Saturday, February 23, 2013

Lent 3 Sunday 3 March 2013

03 March (Lent 3) – Peter Carrell

Possible Theme                  Are we bearing fruit?    

Sentence             We have rebelled against the Lord our God who still shows mercy and forgiveness. (Daniel 9:9) [NZPB, 576]

Collect                  Merciful God,
                                Grant to your faithful people pardon and peace;
                                That we may serve you with a quiet mind;
                                Through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen. [NZPB, p. 577]         
Isaiah 55:1-9 For my thoughts are not your thoughts
Psalm 63:1-8 Your steadfast love is better than life
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Watch out that you do not fall
                         Luke 13:1-9 Unless you repent

Our gospel reading is a tough one (just like last week!) at least in the sense that two or more different messages present themselves (vv. 1-5, Jesus responds to the suffering of the innocent; vv. 6-9, the importance of being fruitful disciples). A possible single message through the reading concerns repentance: the prospect of death and God's judgement on us (which may be one event) urges us to repent, lest we be found wanting by God. To this message the story of the fig tree offers a small variation: there may be a little delay which gives us opportunity to get our lives in order and begin to bear fruit.

From another perspective, these nine verses are about Israel (symbolised by the fig tree), the people to whom Jesus has come as God's "gardener". Israel is guilty of sin, everyone, not just people who have recently and tragically died. God wants to deal with them immediately but in his mercy he allows his Son, the gardener, to work over Israel a little, giving her one more opportunity to bear the fruit of repentance (see 3:8). Tragically, for Israel, it will prove to be true that despite the work of the "gardener", she will be destroyed by Rome in 70 AD, never again to be reconstituted as a nation until the 20th century.

From this sobering perspective we read 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 and hear Paul's careful warning to watch out that we do not fall to the wiles of the devil, as, indeed, past generations of God's people have done.

But why bother with God, the cynic might say. It is all very well repenting of sin, but doesn't that lead to a joyless, fun-sapped life? Reading Isaiah 55 and Psalm 63 together, the counterpoint is made. Life with God is a rich feast. God offers much. But will we invest in God, will we 'come, buy, eat' from God (Isaiah 55: 1) or will we 'spend our money on that which is not bread' (55:2)?

The prospects are enticing, but they are obtained by seeking the Lord while he may be found (55:6), that is, seeking one who is utterly different to us, whose ways are not our ways and thoughts are not our thoughts (55:8-9). Will we seek this God who is no idol made in our image and after our likeness? The psalmist, clearly, has done this seeking and found the secret to life with God. His poetic verses spell out his yearning for the deeper life with God, for a richer experience of the divine presence, a yearning which is fulfilled:

'Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you ... My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast ... (vv. 3, 5).

Surely such fulfilment is worth repenting for and watching lest we do not receive it!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday 24 February 2013 Lent 2

Theme                  When the world does not understand Christ      

Sentence             Rend your hearts and not your garments; turn back to the Lord your God who is gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and abounding in love. (Joel 2:13) [NZPB, p. 575]

Collect                  Almighty God,
                                Give your people grace to withstand
                                The temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil,
                                And with pure hearts and minds to follow you,
                                The only true God;
                                Through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen. [NZPB, p. 575]
   Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18     
   Psalm 27
   Philippians 3:17-4:1
                           Luke 13:31-35

Anyone reading this week's gospel reading should be quite dramatic when reading Jesus' words "Go and tell that fox for me ..." with special emphasis on the word "fox". If it makes Jesus sound angry, all the better. I think he was angry about Herod. Probably also about Jerusalem. Here is Jesus at his most raw state: as any human being would be when their life is threatened and the city they love most is rejecting their help.

In other words, as we walk with Jesus through Lent, under Luke's guidance, on the way to the cross in Jerusalem, we have to face the fact that this was no walk in the park. Jesus was a fugitive from injustice yet he kept up with his intentions: to present himself in Jerusalem as the only fit place for a prophet to be killed. Jerusalem was not a safe place for Jesus, yet he loved Jerusalem and longed like a hen gathering her brood under her wings to gather her children together. But Jerusalem was "not willing" (13:34). This great city rejected God advancing in love to her through Jesus Christ.

What are we to make of this passage with its dark shadows and raw emotions?

Let's come to that question by looking at the other passages. In Philippians Paul urges his readers onwards in imitating himself, his own life lived in imitation of Christ. That Christ he eagerly looks forward to, as he will transform the earthly circumstances of our lives - the ones that cause so much trouble - so that our bodies may be conformed to "the body of his glory" (3:21). To this end they are to stand firm (4:1). The alternative is (sadly) apparent in some lives, those who live "as enemies of the cross of Christ" exemplified, among other things, by their minds being set on "earthly things" (4:18, 19). Paul has an understanding of Christ's suffering, of what the walk to Jerusalem cost Christ. He cannot bear to now be against Christ (as he once was) because the suffering Christ experienced on the cross means that life can be different for Paul, and for all of us. So Paul is a friend of the cross of Christ because the crucified Christ has befriended him.

Psalm 27 speaks to you, me, Paul and Jesus when we face opposition:

"The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" 

Whom indeed shall we fear when we live in the strength and confidence the psalmist, likely David, shows in this lovely psalm - lovely in its yearning to see God's face. What is the purpose of Jerusalem as the city of God? To be the place where we meet God. Why is Jesus so distressed over Jerusalem? Because it has become the opposite of what God intended it to be Why must Jesus die there? To open the way for people to meet God face to face!

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 takes us back to the beginning of Israel: a childless Abram is promised that his childlessness is no impediment to becoming the father of a great nation. What does Abram do?

"And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness."

The psalmist does not give in to fear. Abram does not give in to reasonable doubts. Paul looks ahead to a new day and so stands firm in the present day.

Our gospel takes us to Jesus at a low moment on a difficult journey. The surrounding readings take us to great heroes of the faith, to Abram, David and Paul, and show us ways in which we can face low moments in our walk with Christ.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday 17 February 2013 Lent 1

Theme                  When we are tempted
Sentence             Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in    time of distress. (Isaiah 33:2) [NZPB, p. 574]         
Collect                  Almighty God,
                                Your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
                                Give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
                                And as you know our weakness
                                So may we know your power to save;
                                Through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen. [NZPB, p. 574]         
        Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 God's protection
        Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Offering of first fruits
        Romans 10:8b-13 Who will be saved
                                Luke 4:1-13 Temptation of Jesus

Jesus is tempted at the beginning of his ministry. A kind of initiation trial tests his resolve and intention as God's Messiah. After this Jesus' resolve to obey God's will is not further tested until the last night of his life (the 'opportune time' in 4:13 is found in Luke 22:3, 28, 53 and 22:39-46). 

Observe that the trial is a combination of deprivation (he does not eat for forty days) and temptations (actually, likely more than the three we are told about since it was 'for forty days he was tempted by the devil', v. 2)

Of what character are the temptations? What is offered is the slightest of deviations from the will of God for Jesus' Messiahship. The first and third temptations (if succumbed to) would involve miracles with strong similarity to what actually occurs in Jesus' ministry (he feeds people bread, he is protected from harm until his trial and crucifixion). The second temptation offers Jesus a vast kingdom in the world over which he will rule, that is, a kingdom to all intents and purposes like the kingdom of God, but it would be the kingdom of the devil, not of God. As disciples of Jesus the strongest temptations we will experience are those that look like what the devil wants is what God wants. 

The way Jesus responds to the temptations is a model for how disciples should respond when tempted: to the devil's perverse, twisted 'theology', Jesus responds with a Scripture-based theology: one does not live by bread alone, only God is to be worshipped, and God is not to be tested. To the third temptation with its subtle development that the devil himself quotes from Scripture (from our Psalm reading), Jesus replies as previously by citing from Scripture. How does one Scripture trump another Scripture? The implication on this occasion is that a general promise of God that he will protect his servants applies to the servants living their lives in the usual way. They are not instructed to deliberately provoke God to fulfil this promise. Rather they are to live their lives trusting that God sees their need and will respond in God's time.

Interestingly, when Jesus' citations of Scripture all come from Deuteronomy, our Old Testament reading is yet another passage from Deuteronomy, a passage which speaks of the offering of first fruits of the harvest to God as a sign of thanksgiving for God's gracious care of Israel. Nevertheless there is a connection between that passage and our gospel passage: Israel can offer the first fruits because it has come into its inheritance of the promised land only after experiencing the trials and tribulations of life in Egypt: the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims and which disciples enter is only going to be experienced in its fullness once Jesus experience of death and resurrection has been completed and disciples also have walked with Jesus and shared also in his sufferings (see Luke 22:28).

In the context of these readings, Romans 10:8b-13 is a mirror to Psalm 91. Through the psalmist God promises salvation to those who make their shelter in the Almighty; through the apostle Paul declares that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. The difference lies in the scope of salvation envisaged. The psalmist has Israel (i.e. the Jews) in mind; Paul explicitly preaches that salvation is for 'Jew and Greek'. In this way, the victory of Jesus over the devil's temptations has been important: the true rule of God over every part of the earth, that is, over all nations has come by strict obedience to God's plan for salvation and not by succumbing to the devil's lookalike plan.

Finally, we should observe the role of the Holy Spirit in the temptation of Jesus. The Spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness, that is, what is going to happen there is part of God's plan. While not said explicitly, the implication of Jesus being 'full of the Holy Spirit' is that this power within him was vital to the battle which followed. The Holy Spirit both strengthens Jesus and brings to his mind the truth of God as expressed in the Scriptures he cites. Dare we engage in Lenten disciplines without the filling of the Holy Spirit?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday 10 February 2013

10 February (Epiphany 5) 

Theme                  If God says so, will we let down the nets?           

Sentence            The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14; NZPB, p. 568).

Collect                  Lord Jesus Christ,
                             before whose judgment seat we shall appear;
                             enable us to see ourselves as you see us,
                              to repent and to change,
                              and to be found worthy to bear your name.

Isaiah 6:1-8 The call and commissioning of Isaiah
Psalm 138 David praises God
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 The resurrection
                        Luke 5:1-11 The call of the fishermen

If we begin with our gospel reading then we have a story of call, commissioning and change, each of which theme is illuminated by the other readings.

Luke, noticeably offering a variant to the calling of the (fishermen) disciples in Matthew's and Mark's gospels, tells us that when Simon Peter, James and John were called to be disciples of Jesus, they had an unusual encounter with Jesus. Plying their trade as fishermen, they found Jesus in one of their boats. After teaching the crowds, he suggested to the fishermen that they catch some fish. The fishermen, to say the least, were not impressed. They had just finished a forlorn night catching nothing. Nevertheless they honoured (or even humoured) Jesus by following his suggestion. We can only imagine their surprise at the haul they brought up, and their consternation that it threatened to capsize their boats. The shock of this unexpected and surprising outcome (a miraculous event) drives Peter to his knees to express his confession: Jesus should leave him, for he was a sinful man. We do not now what sin Peter had in mind, or the extent of his awareness of his sinfulness, but at the least we can imagine Peter confessing his failure to honour Jesus by implicitly trusting him instead of querulously saying that they had fished all night without success.

The catch of fish leads neatly into Jesus' commissioning the disciples: their call is to follow him, their commission is to from now on catch people. This call and commission is decisive for their lives and livelihoods: 'they left everything and followed him' (v. 11).

Psalm 138 illuminates the occasion: the God of Jesus Christ is a God who has regard for the lowly (in this world's eyes).

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 underlines the dramatic change in the fishing story: a night without fish becomes a day with a super-abundant catch. Put another way, in the gospel reading we meet humanity in despair: great effort has met with no success. Surely all is lost and only despair is possible. But Jesus comes and turns the situation upside down: many fish are caught and hope for a flourishing life is restored. Resurrection, the change from death to life is a parallel change from despair to hope. Wherever Jesus, the One Raised By God, is, there is hope. What situations are we encountering in which all seems lost and continuing seems pointless? Is Jesus telling us to let down our nets one further time?

Finally, one of the most famous call and commissioning stories in the Old Testament, that of Isaiah's, is recounted in Isaiah 6. In its own way it is as dramatic as our gospel story. Essentially the commission of Isaiah and of the disciples is the same: to speak out God's word is to catch people. People are 'caught' into God's kingdom through responding to the proclamation of the Word of God.