Category Archives: Sunday Readings comment

Comments on readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (Bible Readings used by many Churches worldwide), as used in the Church in Wales.

Upside down world

How good you are at the High Jump? You must at least have seen athletes on TV – a short run (but not straight at the bar), at the last minute they seem to turn away, and then jump with a curious swing of the legs. Somehow, it’s not an obvious way of doing it – and you will understand I don’t try.

I won’t even think about pole vaulting!

That seems a good way in to Jesus’ comments. (Luke 6:17-26). He had chosen 12 apostles, and gathered them, with others who had been following him, and a crowd of local onlookers. He was healing people, but, as always, teaching as well.

And it is his teaching which seems strange:

Blessed are you who are poor

Blessed are you who hunger now

Blessed are you who weep now

Blessed are you when people hate you Luke 6:20-22 part

There’s nothing happy about poverty – it is limiting, often uncomfortable, insecure. The same thing with hunger; we’re not talking about effective dieting, but about starvation, weakness, the risk of illness and inability to work or even move about freely. Crying, being hated – the same applies.

What can Jesus be talking about?

In part, he may be talking about spiritual poverty. (Matthew 5:3 reads “Blessed are the poor in spirit”) – but not entirely. Read carefully, and you see that Jesus is talking about people who are not entirely happy with the way things are now, on earth. They are not so heavily invested in the status quo that they aren’t actively looking for something better.

The poor will find the Kingdom of God because they know something is badly wrong with life here and now. The hungry will value the bread Jesus offers – not just at the feeding miracles. The hated have the nerve to be loyal to a Saviour unpopular with the establishment.

For those who don’t want to be disturbed, it gets worse. Luke adds verses Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” lacks:

“But woe to you who are rich, . .

Woe to you who are well fed now, . .

Woe to you who laugh now, . .

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, . .

We see that the same sort of explanation applies. A minority of Jesus followers were wealthy, and able to provide for their needy brothers and sisters. Jesus isn’t cursing them, but taking very seriously the dangers of complacency, of the wrong sort of contentment. (“I’m all right Jack, keep off what’s mine”). The well fed may be drowsy rather than alert to the need for justice. The laughers may scorn the abused. The popular may not have passed on the words of God, which sometimes warn or redirect.

Things are not what they seem. Those who appear to have done well – are in real danger. If you want to live well, you have to approach life, well, like a high jumper. A curious technique, which seems impossible until it works.

We aren’t poor, not by global standards. Nobody here is starving, and if some are sad and others have been the subject of gossip, it is the ordinary events of life, not critical destitution, we are speaking of.

Can we, then, find the motivation to live as Christians? Do we understand how lightly we must sit to wealth, posessions, even good times and good reputation?

Those who follow Jesus must go where he goes, see as he sees, and only then reach the promised glory. Perhaps we should talk more of the sinners in heaven, and less of our earthly success?

Lifechanging

Simon was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know a great deal about his earlier life, but he appears in a story about Jesus as the owner of a fishing boat which will be very useful. Jesus asks if, by putting the boat a little distance on the lake, Simon will help him speak to a large number of people without interruption (and with his voice carrying better over the water). Luke 5:1-11.

Simon agrees. We don’t know if he is just being helpful, or how much he agrees with what is being said. I sometimes imagine that he saw himself as the practical man helping a good, but rather “other worldly”, teacher.

But then the teacher and carpenter shows the fisherman how to fish! Something about that unlikely catch deeply affects Simon. His relationship with Jesus is changed. He is committed – perhaps not even knowing clearly yet the terms of his commitment. Now he is “with” Jesus. He will be a disciple, learning all his master can teach. Fishing, family and anything else will have to take second place.

What happened to Simon has been repeated in different ways many times. Jesus attracts interest, by his actions and his teaching. Some are impressed, others entertained. Then there are those of us who come, in a sudden move or a slower development, to accept a different and unequal relationship. Jesus is Lord – in charge – and we are disciples, learners under instruction. We don’t stop thinking, asking questions, working through doubts and misunderstandings. But there is a commitment, and it takes first importance.

No doubt people have to start by relating to Jesus in different ways. Some may want to try and patronise his teaching, or to suggest that we would now develop it differently, or improve on some details . . But Christian faith is not defined by starting from Jesus ideas, but by accepting Jesus as Lord – having the authority of God come to us in human life, being the only one to set us free, and to shape our freedom in a way of life lived to his glory.

Simon seems to have found it confusing at first. But that day’s decision shaped his life in a way he never turned back from.

What is Jesus all about?

The story of Jesus in his home synagogue (Luke 4:14-21) is an announcement of what Jesus is all about, and it demands attention. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1,2, but he’s talking about the fulfillment of the greatest hopes of a people. I’m not sure if we have such clear and unified national hopes now – we don’t even talk easily about our personal hopes – but the Jewish people of the first century knew what they wanted. They wanted freedom, and the life that God had promised – a good life, a life of wholeness and plenty and right – right relations and right order – to happen in their time.

And Jesus comes to his home synagogue and says “Yes, its happening now.” And we blink, thinking, have I missed something, what happened next? Look back, and you will see that in Nazareth they took offence, and he narrowly escaped violence. Jesus had stopped quoting Is with “the time has come when the Lord will save his people” it continues “and defeat their enemies”. Perhaps Jesus didn’t need to speak of that, because it was shown to be happening.

So we are set up by Luke to ask if we recognise these things in the gospel story – both the story he tells, and the story our lives re-tell. Jesus as the bringer of good news: not always happiness, sometimes hard work (but never pointless). Good news which includes being set free – not free of all constraint, but free of evil, free to learn to live with other people as difficult as we are ourselves.

Then there’s recovery of sight. Jesus did heal some blind people, but more than that, he has made it possible for many of us to see –

  • to see something of God, his character, his activity, and purpose
  • to see in people not just what they are, but what they might be, and how God might view them.
  • to see the collection of Christians not as grumpy, quarrelsome bunch, but as the potential citizens of a new kingdom.

Some of the oppressed are free, and some of those who profited from their oppression are quite annoyed. We see a struggle developing, and already we are involved. Do you think Jesus should have known his place and kept quiet in his home town? Or are you hearing what he says and saying, even without quite getting all the significance, “Yes!”

Luke is only beginning. But he warns us that this is no story that we can read and analyse like an instruction book or technical specification. We are drawn in; right away we either rejoice that freedom is announced and healing practised, or we worry that we may lose out if things change too much.

God is in charge, the Holy Spirit is leading a new wave of history – and it continues for us. As we read on, where will your sympathies be, who will you support, what will you do?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on Jesus, because he has chosen him to bring good news to the poor. He has sent him to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people”

Yes?

Good God!

Jesus makes some wine, but it’s a sign – the first of a series in John’s gospel. (John 2:1-11) But what is a sign? We shall see. Let’s start at the end. verse 11 Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee; there he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. Other translations use the word “sign” for miracle. The signs are more than odd or unexplained events, they are clues, if you like, to what is happening. And all the signs point to Jesus:

  • not because he is looking for publicity (in every case there is a good and compassionate reason for the miracle. Here, the embarrassment of the family hosting the wedding.)
  • often they point to Jesus as the answer to a need, even spiritual bankruptcy. Here there are details
  1. 6 jars for water – not the perfect number 7
  2. The “wine” of Jewish celebration runs out
  3. The “mother” must no longer dictate action

Again, all the “signs” in John point to what God and his Kingdom are like (John 10:10)
Again, marriage is endorsed here. It is sad that many now find that politically unacceptable. Marriage is good, a gift of God to people who need it and benefit from it
More widely, as we see in other signs, Jesus sets about restoring and improving relationships. The signs point away from manipulation and control to freedom and responsibility.

Many signs point to God’s provision. This one in particular:

  • Here wine is provided, in quantity (perhaps 900 bottles), and of a notable quality
  • Here Jesus action (quietly done) means a feast can continue without embarrassment.
  • Jesus and his disciples (who may have contributed to the shortage of wine!) are welcome guests, not a burden to be shouldered – symbolically important.

As so often in John, there is a great deal to look at, and symbolic detail to ponder. Let’s not get lost though; Jesus was a welcome guest who transformed a party. It was a sign of what he was doing, and pointed to a God with a generous understanding of people, a willingness to give what was good, and to help repair what was damaged or disordered.

Natural development – and more

While much of the world has moved from Christmas back to work and dreams of holidays, Christians have, I hope, more to ask. “How did people get to know about Jesus?”, What was the route from “Baby of Bethlehem” to “Saviour of the World”? Perhaps by mapping it out, week by week, we can learn, and apply it for our own faith, and for our sharing faith with other people.

It starts at the Epiphany with the visit of the Wise Men, then goes on to Jesus’ baptism. But Luke 3:15-22 doesn’t say much about the baptism. Why? he was not interested in details (which day, time, how wet, exactly where . .). Luke wants us to understand that (verse 22) the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus; John the Baptist had said (verse 16) “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Now Jesus is baptised, and the Spirit descends on him, as a vital preparation for his ministry. (So in Acts 8:16,17, also read this Sunday, Peter and John expect Christians to receive the Holy Spirit for their Christian life.)

Some versions of faith make the most of the natural. Scripture records God the creator, and expects us to receive and use our “natural” / God given general abilities. There is advice (even commands) about learning, manners, “self development” – some of the things we don’t like: discipline, diligence. – look in the Wisdom tradition, Proverbs, but also eg Ruth. Loyalty, the providence of God (and hard work) feature more than miracles.

Luke is not dismissing or denying that. But he wants to make very clear that Christian life combines both the natural and the supernatural. The Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus is also to give us strength and direction, gifts and fruit.

The story of Jesus will tell of God rescuing us from sin and chaos. But Luke won’t stop there. He will also make clear, from the beginning, the way that humans might join in God’s work. The Holy Spirit is important in both, for the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism was the same Holy Spirit received by the believers Peter and John prayed for – the same Holy Spirit Christians pray for.

Jesus baptism wasn’t important to Luke because of its ritual, but because of the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Ministry. The two go together. As we begin to ask “How did people get to know about Jesus?” The most important part of the answer, then and now, was the role played by the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t neglect our “natural” abilities and skills, but as Christians we need to use them with the power and direction of the Holy Spirit to be fully effective in responding to God’s love by living in his service.

Stranger Danger?

Are you “religious”? Going to Church may make people ask. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of having been a Vicar. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the Old Testament. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, (Matthew 2:1-12) which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored. but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?” Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and others).

So he tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King ( – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not.) The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”) And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to two. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Worship: as the Wise Men recognised the child Jesus –

or as Herod intended to deal with a rival?

Normal

You might think it strange that the Sunday after Christmas we read of Jesus as a 12 year old. (Luke 2:41-52), but it makes clear that Christmas is no “baby story”. The baby grows to a normal youngster, here on the edge of adult status.

There is a play on words when Mary and Joseph catch up with Jesus in the temple. His mother speaks of her anxious search with “your father” – as Joseph was in many ways. Yet Jesus speaks of “my father’s house”, meaning the temple, and God. Jesus has come to know who he is, and to recognise God for himself. It does not mean that he rejects his human family, nor the need for obedience to them. Nor was he teaching in the temple – he was listening, though his questions were full of insight.

This is our only glimpse of the story between the visit of the Wise Men and the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It shows a real child, though one in whom there is a growing understanding of a special status and purpose. It reminds us that the one who comes into our world is God, and also fully human.

It is also important in reminding us that the Son of God has, in his perfect humanity, to be obedient, and submit to those who do not understand as he does. If he was hurt by the rubuke and frustrated by their lack of understanding, it is not made the excuse for an argument, still less for abandoning his family. It is not always easy for people who understand to do that.

Introduction – with vigour

Who do you think you are?

It was a question John the Baptist would have used. ~ Luke tells us that “he proclaimed the good news to the people” (last verse of the reading Luke 3:7-18), but he certainly didn’t mince his words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John, in his uncompromising, vigorous style, was not out to make friends and influence people. This prophet, speaking for God, was direct.

His first function was to prepare the way by bringing people to repentance, reminding them of the holiness of God, and their compromised status. The process of baptism was an admission of the need to begin again with God, because of sin, failure. Preaching repentance remains an important, if undervalued, part of Christian ministry. Not for the outsider alone, but for all of us to realise that we are not ready for the coming of God, we need to repent, to root out the evil which so easily takes root in us, and to respond again to God’s goodness. John had some very practical advice about how that might work (verses 10-14).

John’s second function was to point to the Messiah. Verses 15-17 make clear that he is not the one, but is a forerunner to a greater figure yet to come. It’s not easy to point to someone else, but this was his role, and privilege. Like his morality, preaching the Messiah would have excited some, angered others. Messiahs came fairly often – in popular imagination – and dealing with them at that time was usually bloodthirsty. During John and Jesus childhood, the roads of Galilee had been lined with crucifixions after one such rebellion.

His third function (which we return to in January) was to start Jesus’ ministry by baptising him. In each case, John was taking risks, and dealing with dangerous topics – which is what they remain.

Morality, personal and business ethics, can be a sensitive issue. But as Christians we draw some very definite patterns from New Testament teaching. You are free – and your abuse of that freedom can lose you your status as a Christian. You are responsible, and the God who forgives failure still expects obedience.

Jesus as Messiah is also a sensitive issue. Can we not accept all religions, all leaders? No – we can respect them, but Christians follow Christ without compromise, even if that is politically incorrect, embarrassing, or commercially disadvantageous.

John the Baptist was a “blast from the past”, even in the first century; he remains someone who highlights critical issues for our faith and discipleship today. To be ready for the coming of Christ now, you must repent, respond to the Goodness of God in Christ, and follow the Messiah faithfully and without confusion.

Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Fair Warning

An aerial photograph gives us a different point of view – we see things we know in a new way, and the pattern as well. Today’s gospel (Luke 21:25-36 – today on Advent Sunday we start a new “year”, with Luke as our main gospel) may seem taken from a strange angle: Jesus is talking, and finishing comments started with the warning that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed.

Jesus talks about three things in the future (though for Luke 1 or perhaps 2 are past):

  • Pentecost –  21:32 seems to be about that
  • The Destruction of Jerusalem – in AD 70, by the Romans (including the destruction of the temple)
  • Jesus return in glory at the end of time.

Each of these is important: Pentecost as the arrival of the Holy Spirit; the destruction of Jerusalem, because Jesus saw it coming and the Christians seem to have taken the hint and escaped.

But the idea of Jesus coming back is even more important. Why should we take notice? Because it will happen when many people don’t expect it. And it will come when sin has run, apparently unchecked, to mislead many people. Finally, sin meets God. The Lord comes back to take charge, and hear the account his people give.

It is possible to get lost in this. Some Christians will want you to consider whether descriptions like verse 25 do not correspond to global warming, or the space programme , or … (There have always been those convinced that the end was just around the corner – but we are not called to speculation.)

Some people will find the idea of judgement a suggestion of a religion of fear and repression – but no, it is good news, and no threat to those who will heed the warning. We are told in general what will happen – disorder, wickedness, desertion – so that we are not taken in, but remain faithful and alert. And that’s the point. Jesus warned his disciples what was coming so that they would be prepared.

Pentecost has come; the Roman Empire has long gone. We don’t know when Jesus will return – Tuesday afternoon, or a few more millenia. So don’t be surprised if the world is a mess; don’t be misled by those who say God doesn’t notice and his standards are out of date an unenforcable; be alert, be ready to welcome Jesus whenever he comes; and pray for wisdom in the meantime.