Saturday, December 17, 2022

Sunday 25 December 2022 - Christmas Day

Theme: that is pretty obvious, isn't it? :)

Sentence: To you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11).

Collect: (from NZ Lectionary 2017)

God of light and life,
you are born among us as a baby, in the flesh, as one of us.
As we rejoice in our bodies in the beauty of summer
grant that we may also celebrate the wonder of your incarnation
and rejoice in the mystery of God becoming one flesh.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who shares our human nature and'who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: [I am just giving one set from the NZ Lectionary]

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14


Isaiah 9:2-7

In this prophecy, as originally given, the hope and expectation concerns restoration of the greatness and supremacy of the Davidic throne.

At the point of writing, Israel's situation is oppressive: note the implicit violence of the language of "yoke," "bar," "rod," and "boots" in verses 4-5.

Verse 4's reference to "Midian" is a recollection of story of Gideon's defeat of Midian (Judges 7:15-25).

Verses 6 onwards celebrate the birth of a new David (perhaps, at the time of writing, the birth of Hezekiah). Christian readers of these verses have read these verses as perfectly correlated with the birth of Jesus and his subsequent growth to be the adult preacher and leader of the Kingdom of God.

Psalm 96

This psalm is coherent with the hope and expectation of the restoration of Israel, foreshadowed in the Isaiah reading above.

Titus 2:11-14

11: In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the grace of God has appeared (been manifested) to the world. "Bringing salvation to all" is enigmatic: does it imply that all will be saved? At the very least it is stating that the salvation the Saviour brings is available to all humanity.

12: The coming of the Saviour (the birth and life of Jesus Christ) and the expectation of his return to earth (v. 13) creates a "present age" in which we (followers of Jesus Christ) need to know how to live. Paul thus speak of the same "grace of God" which has saved us also working within us to train us to "renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly."

13: This training scheme (so to speak) endures "while we wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ." Christ is unseen in our midst during this time but we will know when he comes in glory because it will be manifest among us. Note the rare occasion here when Jesus Christ is identified within the New Testament as God.

14: Who is Jesus Christ? Three notable characteristics are mentioned in this verse.

First, "who gave himself for us" (see also Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Timothy 2:6). Christ came for our sakes and in his coming gave himself over to death that we might live.

Secondly, "redeem us" or, in the context of Paul's day, buy us out of slavery (to Satan, to sin): see also Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:20; 7:23; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Mark 10:45). Christ gave himself in costly sacrifice that we might be redeemed.

Thirdly, "purify for himself a people of his own": see also Deuteronomy 7:6-8; exodus 9:5-16; 1 Peter 2:9. Christ came to restore and enlarge the people of God, according to the promises made long ago to Israel (see above, Isaiah and Psalm readings).

Luke 2:1-14

There is a wonderful but quite technical debate within the first few verses of this passage concerning the reference to Quirinius and thus to the time of this registration (census). In short, the debate concerns whether we can match what we know of Quirinius as a Roman official and the time when we think Jesus was born (according to Matthew's chronology which places Jesus' birth before the death of Herod the Great). See here for a discussion of the issues.

What is indisputable is what Luke is attempting in these first few verses.

First, he is locating the birth of King Jesus in the world ruled by another king, the Roman emperor Augustus (1). The whole story of Luke-Acts tells us how the king born in Bethlehem, via the preaching of his apostles, became a rival king to the Emperor in Rome itself. Later in the passage, the angelic announcement of "good news" to the shepherds is an (Israel, Jewish, Old Testament-ish) equivalent of an imperial Roman announcement of "good news" re a new, supreme emperor.

Secondly, he is explaining how Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. Jesus who grew up in Nazareth) nevertheless was born in Bethlehem, some distance away (2-4).

Thirdly, he is connecting the birth of Jesus as king with the house of David, the greatest King of Israel (4, 11).

Of course for there to be a baby there needs to be a birth, and with the preliminaries of time and place out of the way, we finally read that Jesus is born (6-7).

Note how the specific location of his first days/weeks of life "in a manger" is a tiny detail within these verses. Do we make too much of this when we talk much of Jesus being born in a stable, seemly unwanted in the inn? (As an aside, the use of the term "inn" is much debated. Luke's uses a different word to the Story of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan takes the injured traveler for his recovery. We might more accurately use a word such as "lodging" and leave open the question whether it was an inn or a (crowded) house of a relative.)

Nevertheless, in a passage mentioning Augustus and David, the reference to Jesus being placed after birth in a feeding trough underlines the obscurity of Jesus' beginning to his life: he is born in Palestine (at the edge of the Roman Empire), in Bethlehem (an insignificant village relative to the great city of Jerusalem) and placed in a manger (outside of ordinary human residency).

Why do we then meet shepherds (8-14) as the first, in Luke's telling, to greet the newborn king?

Obviously we must speculate as Luke gives no hints. But shepherds in the context of associating Jesus with King David (the shepherd-king) suggests that shepherds are very appropriate as a group to recognise the new Shepherd-King Jesus.

They are good shepherds, incidentally, because in the middle of the night they are "keeping watch over their flock" (8) Understandably they are afraid when unexpectedly an angel appears, the glory of the Lord shines around them and they hear a voice (9-10). Everything here, including the fear, is redolent of many instances in the Old Testament when the angel of the Lord appears to a person or a couple or a group. As then so now the first words of the angel are "Do not be afraid" (10). The angel has not come to judge the shepherds but to announce good news to them and to ask them to be part of the celebration of that announcement, which is "good news of great joy for all the people"  (10-11).

Verse 11 piles on the titles for Jesus! He is "A Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord." With these three titles the angel is saying that the newborn baby is the full fulfilment of all Old Testament prophecies about the one who would come to restore Israel (see, again, our passage from Isaiah above, as one such prophecy). And "Lord" is particularly significant as it equates Jesus with God himself (since the exclusive name of the God of Israel, YHWH, is translated by the same Greek word, kyrios, in the Greek Old Testament).

Verse 12 adds a little to the meaning of the manger. How will the shepherds know where to find this baby? (Remember, no GPS, no cellphones in those days!) Presumably more than one baby was born at that time. But only one had been placed in a manger. The others would have been in their cots and cribs in their homes. A few questions in the nosy, gossipy community of Bethlehem and the shepherds would have easily found the baby-in-a-manger.

With a final burst of song, verses 13-14, the angels were gone and the shepherds were on their way to Bethlehem (15). But what a burst of song it was. What would we give in the world today for the simple matter of "peace"? 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Sunday 18 December 2022 - Advent 4

 Theme(s): Jesus our saviour / God's plan for us - A better future /A God near at hand

Sentence: You heavens above rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up. (Isaiah 45:8)


God of all hope and joy,
open our hearts in welcome,
that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming
may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.


Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25


Isaiah 7:10-16

At a difficult time for God's people, God promises King Ahaz a sign of a better future: the birth of a son to a young woman (Isaiah's own wife? See 8:3. Or Ahaz's wife?).

We read this passage in conjunction with today's gospel reading because this birth foretold centuries beforehand is understood by Matthew to look ahead to the birth of the eternal king of Israel, Jesus Christ.

As Matthew tells the story of that birth he tells the story of a virgin conceiving the baby who will become the Emmanuel of Isaiah's prophecy.

Some scholars get (in my view) a bit stuck on an old record of "originally Isaiah didn't envisage it was a virgin". That is true as far as it goes: the NRSV for Isaiah 7:14 accurately, according to the Hebrew, has 'young woman' rather than the particularity of 'a virgin(al young woman)'. That particularity is captured in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. Matthew uses that text rather than the Hebrew version of Isaiah. Why would he do that? Presumably not to prove that Mary was a virgin. There is no reason for Matthew to emphasise Mary's virginity unless he believed her to be one. Certainly there is no pressing reason from Isaiah for Matthew to invent such a statement.

The simpler approach is to recognise that Matthew, telling a story of Jesus' conception and birth which involved divine paternity, recognises that the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 neatly foresees such an event, so he invokes it and includes it in his narrative. He could just as easily have made no reference to Isaiah. After all, the odd thing about the reference is that Emmanuel as a name for Jesus is never again used in Matthew's Gospel (or any other gospel for that matter).

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

In this psalm there is a strong plea for restoration. For God to do a work among his people which not only saves God's people from their plight but also restores them to the splendour and goodness they once enjoyed.

This plea is well made by us through this reading three days out from Christmas. Jesus came to save us, to bring new life and to establish the kingdom of God.

Romans 1:1-7

Paul launches into his most famous epistle. When all the great books and commentaries on this epistle are digested the simple fact is that Paul sets out to tell us what the gospel of Jesus Christ is, in a world in which the message of a Jewish rabbi has spread beyond the confines of Judaism. The gospel went global and now the question arises, what is the global meaning of the gospel?

In this launch into the subject, Paul says something simple and directly relevant to the Christmas story: the gospel concerns the Son of God and the Son of God was 'descended from David according to the flesh ...'. There is more to say (and linked to the Easter story). But vital to the gospel is the birth of Jesus as a real flesh and blood descendant of King David. Even in a globalization of the gospel, this fact is important.

One reason for this importance is that it underscores the importance of God's previous words to humanity, to Israel in particular via his prophets: a messiah/king in the line of David would come to bring salvation. That has happened: God's Word is true.

Matthew 1:18-25

It may seem a bit odd reading this reading when it is not Christmas Day but don't worry, there are Christmas readings in the lectionary for Christmas Day!

In this brief reading we do not need to get stuck on any particular point (though preachers do do that!). Essentially Matthew tells us three salient facts:
- the conception of Jesus was a divine act according to a divine plan;
- the name of Jesus meant something important: it summarised his purpose, to save people from their sin;
- Jesus was born as a normal baby with a mum like any other baby.

What response could we make to this baby?

(1) We could celebrate and rejoice that God was at work in our world, doing something hugely important to change the course of history, while at the same time wonderfully fulfilling words previously spoken to us by ancient prophets.

(2) We could ask Jesus to be our saviour, to be the one who saves us from our sins.

(3) We could marvel that in this tiny baby, God was present in a way previously unknown. (No other baby in the Bible, even when miracles were performed to overcome barrenness, was born without a human father).

An alternative line of thought from this passage is to focus on the name Emmanuel. Although only used this once in the gospels, this name brought forward by Matthew from Isaiah's prophecy, speaks of a great gospel theme: that in Jesus Christ, God is 'with' humanity.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Sunday 11 December 2022 - Advent 3

This is a challenging Sunday for faithful Anglicans. For some faithful Anglicans, today is the day when we best, relative to the ending of school year and proximity of Christmas, hold our Sunday School Pageant/Christmas Play, or, possibly, a Nine Lessons and Carols service, and thus the lectionary takes a back seat. For some faithful Anglicans, this Sunday is "Gaudete Sunday" and time to replace "violet" with "pink" and to rejoice with the Virgin Mary with the slightly awkward lectionary challenge that in the Year of Matthew, the gospel reading has nothing to do with Mary and everything to do with John the Baptist. (Our lectionary does offer Luke 1:47-55 as an alternative for the psalm).

Theme(s): Restoration / Healing / John the Baptist /Jesus the true Messiah

Sentence: For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert ... and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35:6,10).


(1) Original as given by our church as part of a set of trialed 'traditional' collects:

"God of the unexpected,
your ways are not our ways.  
Open our ears to the prophets you send, 
help us to hear the good news from unforeseen messengers.
Empower us to join the healing work of the one 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"

(2) My improvement:

"God of the unexpected,
whose ways are not our ways,  
open our ears to the prophets you send, 
help us to hear the good news and so
empower us to join the healing work of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

[My improvement of my improvement:]

(3) God of the unexpected
whose ways are not our ways,
open our ears to the prophets you send
that we might hear your gospel and act on it
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and always. Amen.

Now, officially, this is the Collect:

Terror and doom, and wrath to come,
John your heald preached
to bring us to repentance;
open our eyes, almighty God,
show us our sin, and grant us forgiveness.
Hear this prayer for your love's sake.


Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10 (or The Magnificat, Luke 1:47-55)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11


Isaiah 35:1-10

We cannot understand the Old Testament if we do not keep in view the cataclysmic event of Israel being exiled (the northern kingdom, 721 BC; the southern kingdom, 597/587 BC).

The people of God living in the 'promised land' provided by God were now living as subjects of a foreign power in a foreign land. Theologically this seemed to be a complete denial of all the promises of God. In a world of competing gods of nations, did YHWH the God of Israel even exist? If YHWH did exist, what kind of pathetic power did he have? Israel - it appeared - was no more. Or not. In passages such as this one we have a 'prophetic oracle of salvation' which conveys a sweeping and thrilling vision of 'the return' of God's people, 'redeemed' by God out of new slavery, to live again in 'Zion.'

In other words, Israel, theologically and psychologically could hold their heads up high. The promises of God were true, the exile was a catastrophe but not the end of Israel or of Israel's God. Indeed the future spelled out here in certain ways was to be more glorious than the most glorious past of Israel (i.e. when David was king).

Later aspects of this passage will feature in the reception of Jesus and his 'restorative' ministry of healing and mighty acts (e.g. Matthew 11:5 which is part of our gospel reading today).

The (arguably) most famous New Testament scholar in the world today, N.T. or Tom Wright, has made much in his gospel scholarship of the theme of 'return from exile', arguing that the gospels present Jesus as the one who truly and completely brings Israel (finally) out of exile.

The reality of Israel's return from exile (as we can read in books such as Nehemiah, Ezra, 1 and 2 Maccabees) was a 'mixed bag': there was a return of people and a rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem but there was also further subjection by foreign rulers, first Greece and then Rome. Thus Wright's approach (much debated) has something in it: to the extent that the return from exile was envisaged in all its dimensions in Isaiah 35, much was missing and unfulfilled by the time Jesus appeared in Israel to preach the 'kingdom of God.'

Psalm 146:5-10

This psalm conveys a similar message to the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 35 (see above).

The completeness of God's care for his people is emphasised: God will execute justice AND give food to the hungry; set the prisoner free AND open the eyes of the blind; etc.

James 5:7-10

When we consider Advent in respect of the return of Christ inevitably we ponder the question of 'how long?' A thousand years may be as one day in the Lord's sight but to us it is a very long time and two thousand years is twice as long! In this passage James urges us to be patient. A timely lesson in more ways than one.

Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist in prison finds his mind going round the bend. He has discharged his prophetic ministry at great cost. The central theme of that ministry was announcing the coming of the Lord's Anointed One (or Messiah). He thought the Messiah was Jesus. Now he is not so sure. As any of us would do when in a state of uncertainty, he decides to check up on what is happening. Perhaps Jesus was just a bit like the Messiah-of-expectation but not the actual Messiah?

Jesus responds in a kind of code language which also reports accurately on what has been happening. The list of what had been happening, verse 5, to be reported back to John, was framed in the language of the great restoration, return and redemption vision in Isaiah 35. Jesus knew that John would understand the meaning of the report: messianic deeds were happening because the Messiah was here and at work. "Dear John, Doubt no longer! Love Jesus."

In turn, Jesus sets out his understanding of the impact and importance of John the Baptist, vss. 7-14. John the Baptist is the last and greatest prophet of the old order or pre-kingdom history of Israel. God is doing a new thing and John's honour was to usher that new thing into being.

In the season of Advent, there are several aspects of the coming of Jesus into the world to contemplate.