Saturday, October 26, 2019

Sunday 3 November 2019: All Saints Days Transferred or Ordinary 31

All Saints Day is 1 November and the NZL makes provision for today being observed as either Ordinary 31 or All Saints Day. Below I give the readings for Ordinary 31 (without Theme, Sentence, Collect or Commentary) and the Theme etc in the usual way but for All Saints Day.

Readings (related) for Ordinary 31

Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Material for All Saints Day 2019

Theme: All Saints (For All the Saints) // Who are the Saints?

Sentence: Know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe. (Ephesians 1:18-19)


Eternal God,
you have always taken men and women
of every nation, age and colour
and made them saints;
like them, transformed,
like them, baptised in Jesus' name,
take us to share your glory through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31


Introduction - different to most Sundays, all the readings relate to the feast day theme, All Saints

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Relating to 'All Saints' the keywords are 'the holy ones of the Most High' (v.18).

The verses read here set the scene of a terrifying vision Daniel receives in the context of Babylonian exile which look ahead to four great kingdoms dominating and opposing God's holy ones, Israel. 

Readers familiar with 'end times' speculations regarding the meanings of such visions will be familiar with proposals for interpreting the four beasts. One example: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. 

It is widely thought by Daniel scholars that the vision occurred in the period when Greece was the imperial power dictating terms to Israel and acting in profane ways in the Jerusalem Temple. Its setting in the story of Daniel as a court official in Babylon enables the readers of Daniel in a later era to believe that God will prevail since they knew that the Babylonian kingdom fell and the Babylonian Exile of the Jews came to an end. 

Thus verse 18 is a ringing affirmation of the biblical truth that God always wins in the battle between good and evil and the holy ones or saints of God never suffer or die in vain.

Psalm 149

This psalm starts off in cracking form re the saints of God singing God's praises. As the holy ones of God are his special people may it indeed be so, 'Let Israel be glad in its Maker.' What a great encouragement for all the saints that 'the Lord takes pleasure in his people.'

But the psalm takes a darker hue when in the second half of v. 6, which has begun 

'Let the high praises of God be in their throats,' 

we read 

'and two-edged swords in their hands.' 

The rest of the psalm is about the vengeance of Israel on the nations. Thus it is a tricky psalm to say without some explanation, but we should presume that the psalm has a reasonable explanation for its second part.

One thing to note is that this is the second to last psalm and if we go to the second from the beginning psalm (Psalm 2) we find a strong theme of sovereignty for Israel, expressed through talk of the royal Davidic ruler of Israel. 

At the least we might understand Psalm 149 as a psalm written after Israel has suffered an infringement of its sovereignty. The oppressors against Israel have had judgment decreed against them (149:9) and now Israel executes the judgment and restores its sovereign status. Read in this way, the psalm is in keeping with much talk in the Old Testament of Israel's many battles with invading forces from near neighbours or far off empires.

As Christians we might read 'two-edged sword' as the written Word of God, the Bible, and think of ourselves as a people who praise God and proclaim the Word of God. 

Vengeance on the nations, on this understanding, would be the Word of God undermining the prevailing 'word of humanity' or ideology which drove the nations forward in their malevolent ways.

Ephesians 1:11-23

Ephesians is, arguably, the purest 'gospel theology' of all Paul's letters. It has a clear and coherent argument from start to finish (we might contrast the enigmatic 'bump' in the argument of Romans when we read chapters 9-11). 

One great theme is the comprehensiveness of the gospel: it is a message to the whole world setting out God's plan for all of the universe; a message to which calls all people to participate in Christ who is the totality of the whole life of God. Our passage today is a substantive portion of Ephesians chapter one in which this great theme is introduced and developed.

On this Sunday, 'All Saints', our eye is caught by v. 15, 

'I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints ...'. 

Here is a sharp reminder that saints are 'just God's people', you and me, the ordinary people of God for whom God has extraordinary plans (as Ephesians articulates, especially through chapters 1-3). Paul rejoices here in the members of the church to which he writes: they have faith in Jesus and they love one another without exception.

Among many wonderful theological pearls we might pause to admire in this passage, two more deserve mention in connection with 'All Saints'.

1. Paul prays that his readers may know 

'... what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe ...' (vv. 18-19). 

God's future is never for us as individuals only. Our glorious inheritance is not a personal, individual pass to paradise. Rather it is an inheritance of fullness of divine life in the corporate family of all God's people. We live Christianly in the church on earth (with all its difficulties and tensions) as preparation for the greater day when we live eternally as the bride of Christ in the heavenly realms. 'All Saints' is a reminder, on this matter, that we are called to be in fellowship with all God's people.

2. '... for the church ...' (v. 22) Despite the many frailties of the church, which were an experience of church life then as well as now (see various concerns through Ephesians about failure in the church), God's amazing plan for the universe involves the church (i.e. all the saints as the body of Christ). Christ is head over all things for the church. The church is the body of this supreme Christ, filled with the very life of God itself.

How good is that!

Luke 6:20-31

Who are the saints of God now that Jesus has come proclaiming his gospel? They are the ones who are disciples of Jesus, learning the way of God's kingdom while also enduring life in the kingdom. These ones are blessed. 

Yet the blessing of 'the poor' and the contrasting woe of 'the rich' points to a characteristic of disciples, reworked as a theme throughout Luke's gospel, that they have left material possessions behind and entered into the kingdom trusting in God for provision of material needs. On such understanding, saints are those for whom their most treasured possession is the kingdom itself, that is, life lived under God's rule.

Holiness, then, for the holy ones of God is the distinctive way of life which receives the blessing of God and the opprobrium of the world (vv. 22-23). In this distinctive way of life, the response of the saints to opposition is not like for like retaliation but love for enemies, good for those who hate, blessing on those who curse and prayer for abuser (vv. 27-28). Generosity of spirit and purse (vv. 29-30), thus, is the way of Christ's holy ones.

We might make one very important final observation: whatever the merits of calling particular people of God, 'St. Someone', there is an important demerit to this churchy custom. It implies that the calling to saintly or holy living is for the special few and not for all who follow Jesus. All today's passages are addressed to all God's people. We are 'all saints'. None of us has an "opt out" on the quest for holy living, on the importance of living lives distinctively for God and not for ourselves.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sunday 27 October 2019 - Ordinary 30

Theme(s): God justifies sinners / Fight the good fight

Sentence: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. Psalm 84:1


Jesus our Lord,
you have taught us that judgment begins at the house of God;
save us from our self-satisfaction, rigidity and corruption,
so that we may stand ready to do your will through the power of the Spirit.


Readings, related:

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-7
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14


Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

In these verses we have a corporate version of the tax collector in the gospel reading: Jeremiah speaks words of confession of Israel/Judah's many sins. 

In the first part of the reading God is mindful to 'remember their iniquity and punish their sins' (v. 10) but in the second part of the reading, Jeremiah cries more deeply the confession of sin and pleads that God might 'not spurn us' (v. 21).

Psalm 84:1-7

This psalm connects to our reading in the gospel by exalting the virtues of the temple (in which the two men in the gospel parable are praying).

In these seven verses we have a wonderful eulogy to the temple as the earthly house of God in which the Lord dwells. Who would not desire to be there to be with the Lord? Who would not be happy, ever singing God's praise in such a place?

The reading misses the lovely verse 10: 

'For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.'

2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18

Paul is writing at the end of what? His life? (vss. 6-8) or his ministry to this point? (vss. 16-18). 

A 'libation' is drink poured out sacrificially on an altar. Paul has given his life for Christ and now, through death, he seeks (changing metaphors) a 'crown of righteousness.'

We might usefully cross-check with the gospel reading and ask whether Paul is in danger of declaring himself to be righteous like his Pharisaical colleague (Paul, remember, was a Pharisee). But Paul voids this danger through the words he uses which unmistakably point to the role of God in enabling him to have fought the good fight of faith and to have finished the race (see v. 17: 'the Lord stood by me and gave me strength').

V. 16 has more than a hint of identification with Christ on the cross (whose disciples deserted him). Enigmatically, the reference to being rescued from 'the lion's mouth' implies Paul had his own brush with another form of Roman execution. We do not know whether the rescue was in the form of his release from imprisonment before going to the Colosseum, or from the mortal attack of a lion in the arena itself.

For ourselves the question might be whether we too are fighting the good fight faithfully?

Luke 18:9-14

There is nothing quite like this parable to make sinners feel self-righteous (about not being 'up themselves' like the Pharisee) ... which is perhaps not the intention of Jesus!

The opening to the telling of the parable (v. 9) parallels the opening to the telling of the parable at the beginning of the chapter (v. 1). Presumably Luke has to hand two parables he wants to share with us, whether or not he sees a connecting theme between them. (There is a slight connecting theme of 'prayer' but only slight because prayer is the theme of the first parable and an incidental detail in the second).

The points of the parable are twofold and, well, pointed. It is told against those who either 'trusted in themselves that they were righteous' and/or 'regard others with contempt'. Few of us have never suffered from either fault. We do well to listen carefully.

The structure of the parable is simple. Two deliberately contrasting figures, a Pharisee (i.e. respected religious adherent of the Jewish faith) and a tax collector (i.e. a despised, likely greedy lackey of the imperialist Romans, at odds with fellow Jews) perform the same action, going up to the temple to pray. 

The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving, which is directed at himself and his many virtues. We might note that his virtues are not that virtuous: I guess most readers here could also say that we are not a thief, rogue, adulterer or cheat-on-our-fellow-citizens. Many of us would tithe and some of us might fast regularly. We could note, with careful observation of detail, that the Pharisee does not pray, 'Thank you God for enabling me to not be like ...' Rather the prayer has the effect of drawing God's attention to how successful the Pharisee has been in being virtuous. In sum, the Pharisee exalts himself before God (and, in terms of the narrative, before those hearing his prayer).

The tax collector prays a prayer of confession which is directed to God and God's many mercies. 'God be merciful to me, a sinner!' His demeanour matches his words as we are told that he stood far off (in an obscure corner of the temple?), refused to look to heaven and beat his breast. His prayer is both a prayer of confession, as he declares he is a sinner, and a prayer of intercession, as he pleads for God to be merciful to him.

Jesus tells us that that man went home 'justified rather than the other.' To that key judgment of the situation is added a familiar saying from elsewhere in the gospels, that the humble will be exalted and the exalted humbled (e.g. 13:30; 14:11; Matt 18:4; 23:12).

It is worth pausing on the word 'justified.' Sometimes the writings of Paul with his key theme that God justifies sinners (and sinners do not justify themselves through good works) are pitted against Jesus and his teaching. But here Jesus and Paul are one: our apparent righteous status does not justify us, nor do our good works and hard earned virtues. Only throwing ourselves on the mercy of God leads to justification.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sunday 20 October 2019 - Ordinary 29

Theme(s): Persistence in praying and in teaching truth // Faithfulness in doctrine and in the praying life //Never give up on God

Sentence: 'Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it' 2 Timothy 3:14


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

in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings, related:

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8


Genesis 32:22-31

This mysterious story of (a) Jacob wrestling with 'a man' through the night, (b) Jacob demonstrating immense prowess and, (c) upon being blessed, recognising the man was in fact God, offers much food for thought for the student of the Bible. Only a small portion of the food is served up here in this post!

1. The reading is chosen as a 'related' reading to the gospel because it shares with the gospel passage an interest in 'persistence.'

2. Although the story ends with a quaint explanation about why Israelites do not eat the 'thigh muscle that is on the hip socket' (a prohibition not actually attested to anywhere else in the Old Testament), its central importance in the 'theological history' of Israel (the nation) as narrated through the Old Testament lies in the explanation it gives for the name 'Israel.' This name is bestowed on the patriarch Jacob whose twelve sons spawn the twelve tribes which define the extent of the nation Israel.

3. In the original Hebrew telling of the story there are important wordplays:

3.1 Jacob/Jabbok (see v. 22) is ya'aqob/yabboq and 'wrestled' is wayye'abeq (v. 23)

3.2 The location of the story is at Peniel/Penuel (vss. 30-31) which means 'face of God' because Jacob has seen 'God face to face' (v. 30).

4. Jacob's lack of recognition of 'the man' who turns out to be the presence of God mirrors his grandfather Abraham's experience of entertaining three 'men' unaware of their divine status (Genesis 18:1-15).

Psalm 121

Sometimes this psalm is misunderstood in respect of its starting point. It is not a call to lift up one's eyes to the hills in order to seek God's help. Rather, the hills (likely the hills of Jerusalem) are precisely where help does not come from. Rather, help comes from the Lord who is the creator of the whole world (plains and valleys as well as hills). It is this God, a God not confined to a specific geographic location, who can help us wherever we are. Further, this God, not confined to a body and thus not subject to the need for sleep, can help us at any time, day or night.

Nevertheless, since this psalm is one of the 'Songs of Ascent' or psalms said by pilgrims on their way 'up' to Jerusalem, there is a certain irony in declaring that help does not come from the hills.

Connecting this psalm to the gospel reading, we can pray confidently to the God who presides over every aspect of our lives 'your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore'.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

A consistent concern through 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus is 'sound teaching.' No passage in these three letters better captures this theme than this Sunday's passage.

Paul urges Timothy to 'continue' (3:14) in what he has learned, maintaining his knowledge by recalling how he has learned (both from 'whom', his mother and grandmother and Paul himself, and from 'what', the 'sacred writings', 3:15).

As an aside Paul states his view of "scripture" (3:16, which meant at the least what today we call the Old Testament, but could also have included Christian writings being received by Christian communities as 'sacred writings') and the purpose of scripture(3:17).

In chapter 4, Paul sets up a strong, specific, God-and-Jesus-Christ backed commission for Timothy (4:1-2) in respect of proclaiming 'the message' (i.e. sound teaching).

Note the imperatives through these verses: 'proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.' Further imperatival underlining occurs in v. 5.

So, what is the problem to which this 'urging' of Paul is the solution? He foresees a coming time 'when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths' (v. 3-4).

And that situation, it appears, is where the Western world, formerly Christendom, is rapidly heading towards!

Luke 18:1-8

If we are frank about this parable, it is quite tricky to make sense of all of it! 

v. 1: The intention is that we will read/hear a parable 'about [our] need to pray always and not to lose heart.'

v. 2-5: A parable is told which accords with the intention in the sense that a widow persists in asking a godless, heartless judge for justice and her persistence wears the judge's resistance down to the point where he grants her request.

But the parable 'works' in terms of being about persistent prayer only if we imagine that God is much, much kinder than the heartless judge.

There is then a problem for those of us who also know Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:7-8 where Jesus teaches against using lots of words in repetitive prayers. 

A possible resolution of the apparent contradiction is for disciples to distinguish between:
(i) occasions when prayers are prayed with the intention of flattering God into responding by virtue of quantity of prayers and 
(ii) occasions when a simple, short prayer is persistently prayed (e.g. on a daily or weekly basis) in the belief that God (perhaps for reasons hidden from us) calls us to pray persistently for a matter.

v. 6: The Lord then offers an enigmatic comment on the parable: listen to the judge. 

Presumably this means: think about what the judge says in the parable and then make the appropriate calculation of what it is that God says to us about our persistent praying. Calculate that God is more eager to answer our prayer than the judge was to answer the woman's plea.

v. 7-8a: Things are starting to get trickier! An additional comment is made but it is not about prayer but about justice!

Of itself the comment could be called 'standard' in respect of God acting justly in response to cries from the unjustly treated, "And will not God grant justice ..." 

Nevertheless it is a change of theme from v. 1's "the need to pray always and not to lose heart" in two aspects. First, a change from 'prayer' to 'justice' and from 'not to lose heart' (implying patience) to God's quickness to act. Secondly, there is also a strong sense that the passage has begun with Jesus speaking to the disciples about their prayer life and now tells them about another group, those unfairly treated, a change, we could say, from 'you' to 'them.'

There is a strong connection, nevertheless, between the themes of 'prayer' and 'justice' because God grants justice to those who 'cry to him day and night.'

v. 8b: 'And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?' 

Further tricky material to comprehend comes with this ending. The introduction of the Son of Man and his 'second coming' is unexpected, as is the introduction of the theme of 'faith'. 

A possible explanation lies in recalling the beginning of this passage in verse one. If Jesus is teaching patient persistence in prayer, the ultimate patience is demonstrated by those disciples who keep praying with faith believing for an answer even to the day when the Son of Man returns. 

But that explanation then highlights the implausibility of v. 7-8a speaking of God acting 'quickly' if by 'quickly' we mean 'very soon.' Thus some commentators think a better translation would be 'suddenly', that is, we pray persistently for justice, God does not act straightaway but when God does act he acts with urgency and immediacy (indeed, the ultimate act of justice is the judgment of the Son of Man whose coming may be delayed but when he does come it will be sudden and for most, unexpected).

A few additional comments:
a. there is a parallel here between the shifting sands of themes through eight verses (albeit roughly conjoined around 'prayer') and the beginning of chapter 16 and its shifting themes (albeit roughly conjoined around 'money').
b. dealing with the trickiness of the passage may be 'our problem' as Western exegetes/preachers used to a certain kind of rational coherency, more than Jesus' (or Luke's) 'problem' as preacher in a different time, place and culture.
c. the shifting nature of the themes does permit a preacher to make a decision about what to focus on: prayer or persistence and patience in prayer, justice or seeking justice, the character of God, faith.
d. a final reflection from me: are prayer and justice one and the same theme? To pray about a problem is to ask that something which is wrong be put to rights, that is, to ask for justice to take place. Even illness and prayer for healing is a cry for just dealing as our bodies are unjustly attacked by virus or cancer. To pray for a friend to become a Christian is to pray that they might experience the justification of God in their life ...

Monday, October 7, 2019

Sunday 13 October 2019 - Ordinary 28

Theme(s): Gospel for everyone // God reaches to the outsider "Remember Jesus Christ

Sentence: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David - that is my gospel" 2 Timothy 2:8


God of compassion,
deepen and increase our love for you
so that we may leave behind the sins
from which you have redeemed us,
and serve you in perfect freedom,

in the power of the Spirit,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings, related:

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Tim 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19


2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

This story of God healing a non-Israelite fits well with the healing in Luke 17. In both cases leprosy is the problem. A common element between the two stories is that Naaman, like the Samaritan leper, understands that God has done this work and wishes to acknowledge it appropriately.

Psalm 111

This is an interesting psalm as it combines praise for God's law (v. 7) and affirmation of God's wisdom (v. 10). By setting out praise for God and God's works (vss. 2-9) the psalmist provides reason for praise and affirmation of God's word expressed in law and in wisdom: word and deed together have integrity. The God who acts faithfully and justly provides precepts and wisdom for our benefit.

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Two matters stand out for me from this reading which has many dimensions and points of interest.

1. Paul's summary of the gospel he preaches may surprise us.

No mention of (say) forgiveness of sins, God's grace towards us, God's transforming power in our lives. Instead he gives three points, anchored into the historical circumstances of Jesus' life and death: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David" (v. 8).

Clearly this is a summary, and the verb 'remember' invites Paul's readers to recall the larger story and extended version of his gospel of which 'raised from the dead, a descendant of David' are key notes. Thus one might go to Romans 1:1-6 where Paul sets out a (longer) summary of the gospel and its connection to his calling as an apostle, a summary which includes 'who was descended from David according to the flesh' and 'was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.'

Further 'remembering Jesus Christ' must also include the immediately-to-hand things Paul has said about the gospel, e.g. 2 Timothy 1:8-10 which speaks of God's power to save us and to call us to holy living, according to God's gracious purpose, which includes abolition of death and bringing of immortal life.

Why then does Paul say at this point 'Remember Jesus Christ'? The context is an urging of Timothy and through Timothy, his congregation, to engage fully in the Christian life, which includes suffering for the gospel and earnest endeavour to 'obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus' (v. 10). To remember Jesus Christ is to recall that Jesus led the way (1) in suffering so that God's purpose might be fulfilled and (2) in faithfulness to God in all circumstances.

(2) Paul himself endures many things as an apostle and herald of the gospel.


'For the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory' (v. 10).

Sometimes Christians get caught up in a debate over whether God's choice of us overrides any real sense that we choose to put our faith in God. Here Paul appears to transcend such debate!

Christians are 'the elect' (those chosen by God to have faith in him) yet Paul worries that they (we) might not 'make it' to the full inheritance of salvation (i.e. election does not override our choice to keep placing our faith in God). Such thinking is at one with Paul's thought in Philippians 2:12-13.

Luke 17:11-19

This is a popular and memorable story.

Popular: because it touches all who hear it through its motif of "gratefulness." We all have memories of people who never show their gratitude for something we have done for them. We might even remember occasions when we have not thanked someone for a kindness.

Memorable: because (as with other gospel stories) the numbers mentioned by Luke are striking and simply to recall: 10 / 9 / 1.

A detail in the story might be overlooked but it is important. The returning thankful person was a Samaritan and Jesus praises him for being the exceptional 'foreigner' who gives thanks when the others do not.

Thus the story is arguably less about the one out of ten who gives thanks (with lesson: and so must we) and more about the outsider who understands Jesus and responds to him (with lesson: and so the gospel is for all, for Samaritans as well as Jews, for Gentiles and for Jews, for outsider and for insiders).

If so, then this story is representative of the gospel Luke preaches through his Luke-Acts narrative: the gospel is God's inclusive love for all, demonstrated by Jesus who died for all and rose again for all, that all might be healed of the sickness which afflicts humanity.