It being the holiday season this post (which will be developed as and when non-beach, non-cricket listening/watching, non-laziness overcomes me) encompasses three Sundays, respectively, 2nd Sunday of Christmas [making a choice to keep Epiphany to its mid-week fall on Tuesday 6th January), Baptism of the Lord, and 2nd Sunday of Epiphany. Comments likely will be briefer than during the main part of the year.
Sunday 4 January - 2nd Sunday of Christmas
Theme(s): The Word (of God) / Glory and grace / Christ blesses us / The deep meaning of Christmas
Sentence: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)
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.
Through Jeremiah, God looks forward to a better day for Israel. Israel scattered through exile will be returned and restored, the fulfilment of the promises of ancient days to the patriarchs.
As Christians we read this prophecy in the light of the coming of Jesus to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God for Israel. But the better day for Israel, through Christ, will become a better day for the whole world. See, for example, from our gospel reading, "the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world."
The psalmist envisages the prosperity of Israel and does so in terms of the creation itself. When the world was created, new life came into being through the command of God, through the word of God making things happen (Genesis 1). Now God's word (15, 18, 19, 20) acts on nature for the good of God's people.
The same word of God, incidentally, as spoken of through 15-20 commands nature and constitutes the commands as know as 'the Law' (19-20).
This psalm, of course, is chosen with an eye on our gospel reading about the Word of God which is God and which became human flesh in order that God's people might be blessed.
Ephesians is a great theological document in its own right as it sets out a vision of the universal, comprehensive scope of God's plan for the world, including the comprehension of all of time, from beginning to end.
Today we read it in tandem with our gospel reading and find some important connections. 'In the beginning was the Word' (John 1:1) connects with 'he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world' (Ephesians 1:4). Talk of becoming the children of God in John 1:12-13 intersects with Ephesians 1:5. John sets out the glory and grace of Christ in one way (1:14-17) while Paul writing in Ephesians 1:6-7 does so in another way. Both passages have in view the concept of fullness - both the fullness of time and the fullness of life (see, respectively, John 1:1-5, 14, 16; Ephesians 1:3, 7, 10).
A whole book could be written on this passage, sometimes called the Prologue to the Gospel of John. In large part the book would be a set of 18 reflections, each verse full of profound content for our understanding of God, of Christ, of God's plan for Christ (and therefore for us), of light and life and truth. Another part of the book would attend to a range of "issues." The background to the Prologue, for instance, with special reference to God's Wisdom and Word in the Old Testament as well as to the Logos (= Word) in Greek philosophy. There is a literary question to consider around the source or sources to the Prologue. Then something simply has to be said about the 'foreground' to the Prologue, that is, about the role it has played in the development of the church's theological understanding of who Jesus Christ was and is (i.e. 'Christology'). In a nutshell, without this passage we almost certainly would not be reciting the Nicene Creed in our services!
Here we will not provide the book but make the observation that while this passage can be read profitably at any time of the year, we read it within the Christmas season because it offers profound insight into 'the reason for the season.' Although the Prologue says absolutely nothing about the conception or birth of Jesus, let alone about his parents, angels, shepherds, wise men, sheep, oxen, straw or swaddling clothes, it says everything about why he came into the world (5, 7, 9, 12, 16, 17, 18) and what the nature of his coming was: nothing less than 'The Word became flesh' (14).
In summary, the Prologue says that at Christmas, God was born into the world in the baby Jesus. More succinctly, God became human.
The point of this amazing transformation of God is not that we should goggle-eyed yelp in amazement at a stupendous miracle. Rather, the point is that we should join our lives with the One who came to live among us, understanding who the unseen God is, now made visible in the man Jesus Christ, shifting from darkness to life, from destiny to death to embracing the unsurpassed grace of God given to us in Christ.
Sunday 11 January - Baptism of the Lord
Theme(s): Baptism // Baptism of Jesus and our baptism // Baptism in water and the Holy Spirit
Sentence: 'I have baptized you with water; but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit' (Mark 1:8)
Open the heavens, Holy Spirit,
for us to see Jesus interceding for us;
may we be strengthened to share his cup,
and ready to serve him forever. Amen.
We read the first part of the creation story today because the 'beginning' of creation is the beginning of the story of humanity which goes horribly wrong and the 'beginning' of the gospel begins as Jesus comes to John to be baptised, a beginning of a new story of creation in which Jesus dying on the cross begins to unravel what has gone horribly wrong.
In that first beginning the Spirit of God 'was hovering over the waters' (Genesis 1:2). In the second beginning, Jesus is baptised with water and the Spirit (in a sense) hovers over Jesus in his baptism and descends on him as a sign of God's favour and as an action in which Jesus is empowered for his work in unraveling what has gone wrong for humanity.
This psalm is about the 'voice of the Lord' (3 etc). This voice is powerful and gives effect to God's will. The psalmist could speak simply of God's 'word' and its effects (including the commands which bring forth creation, Genesis 1) but by focusing on the 'voice' which utters the word of God, the psalmist emphasises the power of God's speech.
This is a very curious and very interesting episode in the history of the early church. It's curiosity lies in the bits of the narrative that raise more questions than answers. What kind of disciples or 'disciples' hear about Jesus but get baptised with John's baptism and not with Jesus' baptism? Were these disciples followers of John (with some knowledge of Jesus) or followers of Jesus (with some absence of knowledge of Jesus and his ways)?
The interest in the passage lies in its witness to the spread and endurance of the influence of John the Baptist. Here in Ephesus (i.e. in Turkey) either Ephesian people have been baptised into John's baptism or people who have been baptised into John's baptism have dispersed from Galilee/Judea to a city faraway.
Setting aside the historical interest in the influence of John the Baptist and (arguably) on the muddied waters of teaching and practice for some believers as they received both Baptist and Jesus traditions, the point Luke is getting across to his readers is a familiar one from other stories he tells: the hallmark of a believing disciple of Jesus (i.e. of a Christian) is reception of the Holy Spirit.
This is the same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus when he was baptised. Between the gospel reading and this reading today, we should gain and hold to a conclusion that baptism with water 'in the name of the Lord Jesus' is integrally associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit which Jesus pours out on all who believe in him.
If the 'beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah' occurs in the prophetic imagination of Isaiah (and Malachi), Mark 1:1-3, the beginning in terms of Jesus' own life, according to Mark, lies in the appearance of the adult John the Baptist (4).
John comes, as predicted by the prophets, to prepare the way for the Messiah called Jesus. He does so with a ministry of preaching, baptism and special premonition about the superiority of the one whose way he is preparing (4-8).
That Jesus is in an entirely different league to John the Baptist (who, to all appearances, interpreted in the light of the scriptures of Israel, is a prophet in the mode of Elijah) is underscored not only by John's description of his place relative to Jesus (7) but by the significant, category difference between their respective baptisms (8). John baptises with water, Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. One offers an outward sign of inner change (note that people were baptised by John in conjunction with repentance from and confessing of sin, 4-5); the other will offer divine power to change from within (8).
With the scene set by Mark, Jesus arrives (9). Jesus belongs to Nazareth, a town in Galilee (9) and he finds John at the Jordan river where John baptises him (9). So far so like everyone else ministered to by John. But as Jesus comes out of the water 'he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove' (10). The implication is that only Jesus experiences John's baptism in this way, that is, with a baptism of the Holy Spirit superimposed on his baptism with water. To seal the matter of the specialness of the occasion, 'a voice came from heaven' (i.e. the divine voice) citing words recalling (at least) Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:7, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (11).
What do these words mean? We should take care not to read too much into these words! As Mark tells the story of Jesus (perhaps around 60 or 70 AD), he is not telling us that the Trinitarian Father God declares that the Trinitarian God the Son is now present on earth. (Though we need not jump in an opposite direction and declare that these words are inconsistent with the later agreement of the church about the Trinity). Rather, Mark likely is understanding that Jesus is a fusion of the 'king of Israel' (knowing that the words in Psalm 2 similar to these applied to the ancient kings of Israel) and of the promised 'suffering servant' of Isaiah's 'Servant Songs', of which Isaiah 42:7 is a part.
In short, the declaration of verse 11 is coherent with Mark already declaring that Jesus is 'the Messiah' or Anointed One of God (see 1:1). Indeed the coming down of the Spirit on Jesus is the anointing direct from God of that symbolised by the pouring of oil in ancient Israelite enthronements.
The Messiah has come. Israel has a new king. But this king is not as other kings have been, and God is with this king in a special way, marked both by the descent of the Spirit on him and by the declaration of 'love' and 'pleasure' in verse 11.
Sometimes we talk about 'love coming down at Christmas' and Christmas messages often emphasise 'God loves everyone.' The twist in this reading is that God's love comes down on 'my Son' and if we ever doubt that God's love for everyone could possibly include you or me, then we can be sure of this: that when we belong to Christ we belong to the One whom God loves and so we too are loved.
From another perspective, this reading might challenge us about the meaning of baptism for each baptised believer in Christ. Christ came to baptise with the Holy Spirit. Christ himself at his baptism received the Holy Spirit. The reality of water baptism is that it offers through a human ritual access to the very Spirit of God. Arguments about how much water or (for that matter) whether a little bit of water from the Jordan River itself makes a difference to the effectiveness of the baptism are beside the point. The great question of baptism is not how much water we have been baptised with but whether the Spirit of God is at work in our lives.
Sunday 18 January - 2nd Sunday of Epiphany
Theme(s): Disclosure of God's knowledge // Hearing God's Word // God's truth or our opinion?
Sentence: You will see greater things than these (John 1:50)
in Christ you make all things new;
transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Appropriately in this season of Epiphany or revelation, we read of the calling of Samuel to be prophet. In one way the story is 'cute': a small boy, dedicated to the Lord by a devout mother, lives in the Temple and at a very young age is distinctively and memorably called by God to future service. Those of us who first heard the story in Sunday School will have never forgotten it.
In another way the story is part of a larger tragic story. Verse 1 sets the sad scene, 'The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.'
Eli, under whom Samuel is serving, is part of the problem (2:12-17; 22-25; 27-36), as his family is greedily misusing their position of priestly privilege. In turn that family represents troubled Israel who in the next few chapters will press God to do their will (they want a king like other nations) rather than the other way around.
So it is wonderful that God calls Samuel to serve him but sad that he has to call him rather than permit the ministry of Eli to continue through his own sons.
Remembering that we are in the season of Epiphany, we read this story not only as a 'call' story (with all the inspiration and challenge which such biblical stories have for us) but also as a story of God's revelation to God's people. We have already noted that the narrator of 1 Samuel tells us that the context of this calling is a period in Israel's history when 'the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread' (1). This means that we are reading about a period in Israel's history when the spoken word of God (whether voiced through prophets or communicated through visionaries) brings guidance to Israel rather than the written word of God.
In the midst of the telling of the exchange between Samuel, the (unrecognised) Lord, and Eli, we read this description of Samuel: 'Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him' (7). Samuel serves the Lord in the Lord's temple but the narrator tells both ancient and present readers that such outward service is not the same as personal knowledge of God. Yet the subtlety of the description is such that the responsibility for this situation is not Samuel's alone: 'the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.' One of the great mysteries of Scripture, whether we read it here, or later reflect on Jesus' own words about those who do and who do not understand his teaching, or ponder Paul's teaching on predestination, is the manner in which people come to 'know' God and the role God plays in that knowledge.
At another level, this verse is also about Samuel who will be a seer or prophet of Israel. In that role he will hear from God what he is to say to God's people. He has not yet begun to hear from God. But now he will do so.
We might ponder for ourselves what we know of God.
We might also marvel at the sheer beauty of this story. Note, for instance, the subtlety of verse 3, 'the lamp of God had not yet gone out.' On one level of narration this is simply saying that the lights were still on as sleepiness overtook the occupants of the temple. On another level of narration we are being told that despite the ineptitude and decreptitude of Eli and his sons, the light of God was not extinguished. A faint flicker remained. God is about to fan it back into life.
If things are tough for you and your church today (as indeed they are very tough for, say, the church in Iraq and Syria), take courage and be hopeful: the lamp of God has not yet gone out.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
God knows everything! Revelation concerns receiving some of that knowledge. The psalmist acknowledges that the all-knowing God knows everything about the psalmist (that is, about every individual human).
In a world of exponentially expanding knowledge about life, the universe and everything in between (thanks Google!), this psalm reminds us to be humble. We know heaps more in 2014 than the psalmist knew, but it amounts to nothing much compared to what God knows!
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
To be frank, I am not quite sure why this reading has been chosen for today. (It is not part of a series of readings from 1 Corinthians through preceding and succeeding Sundays).
The major theme running through 1 Corinthians 5-7 is human sexuality and this passage nails down some very, very important matters for Christians to understand both carefully and full of care. (For instance, (1) our freedom in Christ is not freedom to indulge in sexual licence; (2) there is to be no casual sex for Christians (e.g. with a prostitute) for sex unites the bodies of two people into 'one body'/'one flesh' and such uniting is to be within marriage (chapter 7), not only for the reasons of the Law of Moses but also for theological reasons about the new dimension to understanding each Christian's body: it belongs to the Lord, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit. To indulge in casual sex is to indulge the Lord himself in casual sex. No!)
But, very, very important though such matters are for our consideration as Christians living in a world of sexual indulgence and casual sex, that scarcely seems to be the reason why this passage is chosen for the second Sunday of Epiphany!
My best guess is that the passage is chosen because it carries another theme within it, a theme which concerns revelation of true knowledge in the face of competing claims, in this case the true knowledge of what our bodies are 'for' now that we belong to Jesus Christ. Thus the key question in the reading in the context of this particular Sunday in Epiphany is 'Do you not know?' (15, 16, 19).
In a world which glorifies our bodies as temples of nature (see dieting, gym membership, exercise regimes and, dare I say it as a mid fifties guys, "Lycra"), as temples of sex (see the way we "sell" products through sexually attractive people, pills which make for more sexual pleasure, magazines that offer improvements in our love life), and as temples of self (see the way we seek to prolong life through medicine), it is not at all obvious what the answers to the three 'Do you not know?' questions are.
No one would ever guess from a day watching TV, reading the newspaper, flicking through glossy magazines, let alone visiting various websites in the pursuit of a better life, that:
(1) 'your bodies are members of Christ' (15)
(2) 'But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him' (17)
(3) 'your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own' (19).
Once this is revealed to us, how then shall we live?
Epiphany is the season of, well, epiphany, or appearance and disclosure of what has previously been unseen, especially in respect of the truth about Jesus Christ.
In this reading we start innocently enough with Jesus deciding to go to Galilee. But not for an outing. He goes to find Philip and he calls Philip to follow him (43). Philip is from the same city as Andrew and Peter, whom we have previously been introduced to in this chapter (40-42). The band of disciples is growing because just as Jesus 'found' Philip, Philip, we are told, 'found' Nathanael. He does not quite persuade Nathanael that Jesus is the one 'about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote' (45) but he does persuade him to 'Come and see' Jesus for himself.
So far, so like any growing human enterprise which draws people on board. There is, incidentally, a special Johannine way of telling this story because the phrase 'Come and see' (or variations) recurs in John's Gospel as people encounter or are encouraged to encounter Jesus and the truth about him (see John 1:39; 4:29; 21:12).
But the story takes an 'epiphanic' turn as Jesus offers special insight into the character of Nathanael. As Nathanael 'comes' to Jesus, Jesus 'sees' what is within him and reveals this insight, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" (47).
Naturally Nathanael wonders how Jesus can say this (48) since they have not previously met. Jesus answers, verse 48b, both enigmatically (we wonder what he means), symbolically (the fig tree is a symbol of Israel) and mysteriously (he has seen Nathanael with special sight before Philip even mentions coming to Jesus).
In a few sentences we, as readers, have been taken from a natural situation to a supernatural situation (almost literally because it is as though Jesus is 'super' or 'over' nature with a helicopter view of life). But, more importantly for the theology of the gospel, we have been taken from the gospel as an account of history (what people have done and have said) to the gospel as an apocalyptic document (what God sees and now reveals to us through an especially appointed agent of revelation).
First, however, we note Nathanael's reply to Jesus' revelation about him (49). Nathanael 'gets it'. Jesus is more than a rabbi or teaching theologian of Israel. "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel." John the gospel writer uses Nathanael both to stake (further) a major claim of the whole Gospel, Jesus is the (eternal, one with the Father) Son of God (so, already in this chapter, verses 14, 18, 34; later see 20:31), to identify Jesus as (at least) the Son of God in the sense of 'the King of Israel' (sometimes referred to in Old Testament writings as 'the Son of God'), and thus to identify Jesus as the Christ or Messiah.
Back to the apocalyptic character of the gospel: John is telling us the (hi)story of Jesus of Nazareth while simultaneously telling us what Jesus the agent of divine revelation reveals to us who live (so to speak) inside human history about the eternal plan and purpose of God, otherwise hidden from ordinary human insight and sight. In this passage we are carefully taken through a story of encounter between a couple of people and a human teacher to a story of encounter between God and humanity. In that encounter Nathanael (and other disciples) will "see greater things than these" (50).
For Jesus to 'see' Nathanael under the fig tree is remarkable but the revelation of God is much greater than this and Jesus goes on to offer Nathanael a glimpse of what this will be.
"Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (51).
Naturally this is puzzling, strange talk and we need to pause to make sense of it (if we can!)
To 'see heaven opened' is classic apocalyptic language: the truth of what is really going on from God's perspective is hidden from the earth, locked away in the dwelling place of God. When heaven is opened and humans are enabled to 'see' into it, revelation and disclosure take place (as, for instance, in the Book of Revelation).
Jacob's remarkable vision of a ladder to heaven, Genesis 28:12, is invoked by talk of 'the angels of God ascending and descending.' In that vision Jacob encounters the very presence of God: so, in this gospel, already noted in 1:18, to see Jesus is to see God.
But here there is no talk of a ladder. The ascending and descending angels move 'upon the Son of Man.' The Son of Man is the ladder, the connection between heaven and earth.
But why mention 'the Son of Man' when previously in this chapter Jesus has been identified as 'the Son of God'? In the context of revelation, of angels, of the opened heaven, reference to the Son of Man takes us more deeply into apocalyptic literature, bringing to our minds the Book of Daniel, chapter 7 in particular, in which the enigmatic 'one like a son of man' figure appears (7:13) in conjunction with the 'Ancient of Days' (7:9), in the midst of angelic figures. In that context, though debated, 'one like a son of man' appears to be a representative of Israel (or, perhaps better, 'the representation' of Israel). In the Danielic vision, the son of man figure brings Israel before God. In this Johannine verse, Jesus is saying that he (the Son of Man) will connect God to Israel and Israel to God in a new, definitive and everlasting manner. (Incidentally, no reflection on the Son of Man in this gospel is complete without reflecting on John 3, especially verses 13-15).
We the readers of this gospel are now ready to read on through chapters 2-21. We will be constantly reading in two dimensions: the (hi)story of Jesus Christ and the revelation (epiphany) Jesus Christ brings from heaven to earth.