Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sunday 1 December 2019 - Advent 1

Theme(s): Watchfulness // Watching for Jesus // Preparing for the Coming of Jesus // You do not know the day or the hour


To you O Lord I lift up my soul; my God I have put my trust in you; you are my God my Saviour; for you have I waited all the day long (Psalm 25:1,4)


God of hope,
when Christ your Son appears
may he not find us asleep or idle,
but active in his service and ready,
empowered by the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44


Isaiah 2:1-5

This comment might be best read after reading the comments on the three passages below!

When we look forward in God's purposes to future judgment, the return of Christ, the establishment of the kingdom of God in fullness, all summarised in the phrase "your will be done on earth as in heaven," what kind of picture might form in our minds?

Isaiah 2:1-5 is just such a picture. It is 'The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.'

This word is a vision of a glorious future for Judah and Jerusalem, the place where God dwells on earth. In this vision Jerusalem is the place to be, where everyone streams to, eager to meet God, to learn the ways of God in order to walk in his paths. In the context of Israel, ruled by the Law, this part of the vision is of a people (actually, the whole globe) living in harmony and peace.

The vision goes on to include nations themselves. They will not 'learn war any more.' Nothing not to like! But the impact of these words has reverberated through the centuries as nations have struggled to end war and peacemakers have invoked these words in pursuit of a better way.

As a whole vision these verses express a hope for the fulfilment of God's own purpose for creation. Advent is a season for renewing that hope.

Psalm 122

This is a Song of Ascent, a psalm sung on the way up to Jerusalem and the Temple. We can understand that readily and see the devotion the psalmist has to the city which he urges us all to pray for.

More challenging could be understanding why this psalm for this first Sunday in Advent. On possibility is to note v. 5: Jerusalem is to be the place where judgment (a great theme of Advent) will take place.

Romans 13:11-14

Paul addresses the problem of time in relation to God's plan and does so as though he has just read today's gospel reading! "You know what time it is." Paul understands himself and his readers as nearer in time to the day of the Lord (the return of Christ) than "when we became believers." Although he does not explicitly refer to the day of the Lord, that is the meaning of "the night is far gone, the day is near."

So the passage is a wake up call re readiness for that day, almost literally, "it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep." The specifics of this readiness are to "live honourably as in the day", putting aside the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light. Works of darkness include "reveling and drunkenness ... debauchery and licentiousness ... quarreling and jealousy."

Keeping these items in mind helps us interpret v. 14, "make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" is not (for instance) "make no provision for the hunger pains in your stomach by baking bread." Rather it is about not giving way to the demands of the flesh (the desires of our selfish and self-centred human nature) which are fulfilled through reveling, drunkenness, etc.

What Paul is pressing for is that Christian believers live now the kind of lives we will live 'in the day.' In simple terms, there will be no quarreling in heaven, so let us cease quarreling on earth.

In relation to the gospel challenge below to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man, our readiness includes living holy lives now.

Matthew 24:36-44

This passage is full of pictures and concludes with a parable (or, if the point is argued, a parable-like illustration). We need to sift the pictures from the reality being forecast by Jesus.

The centre of that future occasion is 'the coming of the Son of Man' (vss. 37, 39 also 42, 44). The pictures painted in words are dramatic, e.g. "two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left."

The warnings given are specific about suddenness of the coming, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming ... Therefore you also must be ready for the SOn of Man is coming at an unexpected hour" (vss. 42 ...44).

In other words, what is being illustrated by two in a field/one will be taken is the suddenness of the coming of the Son of Man, not necessarily what will actually happen.

The question then is, what is this event of 'coming'? Is it a chronologically future event which still has not happened? Is it an event which was future when Jesus spoke but has now taken place?

If we answer Yes to the first question then we watch, wait and keep alert making sure we are ready for the return or Second Coming of Jesus.

If we answer Yes to the second question then we have a further question, When was that event? No attempt will be made to work through possible answers here but they include the resurrection (an event of vindication of Jesus, which links with the Danielic vision of the one like a son of man, Daniel 7:13) and Pentecost (a return of sorts of Jesus in the form of the Holy Spirit (of Jesus).)

We could also reckon with the possibility that the passage refers to events such as the resurrection and Pentecost as well as the future return of Jesus.

The weakness of the second question and answer (if it is the approach to be taken) is that the fuller context of the passage, the passages before and after it, speak of a time of reckoning, when accounts will be squared and the elect will be gathered together. It is difficult to understand where we find that event in history to date.

So this passage is a brilliant start to the season of Advent when we think of the 'coming' of Jesus.

Obviously, commercially-speaking, we can scarcely escape the inevitable consideration of the coming of Jesus, the incarnate Word born a baby in Bethlehem.

The gospel invites if not compels us to consider the second coming of Jesus Christ and challenges us to be ready for that coming, including ready to give account for our lives (see further 24:45-51).

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Sunday 24 November 2019 - Christ the King Sunday/Ordinary 34/Stir Up Sunday

This Sunday is also Aotearoa Sunday and it is the Sunday Before Advent, also known as Stir Up Sunday, and the Collect supplied below for the Sunday before Advent gives it that name. This Sunday (or last Sunday) can be celebrated as Christ in All Creation. Perhaps we should call this Sunday "Smorgasboard Sunday"?

Theme(s): Christ the King / The Lord Reigns / Stir Up Sunday

Sentence: He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 23:5)


Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people
that, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
they may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our King. 

Readings, related:

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43


Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated as 'Stir Up Sunday' - this informal name for the day being drawn from the collect above, the collect for the Sunday before Advent. If we pray the collect truthfully then we are asking the Lord to stir us out of complacency and disobedience to be aligned with the will of God and thus, with an eye on the theme of Advent, ready for the return of Christ the King whenever that takes place.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

An ongoing problem for Israel was its leadership. Whether we think of Israel's religious leaders (priests, prophets) or political leaders (kings), there were too many leaders (shepherds) causing destruction rather than construction in respect of Israel's fortunes.

Jeremiah, speaking for God, rails against these shepherds and forecasts a day when the Lord will bring back the Israelites (sheep) scattered far and wide and raise up for them shepherds who are genuine shepherds (23:1-4).

This general vision of shepherds plural is a prelude to a specific vision of days which are 'surely coming' when one shepherd 'for David' will be raised up as a 'righteous Branch', a king who deals wisely, executes justice and righteousness (v. 5). This king, Christians now see and understand is Jesus Christ (the Anointed of God). 'In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety' (v. 6).

Psalm 46

In the midst of tumult (think, e.g. about being a Christian in the midst of Trump's America or in the midst of civil war in Syria) it is a severe challenge to believe that 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble' (v.1).

The specific context of this psalm is tumult overwhelming Jerusalem 'the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High' (v.4). Ever since the church has drawn comfort from this psalm: God is our refuge. The epitome of this comfort is the hymn of Luther, A Mighty Fortress is our God.

For ourselves, our challenge may be that we find, in the midst of life's storms, the still centre within God and God within us: 'Be still, and know that I am God' (v.10).

Colossians 1:11-20

On this 'Christ the King' Sunday, we find in this passage from Colossians a lovely yet robust statement of who Jesus Christ is: king of creation and king of church. 

The word 'king' is not actually used, but the talk is of 'the kingdom of his beloved Son' (1:13) and descriptions of the king of this kingdom include: 'firstborn of all creation' (v. 15), 'He himself is before all things' (v. 17), 'He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead' (v. 18).

The beginning of the passage is a prayer for the readers of Colossians (including you and me, reading today!). The prayer is for the continuing transformation of our lives towards the goal of 'inheritance of the saints in the light' = 'kingdom of his beloved Son' (vss. 12-13).

One important point of the adoring affirmation of who Christ is which follows (vss. 15-20) is that this same Christ is the one at work within us. If that is not encouraging ... :)

Luke 23:33-43 "This is the King of the Jews"

This gospel passage has its most apt context as a whole passage in the telling of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus (and thus rightly forms part of cycles of readings on Good Friday).

In the context of 'Christ the King' we read the passage as an affirmation of Jesus' kingship, expressed in his suffering, offering the paradox of being in charge of the world precisely at the point of being most subject to the world and its vicious, abusive power.

Thus the title tacked to the cross, 'King of the Jews' is ironically accurate and apt. 

An attempt at mocking this 'criminal' by the authority which cravenly gave in to crowd pleasing, the title captures the simple truth that this descendant of David was indeed an Israelite king. Its only inaccuracy is that Jesus was more than king of the Jews: he was and is king of all peoples.

Note the way in which Jesus acts in a royal fashion: when the thief who recognises his innocence and his kingship ('when you come into your kingdom', v. 42) asks that Jesus 'remember' him, Jesus bestows upon him the greatest blessing any king could give: 'Today you will be with me in Paradise' (v. 43).

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Sunday 17 November 2019 - Ordinary 33

Theme(s): Faithfulness / Persistence / Working for food / Endurance / God's future

Sentence: Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:13)


God our ruler and guide,
when we come to the place where the road divides,
keep us true to the way of Christ,
alive to present opportunities,
and confident of eternal life,

all through the continuing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings, related:

Malachi 4:1-2a

Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19


Malachi 4:1-2a

There will be a day of judgment. This is a persistent, recurring theme in the Old Testament. Here Malachi announces this day with fiery symbolism. Just as an oven in his day needed fuel for burning to heat the oven, so the day of judgment will be a day which burns up 'all the arrogant and all evildoers.' By contrast, those who 'revere' the Lord's name will be healed, not destroyed. A different kind of fire, 'the sun of righteousness' will rise. Not to burn the righteous who revere his name but to heal them.

Psalm 98

This psalm fits perfectly with the gospel reading. The Lord will be victorious. Challengers to the might of the Lord, brought against his people Israel will be beaten off. The psalm celebrates this anticipated victory. The Lord will be judge. On the day of judgment, this awesome event should be celebrated by nature itself giving applause (vss. 7-9). The gospel reading looks ahead to the great day of Christ's return. It forecasts many challenges and trials before that day. The psalm offers encouragement. The Lord will be victorious. Judgment will come. All will be well.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

How does or should a Christian live? 

Some answers come through the teaching of Jesus (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount). Other answers are found in the second half of Paul's epistles (which generally follow a pattern of 'Theology then Application'). This passage is a perfect example of Paul offering not just 'guidance' but a 'command' about practical Christian living. Probably this command is sparked by knowledge of an unhappy local situation in Thessalonika.

In this case idle Christians and worse, idle-and-busybody Christians seem to have been disrupting church life. (Possibly their belief in the second coming of Jesus led them to believe that they no longer had to work for a living). 

Paul makes his case for each Christian working hard so as not to be a burden to other members of the fellowship. His case includes both what he had previously taught the Thessalonians (v. 6) and the example of Paul and his companions when they stayed for a while in Thessalonika (v. 7-9).

We may presume that Paul is NOT dealing with the situation in which someone wishes to work but cannot. Welfare should be shared with such members of our community. But Paul is valuing the dignity of work (a value which goes back to the creation story itself in the first chapters of Genesis) and he offers a simple economic formula for community well-being: the provision of food for all to live requires that those who eat contribute to the community through their work (if they are able).

Verse 13 repays careful reflection. Being a Christian involves doing what is right. Not in order to earn God's favour but in order both to express our new life as recipients of God's grace and to live out the divine life working within us. 

Physically, doing right is wearying. Going the extra mile is more strenuous than stopping after one mile! Baking an extra cake to give to a new family in the district is more effort than catering for our own family. We can be tempted to allow weariness in doing right to lead us to give up doing right.

Do not do so, says Paul. Find new joy in the service of God and others (seems to be implied here).

Luke 21:5-19 

Jesus looks ahead and sees many challenges. The context for his words are the temple in Jerusalem and the time is the last few days of his life. The temple was an extraordinary architectural feat (v. 5) but Jesus could see ahead to a day when it would be destroyed (v. 6), as it was in 70 AD by the Romans (and to this day, it has not been rebuilt).

Naturally the interest of his disciples is piqued, so they ask the same question we would ask, 

'When will this be?'

Jesus then offers (as also recorded in parallels in Matthew and Mark) some remarks about signs to look out for and signs to carefully understand and not misinterpret. These remarks remain challenging to us. 

One challenge is that they clearly indicate a general state of affairs in which, so to speak, things will get worse before they get better. 

Another challenge is the possibility of false Christs appearing who beguile us into thinking that the true Christ has returned. 

But the sharpest challenge is Jesus' conviction that 'before all this occurs' (v. 12), his followers will be arrested, persecuted, betrayed, even killed and 'hated by all because of my name' (v. 17).

Many years later we see some hyperbole at work in this passage. Specifically, not all Christians have been persecuted (and, if we want to be picky, it is not clear that even all of the Twelve were persecuted). 

Conversely, looking at v. 18, some Christians have had their hair destroyed through persecution (e.g. being burnt at the stake). Nevertheless Jesus rightly foresaw that faithfulness to him and to his gospel message would lead to trouble with religious and state authorities. This occurred in both the immediate growth of the Jesus' movement (see stories in Acts, and references in epistles), through many subsequent periods and continues to this day.

For ourselves, whether we face intense persecution or a low level of disapproval from fellow citizens, two points from the passage encourage us. 

First, the promise of Jesus that he will give us the words and wisdom we need when we explain ourselves to others (v. 15). 

Secondly, the encouragement to 'endure' (v. 19). 

Unspoken by Jesus at this point is that he himself will provide the outstanding example of endurance in the face of persecution, betrayal and execution in a few days time.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sunday 10 November 2019 - Ordinary 32

Theme(s): Resurrection / Resurrection life / Our glorious future if we hold fast / Holding fast to the truth / Hope in God is never misplaced

Sentence: I know that my Redeemer lives (Job 19:25)


you sent your Son to bring us truth
and your Spirit to make us holy;
open your hearts to exalt you,
open our lives to reveal you,
our one true God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings, related:

Job 19:23-27a

Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38


Job 19:23-27a

This is a fascinating passage to read. 

On one level it can be read wholly in the terms of Job's present life: his hope is that before he dies, his innocence will be proven by God himself. 

On another level (and one which obviously relates to the gospel reading today, about resurrection life), the passage can be read as Job's intense belief that he will be found innocent, even if it is after death.

Verse 25 in particular can be read (and has been read by Christians, including, famously, as lines in Handel's Messiah) as a prophecy of Christ the Redeemer's resurrection to victorious, eternal life.

Psalm 17:1-9

This prayer of David is both desperate (his deadly enemies surround him) and confident (for God will answer him). 

The prayer is prayed to the God who vindicates the righteous. It can be our prayer as ones made righteous by Christ who are confident that if not in this life then in the life to come, God will vindicate us.

2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17

The first part of this reading attends to the 'coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.' (Appropriate as we are a few weeks away from the season of Advent). 

Intriguing here is reference to the preceding appearance of 'the lawless one' prior to the coming of 'that day.' The imagery in Paul's day of a supreme, anti-God ruler would have reminded Jewish readers of Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple (167 BC) while also bringing to mind all the claims to divinity of successive Roman emperors. 

Yet Paul obviously has in mind neither a past nor a present figure but one who is to come. Is the lawless one present in our world today? There are quite a few candidates! We can think of some nasty rulers, some malevolent global business leaders, and widely known 'opinion-makers'. In all likelihood such a specific 'anti-God/anti-Christ' figure has not yet been revealed. (Those words were first written in 2013 and, notwithstanding the Trump/Clinton/Putin "circus" in the run up to the 2016 US election, they remain true today ... in 2019).

The second part of the reading strikes a different note, but we see that if we follow Paul here, standing firm in our faith, we will be ready for the great coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, whenever that takes place.

Paul reminds his readers that we are Christians because of God's initiative and as Christians we have a purpose, to 'obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.' So Paul prays for us, verses 16-17, that we may be comforted and strengthened by God 'in every good work and word.'

One interesting note in these verses is Paul's talk in verse 15 of holding fast to 'the traditions you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.' Paul the apostle is conscious that what he teaches is truth to hold fast to. Whether through oral teaching or written letter, the words he conveys are authoritative. Thus in this short letter, 'holy scripture' is being formed.

Luke 20:27-38

Originally this story, taking place in the last week of Jesus' life, was a story about the reality of the resurrection. The Sadducees (Israel's elite leadership class), who did not believe in the resurrection because not seeing it taught in the only ancient scriptures they recognised as authoritative (Penteteuch = Genesis to Deuteronomy), sought to check out Jesus' views on the matter.

Was the question they asked Jesus an attempt to entrap him, to steer him towards a nonsensical answer exposing the folly of the resurrection? 

Was it a genuine question betraying their intellectual doubts about the resurrection based on hypotheses which troubled them such as the 'what if' of a woman with seven successive husbands. (Incidentally the idea of a woman marrying brothers successively is known as 'levirate marriage' for which see Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Genesis 38:8).

Either way, it is a good question which might be our question. That is, we too ask such "what if" questions about the resurrection. Thus we might ask today, 

'If there is resurrection, what happens when someone has had more than one spouse? Do they share heaven with both spouses?' [See below for Jesus' answer.]

Or, 'What happens if someone is eaten by a shark or if their body is cremated? Can they still receive a resurrection bod.' [I suggest God's power is greater than consequences of the shark's bite!]

Jesus answers the question asked of him very neatly and simply. The life we experience in this age is one in which marriage takes place and the life in the age of resurrection is one in which marriage does not take place. Although he does not explain the implication of this for the hypothetical woman, what he says implies the seven brothers will not be competing for her affections in the new age. This distinction between the kind of life we experience here and now, and there and later is further expounded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

There is more. Jesus goes on to make a subtle exegetical point about the scriptures cherished by the Sadducees: in these scriptures (Exodus 3:6) Moses speaks of God with reference to the great patriarchs in a way which supposes the patriarchs to be alive. The tables are turned on the resurrection-denying Sadducees: they do not read their own scriptures correctly.

As a kind of postscript, we could note that today, this response of Jesus is being used as a contribution to current debates about marriage, along these lines: 'See, Jesus, clearly teaches that marriage is a limited institution, confined to this life and of no bearing on life beyond the grave.' From that finitude of marriage some wish to draw other implications. It is not part of this commentary to comment on the debate into which this passage is being drawn but I think it worth observing that the story is being read, by some readers, in a new way today.

In general terms, what might be a lesson we draw from this reading for life today? Likely we are not majorly interested in the inner logic of Sadduceean theology, or in the complexities of family life in heaven.

What might be of interest is Jesus' last statement, in verse 38:

'Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.'

From our perspective, life in heaven can seem like a projection of a human wish in the face of a fear: we wish to live, we fear death, life beyond the grave fulfils the wish and deals with the fear. Thus some non-believers despise Christian believers as weak people unwilling to face the brute reality of life: we die, that is the end. As (I think it was) Bertrand Russell said, 'When I die, I rot.'

But Jesus brings a different perspective. The resurrection is not a myth due to our weakness in the face of death. The resurrection is the reality of the power of God which is unable to be defeated by any other power, even death. Resurrection is the living God's gift of life. It would be foolish to refuse the gift!