Sunday, March 27, 2022

Sunday 3 April 2022 - Lent 5

Theme                  When we love the Lord

Sentence             Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. (Lamentations 1:12) [NZPB, p. 579]

Collect                  Jesus, they hung you on a cross
                                Because you love sinners.
                                Save us from our self-righteousness
                                And from our contempt for those who differ from us.
                                Hear this prayer for your love’s sake. Amen [NZPB, p. 579]          

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126           
Philippians 3:4b-14
                        John 12:1-8

It is exciting to read Isaiah 43:16-21 a couple of weeks out from Easter Day: 

'I am about to do a new thing' (v.19). 

As we journey with Jesus to the cross we are allowed an anticipation of what lies beyond, the resurrection as a 'new thing', a new dimension to life which is not accounted for in terms of the 'former things' (v. 18). 

To be excited in this way is to be open to laughing, shouting for joy and generally rejoicing at the Lord's great work, for which Psalm 126 is a great aid. The psalmist, in a series sometimes known as 'Songs of Ascents' (Psalms 120-134), is either looking back on God's restoration of 'Zion' (i.e. of Israel, its great city and the temple within it) following the Babylonian exile or looking forward to it. 

In the former case either a new misfortune has struck Israel or, perhaps more likely, the completion of the restoration of the exiles has not yet occurred (vss. 4-6), in the latter case, the prayer of the last three verses is a fervent prayer for restoration from Israel's plight under Babylon. In the context of Passion Sunday (reflecting on the suffering of Jesus), this psalm speaks joyfully of what God accomplishes in the resurrection of Jesus and realistically of the suffering of Jesus.

Paul writing to the Philippians, 3:4b-14, can speak of suffering and resurrection in one passage (and what a passage it is, as Paul's sets out his reasons for being confident because of Christ that his life is on track and steadily moving towards 'the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus' (3:14).) Thus Paul's personal ambition is 'to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if I may somehow attain the resurrection from the dead' (3:10-11).

It would be a mistake to think that Paul's last words in the citation above mean he is uncertain and doubtful as to whether he will 'attain the resurrection from the dead.' He knows (and we know he knows), as he expresses through his writings with the most extraordinary confidence, that Christ has saved him. Not because of something he has done but because of what Christ has done for him.

The sense of 'may attain' is more that Paul is eager to embrace the experience of Christ within him fully. He is up for experiencing suffering that he might identify with and understand Christ better. He wishes to attain the resurrection from the dead via this empathetic route of suffering with Christ. But will he experience real depth, or will his life be snatched away from him peremptorily?

When finally we bring our attentive reading to the gospel, John 12:1-8, we are in a mind and mood to engage with the solemnity of a special dinner party at Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem. Here the smell of Jesus' death is in the air. Perhaps only Jesus and Mary sensed this at the time. But as readers we know that Jesus' death is close at hand. In contrast to the other three readings, there is no anticipation of the resurrection. Indeed the concluding words of Jesus imply a permanent loss when he departs, 'You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me' (v. 8).

From a narratival perspective this dinner party functions to turn the plot's development from the raising of Lazarus from the dead to the death of Jesus. (Indeed the raising of Lazarus from the dead  is the specific occasion of turning opposition to Jesus into a plan that Jesus will die, 11:45-57; 12:9-11). 

The anointing by Mary is a prophecy of Jesus' burial. The significance of Jesus is great enough to warrant the donation of this costly perfume to his body ahead of any good the equivalent money might have achieved for the poor. Reflection on this calculation also allows John to tell us that Judas Iscariot was about to betray him - another link in the chain of events which will take Jesus to the cross (12:4).

Dinner parties feature frequently in the gospels, normally as occasions for debate or discourse. Here there is little of either. But this dinner party sets the scene for the tumultuous events which are about to unfold, the first of which is the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (i.e. 12:12-19: Palm Sunday). It will parallel a meal later in the week in which Jesus will begin his final testament of teaching (John's Last Supper and its afterwards, 13:1 - 17:26).

Whether Jesus was anointed by a woman on several occasions or just one, the motif of a meal made memorable by anointing must have stayed strongly in the memory of the first Christians as the four gospels give us three versions of a meal of this kind. 

One meal, early in Jesus' ministry (with an unnamed sinful woman at the home of Simon, Luke 7:36-50).

Another meal, 'six days before passover,' specifically associated with 'the home of Lazarus' in Bethany with Martha serving and Mary anointing  (John 12:1-8).

Finally, a meal 'two days before Passover ... at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper' with an unnamed woman (Mark 14:1-10 = Matthew 26:6-13). In each case, we are struck by the central action of the anointing of Jesus by a woman clearly and unmistakably devoted to Jesus.

What do we do to show that we love the Lord?

Is our love for Jesus given extravagantly or cautiously?

Are we willing to share with Jesus' sufferings that we might experience his resurrection? 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Sunday 27 March 2022 - 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 - for obvious reasons. Yet, the whole narration of the parable ends with the story of the elder brother. Should it be called the Parable of the Two (very Different) 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 parable, how does that influence the meaning of the parable 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 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 and religious identity 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 (prodigal son) 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?' 

Are there traces of the "older brother" in us that need working on so that we, in character, are aligned with the waiting father? 

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Sunday 20 March 2022 - 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 originally 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 2022, I do so around the time of the third anniversary (15 March 2019) of an appalling, heartbreaking tragedy here in Christchurch, the city which I love and in which I and my wife have our home. 51 people were shot dead by a gunman intent on murdering people while attending prayers in their mosques. More than 40 others were wounded and injured. There can be no more peaceful activity than praying and those who were praying on that Friday afternoon were as innocent as any other citizens of Christchurch that afternoon who did not share their tragic end.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Sunday 13 March 2022 - 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. Here I am focused on 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 aloud in the service, 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.