Saturday, November 26, 2022

Sunday 4 December 2022 - Advent 2

Here is a really nice track to listen to while you prepare your sermon! Alison Krauss with Down to the River to Pray.

Theme(s): Justice and Judgment // Just a prophet (!) // Prophetic justice // Jesus comes as judge

Sentence: 'With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.' (Isaiah 11:4)

Collect: taken from here.

"Loving God,
you send prophets to warn, disturb and revive your people. 
Help us listen to those who prepare us for your kingdom. 
Give us courage to remove the chaff from our lives
so that we may be ready to meet the Lord.
We ask this through him whose coming draws near, 
our Lord Jesus Christ, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"


Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12


Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Some psalms are prayerful and this is one of them. The psalmist prayer for the king of Israel, likely Solomon (according to an ascription at the beginning, 'Of Solomon'). His prayer covers 'all the bases' of what we would expect from a ruler. Reading this psalm in Advent we naturally read into it the character of King Jesus.

The last two verses remind us that great kings are a blessing from an even greater God!

Isaiah 11:1-10

This prophecy is 'thick' with content. Looking ahead from a context of a shattered kingdom of David, the prophet sees 'a shoot' growing out of the 'stump of Jesse [=David's father]'. (Alternatively the shoot is depicted as a 'branch' growing out of the roots of the stump, v. 1, and later the shoot/branch will be referred to as 'the root of Jesse', v. 10). As Christians we understand that shoot to be Jesus. Isaiah sees ahead what we see in hindsight: this shoot was full of the spirit of the Lord.

But the shoot will be a Spirit-endowed, wise king who will 'judge' the world. Unlike judges who may rely on human senses of sight and hearing, the shoot of Jesse will judge 'with righteousness' (v. 4, 5). This judgment will be severe: the wicked will not survive it (v. 4b).

But that is not all Isaiah sees. Beyond judgment, Isaiah sees a new world of peace, harmony and wellness. He depicts this with inspiring word pictures: 'the world shall live with the lamb ... the cow and the bear shall graze ... the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den' (vss. 6-8).

Romans 15:4-13

This epistle is chosen for today because it cites Isaiah 11:10 (in verse 12). That is, relative to Isaiah, the epistle passage offers evidence of fulfilment of the ancient prophecy about Jesus as the root or shoot of Jesse. Paul (apostle to the Gentiles or nations beyond Israel) can confidently declare the fulfilment of the Isaianic prophecy because he himself has been party to the fulfilment as he has preached the kingdom of God around the Mediterranean world.

There is much more to the passage than this connection with Isaiah, but the theme of Christ fulfilling Old Testament prophecy is resounding through 15:8-12.

A couple of themes to note in the remaining verses:

1. Verse 4 is an endorsement of the importance of the Old Testament for Christians: 'whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scripture we might have hope.'

Within this passage this verse also functions to chart where Paul is about to go in verses 8-12: the glory and greatness of Christ includes the wonderful note that his coming into the world is fulfilment of scriptural promises and visions.

2. Verses 5-7 and 12 offer a picture of wholesome life in the church when we understand who Christ is: steadfastness and encouragement; harmony and unity; welcoming fellowship together; marked by joy, peace, and hope. What is not to like!

Recall that chapter 15 is at the end of this long epistle. Paul is setting out his closing thoughts as he brings an amazing theological journey (chapters 1-11) joined with a challenging application pathway (chapters 12-16) to an end. Like a musical composer who brings notes sounded at the beginning into the ending of his piece, and maps out the ending with notes at the beginning that will be reinforced as the whole ending is played out, Paul says some things which recall what has gone before while charting how the future of the church should look.

In particular, verse 7, 'Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God' is a summary of Paul's theological argument about the inclusive nature of the gospel of justification by faith in which both Jew and Gentile are welcomed into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 3:1-12

Following the lectionary is a good thing - it encourages common reading of Scripture across the global church and it offers readings appropriate to the calendar. But there are idiosyncracies which result. Today's passage is about the coming of Jesus Christ (per reflection below) but it is also the story of John the Baptist told through Matthew's narratival lens. Do we continue that story next Sunday? No! We next read about John the Baptist in Matthew 3 on Sunday 8 January 2023, when Matthew 3:13-17 is the gospel, and the theme of the day is "the Baptism of the Lord."

What is (the adult) John the Baptist doing in the run up to Christmas?! There are two possible ways to think about this reading in Advent (the season of coming).

First, John the Baptist is preparing for the coming of Jesus' mission and ministry so this gospel reading reminds us that Jesus didn't just come to be an adorable baby but to do something for God as a mature adult.

Secondly, as we think in Advent about Jesus' Second Coming, we think about judgment and this reading is full of judgment! 'You brood of vipers!' Etc.

Here I will concentrate on themes of judgment in the reading.

1. To proclaim the gospel is to proclaim judgment: verse 2,

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

To accept the good news, to respond to the invite to enter the kingdom is to end one way of life and to begin another way of life. That is a judgment on the old way of life: it is not up to kingdom standards! (E.g. self-centredness does not match up to the kingdom standard of generous regard for others).

2. To live a different lifestyle is to proclaim judgment: verse 4,

"Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey."

John lived differently and challenged the 'normal' way people were living. It appears that it was not only the message he proclaimed but the lifestyle he lived which drew people to leave their homes and journey to the wilderness. They did not come to gawk but to be baptized as they confessed their sins: that is, they accepted the judgment proclaimed by John in word and deed.

3. To preach a message of judgment is to proclaim judgment. In verses 7-10, John holds nothing back in a specific, pointed denunciation of Pharisees and Sadducees. Sometimes religious people, including religious leaders and leading religious groups get things wrong. Implicit in John's message to these folk seems to be a denunciation of superficiality (they were not bearing fruit worthy of genuine repentance) and of complacency (they relied on Abraham's faith rather than having their own faith).

What would John say to you and me today?

What would John say to the faith community (local church and/or denomination) we belong to? It would be a bit surprising if there was no superficiality or complacency among us!

4. To preach the coming of Jesus is to preach the coming of God's Judge: verse 12,

"His [Jesus Christ's] winnowing fork is in his hand ... he will burn with unquenchable fire."

John uses strong, even frightening pictures to talk about the mission of Jesus. At first sight they may not resemble much of what we perceive about Jesus' activity as compassionate healer, sympathetic provider of food, carefulness in treating children and women well. But the larger story of Jesus includes his battles with Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he often denounced for their hypocrisy and manipulative zealousness. Perhaps more importantly, wherever Jesus went he divided people into those who were for or against him. Finally, heading towards execution on the cross, he exposed the crowds with whom he was popular as superficial in their allegiance, for they too turned on him.

Jesus was indeed a winnowing fork, sorting the wheat from the chaff. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Sunday 27 November 2022 - Advent 1 [beginning of Year A - Year of Matthew]

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 12, 2022

Sunday 20 November 2022 - Ordinary 34 "etc"

This Sunday, most popularly celebrated around the globe as "Christ The King" (or, gender-neutrally, "The Reign of Christ") 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).

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Sunday 13 November 2022 - 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.