Monday, December 18, 2023

Sunday 31 December 2023 - Christmas 1; Saturday 6 January 2024 - Epiphany; Sunday 7 January - Epiphany 1

 (Without updating the material of three years ago, I provide links to that material to assist with sermon preparation through the next two Sundays and Epiphany itself (which may be transferred to Sunday 7 January 2024):

Sunday 31 December - Christmas 1

Saturday 6 January - Epiphany

Sunday 7 January - Epiphany 1 - Baptism of the Lord

Sunday 24 December 2023 - Advent 4 // Monday 25 December - Christmas Eve/Christmas Day 2023


Theme(s): Promise and fulfilment / Mary's faithful obedience / Mary as model disciple / God's power and persistence

Sentence: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38)


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.


2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm = Luke 1:47-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38


2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

It is all but impossible to imagine what it would have been like to be an Israelite on the original Christmas eve, pondering this reading from the Israelite scriptures, trying to make sense of this promise in a land ruled by the Roman emperor via dodgy governors with some power also delegated to a locally derived king, Herod, of whom many things could be said, but not the declaration "Herod is in the Davidic royal line."

Had God made a false promise to Israel in 2 Samuel 7:16? In what sense could anything about contemporary Israel be said to fulfil this promise? Of such questions without obvious answers was fervent expectation about the coming Messiah born - the expectation which would dog Jesus' ministry as people sensed he was the Messiah and pressed him to conform to their expectations!

We, today, can ask another kind of question of 2 Samuel 7: what kind of God says one thing in one passage and does another thing according to another passage? That is, what kind of God says - according to a plain reading of 2 Samuel - "there will always be a physical succession of kings descended from David" and then presides over a history of Israel which loses that succession and works through that unfolding history to bring a king into being who will forever be king, but not as a physical person seated on a human throne in a palace in Jerusalem?

First, the God of Israel is the God who takes human sin - rebellion against the will of God - seriously and treats it consequentially. Israel temporarily loses its Davidic line of kings because of its rebellion, partially expressed through David's kingly descendants who sinned as much if not more than their citizens and partially expressed through the Israelites themselves who continued after David to compromise their worship of the one true God with worship of false gods. (Yet this observation is itself complicated in respect of the Old Testament. The consequences of sin on the Davidic line is a major theme through the history told from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings, but an alternative history, told in 1 and 2 Chronicles consistently underplays the consequences of sin for the Davidic line).

Secondly, the God of Israel reserves the right to fulfil the promises he makes to Israel on his own terms. God remains God over his promises and is not bound by how we have heard the promises. Thus God, in the long term of history, does fulfil his promise in 2 Samuel 7:16, but converts the succession of Davidic kings into a single but successful Davidic king, i.e. Jesus Christ, who will live forever.

Thirdly, we then see that the God of Israel is a God who never gives up on his people. The constant straying of God's people from the will of God aligned with the promises of God does not make God give up on his people, but it does mean God works in a new way to make his promises come true.

Psalm = Luke 1:47-55

Quite rightly today our psalm is not drawn from the Book of Psalms but from the lips of Mary the mother of our Lord as she bursts into joyful song as a response to what God is doing in her.

Note the way in which the opening line, "My soul magnifies the Lord" (46) sets the tone and the theme for the rest of the song. It is a magnificent magnifying of the greatness and goodness of the Lord.

Note also, in terms of the discussion above about God's promise to David (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), that Mary here reaches even further back in the promises of God concerning God's people to the "promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever" (55).

All the promises of God find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ!

Also note the deep, provocative political themes in the song: the world is not right and it is going to be put right. At the end of 2017, in a world of wars, climate change, refugees, homelessness and growing inequality, we could sing the Magnificat as a political anthem to spur us on to a better 2018.

Romans 16:25-27

What is God up to? Generally? Eternally? Through Christmas? On the cross? In the garden with the empty tomb? In the past of Israel in its history, from Abraham to the present time when Paul wrote these words?

Here Paul nails the answer to all these questions!

God has been working out a purpose for the whole of humanity (Jews and Gentiles) which for a period has been "kept secret". That purpose "is now disclosed." The disclosure is described by Paul in two ways. First it is the content of "my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ."

Secondly it is revealed "through the prophetic writings [...] made known to all the Gentiles."

This second description must mean that the exposition of the prophetic writings of Israel in the light of Jesus Christ is the unveiling of the secret hidden there until the coming of Jesus Christ brought out the true meaning of these writings.

What is God's purpose for Jews and for Gentiles? Paul says it is "to bring about the obedience of faith." The phrase "the obedience of faith" has already occurred in Romans 1:5. When we find things said at the beginning and at the end of a biblical writing, they are very important! What God wants is a people in a relationship to God which goes beyond lip service and outward signs of compliance to an inward trust and heartfelt following of God's will.

In other terms, and bearing the whole 16 chapters of Romans in mind, the answer to the question of what God is up to is this: God wants a people characterised by "obedience of faith." He has sought this via covenantal relationship with Israel. He now seeks this for the whole world, for Israel and non-Israel. The key even in this being worked out is the coming of Jesus Christ as the crucified one, for through Jesus God is reconciled to the people, both Jew and Gentile, who have broken relationship with him.

Luke 1:26-38

There is at least a sermon, an apologetics essay and an exercise in prophetic correlation to be developed from this passage.

The sermon is about God's work in our lives and how we should respond to God. In this sermon we would draw out the example of Mary responding to the doubly shocking message that she, a virgin, would become pregnant, and the child she would bear would be the Son of God. In this example, Mary is very human (being perplexed and asking questions (29, 34). But she rises above her confusion to declare, as a model disciple, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (38) Are we available to God? Are we willing to work with God according to his will? Even if it turns our lives upside down?

The apologetics essay ... which I earnestly commend is not confused with the sermon. The Christmas season is not the time to indulge in speculative reasoning about how a virgin birth can (or cannot) take place. We gather in church at Christmas time to celebrate the birth of Jesus not to argue about the circumstances of his conception! Our progress through the season of Advent looks forward to the coming of Jesus and anticipates the celebration of his birth. Speculative thoughts on human biology can be dealt with on another occasion (and, in my view, that should not be through a Sunday sermon but through (e.g.) a midweek parish Bible study).

With those thoughts as constraints as to where our arguments and speculations might be expressed, note what this passage attests to in respect of the conception of Jesus: the conception of Jesus is the work and will of God. God chooses Mary to be the mother of God's Child. The wisdom of God is displayed in choosing a woman who is about to be married and thus about to form a household in which the Child will be humanly brought up in security, stability and love.

That Mary is a virgin means there is no confusion about the father of the baby she will bear: God is the father (biologically) and God is the Father (spiritually, the source of all life in creation). Mary's virginity also enables no confusion about the status of Jesus as both a holy person and as 'Son of God' (35). From conception itself, this baby will be divine and human.

On the matter of conception, as Luke tells the story, Jesus is conceived in his mother Mary's womb through God the Holy Spirit working in Mary to 'come upon you' and (the same thought expressed differently, in parallel) because 'the power of the Most High will overshadow you' (35).

It seems terribly modern and up to date to display our scientific knowledge of how babies are conceived and thus to wonder just how such a conception could take place. From such a questioning stance it is then easy to entertain theories about an all too human conception which is, conveniently-for-theology-about-Jesus, repainted in terms of divine conception. But the passage tells us that Mary, Luke and (no doubt) Joseph knew as much as us about the basics of conception: both a man and a woman are needed for conception to take place. It is biology not theology which informs Mary's question in verse 34, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

Thus the angel moves to assure Mary that the impossible is possible. First Mary is reminded of a nearby miracle of conception: Elizabeth, her relative, who was known to be barren, in old age has conceived a son. But this miracle is not quite what is being talked about with Mary. From earlier in Luke's Gospel we know that the miracle was that Zechariah and Elizabeth together conceived this child - a miracle in keeping with a succession of such conceptions in the Old Testament. So, secondly, the angel assures her that the power of God is even greater, "For nothing is impossible with God" (37).

An exercise in prophetic correlation: again, my suggestion is that this exercise as a matter of background reading and reflection is not confused with the sermon from this passage. It is important that we find in the gospels signs that Jesus Christ, in each and every important part of his life, from conception to resurrection, fulfils God's will foretold long ago. The importance concerns both the power of God's Word (what God says about the future comes into being because God's will is greater than the ordinary course of events in human history) and the meaning of God's Word (when God makes a promise, it is fulfilled - ultimately the promise of God being fulfilled in Jesus Christ is the promise that Israel is and will be God's people - redeemed and saved from sin which repeatedly leads them away from God). 

But it is a moot point whether a congregation comes to hear God's Word at a Sunday sermon in terms of "Look over here, this Old Testament verse says X will happen, then look over there, this Gospel verse says X has happened." The danger with such an exercise is that we unwittingly convey the impression that God is a divine magician or manipulator whose most impressive achievements consist of making history fit previous prediction.

Our challenge as preachers is to point our congregations to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, that is, to the God who may be trusted to keep his Word, including to fulfil all his promises to us. Further, our challenge is to present Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of those promises rather than to present a series of predictions of which we can say, "Look, these predictions have come true."

(For clarity, if needed: I am not diminishing the importance of predictions coming true but asserting the greater importance of promises being fulfilled.)

With that in mind, our Old Testament reading today lies in the background to this passage from Luke. God's promise to David that "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16) is specifically invoked in the angelic message to Mary (Luke 1:32-33). Even his family heritage through Joseph is Davidic (27).


Amongst an array of possibilities for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sermons, I offer comments on four readings, Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 and John 1:1-14.

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

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.

Whether or not Luke is precisely accurate or is conveying with sincerity what he had received (but turns out to be misinformation) about the history of Roman officialdom in the Middle East, we can be sure about what Luke is attempting to achieve 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. 

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? 

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 people, 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 street maps, 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 - especially at the end of 2023, in Gaza and the West Bank - for the simple matter of "peace"?

John 1:1-14

From the heart of God (verses 1, 18) comes the Son of God to be one of us (verse 14). 

As one of us, this Son, who is also the Word of God (verse 1 - that is, the disclosure or revelation of the otherwise unknowable God), entered and lived in a hostile world, in which the choice to accept or reject the Son is made (verses 10-13). 

Since the Son who is the Word has been with God from the beginning (i.e. before creation, verses 1-2), the Son has always been a lifegiver, a bringer into being of all things (verse 3) and this lifegiver has come into the world to bring life, the kind of divine liveliness that is also light in the darkness of the world which is naturally hostile to God (verses 3-5, 9).

All this inspiring, awesome talk of God (theology) and of the Son of God (Christology) is a very big picture approach to God at work in the world (providence) - a form of theological-cosmological narrative - but this reading connects to the other gospel narratives which are forms of theological-historical narratives by virtue of reference to John (the Baptist) in verses 6-8. John is the "witness" who is not the light but testifies to the light.

But to see Jesus is to see much much more than an historical person. Through Jesus we see the glory of God (verse 14), in fact through Jesus we see as much of God as we can ever see as humans confined to the dimensions of ordinary life (verse 18).

ALTERNATIVELY: one comment on Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

What kind of news drives the shepherds to leave their flocks in the middle of the night to race to a stable to worship a baby? To call the news 'good news' is accurate - that is the meaning of the word 'gospel' - but not very helpful. A better sense would be to call this news the 'best news ever.' All the good news in the world - the birth of a new baby, a promotion with massive pay rise, the All Blacks winning the World Cup three times in a row - falls well short of the news which sets the shepherds racing to the stable. 

They hear the best news ever. We hear it too in our four readings. Isaiah, centuries ahead of the actual birth date of Jesus, celebrates the best king ever. The psalmist celebrates God as the best God ever and sneaks in a preview of God coming to earth. Paul writing to his friend and colleague Titus reminds him that what happened in the birth of Jesus was nothing less than the appearance of the generous, unconstrained love of God which brought salvation for all (v.11).

In Luke's gospel the angel announcing this best news ever says it is of 'great joy for all the people' (v. 10). There is that word 'all' again. What on earth could the best news ever be when it is best news for everyone?

Going back to Titus, Paul lays out this best news ever in terms of our relationship with God. What state is that relationship in for humanity? What state is that relationship in for you and for me? If all were well there would be no need for talk of salvation, for peace and goodwill. But all is not well. The relationship has been broken. Instead of peace there are wars between countries and bitter conflicts between individuals. Instead of prosperity for all there is a growing gap between rich and poor. Instead of sober, pure living we inhabit a world drenched with pornography and awash with liquor and drugs.

It is a wonder God has not washed his hands of us and left us to our own selfish devices. Or even wiped us from the face of the earth. That would be bad news. Instead we have the best news ever,

"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.'

God is not deterred that we have rejected him and spurned his will for our lives. Instead God has entered our world, hiding his glory, taking on the ordinary life of a baby who will grow to be a man. That man will die on a cross a death which absorbs all the bad stuff so the rift between us and God can be healed. Only with that healing can the world itself be healed.

Each Christmas we pause to celebrate this gift from God full of possibility for a new world. The challenging edge to this message is what we are going to do about it for the next 365 days! Something or nothing? 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Sunday 17 December 2023 - Advent 3

Theme(s): God's glorious future for God's people / John the Baptist as Witness to the Light / Being ready for Christ's return

Sentence: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

Almighty God,
you sent your servant John the Baptist
to prepare your people for the coming of your Son;
grant that our feet may be guided in the way of peace by those who proclaim your word
so that we may stand in confidence before him
when he comes in his glorious kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Judge and Redeemer. Amen.


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 (but Luke 1:47-55 is an alternate).
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Centuries before the coming of Jesus, Israel had been treated to extraordinary verbal pictures of God's future blessing. Some of these verbal pictures feature in the Old Testament readings in Advent. Here is one of the richest of these visions.

Effectively it says that through the Lord's Anointed (i.e the Messiah) all wrongs will be righted and all shortcomings of the world turned into splendid advantages.

In particular the picture is of Israel transformed from plight and blight endured through historical ravaging by conquering nations into a glorious nation, as beautiful and as blessed as garlanded bridegroom or bejewelled bride (10).

What then is always worth contemplating is the manner in which both gospels and epistles take up these once future visions and identify them with their now present experience of Jesus who lived among them and now lives as the Risen One in their midst. It is extraordinary that these visions for the future of Israel become focused in the early church on the One Person, Jesus Christ, and those who now believe that they are identified with him in a new life equivalent to being the new temple and new people of God.

Psalm 126

Of the words of this psalm we could refer to the words above about Isaiah 61! The sense of hope for a better and more glorious future are effectively one and the same.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

In chapter five Paul is concerned about the Thessalonians' concern to know when the day of the Lord will be (1). In our passage today, Paul is setting out 'how then shall we live?' when the time of our remaining on earth is uncertain. This setting out has begun in verse 12. In verses 16-22 we are treated to a rapid fire series of directions: rejoice ... pray ... give thanks ... do not quench ... etc.

Each such direction is worth a sermon in its own right. What kind of church would we be if we rejoiced always? (No grumblers!) What happens to our life in Christ as the church when we do quench the Spirit? How do we, in fact, 'not quench' the Spirit?

In verses 23-24 Paul changes tune, a little. We cannot be whom God intends us to be without God's help. So verse 23 is a blessing-cum-intercession. May God enable you to be ready for his coming. Verse 24 is an encouragement-cum-promise. The God to whom Paul prays in verse 23 'is faithful' and in respect of the prayer Paul has just made, 'he will do this.'

How can we grumble when we have such a God?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Given that last Sunday we had a focus on John the Baptist, our challenge with this reading is to think about the things that are said here which do not repeat last week's thoughts from Mark 1:1-8.

Despite the many differences between John's Gospel and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is a hard challenge this week because we read one (combination) passage in which a lot of common ground exists between the four gospels!

First, we might note the way in which the references to John the Baptist here also become the means to develop the full status of Jesus in its broadest terms.

Thus to be told in verses 6-8 that John is not himself the 'light' is a reinforcement of the claim that Jesus is 'the light' (not merely the Messiah, Son of God but also). Note how this is introduced in verses 4-5 and developed in verse 9. In verses 19-28 John's denial that he is Messiah or Elijah or prophet is simultaneously a way of saying that the One to whom he testifies is the one who fulfils expectations about those three figures in the theology, history and prophecy of Israel.

Secondly, we might pause on the words in verse 7, 

'so that all might believe through him.' 

Are these words referring to 'He came as witness', that is, to John, in the first part of the verse, or to 'the light' at the end of the first clause of the verse? We should go with the usual Greek understanding that such a phrase refers to the subject of the verb in the first clause, so John has this extraordinary role in proclaiming who Jesus is, a role in bearing witness to Israel that has the ambition that all Israel might believe in Jesus.

The point then would not be to marvel at what John did as a preacher and baptiser nor to reflect on how well he achieved that ambition but to note an implication of what the gospel author is doing here: charting out a role for his readers, those who now have the role of bearing witness to the light. It is through us (and only us) that all will come to believe.

Thirdly, verses 19-28 underline the declaration in verse 11, '[Jesus] came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.' Although Jesus is 

'The true light, which enlightens everyone' (9), 

from before the beginning of his ministry there is opposition. John the Baptist makes a (bad pun coming up) splash and the reaction of religious authorities in Jerusalem is to send an inquisitorial delegation not a congratulatory committee.

Finally here, it may or may not be useful in a sermon to summarise John the Baptist's role as "the Advertiser." An advertisement is not the product, performance or person being advertised but the one who advertises is announcing the product, performance or person which is available or coming. All advertisements suppose that what they advertise will make life better for the one who responds to the advertisement!

The Gospel of John and "the Jews"

One of the great questions through John's Gospel which (uncomfortably for those of us who live in post-Holocaust times) constantly presents a clash between Jesus and the Jews is: Why 1:11 was truthful? Why didn't those who believed in the God of Israel find that God was now dwelling among them in Jesus Christ? 

In turn, that is a great (and difficult) question for all Christians through all subsequent centuries, both in the particular reference to Israel, Why haven't the Jews turned together to Jesus as their Messiah? and in general reference to the world, Why has the world resisted the enlightenment of the Light?

While such questions could be catalytical for your sermon this Sunday, here I will only pause briefly to reflect on the actual opposition depicted in our reading. The questioning stance of the authorities in Jerusalem suggests an anxiety shared in common with past authorities about the ministry of prophetic figures, the anxiety of the establishment facing the possibility of the people turning away from the establishment to a new religious leadership. 

In turn this suggests that the established leadership of Israel were more concerned about their relationship with the people they led than with the God they served. The latter, surely, lends itself to openness to God doing a new thing among his people.

The obvious point - or perhaps it is not so obvious - is that we worry less about how the leaders of Israel could have gotten themselves into this spiritually precarious position and more about whether we in the church today are open to God being at work among us in new ways. 

Or, have we become used to a position which is now 'established' and thus threatened when change presents itself? 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Sunday 10 December 2023 - Advent 2

Theme(s): Repentance // John the Baptist // Restoration // Patience

Sentence: With the Lord one day is a like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. (2 Peter 3:8)


God for whom we wait and watch,
you sent John the Baptist
to prepare for the coming of your Son;
give us courage to speak the truth
even to the point of suffering. Amen.


Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8


As we move through the days of Advent, the season of coming towards Christmas/Christ's Return, we focus this week on John the Baptist, the forerunner to Christ, the prophetic trumpet to Israel announcing Christ's coming. Paradoxically, we note that John the Baptist was not the prophet of Christ's birth but of his mission.

Isaiah 40:1-11

The Book of Isaiah 'changes course' at the beginning of chapter 40. Nearly all scholars divide Isaiah into at least two parts, the second beginning with this passage. Many actually see Isaiah as tripartite, 1-39, 40-55, 56-66. Chapter 39 ends with King Hezekiah (i.e. a king before the exile of Judah to Babylon) but Chapter 40 begins with God speaking tenderly to Jerusalem in a manner which presumes that it has served its term in exile.

But who is doing the speaking, for example, in verse 3 (see also 6) when the author records 'A voice cries out'?

The setting, scholars propose, is the heavenly council (look back to Isaiah 6). The voices which speak up are those of the high heavenly beings who comprise the council. In the dialogue we listen into as we read the passage we find themes and motifs which come together under the general theme of the restoration of Israel.

One of these motifs is that of the Exodus, when enslaved and (voluntarily) exiled Israel was set free and restored to its promised land. Key words here are 'wilderness' and 'desert' (3) and 'the glory of the Lord' (5) which reminds us of the pillar of cloud by day and light by night which guided Israel in its journey through the Sinai desert. Note also 'highway' in verse 3 - the (so called) King's Highway in the area known as the Transjordan was part of the route followed by Israel in the last part of its wilderness journey.

Verses 6-8 takes us in a different direction. What is fleeting and what is permanent? Only the 'word of God will stand forever' (8). This alerts us to the word of God spoken through Isaiah in part 1: in 2:1-4; 31:4-5 and 33:20, the prophet says that God will restore Jerusalem. Now that word is coming to fruition in Isaiah 40.

Somewhat paradoxically the next verses honour Jerusalem (Zion) itself with the role of announcing to the rest of the cities of Israel the 'good tidings' (we could say, 'gospel') that God is present, comes with might, and 'will feed his flock like a shepherd' (9-11).

This last invocation, of the shepherd-king, is full of the promise of restoration. We might think of Psalm 23 and the vision there of the Lord as shepherd who restores the troubled flock to a place of safety, rest and plenty.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

In these verses we have a lovely complement to Isaiah 40:1-11 and to our gospel reading: God will restore the fortunes of his people, not least beginning with forgiveness for their iniquity.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

There is no doubt that this passage comes from a time in the life of the early church when Christians were beginning to get impatient about Christ's return. (This tends, incidentally, to favour the thought that a verse such as Mark 13:30 - part of last Sunday's gospel reading - was understood to literally be about 'one (40 or so years) generation').

What is the apostolic response to this impatience?

8: understand God's chronology is different to ours. Our 1000 years is akin to a day on God's calendar. This comparison is not meant to be understood in mathematical terms. Rather, God's view of time is different to ours.
9: we may be impatient and ask why God does not hurry up but the question is whether God is impatient or patient. In fact God is the patient one, permitting a long period to elapse so that 'all come to repentance.' The implied hint here to the reader is: if you love others and long to see them saved, you will be patient too.
10: in keeping with Jesus' own teaching, the response here emphasises that when Jesus returns, whenever it is, it will be sudden, dramatic and unexpected.
11-12: a question is asked which answers itself as it is asked! If the world is going to end ('dissolved') then how might we best prepare for that? By being people 'leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming day of the Lord.' A question is left hanging here, What is it that we do which 'hastens' the day of the Lord? One possible answer, working from verse 9, is that we continue to preach the gospel - to call people to repentance which is what the Lord seeks to happen while he holds back from ending the world.
13: nevertheless, 'we wait'. By implication the holy and godly lives we are encouraged to lead is for the reason that the 'new heavens and ... new earth' are characterised as a place where 'righteousness is at home.' Better get used now to the way life will be.
14: What are we to do while we wait? 'Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot of blemish.'
15a: Finally, 'regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.' This takes us back to verse 9. There is a great purpose to God delaying the return of Christ.

Mark 1:1-8

Notably among the four Gospels, Mark has no sense of the 'beginning' of Jesus Christ being either at or before his birth. Neither birth narrative nor genealogy (Matthew, Luke) nor theological reflection on origin in God and before time (John) feature in Mark's opening verses. Yet this gospel has a strong sense of 'beginning' as it boldly begins, 'The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1).

Mark is going to tell us the good news announced and enacted by Jesus Christ - so we read his teaching and his actions subsequently.

Mark is going to tell us the good news about Jesus Christ - there was a man called Jesus Christ, his story is a great story, in fact, more than a great story, it is euangelion, good news, wonderful news for the world.

When we talk among ourselves about sharing the gospel, we do well to think about sharing the gospel as sharing the announcement of what God is up to in the world, as brought by Jesus and as sharing the story of Jesus.

Combining the two modes of the good news which begins in Mark 1:1, we can say that Jesus Christ is the good news of God!

To every story there is a back story. Mark tells us the back story to the good news story in verses 2 and 3. The prophet Isaiah looked ahead to the coming of the Lord when he predicted the coming of one who would prepare the way for the Lord to come. The coming of Jesus is not a random event but one planned from long ago by God.

If we attempt to track back from verses 2 and 3 to find where Isaiah said these words we find a curious thing: he did not quite say these words! These verses are a conflation of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Mark may simply be reproducing a popular saying which was routinely ascribed to just Isaiah or he himself may have written this summary of prophetic foretelling and somewhat lazily acknowledged only one authority behind it, in which case he goes for the most popular prophet in the eyes of early Christians.

If we pick out of the prophecy certain words and phrases, 'prepare the way of the Lord' and 'wilderness', as well as reflect on the context and aims of Isaiah 40, then we are drawn to consider that Mark understands Jesus to be at the vanguard of a new 'exodus' for Israel. That is, Israel is in captivity and Jesus will lead her from the place of slavery to the place of freedom. As we follow through the miracle stories Mark tells us in his gospel, we consistently find Jesus releasing people from various forms of bondage.

When Mark tells us in verse 4 that 'John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness' he is both identifying the subject of the prophecy (John is the messenger of verse 2), and underlining the authenticity of John as a prophet (by locating him in the place where prophets should come from, the 'wilderness.')

John proclaims a specific message, 'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins' (4b). How to prepare for God's new future? Return to God through repentance and forgiveness of sins. Israel knew of various rites for forgiveness, centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a little bit different: leave Jerusalem for the wild places - note verse 5 'all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him' - and be washed in the waters of the (holy, historic) River Jordan.

Again, thinking backwards for significance to emerge, what happened in the first Exodus? Israel escaped via the Red Sea waters being parted and then, many years later, crossed the Jordan River to enter the promised land. Reference to 'wilderness' in verse 4 and 'the river Jordan' in verse 5 take the discerning reader on a journey through the memories of Israel.

What else do we see as we read this story full of symbolic clues and hints? John is described in detail in verse 6. The way he is clothed draws us to think of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah was not the first of the prophets but he was one of the greatest of them, standing out from the prophets of Israel's history in at least a couple of ways relevant to the story of John the Baptist and of Jesus.

First, Elijah was a prophet who stood apart from the established rulership and state religion. He was raised up by God to challenge kings and priests. Both John the Baptist and Jesus will do this. Jesus, in fact, will often be taken to be Elijah (6:15; 8:28;15:35-36).

Secondly, Elijah was a prophet who performed mighty miracles, some of which resemble the miracles Jesus will perform.

Thirdly, we note that Elijah was part of a kind of double act: he was succeeded by a prophet cut from similar cloth, Elisha. John the Baptist will be succeeded by Jesus. (Nevertheless, links and connections here are not neat analogies. Elisha is never directly invoked in the gospel. Elijah (arguably) was the greater prophet compared to Elisha.)

What we might reasonably conclude from this telling of the story of John the Baptist is that his coming - his message, his actions, his clothing - evokes memories of both the Exodus and of Elijah. But John will not himself lead the new Exodus, nor is he the new Elijah: those roles are taken up by Jesus.

Verses 7 and 8 seal this analysis. John is not the one who is important. A more powerful and more worthy one is coming. The baptism of that one is greater than his baptism. John's water baptism is an anticipation and sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit which will descend on the Coming One when he is baptised shortly afterwards (verses 9-11).

Advent is a season to consider what the Christian message is all about. In the run up to Christmas, if we can find a few moments of peace, What is it that Jesus came to do? 

Without an answer to that question there is no spiritual or eternal significance to Christmas - just the material point of food, festivity, family and presents.

To reflect on these verses is to reflect on the significance of John the Baptist but that takes us to Jesus and the purpose of his coming: to baptise us with the Holy Spirit, that is, to lead us to a new life and a new future in God, indeed a new future in which God is with us and in us. The good news of Christmas is the good news of God's new life available to all - not just to the Judeans and citizens of Jerusalem who flocked to John the Baptist!

If we head back to the Isaiah reading and the comments there: Jesus comes to restore life to Israel and to the whole world.