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.

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.

King !?

Pilate faces a poor man in court, and he just cannot understand (John 18:33-37). He has condemned many would-be revolutionaries, but Jesus doesn’t fit the type. He suspects those who have handed him over.

“Are you King of the Jews?” Well yes, he is, or rather King of Kings. What Pilate, the poor politician, cannot understand is what the gospel writers have been telling us all along. Jesus is Messiah, the promised King – but his Kingdom will come as he also takes the role of Suffering Servant.

Pilate would never understand the need for the cross. Jesus wins his Kingdom not by conquest and coercion, but by taking the place of guilty humanity, and dying for each of us. Only in that way can we be set free. Only by such extreme measures can we come to a Kingdom which is not only eternal and universal, but also:
a kingdom of life and truth, of grace and holiness,
a kingdom of righteousness and justice,
of love and peace.

If you find that hard to take, look again at all 4 gospels. Each, in a different style, makes Jesus death and resurrection the climax and centre. Each makes clear that there is no mistake, no accident. Jesus is King, and chooses the path to his throne.

It involves truth – not compromise, or uneasy coalition, but truth. Pilate’s next line is, “What is truth?” It sounds very post-modern. As if what is true for you might not be true for me – but we must live in Jesus’ Kingdom, and follow his standard of truth.

In addition to Pilate’s court, our other readings give us entry to two others. Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:9-14) sees not only the “Ancient One” take his heavenly throne, but with God the Father is “one like a human being” – in the older translations, one like a “Son of Man”. You may remember Jesus’ favourite term for himself, and see in God the Son the one given “dominion and glory and kingship” – an everlasting dominion, a Kingdom never to be destroyed. Prophecy from generations before Jesus birth.

Another vision of heaven comes from John the divine in Revelation 1:4-8. Here we see the heavenly Christ, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, . . “ Marvellous words, not only for the persecuted believers of the first century.

He is the Lord of 3 tenses: “who is, and who was, and who is to come”. Pilate has not only lost his grip on truth, but he has forgotten / ignored the higher court which will judge him. A drama of incomprehension is played out in Jerusalem, but a higher court will give a different verdict.

And where does that leave us?
I hope we can take warning from Pilate’s failure to understand. Jesus Kingdom will never make sense to those who value only earthly power, possessions and status. But it is truly the most wonderful Kingdom ever. It brings
life and truth, grace and holiness,
righteousness and justice, love and peace.

There is no coercion, no bullying, but entry for all who want to belong, to learn the new way of discipleship. It costs nothing, it costs everything. As Jesus stands on the opposite side to Pilate, who do you side with?

Is that a new commitment, or does is show clearly in your past life?

Either way, will it be clear next year to those who know you best?

Change

“Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” (from today’s reading Mark 13:1-8) Jesus disciples are impressed by the Jerusalem temple – it was both large and magnificent, but Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? . . every one of them will be thrown down.” It was a prophecy that would be fulfilled some 40 years after he spoke.

We don’t always enjoy change, and try to resist, forgetting that it is part – and a necessary part – of life. Whether you look at an individual person and the changes that come with time; or at their education, career and retirement, or at family structure – in each change is clear.

The disciples knew this of course, but if they thought religion might be a buttress against change, they were to learn differently. It is true that God does not change with the fashions, swapping his favourite virtues from generation to generation, or updating the 10 commandments for fear of seeming old-fashioned.

But the practice of Christian faith changes. Let me give you an example. Early Methodists lived at a time of gin shops – cheap oblivion to poor social conditions. Their response was teetotalism; Christians were not to drink, but to spend on their families, and help those in need. It is an advertisement for Christianity in Nepal today – drunkenness is a social problem, so again the Church is teetotal, and popular for it.

In Britain a century later, what had been a Christian virtue was sometimes an eccentricity. Now, I am happy to drink in moderation – but if I was a student? I’m less sure. I’m glad to see Street Pastors caring for the drunk.

It’s not that the Christian standard – avoiding drunkenness – changes, but its expression depends on social conditions. To say that God does not change is true and important. But to be faithful Christians, it is never enough to live in the same pattern as our ancestors in faith. Society changes; the key issues vary. The way we live has to express the love and purpose of God to the people around us.

A key issue is the question of security. The disciples may have seen the massive temple stones as an indication of permanence – which they were not. Jesus wants to give them, not a system or a ritual, but an education in spiritual reality which will make them secure, firmly based for the difficulties to come. He knows, and they must learn, that the only true foundation is God himself.

As we come to Christmas, I know someone will say to me, “I do love the traditional carols (or . . ) they’re what Christmas is about” – and I will struggle to know how to say. “No, it’s not carols, it’s God living with us that gives us the security to adapt our lives to serve him in every generation.”

Jesus knew there would be problems – false teachers, wars. More important, he knew that security was not in changelessness, but in God himself.

Remembrance – for past or future?

Today we celebrate the end of the First World War (Armistice Day coinciding with Remembrance Sunday for the 100th Anniversary of the end of that war), and remember soldiers who died – as well as those wounded (in body or mind), and civilians, refugees, and the many casualties of war.

We remember that the Great War was not the “War to end all wars”, that the Second World War followed, and the Korean, Vietnam, Falkland, Gulf and many other wars after that. We could get lost – and depressed – looking back.

Looking at today’s gospel (Mark 1:14-20), we remember how Jesus looked forward and announced something better: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Mk 1.15

It took the disciples a time to recognise Jesus as King / Messiah, and longer to realise that did not mean a revolution and the end of the Romans. Jesus is King. But his kingdom is good news for people of all races. And all people need to find the good news through repentance and belief.

We prefer to make excuses. I wasn’t involved – its them. But jealously, ambition, pride . . . these are ours, as well as the faults of others. We are (all) sinners who need to repent. The good news is for us – but knowing and admitting our part in failure is the way into God’s Kingdom, now and always.

Jesus would suffer, and his sympathy and understanding for the bereaved is clear (remember his mother Mary given to John’s care at the foot of the cross? John 19:25ff).  In the same way his care for the tormented and the suffering is clear from many healings, and the way they were carried out with care for the sufferer, rather than concern for publicity value.

So, let’s give thanks. That we live in freedom and peace – not forgetting many do not, even today. We live with the good news, the offer of entry to God’s Kingdom, where life is so much better. For us and for others, repent and believe.

A Great Commandment

The Great Commandment (which we read in Mark 12:28-34) can be analysed in several ways:

Some will point out that the two parts each quote the Old Testament – Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and ask with the scholars whether Jesus was the first teacher to bring them together in this way – it seems likely that it is.

Others will find it helpful to set this story in the sequence of questioning of Jesus after the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. There is the parable of the Vineyard, the hostile questions about taxes, and the resurrection, and then this more friendly scribe.

I want to ask a more fundamental question: What does it mean to do it? What would loving God and neighbour in this way look like in today’s world? There is a single-mindedness about it – something we find difficult in a diverted and distracted world. Interestingly Mark (not Matthew and Luke, who deal with the story in different ways – perhaps reflecting different occasions when Jesus used the summary?) quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” The force of that may be clearer in CEV “’People of Israel, you have only one Lord and God.” Because there is one God, and not a choice, a wholehearted response is necessary. This is most important – more than personal inclination, comfort, even wealth and career.

What then? Clearly we are put in our place, and it is not at the centre of the universe! That might offend our selfishness, but it can also be a relief. We do not have to invent a meaning to life, a reason for our existence or anything else – someone else has done that. If for a time we lose our way, and find it hard to see pleasure, let alone purpose, this is a personal malaise, not the end of the world! God knows, God plans, God is, and our responsibility is to him first. There is a relief in letting him be in charge!

Strangely, the second thing about being put in our place is that we are not free to disparage ourselves – or indeed other people. If we are made and loved by God, we are not unwanted, useless, or rubbish. We do not have to justify our existence by exceptional achievement.

I do not matter because I am clever, successful, or professionally competent – but because God made me, loves me, and saves me. That is true today, and will be tomorrow if I am suddenly confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak or do anything much at all.

You are not free to think badly of yourself – that can be a temptation, to be recognised as such. You are to love the Lord your God – and his evaluation of you, and of others.

Loving your neighbour is a consequence of this. Yes, you may have the worst possible set of neighbours, but God still cares for them. You may be the means of bringing them to faith, and so to heaven (which is about as important as anything could be!)

You don’t love your neighbour when you can find a nice one. You don’t love your neighbour to be thought well of, to be praised for your charity. You don’t love your neighbour to convince yourself that you aren’t such a bad person really. You love your neighbour because you know that God, who is the most important person in all the Universe, loves you and loves them as well. You are told to love them; it may even have a part in God’s plans for you both. So you do it.