Saturday, March 23, 2019

Sunday 31 March 2019 - Lent 4

Theme                  When we are far from God        

Sentence             They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon     them, for the One who loves them will lead them beside the springs of water (Isaiah 49:10) [NZPB, p. 577]

Collect                  Heavenly Father,
                                You see how your children hunger for food, fellowship and faith.
                                Help us to meet one another’s needs of body, mind and spirit,
                                In the love of Christ our Saviour. Amen. [NZPB, p. 578]                  
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
                        Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

We all know the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11b-32. Or do we? What is the best title for this story? 

It is also known as the parable of the waiting father. It ends with the story of the elder brother. Should it be called the parable of the two brothers? 

Then there is the thought that the parable reflects traces of a very old story of Israel, a story involving a father and two brothers, inheritance, wastefulness, rivalry, and reconciliation, the story of Jacob and Esau. Does Jesus' telling of the parable also reflect traces of the later history of Israel (Jacob's other name) in which Israel went into exile (1 and 2 Kings) and returned to some hostility from those who never left (Nehemiah)? But if either or both of these influences are in the story, how does that influence the meaning of the story for us today?

Let's come back to that question having explored the other passages.

Joshua 5:9-12 is an example of the lectionary doing its best to capture something important - the return of Israel to its promised land, after slavery in Egypt - but with a certain abruptness as the reading begins. The 'disgrace of Egypt' is the great throng of children born during the years of wandering in the wilderness who had not been circumcised. The story of the circumcision is told in 5:1-8. Nevertheless, these few verses in Joshua underline the inheritance of Israel under God. They were promised a land. They had begun to live in it. They were displaced through famine. Now they have returned. The land is doubly precious.

Psalm 32 is a prayer of confession. A sinner's psalm! We can imagine that if David wrote this he might be thinking of his guilt over his adultery with Bathsheba (though Psalm 51 is normally given that 'honour'). Whatever sin David has in mind, it has troubled him greatly. Most of us who say we feel a little bit guilty about this or that are not talking about our body wasting away, groaning all the day long, feeling the hand of God heavy on us and our strength drying up. David has been in the pits of oppressive guilt. He has not felt a little bit guilty, he has felt guilty distressingly. Then he experiences release. What is the key to this release? He confessed his sin to God. Has that been our experience, that we have been tormented by guilt, locked up in it and weighed down with it till we feel nothing but guilt, and then we have confessed (possibly through verbal confession to a confessor)? If, indeed, today we are oppressed with guilt then we must confess. It is the only way to be free.

The rest of the psalm is the psalm of the person without great cares: God is there for us, we should follow in his ways and trust in him; then, quite opposite to when we are weighed down with guilt, we are confident and grateful that we are surrounded by God's steadfast love.

Such confidence permeates Paul's gospel acclamation in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, the centre of which is this,

'in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them' (2 Corinthians 6:19).

Whether we are Israel in disgrace, David in guilty despair, or the prodigal son lost from his family in dissoluteness, the ultimate good message from God is this: the last word on sin belongs with God and not with us. Our sin may overwhelm us (Psalm 32) but it never overwhelms God who is both willing to and has acted on a plan to reconcile the world (each of us, in every generation) to himself.

Nevertheless, the last word from God on sin is not a set of words (such as we might say when someone apologises to us, "Oh, that's okay. Not much harm done. Let's be friends again."). The last word from God is the deepest and darkest deed possible in dealing with sin,

'For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin,so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' (6:21)

We will never be able to fathom the depths of this transaction. We can, perhaps, come up with an image or two to help us get the drift. One that springs to mind is a body full of poison which another person is able to draw the poison out of by absorbing it into their body.

One response to Paul's insight into God's reconciling work through Christ's saving death for us on the cross is praise.

Another, expressed in this passage, is that we might be 'ambassadors for Christ'. God has reconciled the world to himself, but the world is not reconciled to God until it responds to the ambassadors appeal, 'be reconciled to God' (6:20).

The epistle reading is most apt to be linked to the gospel reading, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. The son has declared his father as good as dead in claiming his share of the inheritance. In his pursuit of a way of life foreign to his father's and to his own Jewish heritage (highlighted by the fact that his life hits rock bottom in a pig farm), the son is driven as far from home and culture as possible. He is effectively dead as well as lost (see Luke 15:24). The gap appears too great for reconciliation between father and son but by the story's end, reconciliation has been achieved (but with a twist). The waiting father never gave up on wishing to be reconciled to his prodigal son. In at least this sense, the father is analogous to the God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself.

The twist to the tale lies in the exposure at the end of the story. The stay-at-home elder brother is as unreconciled to the father as his dissolute brother. He does not understand the heart of his father. In location he never leaves the father, in empathy of feeling what the father feels he may as well live on the other side of the world. It is not only the obvious trespassers of the world who need reconciling to God, it is also the outwardly right living folk who do not understand the grace of God and thus want no part of his reconciling work.

From this perspective we can see how the traces of older Israelite stories influence the meaning of the parable. Esau (the older brother of Jacob) is cast aside from God's purposes because he has no understanding of God's true heart. Israel, like the younger brother in the parable, driven into exile through disobedience to God's commands nevertheless does not lose all understanding of God's great plan for the world. A remnant keeps faith, and expresses through the prophets the possibility of Israel yet returning to God and taking up its role as a blessing to all nations (see Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 42:1-6). They are the younger brother of the parable coming to their senses while in exile (= herding pigs). The older brother, following such lines of reflection, with respect to Jesus himself (as representative of the repenting Israel-in-exile coming back to God ever more fully) is the Israel of the Pharisees and Sadducees, of the scribes and the lawyers who, again and again in the gospels, neither see what Jesus is doing in his ministry of reconciliation nor share in the joy of the people who do understand. (Acknowledgement: the great exponent of this parable as a parable of Israel returning from exile is the British scholar, N.T. Wright.)

What then of us today?

Do we need reconciling to God? To return to God?

As ambassadors of God, to whom are we making our appeal, 'be reconciled to God?' 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sunday 24 March 2019 - Lent 3

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, Luke 13:1-9, 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 (perhaps understood as 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. If Lent as a season means anything at all, it is a season of getting our lives in order with the purpose not just of generally being a "better" person, but of being a person through whom God is able to work fruitfully.

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 of Psalm 63, 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!

NB: The above was written in 2016 and that year, as with most other years, the world had its share of tragedies and misfortunes. What we believe God's Word means should not change from year to year. Nevertheless I acknowledge that in republishing this set of comments, in 2019, I do so three days after an appalling, heartbreaking tragedy here in Christchurch, the city which I love and in which I and my wife have our home. 50 people were shot dead by a gunman intent on murdering people while attending prayers in their mosque. More than 40 others have been wounded and injured. There can be no more peaceful activity than praying and those who were praying on Friday afternoon were as innocent as any other citizens of Christchurch that afternoon who did not share their tragic end.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Sunday 17 March 2019 - Lent 2

NOTE: According to the Roman Catholic lectionary, and other lectionaries, the second Sunday in Lent is Transfiguration. In the ACANZP The Lectionary Te Maramataka, Luke 9:28-36 (the Transfiguration) is provided for as an alternative reading to the first reading listed, Luke 13:31-35.

Theme(s):                  When the world does not understand Christ / Facing low moments in our life journey      

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, Luke 13:31-35, 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 coming to Jerusalem with motherly love 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 3:17-4:1, 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, March 3, 2019

Sunday 10 March 2019 - 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]         
        Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Offering of first fruits
        Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 God's protection
        Romans 10:8b-13 Who will be saved
                                  Luke 4:1-13 Temptation of Jesus

Jesus is tempted, Luke 4:1-13, 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 give the impression that what the devil wants is the same as 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 Deuteronomy26:1-11, 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 once 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?