Tag Archives: temple

“Redemption” ?

Luke 2:22-40 What do you make of that story? Only Luke tells it – so is it less interesting, or less relevant? It starts as a bit of ritual. Jesus was brought up as a Jew, so circumcised a week after his birth, and then at 40 days old taken with his mother to the Temple. Mary presents him in the Temple, and makes a sacrifice – the 2 pigeon option allowed for the poor – in a ceremony required by the Old Testament.

So far, not very helpful you might think. But hold on. That ceremony came from the Exodus and the Passover. You remember how the slaves in Egypt escaped after a series of plagues, and the last and worst of the plagues was – the death of the firstborn. And Exodus 13 explains how all the firstborn of the Israelites belonged in a special way to God. There is more detail, but it makes sense – Jesus belonging specially to God; a small fee paid to ransom him and return him to his family . .

Then the excitement grows again. Simeon appears. How can he tell one baby from another? Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it possible. He has been promised (and, since God keeps his promises) now understands he is seeing the promised Messiah.

He speaks of a light for the Gentiles – all the world!

And of glory for God’s people

and he warns Mary of suffering, as Jesus will bring some people down, as well as raising others up.

If you feel excited (and perhaps you should), Mary and Joseph are amazed. They haven’t forgotten the earlier messages and promises, angels, shepherds – but how does Simeon know? This Holy Spirit has something.

To reinforce the importance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, Anna arrives – and she is a prophet. Whether she accepts Simeon’s word, or knows by her own spiritual insight – she now also give thanks to God, and talks about Jesus to all who were still looking for God to do something.

It started with a bit of Jewish ritual. It gained significance as we found a connection with the Passover (don’t forget the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the Christian eucharist depends on it). God’s people were set free at the Exodus, as they will be again more lastingly by Jesus and his death. The idea of Redemption is interesting.

Then there is the excitement of the Holy Spirit giving revelations and warnings – the same Spirit who will be active in Jesus ministry, the same Spirit who guides and empowers Christians today. It is beginning to happen, and it is good, and we know it hasn’t stopped. Where is the Spirit active today? Who are the Simeons and Annas, praying, understanding, talking about God?

Even at 40 days old, Jesus is exciting, making things happen.

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.

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.

Change, Promise and Worship

This Sunday, many will celebrate the “Nativity of John the Baptist”, looking again at the way Luke begins his gospel.  He has a story of change to tell – radical change, as Jesus brings a new way of finding God, living life fully, and belonging to his people and his world.  Yet the story begins with an elderly couple, not known as especially important, with worship (even at its most traditional, in the temple in Jerusalem), and the fulfillment of promises.

Zechariah the priest is no celebrity.  He does his turn of duty in the temple, and may have been surprised to be chosen to offer the incense.  He was certainly surprised to meet an angel with a message for him! But the experience was not all celebration – he is dumb for a time.  (This is all part of Luke 1, though before the reading set which is Luke 1:57-66, 80). The angel’s promise comes true, and a boy is born.  We shall know him as John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, and the “forerunner”, who prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry.

Strange, isn’t it, how radical change begins with a relatively elderly couple, faithful to the old ways of worship and living, and works through promises, both old and new?  Perhaps it’s not so strange.  Our God does new things, but with a sense of continuity.  The promises of the scripture give pointers and reassurance to those who want to keep up.  We celebrate the Nativity of John (and perhaps also his beheading, in August), knowing that both we beyond his immediate control, as God let his life and death be a sign for those watching.  That would be quite something for use to be given, too!

A branch with connections?

What did Jesus mean by saying, “I am the true vine”? (John 15:1-8). It’s a saying that comes on the night of the foot-washing and (though John does not record the institution of the eucharist) the Last Supper. At the end of chapter 14, Jesus says “Rise, let us be on our way.”, but there are still 2 chapters of discourse and the prayer of chapter 17 before (beginning in chapter18) they go out across the valley to the garden of Gethsemane.

We can’t be sure, but interesting idea that, leaving the house at end chapter 14, they went to the temple, and saw the gates with their vine decoration. Psalm 80, as well as Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets, had pictured Israel as a vine – thus the symbolism of the decoration. It would add force to this saying, if they were looking at the gates. Jesus would be making the point that from that time on, to belong to God’s people would be to be his – Jesus’ – followers, and not members of a nation. He had already replaced the 12 tribes, with 12 disciples.

What is so distinctive about a vine?  Although the stem is woody, and lasts, the shoots are sappy, and need support. When pruned, the shoots removed can be removed without secateurs or knife, and wither to almost nothing. It’s not flattering to be told that as branches of Jesus we have no strength, no backbone of our own. Not flattering – but we need to know.

And it might seem less than comforting to hear that God will not only remove unfruitful branches, but also prune those that do fruit! We might wince at the thought of pruning, or we might see it as explaining why difficult things happen, even to good people. Do you feel that Christians have had a hard time in the last few years? In western society generally, a move away from Christian ideas and practice – about honesty, care for weak and needy,  life and death as well as morality and family. Is some of this God pruning? Asking us to live distinctively, to show a better way because we belong to him?

Jesus picture is not complicated. A vine, perhaps many years old, with roots drawing water from six metres down, for the benefit of the frail branches. Without the plant, they are nothing. Only firmly connected to the knarled trunk can they fulfill their purpose and bear fruit. But the fruit is wonderful in itself, and can be made into wine, to keep its goodness and bring cheerfulness and energy for time to come.

Let’s take Jesus parable and put it into practice. We are already cleansed, or pruned, by Jesus words – as Christians, we have come to terms with our frailty, and our shared status as sinners. Let’s also make sure that we are well connected to be fruitful, for the harvest of the Kingdom.

Anger

Is God allowed to be Angry?  [I wonder if there is an age difference here; I guess older people might say “yes”, younger “why should he?”]

Certainly when Jesus clears the temple (John 2:13-22), it is energetic, and I would see it as an act of anger – not temper, or selfish tantrum, or violence even, but anger.

There is a proper use of anger. I think it exists, not essentially as a flaw in human makeup, but as a motivation for good. If this is wrong, and you care about that, do something! Do the work to put it right, make an effort . . Of course, anger is often selfish, because it is lazy, or reacts to being shown up, or loses patience. (James 1:20 says “Human anger does not achieve God’s righteous purpose.” But it does not say anger is always wrong).

At any rate, Jesus is not “losing it”; in fact, he is claiming it. We are told the disciples remembered:
Psalm 69:9 “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” – though perhaps there is also
Malachi 3:1-3 ” the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  But who can endure the day of his coming . . . he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver”.

His claim is not recognised, they ask “What right have you . .?” What would we say? Perhaps:

  • the right of Creator, to control, expect obedience
  • the right of the Redeemer, God who brought Israel out of slavery
  • the right of the Saviour, the Son of God, bringing salvation

He chooses to prophesy his death and resurrection – hopeful, for this is a sign of his love and our redemtion, not of destructive anger.

So, is God allowed to be Angry? Yes, of course he is. Not only is there nobody to control him, he has rights of ownership by creation, and good reason to think that wrong has been done. We are reminded not to call for justice – for strict justice would see each of us called to account, and in very deep trouble.

But ask the question another way: Is God an Angry God?  Look again at Jesus. He can be moved to anger. He has destructive power – remember the Fig tree he cursed and it withered (Mark 11:13-28), or the herd of pigs that drowned (Mark 5:11-13)? But he doesn’t go round condemning people, causing pain, striking down – quite the opposite. He offers forgiveness, brings relief, and raises people up.

God is allowed to be Angry, he has reason to be Angry, – and he is like Jesus. For that, we should be enormously grateful and relieved – but not complacent and taking advantage.

I suggest that Jesus anger in the Temple was real, directed at people who not only failed to accept the love and mercy of God, but were preventing others understanding and receiving it. We are God’s temple – not our building, but the Church which is people. It is meant to receive God’s love and share it, to learn the ways of holiness and faithful discipleship, so that others may see what it means in practice.

If we are nothing more that a club, doing what its members enjoy, gossiping and squabbling – are we not every bit as guilty as the money changers and animal sellers of preventing access to God? It’s a disturbing thought that the Jesus who gives so much in love, might see us as his enemies.