Monthly Archives: December 2016

What’s in a name? (Naming of Jesus)

(If you want to see how a dialogue sketch works on this theme and passage, go to Dialogue Sketch for the “Naming of Jesus” )

What’s in a name? Perhaps not a lot, in our Western society.  Names seem to be chosen much at random, from the celebrities of the day.  The meaning is something we have to look up – unless you have a “nickname”, which may be more descriptive.  On the other hand, people like me who find it difficult to remember many names quickly find how little people like their names being forgotten or confused.

In the ancient world, names were more important and powerful.  God reveals his name to Moses ( Exodus 3:11-15 ).  We find it hard to interpret “I am who I am”, but for Egyptian slaves, it was a free God, and to those who used magic and idols, perhaps a challenge from a God who created, and was not made by others.  Numbers 6:22-7 tells us to use the name of God in blessing – perhaps because we become like what we admire or worship, and to summarise our becoming more like God, and living in God’s power.

Then there is the name “Jesus”, given by the angel to Mary, and then given in obedience to Jesus at his circumcision ( Luke 1:28-38, Luke 2:21 ).  It means “saviour”, a reminder and summary of Jesus role, and is the same as “Joshua” (in both Hebrew and Greek).  As Jesus’ disciples, we also have a part to play in the saving of the world – a good thought to begin the New Year!

Telling Christmas (Christmas III)

How do you tell the Christmas story? In the New Testament Luke tells the story as we know it best – angels visit John the Baptist’s father, and then Mary; there is a journey to Bethlehem, a stable, and the shepherds’ visit.  Matthew takes Joseph’s perspective, and tells us of the mysterious wise men.  Mark starts his gospel later, as the adult Jesus bursts on the scene set by John’s baptisms.

John? – John is more reflective.  (John 1:1-14)  He tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (v5)  But the English translations cannot quite get the word – “overcome” can also be “understood”.  (Check out the different translations!).

The darkness was pretty obvious.  The world in which the baby was born was violent, unjust, hard for many people in many ways.  You could say the same today – I don’t need to point out the problems of our world (political, ecological, military, medical . . ) or invite you to detail the problems and threats in your own life at the moment.  Of course the darkness doesn’t understand the light.  Those who need to win at all costs cannot understand love and service; those who don’t care if their lifestyle ruins a world for others will never want justice, let alone to share equally in God’s plans.

The point John wants to make – the Christmas point – is that the darkness has not put out the light.  It shines on.  Despite the plotting of Herod to murder all rivals, despite the indifference of the innkeeper and his favoured guests to the needs of a young, but poor, mother, the baby is born and shines.

That’s our celebration.  Not that everything is wonderful – there is still plenty of darkness – but that the light shines in it.  Where the light shines, the darkness is dispersed.  Each person chooses.  Either you welcome the light, following Jesus even when it is difficult, reflecting light into new corners; or you block the light, and leave others in your shadow.

But you can’t stop the light shining!  That’s good news.

Reality Check (Advent 4a)

The Disnification of Christmas is almost complete.  I don’t want to be rude to the Disney franchise – I like being entertained, but you know what I mean.  The Nativity story has become a fairy story, scrubbed clean, with cute angels, a baby, and all the editing to suggest that it belongs to the world of make-believe to be fed to small children and left behind by grown-ups.  It’s not real, it doesn’t belong in the world of work, politics, adult relationships, or anything serious.

But Matthew insists on telling the story as happening to real people, with difficult decisions and painful moral battles to fight.  His nativity focusses on Joseph, (Matthew 1:18-25), a man with a problem.  He is betrothed to a girl, Mary.  Betrothal is a serious commitment, yet she has become pregnant, and not by him.  We are not told of his feelings – we could imagine a roller coaster of anger, betrayal, doubt, compounded by a story of an angel visiting her.  What we are told is that, despite this upset, he decides to do the “right” thing.  He will divorce her (betrothal was that serious!), but without making a big fuss.

He has just made up his mind when, in a dream, an angel appeared to him.  The angel is no comic figure, nor even a romantic support, but a messenger with instructions.  He is to go ahead with the marriage, and support and protect the child who will be “Saviour”.  Does that make everything all right?  Again, we are not told of his feelings.  He does as he is told.  No doubt he endures many snide comments, unfair allegations about his behaviour.  He may even have been glad to leave Nazareth, though the journey to Bethlehem was a serious challenge.

The gospel writers do not record in detail how Joseph, or even Mary (who carries more disapproval), react to this.  What effect does it have on their relationship?  How do they deal with the burden of unfair criticism, innuendo, exclusion?  We don’t know.  Or rather, we aren’t given a dramatic account of their struggles.  What we do know is here: Joseph was a righteous man (v19), and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded (v24).  Jesus was born, and protected as a child, and learnt love, and faith, and the ways of God from his parents first.  I cannot believe he was brought up by people bitter at their past, untrusting of each other, with a permanent grudge against society.

So perhaps we need to listen the the story Matthew tells with such restraint.  As a story for grown-ups, who struggle with injustice, and being judged, and having a hard time – a story for real people, a little like us.  We may wonder why God doesn’t make life easier for us, but here it seems there was a reason.  Perhaps there will be more reasons when we look back.

Entertainment for the young?  Looked at like this, it seems almost unsuitable.

 

Not what I expected! (Advent 3a)

I find it easy to sympathise with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).  Not only is he in prison, but the man he identified as the coming Messiah doesn’t seem to be baptising with fire as predicted.  Doubt sets in, probably made worse by John’s situation, and inability to go and ask questions himself.

Still, he does the next best thing – he sends someone else.  The question is direct, “Are you the one?”  Doubt and uncertainty are difficult to handle, but Christians are always allowed to ask questions – and it is better to do something to resolve doubt than let it fester.  (What is not allowed is encouraging the “you can’t be sure of anything” state of mind.)  So John sends to ask a question.

Jesus doesn’t give a simple answer.  Instead of “yes” or “no” he tells the messengers to report what they heard and saw.  Jesus is not making claims for himself, but pointing to the fulfillment of prophecy – something John would understand.  Jesus may not have fitted John’s expectations – or ours – but he fits into the prophecies and predictions of the Old Testament, making us think again about the things we might not have expected, and might not like.

Jesus then talks about John as a prophet – and the one Malachi had foretold.  He is honoured, but we are left with the amazing thought that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  Why?  Perhaps because John still has to wait for a saviour, while those of us who follow Jesus as our Lord are already included in the kingdom.  We are honoured by the comparison, but also challenged.

Prophets (Advent 2a)

Why is it all about Jesus? – we can imagine others asking, perhaps wonder ourselves.  Other faiths and philosophies have various teachers and leaders, but Christianity is, CHRISTianity.  It centres there, reflects in different languages and cultures but always on the teaching, personality and actions of one man.  What points so strongly there?

Christians might want to refer to the New Testament, to the way the gospels are all about Jesus, and the other writings also.  I wonder, though, if we don’t miss part of the point.  Jesus didn’t just “happen”, he wasn’t “discovered” without warning.  In fact, human history is littered with pointers and hints.  Perhaps most important among them are the prophets.

Who? you might ask.  Start with Moses, who speaks for God to an unlikely group of enslaved people, leads them, and gives them God’s instructions for being a people to let the world know about God.  Go on to Elijah, again uncompromisingly for God when compromise and corruption was the fashion of the day.  Then there is Elisha, and Isaiah, whose promises of a coming King feature in every carol service.  Hosea and Amos, Haggai and Zechariah, many more – all spoke for God, sometimes of the future planned, sometimes of the heavenly view on what was happening around them.  All the prophets are different – different people (there are women as well as men), different times – but they all prepared the way, and many left promises to be remembered and recognised later as clues to authenticity.

So, as we run up to Christmas, we read Isaiah 11:1-10, looking to the promise of a coming King whose rule will be everything we hope for.  We read Romans 15:4-13, of the Old Testament encouragement and guidance to recognise and follow the one who was promised and has now arrived, and we read Matthew 3:1-12, of a new prophet after a long gap.  John the Baptist is just like Elijah, and he appears (as Malachi had foretold) to prepare and warn everyone to be ready for Jesus, who has not yet begun his ministry.

The prophets are important, for their pointing the way and preparing.  They don’t want the spotlight for themselves, but for God who is active, caring, and understands exactly what is happening.