but out of sync with his Greek hearers/readers whose Hellenistic background assumed 'wisdom' was discoverable by insightful human intellectual exploration.

Much more could be said on this passage. One specific point of reflection would be to consider what this passage says to the church today about communicating the gospel. To offer one tiny illustration of where such reflection might go: is the church tempted to think that its problems with communication of the gospel are about getting the right advertising agency involved in marketing the gospel? If so, to what extent is an "advertising agency involved in marketing" a 21st century equivalent of 1st century Hellenistic philosophers plying their rhetorical (persuasive) trade?

Matthew 5:13-20

If, last Sunday, we observed The Presentation transferred (instead of Epiphany 4 = Matthew 5:1-12), then this Sunday we dive into the Sermon on the Mount without a Sunday to reflect on how the sermon begins, Matthew 5:1-12. A quick reminder is that the beginning of the Sermon sets the tone for what follows (e.g. the theme of blessing, the unexpectedness of who is blessed and thus preparing us for the 'upside down' ethical world of the kingdom of God).

We also miss the setting in which Jesus draws his disciples aside yet we must compare this with what we learn at the end of the Sermon, that the crowds 'were astounded at his teaching' (7:28): thus a tension is created which the church has wrestled with ever since: are the high demands of the Sermon for all Christians or for a more select group (e.g. those called to monastic orders).

Now to today's passage: once again we are in biblical territory where many themes are densely packed into a few verses.

We could easily preach a whole sermon on being salt of the earth (v. 13) or light of the world (v.14-15) or the relationship between good works (v. 16) and faith.

Books get published on the meaning of 5:17-20 in respect of Jesus' understanding of the importance and continuing relevance of the Law of Moses for Christians living in the age of a new covenant with God.

Perhaps more so than other weeks, the few following remarks make no pretence to offer a route of avoidance of effort looking up a decent commentary or three!

What we might usefully consider as one reflection on this passage, 5:13-20, is to ask a question about what is at stake here.

Jesus has begun the task of bringing the kingdom of God into the world (or, if you prefer, bringing the world into the kingdom of God). He has preached the gospel of the kingdom and enacted kingdom business: that is, whether we think of the kingdom as the intimate (and immanent) reign of God over the affairs of the world, or as the restoration of creation, Jesus has announced that reign is at hand and has begun to restore creation through healings and deliverance (4:17-25).

Now in this wide-ranging sermon Jesus addresses the question of how those in the kingdom (disciples who have responded to Jesus' call to follow him) should live. Kingdom living, by implication from chapter 4, will be life lived which demonstrates the rule of God over disciples and which lives out the original vision of creation of humanity being in loving harmony with one another.

Even just a few living in this way will be like salt in food: its presence makes a difference to the food. A little light (even a few disciples living in the kingdom way) destroys a lot of darkness. Living saltily and lightfully will draw people to praise God.

We could pause right here in our sermon and ask of ourselves as well as of our hearers, Does anyone in our community/workplace/sports club know that we are Christians? What is different about our lives which demonstrates the rule of God over us and which offers a sign of creation being restored?

In similar vein we could tackle 5:17-20 (on which, we remember, books have been written).

If we go back to what the 'law or the prophets' (v. 17) were about, they were not about Israel living by a random set of strange rules, the stranger the better for demonstrating how faithful Israel was to a strange God. No! They were on about Israel living in a fallen world a community life in which people sought to live harmoniously with one another while honouring the rule of God over their lives, with the plus that some rules provided for ways of restoration (of people to God and to one another) when things went wrong). The prophets often made the point that one other thing could go wrong with trying to live in this way: the rules might be misunderstood so that the comparatively tiny ones (e.g. about the finer points of ceremony) could outweigh the actually important ones (like living justly and treating others mercifully).

With this in mind we could understand 5:17-20 in this way: Jesus is saying that the vision for life underlying the law and the prophets was his vision too. Accordingly he has not come to change anything about the law and the prophets as they relate to living under God's rule and to living in harmony with one another. We need to put those italicised words into the picture because clearly Jesus did change some rules (e.g. about clean/unclean foods).

What we then find Jesus doing in 5:21 and following verses is not to undo the law but to intensify it. Looking ahead to just one such treatment, re murder, 5:21-22, Jesus affirms that murder is wrong (it dishonours God who has made each of us equal in his sight; it (obviously) breaks harmony in society) and then goes beyond that. Hatred of another also dishonours God and disrupts social harmony.

Back to 5:13-20. Jesus can end this section by saying the disciples' righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (see also 'You must be perfect' at the end of chapter 6) because life in the kingdom is no less a vision for living under the rule of God and for living in harmony with one another than the vision that drives the scribes and the Pharisees to live as they do.

What is (and could or should be) interesting about the weeks ahead in Matthew's Gospel is asking the question, what difference does Jesus make to these two ways to live out the same vision? 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Sunday 29 January 2023 - Epiphany 4 or The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (transferred)

Epiphany 4

Collect:

Teach us, Jesus,
how to live and worship
without being worldly or greedy.
Drive from our lives what spoils them
and make us templs of the Spirit;
for the glory of your holy name.
Amen.

Readings:

Micah 6:1-8
Ps 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-end
Matthew 5:1-12

Each of the readings challenges us how we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ.

Both Micah 6:8 and Psalm 15 offer summaries of the expectations in the Old Testament (whether expressed through the law, through wisdom or through the proclamation of the prophets) about how God's people will live.

The epistle reading is part of a series of readings through the next weeks, from this lively and robust epistle of Paul to the lively and robust church in Corinth, so a challenge here is how we are to live in community as followers of Jesus Christ.

The gospel reading in one sense needs little introduction and commentary: it is the famous Beatitudes. In another sense it could inspire a lot of commentary because each beatitude is a brief sermon in itself and could give rise to a longer sermon on any given Sunday!

At the beginning of this particular year, noting, for instance, continuing attempts by some evangelicals in the USA to advance the cause of "Christian nationalism", a variety of strongly critical reactions to a recent decision of the Church of England House of Bishops, some of the commentary I see fellow Christians offering on Kiwi social media about our recently resigned Prime Minister, and on on "Catholic social media", some pretty bitter vitriol directed  against the Pope and unstinting praise for the recently deceased but flawed Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Pell, should we all take a deep breath and pay attention to what these readings ask of us?

The Presentation of Jesus (transferred from 2 February 2023)

Theme(s): Jesus in the temple / The King of glory / Welcoming Jesus

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)

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. Amen.

Readings:

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

Comment:

Malachi 3:1-5

If Malachi 3:1-5 is a goldmine then gospel writers have dug into it for material concerning John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:17,76; 7:27). But the connecting nugget with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the second rather than first part of 3:1: "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple."

However this is a connection utilised by the lectionary compilers and not (as far as I can see) one noticed by Luke himself.

The passage in its own right is striking. The Lord is judge, is its theme. This judge is concerned to refine and purify 'the descendants of Levi' (v. 3b), that is, the priests who run the temple. Then the offering of the city and nation, 'Judah and Jerusalem' will please the Lord (v.3c). Yet the judgment of God is not single focused, as though sorting out the temple is sufficient to please the Lord.

Verse 5 is a challenging indictment of a range of wrong behaviours, with a very strong condemnation of those who treat others unjustly and without mercy.

Between temple and community, religion and society, ancient Judah is forthrightly spoken to by God through his prophet.

Psalm 24:7-10

We could read these verses in the context of today's feast as a call to the gates/doors of Jerusalem (a walled city with gates at intervals for entry/exit) to open up so that the child Christ "aka King of glory" can enter in!

In its original context these verses anthropomorphise God (make out as though God is a human being) and depict God as a king returning from a glorious victory. The gates have been shut to keep the city defended, now they must be opened up to hail the returning victor.

In the gospels, Jesus is the king whose true glory is hidden (save for moments of revelation to a select few, e.g. the Transfiguration). When he is in Jerusalem, the holy city does not know who he is. In the gospel reading today Jesus is just another lad entering the temple with his family, but to two people Jesus is seen for his true status: he is the King of glory.

Hebrews 2:14-18

If the Malachi and Psalm readings look ahead in one (implicit) way or another to the entry of Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and focus on his status as Lord/King, this reading turns our attention to Jesus the great high priest (a dominant theme in the whole epistle). The deduction we make from the lectionary perspective (i.e. the perspective of reading today's four passages together) is that Jesus the great high priest forms his first connection with the temple of Jerusalem when his parents present him there.

Otherwise we read this passage as we read it on otherwise in the lectionary: Jesus was a real human being, 'flesh and blood,' so that various benefits for us might become ours, including freedom from the fear of death and assistance to ourselves as creatures of 'flesh and blood' as we battle the temptations and tribulations which beset our fleshly frailty.


Luke 2:22-40

When the infant Jesus is brought to the temple 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 his life, this did not take place. 


But from another perspective, as Hebrews 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 (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 read about 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?

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Sundays 8 January, 15 January, 22 January 2023

I am treating Sunday 8 January as Epiphany = 6 January in the first instance.

Sundays 15, 22, 29 January are then the 1st (= Baptism of the Lord], 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Epiphany respectively.

Sunday 8 January 2023 = Epiphany, transferred


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

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

Commentary:

Isaiah 60:1-6

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

Psalm 72

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

Ephesians 3:1-12

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

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

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

Matthew 2:1-12

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

Two, Jesus is a light for the Gentiles, thus a star is seen guiding them towards the presence of God on earth (Emmanuel). Hence 'Epiphany' or manifestation: a revelation of a significant divine intervention in the world comes to the Magi who respond by seeking out the 'one who has been born king of the Jews' (v. 2). This revelation draws them not to seek further wisdom but to worship the king. Luke betrays no knowledge of the Magi coming to worship Jesus but he records for us the acclamation of Simeon when Jesus is presented in the Temple. This acclamation accords with the Matthean story: 'For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles' (Luke 2:30-32).

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

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

Sunday 8 January 2023 (if not celebrated as Epiphany)


Theme: Baptism of the Lord

Sentence: I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me ... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

Collect:

Almighty God,
you anointed Jesus at his baptism
with the Holy Spirit,
and revealed him as your beloved Son;
grant that we who are baptised into his name
may give up our lives to your service,
and be found worthy of our calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Commentary:

Isaiah 42:1-9

This is the first of four passages in Isaiah with similarities which have led to scholars naming them the 'servant songs'. The others are 49:1-6; 50:4-11; and, best known, 52:13-53:12. Naturally we ask who the servant is.

For the first hearers/readers of Isaiah it is likely (and reasonable) that the servant would have been understood as Israel itself. Israel the servant thus has important purposes in the great plan of God for the world, with a special role as agent of justice and bearer of light for the world (v.3, 6 respectively) and a way which involves suffering (notably in the fourth song, 52:13-53:12).

For Christians, and especially because of the way 52:13-53:12 dovetails into the passion narrative of the last days and hours of Jesus' life, the servant is Jesus Christ.

In this first song we see features of Jesus' mission foreseen (and later noted by Matthew or Luke). In particular and relevant to today's gospel reading, Matthew 3:17 works in elements of Isaiah 42:1 into the divine approval of Jesus as the Beloved Son at his baptism.

Psalm 29

In this psalm attention is paid to 'the voice of the Lord' (verses 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9). When we read in v. 3 about the voice of the Lord being over 'the waters' we readily understand the link between this psalm and the baptism of Jesus.

Why attend to the voice of the Lord as the psalmist does? One reason goes back to the story of creation in Genesis 1: when the Lord spoke, things came into being. At the command of the Lord the world begins. Here the same voice continues to rule creation. Likely the 'voice' is understood as being expressed through the howling winds of storms which break cedars, shake the desert and twist oaks. In a thunderstorm it seems that the 'the Lord thunders over the mighty waters' (v. 3).

Acts 10:34-43

Peter preaches to Cornelius and the crowd gathered with him. In these nine verses he offers a summary of the gospel narrative of Jesus' ministry. Though it does not refer directly to the baptism of Jesus, Peter's summary does refer 'how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power' (v. 38).

If this were our only gospel narrative we would be well justified in thinking of Jesus as a human being especially endowed by God with the Holy Spirit but not as the divine Son of God. Our belief in Jesus as the Son of God rests on the cumulative testimony of the four gospels, as well as Acts and the epistles.

Why might Luke not pay more attention to Jesus' divinity in such a summary? One response could be that Luke does not completely downplay it! To refer to Jesus as 'Lord of all' in 10:36 is a very significant statement. For Peter subsequently to order that the new believers be 'baptized in the name of Jesus Christ' (10:48) raises the question whether a 'mere mortal' could be in a position in which his name was invoked for such a life-changing event as baptism.

Another response is that Acts is a theological narrative about the Holy Spirit (as well as about the early Christian movement). By referring to Jesus as one anointed with the 'Holy Spirit and with power,' Luke's report of Peter's sermon invites his readers a few verses further on to recognize that one and same Holy Spirit at work in Jesus falls upon Cornelius and the new believers with him. What readers are invited to consider at this point is not what Luke thinks about the status of Jesus (i.e. Luke's christology) but what God is up to by endowing believers in Jesus with the same Holy Spirit which was at work in Jesus.

Matthew 3:13-17

Since the Epiphany a week ago, Jesus has grown rapidly into an adult!

The silence over those growing years suggests that whatever 'internal development' may have been happening in Jesus' life, nothing happened which Matthew thinks we need to know. What is now told about Jesus' life is presumably important and to be noted by all disciples of Jesus.

John has been baptising people (3:1-12) and this seems to have been some kind of renewal mission: Israel was called by John to a re-commitment to live a holy life and baptism was the ceremony which symbolised the forgiveness of past failure and the beginning of a renewed holiness. Simultaneously John has also preached the coming of a greater missioner than himself (3:11-12), one who will bring the kingdom of heaven (3:1-2).

Now that missioner comes and John, understandably, thinks that if baptism is a ceremony marking this new stage in the unfolding of God's plan, then he should be baptised by Jesus. Unexpectedly Jesus wants things to be different: he will be baptised by John. Not the other way around. Why?

Jesus enigmatically says, 'it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness' (v. 15). What is going on here? One thing is that Jesus identifies with his fellow Jew. As far as baptism for the forgiveness of sins is concerned, Jesus has no need. He was righteous. But as far as being a true Israelite, committed to holy living in God's name, Jesus sets himself to identify with his fellow citizens. He will be baptized as a symbol of his commitment to living a righteous life. Another things is that Jesus has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) and to live a life whose 'righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees' (5:20). Jesus will submit to baptism as a sign of his commitment to righteous living. Even if this did not identify with fellow Israelites (e.g. they did not get baptized), Jesus would do this, would do anything to demonstrate his zeal for the Lord's will.

Nevertheless, this statement remains enigmatic. How, for instance, does baptism at the hands of John 'fulfill all righteousness'? It was not a requirement of the law.

The reading concludes not with Israel celebrating Jesus' commitment to righteousness but with God expressing his pleasure. The Spirit of God descends on Jesus and the divine voice (recalling Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1; also anticipating the Transfiguration, Matthew 17:5) says, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'

Here, at the beginning of Jesus' mission and ministry, we meet Jesus as the Son of God. The infant worshipped by the sages in Matthew 2 has always been the Beloved Son but now this status is declared in the public event of baptism.

A final note: we include the story of the Baptism of the Lord in the season of Epiphany = Manifestation / Revelation / Appearance because at Jesus' baptism a manifestation takes place (the coming down of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove) and a revelation is given (the divine voice's approval of Jesus as the Beloved Son).

Sunday 15 January 2020 Epiphany 2


Theme: Jesus the Lamb of God / Jesus the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit

Sentence: He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).

Collect:

O God,
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of your Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Commentary:

Isaiah 49:1-7

Noting the remarks above (Sunday 8 January: Baptism of the Lord readings) about Isaiah's 'servant songs'; this is the second of the four servant songs.

If, generally speaking 'the servant' originally referred to Israel and her role in God's great purposes for the world, here in these verses an opening is made for the possibility that the servant is a particular agent of God (while still remaining Israel as well). Note that one formed in the womb (v. 5) for the purpose of bringing Jacob/Israel back to God is odd if it is also referring to Israel: at this point the servant seems to be an individual agent of God, a prophet perhaps charged with calling Israel back to God. Yet in the same vein the verses go on to speak of the servant as having a role beyond the 'light' thing that Jacob/Israel is raised up. 'I will give you as a light to the nations' (v. 6). But it is difficult to see how this could have been understood in Isaiah's day as a role for an individual rather than a role for (restored, reinvigorated) Israel.

Again, as Christians we look back through the lens of Jesus Christ and understand the passage to refer to the one we believe in as 'the light of the world.'

Psalm 40:1-11

Why is this psalm chosen for an Epiphany Sunday? Presumably because there is talk of not hiding, that is, of revealing God's plan of salvation (v. 9-10).

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

In the season of Epiphany we think about the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Here Paul writes his introduction to 1 Corinthians and talks of 'the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ'. In that particular verse, 5, the emphasis falls on the revelation to come when Christ returns. But Paul also talks about what has been revealed in and through Jesus so that the Corinthians have been 'enriched in him' (v. 5), and 'not lacking any spiritual gift' (v. 7). Soon Paul will talk about the wisdom found in Christ (1:18-31) and later will talk about the spiritual gifts which include those which reveal divine knowledge (chapters 12 and 14).

What has been revealed to the Corinthians is not knowledge for knowledge's sake but that which 'strengthens' them 'to the end' (v. 8).

John 1:29-42

'I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel' (1:31)

In the baptism of Jesus, something is 'revealed' about him (see notes for 12 January) and thus Epiphany spends a few of its Sundays on the baptism of the Lord.

Here John the Baptist talks about Jesus (greater than himself) and the baptism of Jesus (including the fact that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit) in ways reminiscent of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But look closely at the Johannine text: nowhere is the actual baptism of Jesus as an event described directly - only in the report of John the baptizer.

What is revealed here which we do not find in the other gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus?

(At least)

1. Jesus is described as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' (1:29, 36)
2. Jesus is explicitly identified as 'the Son of God' (1:34)
3. There was something about Jesus ... note how in 1:37 two disciples of John hear John acclaim Jesus as 'the Lamb of God' and immediately 'followed Jesus.' They do not even need an invitation from Jesus.
4. Jesus issues an invitation to these two disciples but, really, to all readers of the gospel, 'Come and see' (1:39, see also 1:46). In and through Jesus, God has come into the world to transform the world: will we come and see this? Of course through the gospel lots of people see what Jesus is doing but only a few see=understand what Jesus is doing. Something is being made manifest in Jesus which can be seen, but not all can see it. One key to true seeing of Jesus is to 'remain' or 'abide' with him. This great theme (see especially John 15) is introduced here in a subtle, and matter of fact way. The two disciples respond to the invitation: 'they came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day' (1:39). In our language we might say that they hung out with Jesus!
5. The opportunity to join with Jesus is open to all and works with each current follower of Jesus inviting others to follow Jesus, preferably with the excitement and enthusiasm of Andrew inviting his brother Simon (1:40-42).

(Incidentally, there is food for thought putting together this account of the calling of Andrew and Simon to be disciples with the variant account in Matthew, Mark and Luke in which Andrew and Simon are fishermen plying their trade when Jesus calls them to 'Follow me.')

Sunday 22 January 2023 - Epiphany 3

Theme(s): Light in the darkness / Proclaiming the gospel / The kingdom of heaven comes near

Sentence: The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)

Collect:

Almighty God,
your Son revealed in signs and wonders
the greatness of your saving love;
renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings:

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Commentary:

Isaiah 9:1-4

Readers and listeners to readings following Isaiah these past few weeks will see a connecting link here re 'light.'. The anointed one of God will bring light to the world. (Ultimately John's Gospel will report Jesus as declaring, "I am the light of the world.") Isaiah looks ahead to this great day - great because when the light comes, the darkness goes - and Matthew acknowledges that in today's gospel reading by citing extensively from this passage.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

The troubles of the psalmist (e.g. v. 5, 6) are like darkness surrounding him. The starting point for the psalm is a ringing declaration, "The Lord is my light ..." (v. 1). Light dispels darkness, the psalmist has no need to worry, he is and will be saved from his troubles: "... and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" (v. 1).

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

HEALTH WARNING!! This might not be a passage to read/hear for those used to, even enjoying conflict and division in the church or who simply accept ongoing divisions between Christians ... whoops, that is most Christians today (so it seems). Paul lays down a huge challenge for his original conflicting Corinthian readers/hearers when he writes,

"... that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose" (v. 10).

It is possible that we could then reflect on divisions in the church then and now, how we might overcome them, or why today's divisions are not that important if seen in a certain light (e.g. our organic unity is valuable even when we are institutionally divided, etc).

Here I take a different tack and simply focus on Paul's 'why' as he presses for unity. (Noting, incidentally, that this is not a one-off concern of Paul's, see, for instance, Philippians 2:1-5.)

First, observe that Paul makes his appeal in 1:10 'by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.' The church of Christ is the church of one leader and thus is one church. So Paul goes on to argue, in verses 11-13 that this one leader has not been divided. Local leaders such as Chloe, Paul, Cephas should not be confused with the leader or lord of the church, Jesus Christ. Why be united? Christians follow one leader.

Secondly, although he does not say this explicitly in verses 17-18, Paul implies that from the one Christ and his one great saving action (death on the cross) only one message or gospel flows: 'the gospel' (1:17) ... 'the message' (1:18). The single-mindedness of the united church which he appeals for is the single-mindedness of the church which is united in its desire to proclaim the one message and to live out its life as the church in the world according to that one message.

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus has been initiated into his divine mission, being baptised (Matthew 3:13-17) and tempted/tested (4:1-11). Now he gets into his stride as God's missioner.

1. Matthew explains the initial sphere of the mission: Galilee because that is safe to proceed through. (Matthew also takes the opportunity to demonstrate that pretty much everything about the course of the life and mission of Jesus is fulfilment of previous announcements from God via his prophets, 4:14-16).

2. Jesus preached and the content of his message is simply summed up: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:17).

But if we ask for a bit more detail, some sense of the content of both 'repent' and 'kingdom of heaven coming near', we get some help by recalling that this was the same message as John the Baptist preached (3:2) and by reading the succeeding verses. Thus:

2.1 'repent' involves turning from sin (see the outcome of John's preaching in Matthew 3:1-12) and going forward with Jesus (see the immediate action following Jesus' proclamation: the first disciples are called to 'follow' him, 4:19).

2.2 'the kingdom of heaven coming near' must mean something about God's will in heaven being done on earth (see, later, 6:10), about darkness turning to light (4:12-16), about the suffering of creation being ended, the general plight of humanity being turned around and life being restored to sufferers: so we see that as Jesus proclaims 'the good news of the kingdom' he also 'cures every disease and every sickness among the people' (4:23).

It is no wonder that crowds flock towards him (4:25). His mission has notable early success. 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Sunday 25 December 2022 - Christmas Day

Theme: that is pretty obvious, isn't it? :)

Sentence: To you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11).

Collect: (from NZ Lectionary 2017)

God of light and life,
you are born among us as a baby, in the flesh, as one of us.
As we rejoice in our bodies in the beauty of summer
grant that we may also celebrate the wonder of your incarnation
and rejoice in the mystery of God becoming one flesh.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who shares our human nature and'who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: [I am just giving one set from the NZ Lectionary]

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

Comments:

Isaiah 9:2-7

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

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

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

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

Psalm 96

This psalm is coherent with the hope and expectation of the restoration of Israel, foreshadowed in the Isaiah reading above.

Titus 2:11-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 2:1-14

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

What is indisputable is what Luke is attempting in these first few verses.

First, he is locating the birth of King Jesus in the world ruled by another king, the Roman emperor Augustus (1). The whole story of Luke-Acts tells us how the king born in Bethlehem, via the preaching of his apostles, became a rival king to the Emperor in Rome itself. Later in the passage, the angelic announcement of "good news" to the shepherds is an (Israel, Jewish, Old Testament-ish) equivalent of an imperial Roman announcement of "good news" re a new, supreme emperor.

Secondly, he is explaining how Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. Jesus who grew up in Nazareth) nevertheless was born in Bethlehem, some distance away (2-4).

Thirdly, he is connecting the birth of Jesus as king with the house of David, the greatest King of Israel (4, 11).

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

Note how the specific location of his first days/weeks of life "in a manger" is a tiny detail within these verses. Do we make too much of this when we talk much of Jesus being born in a stable, seemly unwanted in the inn? (As an aside, the use of the term "inn" is much debated. Luke's uses a different word to the Story of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan takes the injured traveler for his recovery. We might more accurately use a word such as "lodging" and leave open the question whether it was an inn or a (crowded) house of a relative.)

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

Why do we then meet shepherds (8-14) as the first, in Luke's telling, to greet the newborn king?

Obviously we must speculate as Luke gives no hints. But shepherds in the context of associating Jesus with King David (the shepherd-king) suggests that shepherds are very appropriate as a group to recognise the new Shepherd-King Jesus.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Sunday 18 December 2022 - Advent 4

 Theme(s): Jesus our saviour / God's plan for us - A better future /A God near at hand


Sentence: You heavens above rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up. (Isaiah 45:8)

Collect:

God of all hope and joy,
open our hearts in welcome,
that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming
may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Commentary:

Isaiah 7:10-16

At a difficult time for God's people, God promises King Ahaz a sign of a better future: the birth of a son to a young woman (Isaiah's own wife? See 8:3. Or Ahaz's wife?).

We read this passage in conjunction with today's gospel reading because this birth foretold centuries beforehand is understood by Matthew to look ahead to the birth of the eternal king of Israel, Jesus Christ.

As Matthew tells the story of that birth he tells the story of a virgin conceiving the baby who will become the Emmanuel of Isaiah's prophecy.

Some scholars get (in my view) a bit stuck on an old record of "originally Isaiah didn't envisage it was a virgin". That is true as far as it goes: the NRSV for Isaiah 7:14 accurately, according to the Hebrew, has 'young woman' rather than the particularity of 'a virgin(al young woman)'. That particularity is captured in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. Matthew uses that text rather than the Hebrew version of Isaiah. Why would he do that? Presumably not to prove that Mary was a virgin. There is no reason for Matthew to emphasise Mary's virginity unless he believed her to be one. Certainly there is no pressing reason from Isaiah for Matthew to invent such a statement.

The simpler approach is to recognise that Matthew, telling a story of Jesus' conception and birth which involved divine paternity, recognises that the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 neatly foresees such an event, so he invokes it and includes it in his narrative. He could just as easily have made no reference to Isaiah. After all, the odd thing about the reference is that Emmanuel as a name for Jesus is never again used in Matthew's Gospel (or any other gospel for that matter).

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

In this psalm there is a strong plea for restoration. For God to do a work among his people which not only saves God's people from their plight but also restores them to the splendour and goodness they once enjoyed.

This plea is well made by us through this reading three days out from Christmas. Jesus came to save us, to bring new life and to establish the kingdom of God.

Romans 1:1-7

Paul launches into his most famous epistle. When all the great books and commentaries on this epistle are digested the simple fact is that Paul sets out to tell us what the gospel of Jesus Christ is, in a world in which the message of a Jewish rabbi has spread beyond the confines of Judaism. The gospel went global and now the question arises, what is the global meaning of the gospel?

In this launch into the subject, Paul says something simple and directly relevant to the Christmas story: the gospel concerns the Son of God and the Son of God was 'descended from David according to the flesh ...'. There is more to say (and linked to the Easter story). But vital to the gospel is the birth of Jesus as a real flesh and blood descendant of King David. Even in a globalization of the gospel, this fact is important.

One reason for this importance is that it underscores the importance of God's previous words to humanity, to Israel in particular via his prophets: a messiah/king in the line of David would come to bring salvation. That has happened: God's Word is true.

Matthew 1:18-25

It may seem a bit odd reading this reading when it is not Christmas Day but don't worry, there are Christmas readings in the lectionary for Christmas Day!

In this brief reading we do not need to get stuck on any particular point (though preachers do do that!). Essentially Matthew tells us three salient facts:
- the conception of Jesus was a divine act according to a divine plan;
- the name of Jesus meant something important: it summarised his purpose, to save people from their sin;
- Jesus was born as a normal baby with a mum like any other baby.

What response could we make to this baby?

(1) We could celebrate and rejoice that God was at work in our world, doing something hugely important to change the course of history, while at the same time wonderfully fulfilling words previously spoken to us by ancient prophets.

(2) We could ask Jesus to be our saviour, to be the one who saves us from our sins.

(3) We could marvel that in this tiny baby, God was present in a way previously unknown. (No other baby in the Bible, even when miracles were performed to overcome barrenness, was born without a human father).

An alternative line of thought from this passage is to focus on the name Emmanuel. Although only used this once in the gospels, this name brought forward by Matthew from Isaiah's prophecy, speaks of a great gospel theme: that in Jesus Christ, God is 'with' humanity.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Sunday 11 December 2022 - Advent 3

This is a challenging Sunday for faithful Anglicans. For some faithful Anglicans, today is the day when we best, relative to the ending of school year and proximity of Christmas, hold our Sunday School Pageant/Christmas Play, or, possibly, a Nine Lessons and Carols service, and thus the lectionary takes a back seat. For some faithful Anglicans, this Sunday is "Gaudete Sunday" and time to replace "violet" with "pink" and to rejoice with the Virgin Mary with the slightly awkward lectionary challenge that in the Year of Matthew, the gospel reading has nothing to do with Mary and everything to do with John the Baptist. (Our lectionary does offer Luke 1:47-55 as an alternative for the psalm).

Theme(s): Restoration / Healing / John the Baptist /Jesus the true Messiah


Sentence: For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert ... and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35:6,10).

Collect:

(1) Original as given by our church as part of a set of trialed 'traditional' collects:

"God of the unexpected,
your ways are not our ways.  
Open our ears to the prophets you send, 
help us to hear the good news from unforeseen messengers.
Empower us to join the healing work of the one whose coming draws near, 
our Lord Jesus Christ, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

(2) My improvement:

"God of the unexpected,
whose ways are not our ways,  
open our ears to the prophets you send, 
help us to hear the good news and so
empower us to join the healing work of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

[My improvement of my improvement:]

(3) God of the unexpected
whose ways are not our ways,
open our ears to the prophets you send
that we might hear your gospel and act on it
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and always. Amen.

Now, officially, this is the Collect:

Terror and doom, and wrath to come,
John your heald preached
to bring us to repentance;
open our eyes, almighty God,
show us our sin, and grant us forgiveness.
Hear this prayer for your love's sake.
Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10 (or The Magnificat, Luke 1:47-55)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Commentary:

Isaiah 35:1-10

We cannot understand the Old Testament if we do not keep in view the cataclysmic event of Israel being exiled (the northern kingdom, 721 BC; the southern kingdom, 597/587 BC).

The people of God living in the 'promised land' provided by God were now living as subjects of a foreign power in a foreign land. Theologically this seemed to be a complete denial of all the promises of God. In a world of competing gods of nations, did YHWH the God of Israel even exist? If YHWH did exist, what kind of pathetic power did he have? Israel - it appeared - was no more. Or not. In passages such as this one we have a 'prophetic oracle of salvation' which conveys a sweeping and thrilling vision of 'the return' of God's people, 'redeemed' by God out of new slavery, to live again in 'Zion.'

In other words, Israel, theologically and psychologically could hold their heads up high. The promises of God were true, the exile was a catastrophe but not the end of Israel or of Israel's God. Indeed the future spelled out here in certain ways was to be more glorious than the most glorious past of Israel (i.e. when David was king).

Later aspects of this passage will feature in the reception of Jesus and his 'restorative' ministry of healing and mighty acts (e.g. Matthew 11:5 which is part of our gospel reading today).

The (arguably) most famous New Testament scholar in the world today, N.T. or Tom Wright, has made much in his gospel scholarship of the theme of 'return from exile', arguing that the gospels present Jesus as the one who truly and completely brings Israel (finally) out of exile.

The reality of Israel's return from exile (as we can read in books such as Nehemiah, Ezra, 1 and 2 Maccabees) was a 'mixed bag': there was a return of people and a rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem but there was also further subjection by foreign rulers, first Greece and then Rome. Thus Wright's approach (much debated) has something in it: to the extent that the return from exile was envisaged in all its dimensions in Isaiah 35, much was missing and unfulfilled by the time Jesus appeared in Israel to preach the 'kingdom of God.'

Psalm 146:5-10

This psalm conveys a similar message to the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 35 (see above).

The completeness of God's care for his people is emphasised: God will execute justice AND give food to the hungry; set the prisoner free AND open the eyes of the blind; etc.

James 5:7-10

When we consider Advent in respect of the return of Christ inevitably we ponder the question of 'how long?' A thousand years may be as one day in the Lord's sight but to us it is a very long time and two thousand years is twice as long! In this passage James urges us to be patient. A timely lesson in more ways than one.

Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist in prison finds his mind going round the bend. He has discharged his prophetic ministry at great cost. The central theme of that ministry was announcing the coming of the Lord's Anointed One (or Messiah). He thought the Messiah was Jesus. Now he is not so sure. As any of us would do when in a state of uncertainty, he decides to check up on what is happening. Perhaps Jesus was just a bit like the Messiah-of-expectation but not the actual Messiah?

Jesus responds in a kind of code language which also reports accurately on what has been happening. The list of what had been happening, verse 5, to be reported back to John, was framed in the language of the great restoration, return and redemption vision in Isaiah 35. Jesus knew that John would understand the meaning of the report: messianic deeds were happening because the Messiah was here and at work. "Dear John, Doubt no longer! Love Jesus."

In turn, Jesus sets out his understanding of the impact and importance of John the Baptist, vss. 7-14. John the Baptist is the last and greatest prophet of the old order or pre-kingdom history of Israel. God is doing a new thing and John's honour was to usher that new thing into being.

In the season of Advent, there are several aspects of the coming of Jesus into the world to contemplate.