Sunday, March 7, 2021

Sunday 14 March 2021 - Lent 4

 Theme: Belief in the Son / Eternal life / Wholeness / Two Ways to Live

Sentence: So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3: 14-15).


God love,
May we through the Spirit's power and wisdom,
grasp the extent of your love for the world,
open our eyes to the richness of your mercy,
and offer from our hearts, thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of your Son,
which makes new life possible. Amen.


Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21


The Old Testament and Gospel readings this week are very tightly bound together because the Numbers reading provides the direct biblical background to the concept of the Son of Man being 'lifted up'.

Numbers 21:4-9

From a scientific perspective this story is, well, nuts: if you have snakebite problems, looking at a bronze serpent held in the air will not (ordinarily) solve your problem. But the story is not about the science of snakebites but about the actions of God and of God's people. The people grumble (4-5) and the Lord responds with a mini-plague of 'poisonous serpents' (6). People die (as we might expect, scientifically speaking) and this provokes the people to repent of their grumbling (7). Moses prays and the Lord answers in an (unscientific) way (7-8).

What the passage invites us to consider is why God answers Moses' prayer in the way he does. Why does God who sent the snakes not send them away? Why does God command Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent, attach it to a pole and ask those subsequently bitten by snakes to look at the bronze image in order to live? (We can even make the question harder by asking why God requires of his people a remedy for snakebite which Egyptians also used).

One possibility is that God is demonstrating sovereign power over the situation, including the use of irony. God sends the snakes and God remedies their threat. The remedy involves God taking up an Egyptian custom (a custom from the land Israel wishes to return to) and transforming it into God's own remedy. It is as though God says to Israel, "You want to go back to Egypt? Let's go back metaphorically to Egypt for a remedy for your punishment. But that is as far as it goes. Geographically, there is no going back. I will get you to the Promised Land."

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This psalm recalls the story in Numbers, set in the larger story of God's calling Israel out of Egypt and guiding them to the promised land.

Ephesians 2:1-10

We could take this passage as a commentary on the gospel passage!

What kind and scope of love for the world does God have (cf. John 3:16 in our gospel reading)? Well, it is spelled out in extraordinary life giving detail here, especially from verse 4 onwards.

We can, of course, also read the passage on its own merits. In the context of Lent we do this looking for understanding for why Jesus died on the cross for our sakes.

Paul lays it out:
1-2: 'You were dead through the trespasses and sins ...'
3: '... we were by nature children of wrath ...'
4-5: 'But (which could be 'BUT') God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ...'
(Although the cross is not mentioned in this passage, we understand the death of Christ on the cross to be crucial to our being made alive by working backwards to 1:7; we also understand his death to be implied by the talk in Ephesians 1, and here, on the resurrection of Jesus and the power which raised him to be the power at work in us).
In other words God reaches out to humanity which is destined for death and enables us instead to be 'made alive'. All this is God's doing: 'by grace you have been saved' (5, 8).
6-7: it is not just that God 'saves us' (in the sense of making us new, making us at one with God), Paul says here that we are 'raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.' Much could be said here about (a) hope (b) heaven (c) the future becoming present reality but I would like to emphasise (d) that the great transformation through salvation is that we are identified with Christ and become 'in Christ', a union between ourselves and Christ and because of that, receive every blessing from God (see also 1:3).
8-9: Understanding everything so far we easily comprehend that nothing (repeat, nothing) we do can secure this transformation, can gain us favour from God, so it is 'by grace you have been saved through faith.'
And, Paul goes further, lest any misunderstanding should arise, even the faith by which we open ourselves to God's gracious action, this faith 'is not your own doing; it is the gift of God'.
10: What now? Do we sit around waiting to physically die to enjoy the fullness of life in Christ in the heavenly places? Not at all. There is work to be done, but it is God's work which is to be done.

John 3:14-21

Our gospel readings through these Lenten weeks are an interesting mix of forecast and interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection, centred on Jesus' own words. The epistles are clearly centred on interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection through hindsight rather than foresight

What we read in the gospels, in passages such as this one, are less clearly foresight rather than hindsight because the way they come to us involves a writing down which takes place as late as, if not later than the epistles. 

Inevitably the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection influences the way Jesus' own words are written down for the gospel writers' present and future audiences. In the particular case of John 3:14-21 there is a challenge - avoided here(!) - of working out where Jesus stops speaking and the Fourth Evangelist begins his interpretation of what Jesus has been saying: at the end of verse 15? 16? 21? 

Here we take the passage as words which, whether spoken by Jesus or the gospel writer or both, contribute to our understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Main Comment: Verse 14-15 really needs (at least) verse 13 to make sense of why Moses and the serpent (from our Old Testament reading) appear after Jesus has been talking to Nicodemus about other matters. The conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-13) has been about where Jesus comes from and how Jesus can do and teach what he has been doing. Verse 13 is then a kind of summary: the one who does these things is the one who has experience of heaven, the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) and that Man has descended from heaven. So the language of descent (also ascent, first part of 13) opens the way for Jesus to talk about the destiny of the descended Son of Man: he will be 'lifted up' (14).

Thus in verse 14 Jesus uses the switch from language of 'ascent' to language of being 'lifted up' to talk about the event of the cross which will differentiate his talk of ascent to heaven from that of other mystics. The usual mystical talk (e.g. within Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time) was of a significant heavenly figure being a guide to the seeker of divine mysteries who leads the seeker towards the highest heaven. But Jesus is not that guide in that sense. What will lead people to God, that is, what will 'save' them (see verses 16- 17) is the lifting up of Jesus (i.e. his death high on a cross).

By invoking the story of Moses and the lifted up serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) - the story of Israelites becoming ill through snakebite and being healed by gazing at the lifted up serpent - Jesus is actually looking ahead to when he, like Moses' serpent, will be 'lifted up' in such a manner that people will be healed (saved) as a result. He is talking about his death on the cross.

(Additionally, we might also note the subtle implication of taking up this story from Numbers: the serpent or snake that people most need healing from is the one who tempted humanity into sin in the first place, Genesis 3. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, and then lifted up from the grave through resurrection, he will heal the great wound shared by all humanity).

In v 15 then (and v. 16, 18), 'eternal life' is possible for those who believe because Jesus becomes the Mosaic serpent to whom people may look in order to be healed. (From this perspective, 'eternal life' is 'wholeness of life' or 'life healed of brokenness.')

Verses 16-21 is therefore a speech (by Jesus) or a sermon (by John the Evangelist) on the significance of the choice facing the world because of the event of the cross (and resurrection). Choosing to 'believe in him' leads to eternal life and choosing not to believe leads to the opposite ('perish', 16; 'condemn', 17, 18; 'judgment', 19).

Verse 16 nails down the place of God as, well, God in relation to the world: God loves the world which by implication means 'loves the world enough to do something about the problems of the world - people preferring darkness to light, doing evil deeds (19-20).' In that love God 'gave his only Son', language that is redolent of Genesis 22 where Abraham is willing to give up his only son for sacrifice, but with the difference that there is no talk of sacrifice here, and 'the Son' in the context of this gospel is the One who is one with the Father. In effect God so loves the world that God (Father-and-Son) gave up himself so that the world might be saved.

Thus all talk about the decisive and eternally significant choice facing the world, light versus darkness, belief in the Son versus evil deeds, is framed by the phrase 'For God so loved the world.' As we reckon with the strong language of 'perish' and 'condemn' in succeeding verses, the starting point is God's love which reaches out through the gift of God's Son to draw all people to himself.

The reality is that the situation of the world is bleak: 'people loved darkness' (19); 'all who do evil hate the light' (20). The coming of Jesus, paradoxically, as a gift of love which brings light, makes no difference to most in the world who 'do not come to the light' (20).

A couple of tricky questions lurk in the passage!

One is that verses 18-21 raise but do not answer the question 'why' believers manage to escape from the usual preference of people to choose darkness over light.

Two is that there is a shift from 'belief in the Son' (15) being key to the door to eternal life to 'deeds' being seen in the light of God (21).

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Sunday 7 March 2021 - Lent 3

 Theme(s): Zeal / Devotion to God



"God of Moses,
you guide us with your law,
you welcome our worship on the mountain and in the temple;
we worship you.
Draw us deeper into you
that we will reflect your love and faithfulness
and serve your kingdom with holiness.
Through Jesus Christ Our Redeemer,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.


Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22


Exodus 20:1-17

It is always helpful for our walk with God to be reminded of the Ten Commandments. These commandments help clarify our obligations to God and to fellow human beings. With a slight interpretative nip and tuck (e.g. change 'donkey' in verse 17 for 'luxury car'), the commandments are timeless. In a world of growing financial inequality, for example, it is worth asking whether disobedience of the tenth commandment is one reason for disparity.

We read the commandments today, noting the gospel reading, with the first four commandments especially in focus. These commandments challenge us to worship God, only God and to admit devotion and veneration to nothing that is not God. The implied zeal of the person living according to these commandments is the zeal of Jesus which takes him to the Jerusalem temple and leads him to drive out that which did not conform to these commandments.

Psalm 19

One of my favourite psalms!

But why is it a favourite? A trivial reason is that in the 1970s we used to sing the words to a catchy tune! A more substantial reason is that this psalm inspires praise and worship of two great gifts of God: creation and Scripture.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Paul is crystal clear in this passage that the cross - the manner of Jesus' execution and the place of Jesus' death - matters. The humiliation and shame of Jesus' manner of death - a naked man publicly executed, an apparently religious man killed as a common criminal - potentially diminish the Christian message. Opponents could laugh at Christian preachers, dismissing them and their message with guffaws about how "this Jesus bloke" died. It was  a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (v. 23).

But for Paul this obvious weakness in the message of the gospel was a strength. The fact that Jesus died so ignominiously meant that his abject death  was Jesus in fact becoming sin for our sakes so that we may be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21; see also Romans 3:21-26). Here, in this passage, Paul presumes an understanding of what "the cross" (i.e. Jesus dying on the cross) achieves, so he talks of the cross being "the power of God" for those "who are being saved" (v. 18) as well as being the "wisdom of God" (vss. 22-25; also vss. 27-31).

We assume that for his Corinthians readership, at this point in time, he needed to tackle Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian readers in the Corinthian congregation who were raising some kinds of questions about the Christian message. Perhaps questions being sharply posed by Jews and Gentiles close to these readers. "The gospel wasn't that wise, was it?" - we sense some were saying. Others, we sense, from what Paul says (e.g. v. 22), were saying, "So where are the signs of God's powerful work." To them Paul says, precisely in the foolishness of the one claimed to be Saviour was wisdom and precisely in the powerlessness of the one claimed to be Saviour was power, and it all took place in the crucifixion. "... but we proclaim Christ crucified" (v. 23).

John 2:13-22

At the heart of this reading, in the context of Lent, is the form of prediction Jesus makes about his death and resurrection, a form which can be placed alongside the form we read in last week's gospel according to Mark.

'Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days? But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.' (John 2:19-22)

'Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.' (Mark 8:31)

In other words, in two different contexts, with two different kinds of audience, Jesus is remembered as having spoken about the event of his death and resurrection differently, but a common memory is the prediction that the time between dying and rising again would be three days. (It is another story how we count those three days across the three days, mid-Friday, Saturday, dawn on Sunday!)

So, as with last Sunday, we note that Jesus has a steadfast determination to reach his destiny which he knows will be execution in Jerusalem.

Something else is common to the two gospel readings. Each gospel writer faces the challenge not simply of telling the history of Jesus (this happened, then that happened, then he was crucified, then ...) but also explaining the history. With respect to Jesus' death, the gospel writers need to explain how a supremely good, indeed perfectly innocent man ends up being executed with criminals. A running thread through Lenten readings is the unfolding set of circumstances that led to a good man doing good being treated by civi, religious and political authorities as a bad man doing bad things. Here we set aside how Mark explains why Jesus died and focus on how today's reading from John's Gospel contributes to John's overall explanation.

In this reading, John takes an episode which the three other gospellers are united in placing in the last days of Jesus' life, and places it at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.

We may struggle with John's apparently cavalier attitude to chronology so it may be helpful to think of John as a mix of poet and artist. Like them, John takes familiar matters of life and places them in new contexts to make us think more deeply about their significance. Here (I would argue) John takes a decisive event in the last week of Jesus' life (which in the other gospels explains how opposition to Jesus hardened to the point of resolve to kill him) and places it early in his version of Jesus' life in order to open our eyes to the opposition which Jesus provoked from the beginning of his ministry.

First, John tells us - verses 13-17 - that Jesus comes as one whose zeal for the Father exposes unfaithfulness to the Father on the part of those who should know (their Scripture) better.

Secondly, John tells us that Jesus is much more than a reforming Jew, intent on purifying the temple. Jesus comes to replace the temple (19-21).

Since the replacement will be his own body, John opens up for all his readers the prospect that through the remainder of the gospel we will find out more about the new way of relating to God, through the body of Jesus and not through the temple in Jerusalem. (For which, chapters such as 3, 4, 6, 10, 15 are very important about the spiritual relationship believers have with the risen Lord Jesus present through the Comforter sent by God the Father and God the Son. Alongside these chapters we might also put what Paul says about "the body of Christ" in his epistles, and what Peter says hin 1 Peter 2 about living stones being built into a spiritual house).

How might this reading apply to our lives?

First, all such episodes in the gospels challenge us about whether what we call church (building, activities and events in the building) has itself fallen prey to the errors Jesus attacked re temple worship and associated activities. Some churches (in my experience), keen to raise needed funds, allow their premises to be hired out for purposes which some would question in respect of whether they compromise the church building as a 'house of prayer'.

Secondly, the contrast Jesus makes between the physical temple of Jerusalem and his 'body' as the new temple of God could make us think about what we do about being church. Most churches (as gatherings of believers) meet in churches (buildings purpose built to gather in), so generally there is nothing wrong with church buildings. But (or BUT) many of us experience attachments to church buildings which become unhealthy for the ongoing life of the gatherings of believers, constricting the growth and development of the 'body' of Christ.

Thirdly, and thinking specifically of Lent, Jesus models for us a life devoted to God. The zealousness of his actions flow from a heart centred on God. A season of 'self-examination and penitence' such as Lent is an appropriate time to ask ourselves whether we are devoted to God.

A question which we might profitably ask ourselves (picking out a word from verse 17 NRSV) is, 'What consumes us?'

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Sunday 28 February 2021 - Lent 2

 Theme(s): Self-denial / Taking up the cross / Following Jesus / Faith

Sentence: No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God (Romans 4:20).


Servant God, grant us opportunity
give us willingness
to serve you day by day;
that what we do
and how we bear each other's burdens,
may be our sacrifice to you. Amen.


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm 22:23-31

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

As best I can tell this reading is connected to the gospel reading via the epistle reading! 

The epistle reading talks of  what Jesus has done for us by dying and rising again (see the first verses of the gospel reading where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection). It also talks about 'inheriting the world' (Romans 4:13) which connects with Jesus' own talk about gaining or losing the world (Mark 8:33-37).

But the epistle reading also talks about Abraham and his faith, that against the odds his aged wife would bear a son who would begin the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham, and that through him and Sarah they would beget a great and flourishing nation. 

In these verses God restates his promise to Abraham re a great inheritance (verses 1-7) and Abraham is shown in verses 16-17 to not believe God!

Psalm 22:23-31

Jesus himself cited Psalm 22 while dying on the cross (verse 1) and he may in fact have recited the whole psalm. In these verses praise is given to the Lord on the other side (so to speak) of the affliction suffered in the first part of the psalm. In that way the psalm connects to Jesus' prediction in Mark 8:31 that he will suffer, die and rise again.

Romans 4:13-25

In context this passage is part of Paul's unfolding argument to the Romans concerning the righteousness of God, who receives it and how. In verse 13 Paul characterises the situation in terms of inheritance: 

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

The phrase 'inherit the world' connects this epistle to the gospel and reference there to 'gain the whole world' (Mark 8:36). But connections can also be made in respect of the purpose of Jesus dying and rising from the dead.

In the context of today's set of Lent 2 readings we might read this passage as a commentary on Jesus' teaching on discipleship in Mark 8:31-38. From that perspective this passage makes the point that 'faith' is the key to inheriting both the present and the future blessing God has for us.

Abraham exemplifies the faithful disciple who trusts God for what is promised but which is not yet seen. When Jesus teaches that denying self and taking up one's cross in order to follow him means a willingness to lose life in order to gain life, implicitly disciples of Jesus must be people of unwavering (Romans 4:20) faith.

Mark 8:31-38

Jesus is still in Galilee but he is seeing the cross ahead of him in Jerusalem. After the triumphs of healings, deliverances and feeding miracles, it must have been a shock to the disciples when Jesus began teaching them 'that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected ... and be killed'. We can readily imagine that after that triad they did not really comprehend 

'and after three days rise again' (31).

Having confessed that Jesus was the Messiah (29), Peter could not more clearly demonstrate that he had no idea what kind of Messiah Jesus was than his blurted rebuke (32). Jesus calls him out by highlighting his false understanding through addressing him as 'Satan' (33). Ouch! Jesus then goes on to carefully clarify what is wrong: Peter is thinking 'human things' rather than 'divine things' (33).

What Jesus then goes on to say, notably to 'the crowd with his disciples' (34) explains what 'divine things' versus 'human things' mean for every day living: a different kind of Messiah has different kind of followers from the Messiah Peter has in mind.

In summary, Jesus says that the suffering he will undergo will be the suffering his followers undergo. Through history this has proven to be the case as Christians have been martyred for their faith. Martyrdom continues to be a feature of Christian life in the twenty-first century especially in countries loathe to tolerate a faith different to the presumptive religion or ideology of the state.

Our question, reading what Jesus says, is a question not only about how we might conduct ourselves through the demanding season of Lent but also how we will conduct ourselves through the demanding years of life itself!

When Jesus says "If any want to become my followers" (34), he is laying it on the line. He might have said, "Do you really understand what it means to be my followers? Let me lay it on the line for you, unvarnished, raw and robust!"

What is laid on the line is this:

"let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (34).

A first reflection is to connect this back to the 'divine things' of verse 33: if we are serious about God then we cannot live life as we please but must live to please God and in that living be open to the whole life of God filling out lives. 

Thus the cost of that fullness of divine life is that we deny self, that is, open the whole of our lives to God. Yet here on earth, living the divine life, as Jesus is doing, is not to enjoy the applause of the world but its fear and antagonism which may lead literally to a cross and metaphorically leads to living as ones willing at any time to die for Christ.

A second reflection is provided by Jesus himself in verses 35-37. Very few people are willing to die for no return. Human nature looks for value in exchange for value: life is valuable so why deny self and be prepared to be crucified?

This is Jesus' answer:

"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?"

Note that Jesus' characterises the possibilities of loss and gain in following him in a way which actually makes the non-follower liable to lose more than the follower!

But what do we make of these words? Our world is weighted towards the importance of this earthly life, exemplified by the desire of most people to live as long as possible, eagerly embracing every advance in medical treatment to prolong life. In living that longer life we then find ourselves attempting to live the fullest life possible, exemplified by the desire of many people to travel far and wide to experience as much of the variety of life on earth as we can absorb. Is it now harder than in Jesus' own day to contemplate that the best life is yet to be, is to be found by travelling to the other side of death and not to the other side of the planet?

Questions such as these take on an edge when we read the last verse of the passage. Jesus envisages what most of us try not to think about: a day of reckoning 

'when he comes in the glory of the Father and with the holy angels' (38b). 

On that day what will be revealed about ourselves? Will we be among those who are 

'ashamed of [Jesus] and [his] words'?

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Sunday 21 February 2021 - Lent 1

 Theme(s): Covenant / Suffering / Lent / Salvation / Baptism / Temptation and Testing / Wilderness

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


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


Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15


Introductory Comment:

We read these readings from the perspective of Lent. The Genesis and 1 Peter readings raise many questions which will not be dealt with here. Rather we focus on what they contribute to our journey with Jesus through Lent to the cross.

Genesis 9:8-17

This reading is connected to our epistle reading (see below). At the heart of the story of Noah is the question of relationship between God and humanity, a relationship which has gone very seriously wrong. 

With the flood, God destroys the unrighteous and saves, via the ark, the righteous (i.e. Noah and his family). In these verses God says that this mammoth act of judgment will not occur again. The rainbow will function as a sign of God's covenant not to act in this way again.

Thus a central theme in the story is God's willingness to engage verbally with humanity, via covenants which spell out what God's plan for humanity is. Soon there will be a covenant with Abraham, then with Moses, followed by a Davidic covenant and then the promise of a new covenant.

Although Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus does not mention a rainbow, it does mention the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove (which also features in the story of Noah). In other words, the covenant-making God is at work in the story of the baptism of Jesus.

Every covenant God makes, including this one here, is part of the assurance through words, that God cares for the world and is committed to the salvation of God's people.

Psalm 25:1-10

What is Lent? In part it is a time of learning, of discipline, of care and attention to the obedient life of a disciples of Christ. Verses 4-5 point us in the direction we need to go; with a reinforcement in verses 8-10.

1 Peter 3:18-22

This reading and Genesis 9:8-17 (from the story of Noah) are obviously linked together, but what is the link to the gospel reading on this first Sunday in Lent?

I suggest the link is provided by the first and last verses of the passage: Jesus 'suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God' (with v. 22 observing that this suffering was vindicated).

In Lent we journey with the suffering Jesus, the Jesus who suffers by resisting Satan's temptations, suffers by bending his will to God's will as he travels to Jerusalem knowing the destiny which awaits him, suffers false accusations, a manipulated set of trials, mocking, scourging and finally suffers crucifixion itself.

Verses 19-21 are food for commentarial thought. Peter segues off 'alive in the spirit' in v. 18 to talk about what Jesus then did. The narrative of preaching to imprisoned spirits is connected to the creedal phrase 'descended to the dead' and to 1 Peter 4:6. Beyond that we have no other testimony in Holy Scripture to this action by Jesus. What is Peter saying? Can the spirits of dead disobedient people be released to new life in God? (Cue discussion of praying for the dead, talk of Purgatory and so forth.)

If so, note that Peter does not say anything about whether we should pray about such release. Was this action of Jesus a 'one off' proclamatory event? That is, was it an event we should not rely on as precedent for what happens (say) to ourselves re a future 'second chance' should we choose to live disobediently to God? I'll stop my brief discussion here, for reasons of insufficient time. But clearly a long and lively discussion could ensue. Either way, I do not think these verses are the reason why this reading is chosen for this day.

Verses 20-21 take us to Noah, as an exemplary figure from a time when the inhabitants of the earth 'did not obey'. He then says that when Noah's family were saved in the ark in the midst of the flooding of the earth it was a 'prefiguring' (or, we can say, 'type') of baptism (another link with the gospel reading).

Verse 21 is then a theology of baptism: this needs careful thought lest we misunderstand what is being said. I will make just one point here: when Peter writes 'And baptism ... now saves you' he is not saying that we just need to be baptised and we are saved. His point is more subtle than that, because he integrates baptism into the state of our consciences and understands a 'good conscience' as coming 'through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.' Salvation comes through Jesus Christ and we receive salvation as we receive Christ and that, reading the rest of the epistle, involves our inner faith as much as the outer baptism of water. Baptised people do not trust in their baptism as a kind of ticket to eternal life - baptised people live into their baptism, live into the Christ into whom they have been baptised.

Mark 1:9-15

Although this passage begins with the baptism of Jesus, we have already tackled this event/theme in this year's Year A readings. Our focus today is on verses 12 and 13, the immediate aftermath of the baptism, in which the Spirit drives Jesus 'out into the wilderness.'

Mark tells us that Jesus 'was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.'

We can read a lot into these words. The wilderness was the place where Israel was tested between leaving Egypt and entering the promised land, with 40 days here matching 40 years of Israel's sojourn through the wilderness. Israel is God's Son and now Jesus Christ, the Son of God is tested like the whole people he represents. But Elijah, a prophet with many resemblances to Jesus' prophetic ministry, also went into the wilderness for 40 days (1 Kings 19:4-8).

The specific reference to Satan tempting Jesus recalls (at least) the temptation of Adam and Eve and the testing of Job. If Jesus is to be the 'one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world' then he needs to pass the test which Adam and Eve failed. If Jesus is to truly suffer or experience true suffering, then he, like Job, must be tested through suffering.

The wild beasts are more difficult to interpret. Is this reference to the extent of the wilderness experience: wild beasts threatened to devour him? Or, does this mention imply that when Jesus was with the wild beasts, they were tamed by him who has come to reverse the effects of the fall? The latter is more likely because Mark makes nothing of the threat to Jesus, but in a story about the Saviour who restores the world it makes sense to include references to the ways in which God's new creation is taking effect.

The ministry of the angels recalls both the ministering angels to Israel during its forty years in the wilderness as well as the angel ministering to Elijah during his wilderness experience.

Coming out of the wilderness, Jesus begins to preach the gospel and to inaugurate the kingdom.

The specific sequence of 'baptism' then 'temptation' may not be the typical experience of every Christian disciples, but most disciples experience sharp testing at times in our walk with the Lord. Many of us as disciples recall moments of "high" spiritual experience followed by "low" experiences.

If we think of the wilderness experience as 'preparation for ministry' then we are reminded here that our efforts to minister in Jesus' name are best served by appropriate preparation.

If we match the opportunities in Lent for special prayer and fasting with this reading then we may be helped to think of how such prayer and fasting is an identification with Christ in his battle with the devil.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Sunday 14 February 2021 - Ordinary 6 [Epiphany 6]

Sunday 14 February is the last Sunday in the Epiphany season and the last Sunday before Lent begins this coming Wednesday 17 February 2021.

Theme(s): healing / Cleansing / Faithfulness

Sentence: You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. (Psalm 30:11-12)


Mighty God,
strong, loving and wise,
help us to depend upon your goodness
and to place our trust in your Son.


2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45


2 Kings 5:1-14

Sometimes matching the Old Testament reading with the Gospel has the feel of matching the right wine with the main dish for the day. Here the meat of Jesus healing a leper is matched with the wine of God healing Naaman from leprosy.

A common experience between the two stories is suffering from leprosy but from there most points of possible comparison do not match. Naaman is a named and high ranking Aramean: the gospel leper is unnamed and no particular importance is attached to him. Naaman is healed 'at a distance' whereas Jesus heals the leper with a touch.

But the end result is the same: both lepers are 'clean' as a result of their healing. We cannot underestimate the importance of that word: lepers had a poor social status, people avoiding them in the hope of avoiding catching leprosy. Healing meant not only the end of the disease but also the restoration of social status as a 'clean' person.

Psalm 30

This psalm speaks of a psalmist in pitiable circumstances who has been brought out of them, from death to life so to speak. So the Lord is extolled and praised (as we might imagine the leper in today's gospel story might praise the Lord after being healed).

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Paul is not afraid to mix metaphors. He moves from a kind of drama metaphor (verses 19-23), becoming all things to all people, to a sporting metaphor (strictly, a set of sporting metaphors). In the process he switches topics a little, from winning the world for Christ to making sure he does not lose his share in the blessings of the gospel (23). But by the end of 27 he is back to the matter of proclaiming the gospel.

His point is simple. Those who will be ultimately and permanently blessed by the gospel are those who remain faithful in the ministry of the gospel to the end.

Just as Paul does all he can to win others for Christ, so he will do all he can to remain faithful in the service of the gospel. He is not here talking about qualifying for the blessings (that has been done for him by Christ) but of avoiding disqualification. The emphasis on 'self-control' in the passage implies that we could disqualify ourselves by failing to be faithful in our obedience to God through the long course of our lives.

Mark 1:40-45

Mark is a seriously good story teller! On the face of it, this is the story of the healing of a leper. Rightly we marvel at the miracle and, as readers, become more and more impressed through a succession of such stories by Mark's overall aim to persuade his readers (or reinforce their belief) that Jesus is the Son of God.

But digging deeper into the story (or, alternatively, reading the story slowly so we take in each nuanced detail), we see Mark telling us a number of things about Jesus and his life situation.

The leper has implicit faith in Jesus: if Jesus chooses he can heal him; if not, he will not be healed (40).

Is it a mixture of need (the man's leprosy), the humble begging on his knees and the simple trusting faith which means Jesus is 'Moved with pity'? (41).*

Jesus responds to the direct question about choosing to heal by saying 'I do choose. Be made clean!' (41) But this conversational logic raises the question of the role of God's will in healing: does God sometimes will healing to take place, and by implication, sometimes will for healing not to take place?

Then, the attitude and approach of the leper begs the question whether the way we pray makes a difference to God's will to heal. Food for thought! Mark is not telling the story in this way to establish a comprehensive 'theology of prayer for healing' but he must have been alert to questions of his fellow disciples when he wrote. Questions such as, Does the risen Jesus still heal today? Is it God's will to heal my sickness? When he reports Jesus saying 'I do choose', at the very least, he is expressing the view that healing is not guaranteed every time we ask for it.

The report in 42 that 'Immediately' the man was healed is part and parcel of Mark's overall strategy of presenting Jesus as the powerful Son of God.

The next few verses begin/continue a theme in the gospel called 'the Messianic Secret.' Jesus asks the recipient of a miracle not to say anything about it.

('Begin' if we think about humans being commanded to say nothing; 'continue' if we think about demons already commanded to be silent, 1:34).

Why would Jesus not want the world to know about such a powerful demonstration of his divinity?

Cutting through a whole lot of scholarly discussion the best answer remains (in my view) that Jesus sought to control the reception of his ministry, lest it generate the wrong kind of following.

A man making the unclean clean is a man with potential to change society (because able to shift people from the margins to the centre), that is, to be a political messiah, a new king threatening the colluding rule of Herod and Caesar. Jesus has come to establish a different kind of kingdom, not least because it is not going to be confined to the geographical territory of Israel. The moment for revealing that kingdom plan has not yet arrived.

But it is to no avail. The man goes out and about proclaiming the miracle freely and so 'to spread the word' (45). Ironically, Mark portrays one who disobeys Jesus while acting as a model disciple-witness! The gospel which Mark is writing is a message to be proclaimed and spread around the world ... at the right time.

A final subtlety to note is Jesus' insistence that the cleansed leper does the right thing by the Law of Moses (44). In this respect, 'as a testimony to them (= the laws of Moses)' means that Jesus is not intending to be anything other than a Law-abiding Jew. That, later, he will get into trouble with his contemporary guardians of the Law will be their false understanding of the Law and not his disobedience of it. Mark makes this point along the way of this story. It is not his main point but he makes sure it is made as a minor note within it.

*Important note: actually quite a lot is going on in the Greek underlying "moved with pity" and also, seemingly relatedly, in the Greek in v. 45 underlying "sternly charged him ... sent him away." There is a strong argument for an alternative Greek word to the one versions translate with "moved with pity/compassion": this alternative, according to the argument, would be the original, and the Greek for "moved with pity/compassion" would be a later adjustment to soften the raw emotion of the original which means "moved with anger." In verse 45 there is also a rawness and a roughness in Jesus sternly telling the man not to say anything and to being sent away: there is a note in the Greek of yelling at the man and brusquely pushing him away!

Why would Jesus be angry, according to v. 41 and rude, according to v. 45? One possibility (according to scholars) is that Jesus is cross that illness stalks the earth, and leprosy in particular could have aroused his anger because it led in his time to people being excluded from normal life. Then the rude treatment of the healed man is Jesus' strength of concern, even of anxiety, that this man's miraculous healing does not become the cause of misunderstanding (see further above about "secrecy.")

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sunday 7 February 2021 - Epiphany 5

 Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Obligation to preach / All things to all people

Sentence: Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up (Mark 1:31)


"Healing God,
in the touch of Jesus the sick were healed,
the chains unbound.
Freedom is before us.
Set us on a new path of wholeness,
deliver us from all that binds us,
turn us to embrace that life giving love
offered through Jesus Christ,
who is alive and lives with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen."


Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39


Isaiah 40:21-31

Isaiah 40 is the beginning of the second part of Isaiah which is (so to speak) a charter for the future restoration of creation (i.e. the kingdom of God), including the restoration of Israel from its Babylonian exile (the immediate issue facing God's people at the time of writing).

In this part of the beginning of the charter, the prophet paints a verbal picture of the transcendent might and power of God, yet a power and awesomeness which is personal: the weary in Israel will receive new strength and power from the Almighty God (27-31).

These last verses are the particular connection with the gospel reading today as we see new strength come to Peter's mother-in-law.

But the first part of the Isaianic reading reminds us that from Isaiah onwards 'God' in Israel's theology was re-envisioned as God of the whole world, not just of Israel. In a context where nations had their gods, and even tribes had tribal gods, the 'theological achievement' of Isaiah is not to be under valued.

When Jesus comes, the kingdom of God which he proclaims is not only the new rule of God over Israel but also the rule of God over the whole world.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

This psalm sets a context for the compassionate miracles of Jesus recounted in Mark's Gospel. What Jesus does is God in action, as anticipated here: 'He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds' (3).

One phrase particularly links with Mark's story of the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law: 'The Lord lifts up the downtrodden' (6b, see Mark 1:29-31 where Jesus takes the woman by the hand and 'lifts her up').

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Paul's letter is a series of responses to situations in the church in Corinth, and one situation appears to be Corinthian Christians questioning Paul's status as an 'apostle' (see verses 1-15).

Possibly there were multiple questions such as, Is Paul really an apostle like Cephas? Does he have the status of the (real) apostles and the brothers of the Lord? He's paid too much, isn't he? The last question (it seems reasonable to presume such a question was being asked, see verses 6-14) invokes intriguing talk of "rights", otherwise a concept which we might think to be recent and modern!

Out of a defensive rejoinder to the grizzling about him (1-15) Paul hits a purple patch about the special character of his apostleship in our passage.

(1) Whatever anyone says about him, 'an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel' (16). Paul can only do what he is doing because there is no alternative: the will of God constrains him to one and only one direction of life.

(2) Preaching the gospel is its own reward (17-18, also 23).

(3) Short of changing the essence of the gospel, Paul will do anything in order to win people to Christ. If he needs to be Jewish 'in order to win Jews' he will be Jewish (20); if he needs to be a non-Jew 'so that I might win those outside of the law' he will become 'as one outside the law' (21). In fact, cutting to his own summary, 'I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some' (22).

The great question for declining churches in the world today is what must we become to be 'all things to all people'?

Mark 1:29-39

One of the theories about the authorship of Mark's Gospel is that it was written by John Mark but what he wrote down was largely the teaching of Simon Peter, perhaps as he taught in the churches in Rome in the 60s AD.

(We have the theory because ancient church history attests to this explanation, but we cannot prove that it is fact - the ascription of the gospel to John Mark but based on Simon Peter is not as ancient as the likely time of writing of the gospel itself. There may be an element of wishful thinking on the part of ancient church historians because they had to justify why we might think a gospel according to one who was not one of the Twelve can be considered a reliable gospel. A challenging question if Mark's Gospel is more or less Peter's memoirs of Jesus is why so little of the teaching of Jesus is not included, compared with Matthew and Luke).

If Simon Peter is the author(ity) behind the author then it is understandable that this passage includes an intimate family story: Simon's mother in law is ill, Jesus comes as a guest to her house, heals her and she repays the favour by serving Jesus and the disciples (29-31). But Mark tells the story in a manner which is theological as well as biographical.

First, a healing with names highlights the general point Mark will go on to make: Jesus healed many people (32-34) and these healings were integrated into the mission of preaching the kingdom of God is near (1:15, 38-39). Always in this gospel, deeds back up words and words are accompanied by deeds. If the kingdom of God is near we would expect illness to be overcome, since illness is a denigration of the original kingdom of God, creation itself; and we would expect demons, antagonists against the rule of God, to be expelled (34, 39).

Secondly, Mark makes a theological point when he tells us that Jesus physically led her out of illness to new life: 'he took her by the hand and lifted her up' (31). Illness has cast her down but Jesus lifts her up. There is a hint here of resurrection. There is more than a hint of a work of restoration. Healing is not simply the removal of illness from a person's life but a work of renewal of life.

Thirdly, by telling us that when she was lifted up, Peter's mother in law 'served them', Mark also makes a point that the work of the kingdom, the restoring of health, is purposeful for the ongoing life of the kingdom in which the hallmark of relationships with one another is that we serve each other (see importantly 10:45).

Finally, note that Mark picks up another 'marker' in the life of Jesus when he interrupts his telling of the progress of the preaching of the kingdom by recounting an intimate detail of Jesus' life with God: Jesus took time out to go out to the wilderness to pray. Here, Mark is saying, is both the secret of Jesus' power (his relationship with God) and a model for disciples reading the gospel (we too, like Jesus, should go to quite places for quiet times of prayer).

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sunday 31 January 2021 - Epiphany 4

(NZL provides for the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or Candlemas, otherwise set down for 2 February, to be celebrated today. I see no particular reason to do that, other than sentiment over the fact that 2 February is 40 days from Christmas and this ties in with the gospel reading. 

Why go back to the childhood of Jesus in a series of sermons when we can move forward through the Sundays of Epiphany and the unfolding story of the revelation of God in the ministry of Jesus from his baptism onwards? It also happens that the Gospel reading for Presentation, Luke 2:22-40, was the gospel on Christmas 1 (27 December 2020). But, if you insist, and press forward with Presentation, you may find the comments on the gospel reading here helpful.)

Epiphany 4

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

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


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


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


Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The words of this passage are background to the gospel reading today. While we may properly explore the ways in which Jesus was 'more than' a prophet, he was never less than a prophet of God, one, that is, distinctively called of God to proclaim the message of God often in contrast or even opposition to prevailing understanding of God and God's will according to the religious establishment of Israel.

Thus here, where there is both prediction that God 'will raise up for you a prophet like me' (15) and prospectus (so to speak) of what the prophet will be like and how Israel will know that this prediction has been fulfilled, we are invited to read the passage and measure Jesus against it.

Psalm 111

The words of this psalm are background to the gospel reading today. When Jesus acts in power and teaches with authority he does so as the representative, indeed as the embodiment of the God of Israel, the God who, according to this psalm, performs great works which are 'studied by all who delight in him' (2), who (like Jesus in the gospel reading) 'has gained renown by his wonderful deeds' (4).

A recurring theme here is God's covenant with Israel (5, 9): when Jesus comes to Israel, he comes in fulfilment of the great covenant of God, revealed in different ways and on different occasions, through Abraham, Moses and David, yet essentially the one covenant, that God will be ISrael's God and Israel will be God's people.

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

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we receive the teaching of Jesus as authoritative?

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