Holy Week Reflection – Tuesday

Reading:  John 12:20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.” 

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.  While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

Reflection: One of the lovely things in the gospels is the way that some things Jesus said were remembered in different ways.  They were obviously so important to his followers that those differing memories passed into the soul of the Jesus community and shaped how they lived and what they taught. 

As the sayings of Jesus and the stories about him were assembled in the gospels after he died, slight differences in context and in wording come through to us. Perhaps Jesus used a variety of ‘inflections’ of some of his favourite teachings, so it is his rhetorical creativity that we see in these varied texts, not the different memories of those who heard and treasured his words.

Whatever its origins, it is clear that the saying “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”, is close to the heart of Jesus’ preaching in Mark (Mark 8.35 – look at the context).

In John’s gospel, a slightly different form appears:  Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12.25). Here it is joined with the wonderful insight that a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die before it can live again in next year’s crop. For John’s telling of the Jesus story, it is abundantly clear that this saying is also close to the heart of the gospel and is even attested by a voice from heaven like thunder (John 12.28).

Now whether Jesus taught this saying with the contrasts save/loselose/save (as in Mark) or love/lose – hate/keep (as in John) or whether he used both forms, this saying points to two great truths that Jesus undoubtedly taught. The first is that this Holy Week caper was not just a matter for Jesus: we too are called to follow. It is not only the Master who will experience loss and suffering, and even lose life itself. We his servants and followers will experience this mystery too.

The second truth is the paradox that this faithful following does not in fact lead to death, but to life! Here on the Tuesday of Holy Week with the lingering fragrance of yesterday’s ointment anointing Jesus for death, a new note is struck. With the smell of death still in our noses, we are also given the feel of seed-wheat in our hands – and the hint that not all death is final and hopeless, but can lead on to new fields, fresh crops, abundant harvests.

Readings for Epiphany 6

Welcome to the last set of readings and notes for the period after Epiphany.  This will be our last set of readings for some weeks as the writer is taking four weeks annual leave. The readings and notes were first produced nearly one year ago as we faced a period of lockdown during the covid pandemic. Now that we are coming out of the period of restrictions into a more ‘covid-normal’ environment, we will have to decide whether to continue with this format or adopt another approach to supporting people who are connecting with us via the website.

When I return from leave I would like to hear from those who are regularly following these readings to discuss what the future of our web-delivery should be.

The readings for this week carry through to Shrove Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday which is the start of Lent. If there is any theme to the readings it appears to deal with trials and transitions in the history of Israel and in the mission of the early church.  We offer fairly full notes to the Psalms and more general and succinct notes for the Bible passages.

Monday, February 8, 2021Psalm 102:12-28; 2 Kings 4:8-17, 32-37; Acts 14:1-7

Psalm 102.12-28 is a little over half of the Psalm (28 verses in the whole). We read vss 1-17 of this Psalm on the 11th May last year and these notes are (in part) from that time.

For those familiar with last year’s Bible Chef podcast 2, the text of this Psalm has been ‘cut-up’ very differently by various commentators (that is, they analyse the structure in very different ways). There are elements of individual lament, communal hymn and even some elements of prophecy! How has all this come together? One scholar has referred to the ‘unusually misshapen structure’ of the Psalm. Another explains it thus: 

“We have here an eloquent witness for the manner in which ancient prayers, originally written as an individual’s lament about sickness, have in later times been read. The words, contrary to the meaning that was obvious to the eyes, were applied to the all-important concern of that later time, to the longings of the people uprooted from their homeland.”  (H. Schmidt)

At issue in the Psalm are the two layers of ‘individual petition’ (the song of an individual person) and the ‘communal hymn’ (the liturgical expression of the gathered community). This tension is seen in modern hymnody in the distinction between what in German are called ‘ich lieder’ and ‘wir lieder’: ‘I-songs’ and ‘we-songs’. ‘I songs’; are in the first person singular and ‘we-songs’ are in the plural. Some churches have ALL their songs in the I-song format (me! me! me! …) others are all about the shared affirmations that we make, and the shared praise that we offer (we! we! we! ….) There is a good case to be made that a healthy spirituality will have a balance of I-songs, we-songs and You-songs (hymns addressed to, or descriptive of, God)!

The ‘I-song’ predominates in vss 1-11 and the ‘we-song / you-song’ in vss 12-17. In the remainder of the Psalm these voices are more alternating or intermingled.

For background, let me summarise our reflections on vss. 1-11

Vss 1-2:  A formulaic address to God from an individual petitioner asking for help in a time of distress.

Vss 3-11: These verses are intensely personal and describe bodily experience of serious illness or old age and approaching death. Vss 6-7 evoke loneliness through bird metaphors. Some scholars quote similar references to birds from ancient Babylonian laments. In our own time these verses may evoke for some of us the imagery of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Like a bird on a wire’.

Vs 8 introduces the motif of ‘the enemy’. Throughout the Psalms we often find descriptions of personal pain and illness transitioning quickly to naming the role of enemies – in a way that is jarring to modern sensibilities. For us, illness is one thing, and conflict another. The world of the Psalms was very different: illness and misfortune were interpreted as the judgement of God for sin (a kind of reverse prosperity gospel). In times of illness a more aggressive probing of one’s character and actions would be done by ‘enemies’ – and these might simply be your pious neighbours who see God’s hand at work in everything. 

In that ancient world, some scholars see another phenomenon familiar to us in the Australian indigenous belief in ‘pointing the bone’ – that magicians and cursing can cause mysterious illness and death. 

Vss 12-22: These verses describe the steadfastness of God (vs 12) and the hope of the future (vs 13-22) in terms much more redolent of the voice of the community. What is very interesting is that instead of recounting the great acts of God in the past (the usual further development of the affirmation expressed in v 12), this Psalm moves into a prophetic mode and confidently predicts the great acts of God in the future (vss 13, 15-17). This prophetic voice is not widespread in the Psalms. The historical context for vss 13-22 would appear to be the exile (see vs 13b, 14, 16, 20, the future tense of vss 21-22).

In vss 23-24 the note of lament is again present, and the sense of the threat of death is present in vs 24. 

Vss 25-27 praise Yahweh as Creator and unshakeable God. Interestingly, these verses are quoted in Hebrews 1.10-12. In Hebrews, the context of Chapter 1 makes it clear that the text is applied to the Lord Jesus (Gk Kyrios = Lord). The term Lord in the OT applies to God, so Hebrews has transposed the role of the Creator God referred to in Ps 102.25-27 onto Jesus.

Vs 28 is a prophetic affirmation of the future descendants of Israel at peace and established in the restored Jerusalem.

2 Kings 4.8-17, 32-37 tells of the kindness of the Shunammite woman (vss 8-10) and the enduring relationship that developed between Elisha and her family. The woman is generous and gives freely without any expectation of recompense (vs 13). Elisha promises her a son (vs 16). Is her response a sign of lack of faith, or evidence of modesty and carefully guarded expectations?

The second part of the reading involves the death of the child and Elisha’s intervention in raising him and restoring him to the woman.

Acts 14.1-7 is a story of Paul and Barnabas encountering opposition in Iconium. Vs 4 makes clear that, while division and contention were present, matters were evenly balanced. Vs 5 indicates the balance was tipped when the leaders of both Jews and Gentiles decided to take action, and Paul and Barnabas moved on to Lystra and Derbe to continue their mission.

Throughout human history (including Christian history) political movements, civil discord and repression have led to activists, preachers and thinkers ‘moving on’. Think of the exodus of civil rights activists leaving Hong Kong right now,  of what might flow from the very recent coup in Myanmar. One of the great engines of innovation and change across the world has been people being displaced, finding new homes and bringing their skills, perspectives and gifts to their new country. We in Australia over the last century  have been especially the beneficiaries of these processes with the variety of cultures and ideas that have come to our shores.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021Psalm 102:12-28; 2 Kings 8:1-6; Acts 15:36-41

 For the Psalm, see Monday.

2 Kings 8.1-6: Here is an example of exactly the dynamics discussed yesterday in relation to Acts 14. In response to famine (vs 1) the Shunammite woman flees with her family to live among the Philistines. She has the good fortune to return seven years later at a time the King was asking Gehazi (Elisha’s servant) about the great things Elisha had done. In the middle of the story of the raising of her son, in walks the woman herself!  Duly impressed, the king restores not only her land, but the rents from it from the last 7 years (vs 6).

Not all refugees are so fortunate. Recall that the words ‘Philistines’ and ‘Palestinians’ are from the same root. In the Nakba (the Catastrophe) of 1948 many Palestinians in Israel left their homes, taking with them and carefully maintaining the keys to the front doors of their homes. After not 7 but 70 years they are still to return, and the ruling powers of Israel will not restore their property.

Acts 15.36-41 describes the falling out of two Christian leaders over the actions of a third. The outcome is not a crippling of the Christian mission, but a strengthening: Barnabas and Mark head one way (vs 39) and Paul teams up with Silas and heads off in another direction (vs 40).

Disputes and disagreements are always difficult and contentious in churches, but sometimes they work out for the best, with new directions, new teamwork, new initiatives arising from circumstances of dispute and argument.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021Psalm 102:12-28; Job 6:1-13; Mark 3:7-12

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Job is a wonderful book in the Bible. Job has been stricken with loss and disease. In the face of all the usual spiritual panaceas offered by his friends, Job remains adamant that his suffering is undeserved and asks for a face-to-face interview with God so that he can argue his case with the Almighty. Here in chapter 6 we have part of Job’s lament (vss 2-7) and a call for God to end it all and crush him (vs 8-13). 

Like Job, people living with pain and suffering grapple with the question of ‘why?’ Such people take strength from Job, for he does not flinch from the agonising questions that suffering brings, nor from the longing for death, although he steadfastly refuses the path of self-harm or suicide (see Job 2.9-10).

What has the lectionary given us Mark 3.7-12? Reflecting on this question let us focus on vs 9: even in overwhelming success the Christian mission poses risks and dangers. Vs 9 is a form of contingency planning for a possible disaster in the course of preaching. We are not living in such a time when the crowds press in on the community of Jesus as they did then. But we have other risks to manage and mitigate!

Thursday, February 11, 2021Psalm 50:1-6; 1 Kings 11:26-40; 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

Psalm 50 is a complex Psalm which falls into three sections: 

  • vss 1-6 (our reading for today) describes the appearance of theophany (epiphany?) of God in a series of natural wonders and call the covenant people together for judgement; 
  • vss 7-15 God’ judgement against his people over their practice of sacrifice; 
  • vss 16-23 the proper form of obedience that is owing to God.

Some of the background issues in understanding the Psalm are just what its life-setting might have been. Was it part of a covenant renewal service? Does it reflect in the later verses (vss 7ff) an emergence of the traditions of the prophets within the Levitical priesthood, for the language and concepts of these later verses are very much in tune with the prophets. Such questions do not concern us directly as we only have the opening six verses of the Psalm.

Vs 1 invokes the divine presence in three of the OT divine names – the Mighty One (or the God of Gods), “God” and the Lord (when the Lord is in small caps it is the English translation of ‘Yahweh’). God speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting (vs 1b). God even calls the heavens and the earth as witness in the case against God’s people (vs 4). The appearance of God is through three natural forces/powers: brilliant light (vs 1b), devouring fire, and a mighty tempest (vs 3b).

Vs 2 connects the God of all the earth with the city of Zion.

That judgement is God’s purpose is clear from vss 4 and 6, and vs 5 makes clear that it is the people who have entered into covenant with the Lord by sacrifice who are to be judged. The content and detail of that judgement follows in vss 7-23 in terms very reminiscent of the prophetic traditions of Israel.

1 Kings 11.26-40:  In the wake of Solomon’s death the kingdom divided into Judah (under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son) and the other tribes of Israel (under Jeroboam). Here we have the encounter between Jeroboam and the prophet Ahijah which stimulates/authorises(?) Jeroboam to take control (vs 29). Jeroboam was not of royal lineage but was a very capable man (vs 28).

Ahijah as prophet foments the rebellion of Jeroboam. This was a key moment on the history of Israel and led to the split of the united monarchy over the twelve tribes into the Northern Kingdom (focussed around Samaria and Shechem) and the southern kingdom of Judah and Benjamin centred on Jerusalem. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE but was later rebuilt by Nehemiah and Ezra.

2 Corinthians 2.12-17 presents an historical fragment amid the theologising Paul makes about his mission as a fragrance… the aroma of Christ (vs 15). Vs 13 is the link to the other passages we are reading this week. 

Just as conflict was the driver of mission in Acts 15 (see Tuesday), so here a longing to find my brother Titus leads Paul to move on to Macedonia (vs 13). This is a different description of events to those of Acts 16 in which Paul has a vision of a man in Macedonia calling him to come.

Affinity and friendship, collegiality and co-operation has shaped Christian mission even more than conflict and discord. Think of some of the great partnerships that have shaped the church and led to new initiatives for Jesus. Think also of the friends who have been significant for you in faith and life.

Friday, February 12, 2021Psalm 50:1-6; 1 Kings 14:1-18; 1 Timothy 1:12-20

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

1 Kings 14.1-18 is the sequel to yesterday’s story. As Ahijah had prophesied Jeroboam’s rise, here he announces his doom. When Jeroboam’s son falls sick (vs 1) he reaches out to the old prophet hoping for good news. He sends his wife in disguise but Ahijah sees through this and speaks the word of the Lord (vss 6-16). The judgement is cruel: when his mother sets foot in the city her son shall die! (vs 12).

The prophecy looks to the future destruction of the northern kingdom and their scattering (vs 15). The lectionary has taken us this week into the rising and falling of kings and kingdoms. It is wise to reflect upon the world in which we live with its thrones and presidencies, its empires and spheres of influence. Which are rising and spreading? Which are falling and contracting? How do we serve God in the changing tides of empire and political fortune?

1 Timothy 1.12-20: Here Paul, as an older man, reflects upon his own ministry in terms of his dramatic conversion. He is reaching out to, and instructing, his younger protege Timothy. Scholars now generally agree that the Pastoral Epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not actually written by Paul but by later writers. This does not diminish their authority or their power.

Vs  20 puts into perspective the vagaries of leadership and ministry: Hymenaeus and Alexander had obviously failed or gone down a wrong path. In encouraging Timothy Paul points to their shipwreck in the faith as a warning. Just as conflict, or disruption, or friendship, or affinity have shaped Christian ministry, so also formation, encouragement and mentoring of the less experienced by those who are more experienced is a vital aspect of Christian life and ministry.

Saturday, February 13, 2021Psalm 50:1-6; 1 Kings 16:1-7; Luke 19:41-44

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

1 Kings 16.1-7 is another example of how the prophets (in this case Jehu, son of Hanani, not to be confused with King Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat) shaped the political order by announcing oracles of judgement from the Lord as well as by ‘anointing’ leaders who would then rise up and overcome the established powers that be.

Luke 19.41-44 is Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem which came to pass at the hands of the Romans in the year 70 CE. The Holy City has not been exempted from battle and siege, conquest and ruin. According to Wikipedia: “During its long history, Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice.[1]The oldest part of the city was settled in the 4th millennium BCE, making Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world.[2]

The first destruction was at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE and the second at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. Just as kingdoms and rulers have known both rise and fall, so the city that is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims has been subjected to deep reversals of fortune.

Monday, February 15, 2021Psalm 110:1-4; Exodus 19:7-25; Hebrews 2:1-4

Psalm 110 has been quoted many times in the New Testament:

Controversy with the Pharisees: Mt 22.41-45 (and parallels Mk 12.35-37/Lk 20.41-44); 

‘Sitting at the right hand of God’: Mt 26.64, Acts 2.35 & 7.55, Rom 8.34, Eph 1.20, Heb 1.13 & 8.1 & 10.12, 1 Pet 3.22

‘Priest after the order of Melchizedek’: Heb 5.6ff & 7.1ff

‘Defeating the enemies’: Acts 2.35, 1 Cor 15.25, Heb 1.13 & 10.13.

Given its important role in shaping/expressing the NT understanding of Jesus one might think that the Psalm has been clearly understood and the scholars agree on its meaning but ‘no other psalm has in research evoked so many hypotheses and discussions as Psalm 110’ (Kraus). The text of the psalm is ‘difficult and disputed’ and research into the nature of OT kingship and other traditions from the ancient Near East has led to many theories as to what is happening in the psalm.

The lectionary has simplified our task in omitting vss 5-7 which are quite difficult to interpret. In vss 1-4 we can discern that the psalm is about the enthronement of a king (vss 1, 4). Whether that king is the King of Israel or Yahweh has been debated. My own exploration of some of the research concludes that it is best interpreted as an enthronement psalm for a  human king. The psalm probably dates from the early period of the kings of Israel.

Vs 1 is a call from Yahweh for the king being enthroned to sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.  The metaphor of making your enemies a footstool is well attested in surrounding cultures as a sign of military domination of enemies. Note that here in vs 1b, and also in vs 3b and 4, it is the Lord who is speaking.

Vs 2 is the voice of a priest or other person in the enthronement ceremony who declares that the king has power delegated from Yahweh (The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty sceptre) and invites to king to rule in the midst of your foes. In vss 1 & 2 the theme of military success over enemies is central to the role of kingship.

Vs 3 is quite confused in the manuscripts as can be seen from the footnotes in the NRSV version. Another translation of this verses offered by one scholar reads the text as:

Round about you stand noblemen 

in the day of your power.

“On the holy mountains,

from the womb of the rosy dawn,

have I begotten you like the dew.”

Vs 4 declares that the king is not only a military and political ruler, but also is inducted into an eternal priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek. This may have been an early tradition associated with Jerusalem from before the Jebusite city fell to the Israelites under King David (see the story of King Melchizedek of Salem… priest of God Most High and his blessing of Abram in Genesis 14.17ff).

Over many centuries this Psalm has been read as a messianic Psalm prophesying the coming and status of Jesus. We can happily agree and affirm that the Psalm applies to Jesus even though it may have had primary reference to the ancient enthronement rituals of Israelite kings. It is interesting to compare the Psalm to the rituals used in the UK for the enthronement of their monarchs and see the similarities and differences that are involved.

Exodus 19.7-25: This great description of the powerful theophany at Sinai includes the consecration of the people to Yahweh (vss 10-13) and the dramatic sequel to that consecration (vss 16-25). It is passages like this that led the German theologian and philosopher Rudolph Otto to describe the essence of holiness as mysterium tremendum et fascinans – that is, a mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating (R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 1917).

Within the Christian tradition the experience of Sinai has been re-evaluated through such passages as Hebrews 12.18-29.

Hebrews 2.1-4: This passage needs to be read in the light of chapter 1 which is an extended reflection of the superiority of Jesus Christ over angels grounded the quotation of OT texts. Having concluded that analysis the writer immediately warns his readers to attend to what we have heard (vs 1) – that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ delivered by human preachers. His readers trust in the authority of angelic messengers (vs 2) which only makes them more culpable if we neglect so great a salvation (vs 3). Vss 3b-4 provide a densely packed summary of the authority of the gospel and how it has been transmitted to us through several steps:

It was declared at first through the Lord, 

and it was attested to us by those who heard him,

 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, 

and by gifts of the Holy Spirit,

 distributed according to his will.

Shrove Tuesday, February 16, 2021Psalm 110:1-4; Job 19:23-27; 1 Timothy 3:14-16

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Job 19.23-27: In his long struggle with suffering Job has moments of triumph and deep faith, resulting in joyful outbursts. This passage is one of the best known, having been taken by GF Handel and incorporated into his oratorio The Messiah. Here Job affirms that though he may die (he was stricken with a skin disease – vs 26 cf. Job 2.7-8), he knows he will at the last meet his Redeemer (or Vindicator – see footnote). It is an affirmation of the resurrection of the body and a high point of spiritual experience in the whole of Old Testament.

1 Timothy 3.14-16:  In his mentoring of Timothy, ‘Paul’ – remember that the book was not actually written by Paul but someone later invoking Paul’s authority – names the purpose of his letter: that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (vs 15). The purpose of mentoring and teaching is not academic excellence for its own sake, or arcane spiritual exercises for personal enlightenment, but that that we might know how one ought to behave in the household of God!  

He then quotes an early Christian confession (which doesn’t actually sound very much like Paul at all!) in vs 16. It is interesting how that confession blends together the very human elements of Christian mission (proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world) with the spiritual aspects of seen by angels and taken up in glory. All of this is grounded in the incarnation of Jesus (He was revealed in flesh) and the attestation of the Spirit (vindicated in spirit).

Readings for the 4th week of Epiphany

Monday, January 25, 2021Psalm 46; Genesis 12:1-9; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

Psalm 46: This well-known Psalm is much loved for its sense of calm assurance and its reference to Yahweh’s peacemaking. The phrase Be still and know that I am God (vs 10a) has figured large in Christian devotion, although the exegesis offered below may reframe that understanding. It is a psalm of Zion, along with psalms 48, 76 and 87. In each of these there is reference to the city (of God) as the subject and focus of the psalm.

The structure of the Psalm is defined clearly by the ‘Selah’ concluding vss 3, 7 and 11. Vss 7 and 11 are a refrain and some commentators think that supplying the same refrain after vs 3 gives a perfectly balanced structure of 3 verses+ refrain, 3 verses + refrain, 3 verses + refrain.

If we adopt that structure we can see that the first stanza (vss 1-3) stresses the reliability and refuge of God in the chaotic forces and tumult of nature. The raging waters are symbols of the primeval chaos and the mountains are symbols of all that is permanent and trustworthy. When the mountains fall into the sea, all of life is totally unreliable but the trustworthiness and reliability of God persists. 

The second stanza (vss 4-8) tells of the joys and blessings of the holy city. The river whose streams make glad the city of God (vs 4) is a metaphor for blessing and abundance in a dry land (Jerusalem is pretty dry actually!) Vs 5 stresses that it is God, not the city, that is the source of security and certitude.

Vs  6 introduces a new theme. Where vss 2-3 looked to the tumult of creation, vs 6 introduces the tumult and chaos of history, which is as nothing compared to the voice of God.

The third stanza further develops the idea of the chaos and violence of history which is met by the peace-making work of the Lord. The key verse is vs 9 which states the principle:

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.

The next verse should be read in the context of vs 9. The command to Be still and know that I am God (vs 10a) is not addressed to good Jews (or Baptists!) going about their daily activities. It is addressed to the armed and bloodstained hosts clashing on the fields of battle across the world, and throughout human history! The stanza ends with the beautiful refrain that reiterates the presence and protection of God.

Genesis 12.1-9: In one sense this is really the beginning of the Bible, or at least the beginning of the Bible as a sequential narrative. Genesis chapters 1-11 are the collected myths and stories of the twelve tribes explaining how the world was made, who human beings are, how sin came about, how the world was judged – and saved – in the primeval flood, and how different languages came to be.

In Chapter 12.1-9 the story of the people of God begins with a word to Abram, the father of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is one of the great archetypal moments not just of the Bible, but of all human history. I heard a famous storyteller once say in a lecture “There are only two stories: someone sets out on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” Here in Genesis 12.1-9 we have both. It is the Ur-story (pardon the pun).

I have lost count of the sermons I have heard (or preached) on this passage. It has a majesty and dignity that continues to yield meaning and insight every time I hear it read or preached.

It announces the essence of God’s call (vs 1) and promise (vss 2-3), the response (vss 4-5a), and then the first encounter with the land (vss 5b-6). In the story the two primal shrines of the people of Israel, Shechem (vs 6) and Bethel (vs 8) are named. In vss 7-8 we have the first theophany, the cryptic site of Abram’s camp with Bethel of the west and Ai on the east and the raising of the first altar (vs 8b). Isn’t that primitive camp where we all still live every day, caught between the holy shrine on one side (Bethel) and the pagan city on the other (Ai)?

The final open and enigmatic verse And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb (vs 9) seems to prefigure all the journeying and wandering to come for Abram and his myriad descendants: to Egypt and back and into Egypt again; from slavery into the wilderness; to Sinai and promised land; to Babylon, Exile and return.

This text is as epic in scope, and majestic in language, as it is sparse and brief in form. It is one of the foundational treasures of three great world religions!

1 Corinthians 7.17-24 is a powerful statement about how to live as a Christian. The key verses are the first and last: let each of you lead the life the Lord has assigned (vs 17): in whatever condition you were called … there remain with God. (vs 24) Between these two verses Paul specifically addresses two of the great social divisions of his age – the Jew/Gentile distinction (vss 18-19) and the slave/free distinction (vss 21-23). While not specifically addressing issues of gender and sexuality (as we would understand them, and one of the great social divides of our age) Paul spends the rest of the chapter addressing issues between husbands and wives (vss 1-7, 10-16) and the married and unmarried (vss 8-9, 25-40).

In this passage the basic principles are given about accepting where we are in life, and discovering God’s purpose in the life the Lord has assigned (vs 17). It is Paul at his finest as pastor and guide.

However, today we should reflect on these principles with great care and compassion. In a society where many aspects of our identity and lifestyle (including even our experience of gender) are not pre-determined, what do these principles mean? Should we simply accept the status quo, or is there truly scope now to seek a change in our social situation, or even our identity, that might be consistent with God’s intention for our life? For some people these are pressing and perhaps painful questions, and we should not glibly apply these principles without a compassionate engagement with, and sensitivity to,  the reality of other peoples’ experience and lives.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021Psalm 46; Genesis 45:25-46:7; Acts 5:33-42

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 45.25-46.7: Echoing what I wrote yesterday, this passage tells of one of the great journeys of ‘Israel’ ( the name for Jacob assigned in Genesis 33 – see 46.1 in this passage). Chapter 46 tells of Jacob preparing for the journey. He went to Beersheba to sacrifice. In Genesis 28.10 he left Beersheba and that night had a vision where the Lord had appeared to him in the dream of the ladder going up into heaven. That place was Bethel – which figured in our OT reading yesterday. 

Just as God called Abram out of Haran, God here calls Jacob into Egypt (vs 46.3) and back again (46.4). The journeying and faithfulness of ‘Israel’ continues!

Acts 5.33-42: This passage introduces the famous Counsel of Gamaliel (found in vss 38-39). At the centre of this story are simply ‘the Apostles’ who stand trial before the council in Jerusalem (vs 27). In the face of a desire for a sentence of death on the part of his colleagues (vs 33) Gamaliel does two really smart things. 1) He gets the prisoners out of the room so he can have a private chat with the aggrieved leaders (vs 34b). Privacy is often vital to being able to defuse a nasty argument or dispute.  2) He argues that acting involves a risk: if the accused and the project they seek to punish aren’t of God it will all fall over anyway without your action, but if it IS of God, not only will you fail to stop it, you risk fighting against God! (vs 39)

This wise Jewish rabbi has passed into Christian tradition for his peaceable wisdom. If only Christians who have persecuted Jews (and others) down the centuries had learned to listen to, and trust, his words!!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021Psalm 46; Proverbs 8:1-21; Mark 3:13-19a

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Proverbs 8.1-21: The Wisdom tradition in Scripture (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and perhaps the Song of Solomon – although this last is more of a love-song) attest an ancient Israelite tradition of wisdom and sayings. Wisdom is sometimes expressed in proverbial sayings. Sometimes Wisdom is personified (as here in Proverbs 8.1-21). If you read on in Proverbs 8.22-36 we see the voice of ‘Wisdom’ telling of her involvement in Creation.

In this passage ‘Wisdom’ is presented and described in vss 1-3. She stands on the heights and the crossroads (vs 2) and at the entrances and gates of the city (vs 3). In vss 4-11 she makes her call or invitation to the people describing what wisdom can do for them and what her impact will be in their lives.

Vss 12-21 she describes herself in poetic terms ending with a promise of both righteousness (vs 20) and wealth (vs 21) as the fruit of embracing and learning from her.

Mark 3.13-19a: Mark structures the early part of his gospel around the disciples – their call (Mk 1.16-20), their appointment (here in Mark 3.13-19a), and their commissioning or sending out (Mark 6.6b-13). 

The essence of their appointment here described is that Jesus called to him those whom he wanted (vs 13). This was very different to the usual pattern of discipleship. Most disciples would approach a master and seek to be accepted as a disciple, as in the modern practice of Indian gurus. It is the follower chooses the guru, not vice versa. But here it is Jesus who takes the initiative, and it is he who chooses.

Once called, they are named apostles which simply means the ones who are sent. The purpose for which they are chosen differs slightly from what is revealed in Mk 6.12-13. Here in chapter 3 they are i) to be with him, ii) and to be sent out to proclaim the message (vs 14) iii) and to have authority to cast out demons (vs 15). In chapter 6 it is  i) to proclaim the message, ii) to cast out demons and iii) to heal the sick.

What is interesting here is that the primary and first duty of the disciple/apostle is simply to be with Jesus. Fellowship, companionship, proximity to the Lord, is the heart of discipleship. Keeping close to Jesus is the centre and soul of being his follower.

Thursday, January 28, 2021Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 3:23-29; Romans 9:6-18

Psalm 111 belongs to the acrostic songs: it is structured so that every half verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostics aid memorisation but also places an artificial limiting structure on a text. Within these constraints the Psalm has a flow and freedom that is both poetically beautiful and spiritually powerful. It is clearly sung by an individual (see vs 1b) and has characteristics of the hymn of an individual (in which the attributes of God are praised) but also elements of individual thanksgiving.

Vs 1 opens with Praise the Lord! which also opens Pss 112 and 113, and also closes Ps 113 (see also the closing formula of Pss 104, 105 and 106). A note of thanksgiving is sounded in vs 1b and scholars think that the original context is that of an individual coming into the temple to offer thanks, who then gathers around him a small company of the upright (vs 1c) to whom he will sing his song of praise.

Vss 2-4 are almost like a methodological statement: the great deeds of God can only be understood by those who delight in them (vs 2). The works of God are an expression of honour, majesty and enduring justice (vs 3). His deeds are a ‘memorial’ of his grace and mercy (vs 4). The NRSV translation of vs 4 (he has gained renown…) does not quite capture the sense of ‘a memorial’ in the Hebrew (cf AV: he hath made his wonderful works to be remembered…, NIV: he has caused his wonders to be remembered …).  With this neat summation of God’s works as a memorial, the Psalmist then outlines those works in vss 5-9.

Vs 5 could be a reference to either the bounty of God in creation providing food to all creatures (the word translated ‘food’ has a primary meaning of ‘prey’) or a reference to the provision of food to Israel in the wilderness. Vs 5b acknowledges the foundational  grace of the covenant.

Vs 6 extols God’s faithfulness in giving them the heritage of the nations, a reference to the provision and allocation of the promised land.  Vs 7 introduces both the works of his hands (a reference to creation?) and the giving of the law: his precepts are trustworthy. Vs 8 extends the reflection of the power and obligation of the law and vs 9 summarises God’s act to redeem and sustain the covenant people of God.

Vs 10 summarises the personal engagement with these realities through a common affirmation of the Wisdom tradition: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (cf Proverbs 9.10). Kraus summarises the intention and thrust of this psalm, “The singer wants to provide his hearers  with a new relation to Yahweh’s management and rule. An inner appropriation, joy and fear, is to be determinative.” He then points to Romans 9.4 as a Christian understanding of the kind of Jewish spirituality and faith that is called for in this Psalm (see further the discussion Romans 9 below).

Deuteronomy 3.23-29: Deuteronomy is a later re-telling of the events of Mt Horeb and the wilderness wandering. It narrates and systematises the words of Moses. One of its themes is the faithlessness of the people and God’s punishment of refusing to allow this evil generation (Deut 2.35) to enter the promised land. He we have a stylised tale of how Moses saw the promised land from the top of Mt Pisgah but would never enter it. It bears many similarities to Deuteronomy 34, including that the Israelites were camped at Beth-peor (cf vs 29). It may be that this passage reflects ‘historically’ the end of Moses’ life, but is inserted here as a narrative framing of all the material to be presented over the intervening 30 chapters.

Romans 9:6-18 unfolds Paul’s argument defending the principle declared in vs 6a: It is not as though the word of God had failed. This alleged failure is that the promise to Abraham of forming the people of God has failed and Israel has largely rejected the Messiah (Jesus) and gone their own way: doesn’t that constitute a failure of the original promise?

Paul develops his case through three phases:

  1. God’s free mode of forming a People shown in Isaac (vss 6b-9)
  2. God’s free mode of forming a People shown in Jacob and Esau (vss 10-13)

Objection: Can we charge God with unfairness: (vs 14)

  1. God’s freedom shown in Exodus figures (Moses and Pharaoh) (vss 15-18)

Vss 7b-8 make clear that the promise of descendants to Abraham is not realised through ‘the flesh’ (i.e. that all his descendants will be part of the chosen people). Pauls says that Scripture provides an indication of God’s intention to call into being non-ethnically defined ‘descendants of Abraham’.

In discussing the Jacob-Esau dynamic Paul goes even further: God’s free and sovereign power to choose whom he will is reflected in the divine choice of the elder shall serve the younger, a choice made before they had even been born or shown any moral character in the decisions they had made (vss 11-13).

Helpful here is Brendan Byrne’s comment: What this highly dense stage of the argument particularly brings out is the sovereign freedom of God to pursue a creative purpose quite independently of any contribution from the human side. Human behaviour (“works”) in no sense determines the path God chooses to pursue. The language of “works” immediately calls to mind the polemic against “works of the law” in the earlier part of the letter. (Byrne, 1996: 292)

The final statement of this section (about God ‘loving’ Jacob but ‘hating’ Esau) is a quote from Malachi 1.2-3. “[Hating’ in this context is simply a Semitic way of expressing the choice of one party over another. This quote leads on to the (apparently reasonable) question: Is there injustice on God’s part? (vs 14) 

In rejecting this proposition, Paul quotes Exodus 33.19 which asserts again the sovereign freedom of God to have mercy on whom I have mercy, and … have compassion on whom I have compassion (vs 15). This exercise of mercy and compassion depends solely on God and is independent of any human will or exertion (vs 16). This sovereign freedom of God is then illustrated in the contrasting ways that God blesses and empowers Moses (vs 15) and hardens the heart of Pharaoh (vs 17-18). This hardening of the heart will figure again in chapter 11.7, 25.

Friday, January 29, 2021Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 12:28-32; Revelation 2:12-17

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 12.28-32 reprises one of the repeated themes of the book of Deuteronomy, that obedience and observance of the law and its transmission to rising generations  are foundational to the success of Israel in the promised land (expressed in vs 28). Then follows a warning against idolatry and the following after other gods (vss 29-31). This includes the abhorrent practice of child sacrifice through fire (vs  31b).

The passage ends with a repeated call to diligent observance of the law (vs 32).

Revelation 2.12-17: The Lectionary takes us on frequent visits to Revelation. Here we have the third of the seven letters to seven churches that comprise chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. The letter outlines the charge that, although the church at Pergamum did not deny your faith in me (vs 13), they have been guilty of syncretism and worshipped other gods and philosophies (vss 14-15). The call to repent (vs 16) is followed by words of a secret sign of assurance that will be offered (vs 17).

It was not only the first readers of Deuteronomy (above) who were tempted by strange philosophies and other religions. Here the early church faces a similar challenge.

Just how do we understand these passages today? In a pluralist society is curiosity (Deut 12.30) about other faiths and other philosophies a terrible sin? Shouldn’t we try to understand other perspectives and dialogue with them? Right through the early missionary endeavours of the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, and the later movement of missionary endeavour from the late 18th to the end of the 20th centuries, there was little toleration or understanding of other faiths, and even violence towards indigenous people. 

We are reading these texts in the week of Invasion Day/Australia Day. The history of our own nation includes a shameful lack of curiosity and respect regarding what we now know to be the earth’s oldest human culture. The damage done to Indigenous people and culture was driven (in part) by the spirit of texts like Deuteronomy 12 and the letter to Pergamum. How should we respond to other religions and cultures in the 21st century and how should texts like those we read today be understood in a pluralist, tolerant world?

Saturday, January 30, 2021Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Matthew 8:28-9:1

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 13.1-5 focusses the command to observe the precepts and laws of Yahweh on a particular problem and source of error, namely prophets or those who divine by dreams and promise you omens or portents … and they say “Let us follow other gods” (vss 1-2). This is very focussed and specific. The problem here is that these omens and portents seem to work (vs 2a!) but they are still false prophets and should be resisted (vs 3). Such prophets and diviners are to be put to death (vs 5).

The issue of where to find true and faithful teaching remains today in church and society. Some self-styled ‘prophets’ are clearly false prophets because what they prophesy does not come true (although that doesn’t seem to trouble some of these ‘prophets’!) Others have big and successful churches or other social movements and seemingly effective leadership, but is this sufficient witness to truth and validity in their preaching/leadership, or a case of the omens or the portents declared by them take place ( i.e. their stuff seems to work!) even though they are leading people astray?  These issues are amplified in a culture of toleration where there is wide latitude in acceptable views and values. Thankfully we no longer stone the prophets we don’t like, but how we protect truth and stand against falsehood and error is a very contemporary challenge.

Matthew 8.28-9.1: The story of the healing of the Gadarene demoniac has been taken over by Matthew from Mark 5.1-20. Luke also tells the story in Luke 8.26-39. In Mark the story takes 20 verses, and Luke has followed it closely, but Matthew condenses it to just 8 verses, while adding a second demon-possessed man to the script. The name is variously spelled in manuscripts of all three gospels as Gadarenes, Gergesenes or Gerasenes.

Matthew has simplified the story and purged it of some of the narrative richness of Mark (and Luke). In Matthew it is a straightforward healing/exorcism story. Note that the consequence in all three gospels is that the people are frightened of Jesus and ask him to go away, to leave their country/region. Are there things we do in the name of Jesus that frighten and alienate those among whom we live and minister?

Readings for the 3rd week of Epiphany

Readings for Epiphany 3

For those who have missed our daily readings I offer heartfelt apologies! Last week really did rather get on top of your humble writer. We are catching up with readings for Epiphany Week 3 (Last week) being uploaded today and Epiphany Week 4 tomorrow – or Thursday at the latest). Apologies to all those who have missed these brief notes.

Monday, January 18, 2021Psalm 86; 1 Samuel 9:27-10:8; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Psalm 86: Although headed A Prayer of David it shows signs of being quite late with many borrowings and references to other Psalms. The Psalm includes references to God delivering the singer from death (vs 13) and also from arrogant foes who are attacking me (vs 14). 

The form of this psalm is a prayer-song of an individual. The structure of vss 1-4 is a series of petitions to God (first half each verse) with a reason supporting the petition that describes the situation of the psalmist (for I… – the second half of each verse).

Verse 5 affirms that God is forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call.. before vss 6-7 return to the structure of ‘petition to God to hear’ linked to ‘the dependence of the petitioner on God’.

Vss 8-10 bring in a note of praise and affirmation of the Lord.

Vss 12-13 are a vow of thanksgiving and in vs 13b it is clear that his current state has been one of God-forsakenness and the threat of death.

Vss 14 is the essence of the lament of the singer’s situation: enemies who do not serve God are threatening him. Vs 15 affirms and praises God in a form seen in other psalms. Vss 16-17 express the substance of the petition.

1 Samuel 9.27-10.8:  Last week we read of the call of Samuel when he was a child. This week jumps over 6 chapters during which Samuel has grown to a man, Eli has died (ch. 4), Israel has lost the Ark of the Covenant  (ch.4) and had it returned (ch.5-6) and Samuel has become a Judge over Israel (‘judge’ in the sense of the book of Judges – a charismatic military and political leader). In chapter 8 a key development has been the Israelites’ request to move from a leadership of judges in time of need to a standing and hereditary kingship like the surrounding nations.

The passage is straightforward with the anointing of Saul as king (vs 10.1) and a range of prophesied confirmatory encounters (vss 2-7). The passage describes one of the greatest ‘fractures’ / transition points in the history of God’s people, in which leadership shifts away from spiritually-based prophets and judges toward a standing political kingship. Perhaps the attending signs are necessary to attest that God indeed is in what Samuel has done so that Saul can feel confirmed and validated in his role as ‘king elect’.

2 Corinthians 6.147.1: In this passage Paul calls for a separation between believers and unbelievers and stresses that we  [or you] are the temple of the living God (vs 16). The principle of vs 14  (Do not be mismatched with unbelievers) has sometimes been used as counselling against marriage with a non-Christian. That does not seem consistent with the context of this chapter and also contradicts Pauls teaching in 1 Cor 7 – especially vss 10-17 (for the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband – vs 14).

This chapter is more focussed on the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian church and their rejection of him – and Christ – in favour of other loyalties. It is a general call to holiness and devotion to God for we are the temple of the living God (vs 16b). Note here the specific contrast with what has the temple of God [i.e. you/us] to do with idols (vs 16b). It would appear to be some flirtation or association with outside religious groups that lies behind the prohibition of vs 14.

Such an interpretation is supported by chapter 7 vs 1 which can hardly be read as a prohibition of marriage with unbelievers when it calls let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of body and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of the Lord. This would suggest a more general abandonment of Christian living and rapprochement with idolatrous religious practices.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021Psalm 86; 1 Samuel 15:10-31; Acts 5:1-11

For the Psalm see Monday.

1 Samuel 15.10-31:  Again, the lectionary is leading us through some of the key points in the political history of Israel. From Saul’s anointing yesterday, we skip over 4 and a half chapters of Saul’s failures and mistakes to this passage exploring the Lord’s definitive rejection of him as king.

We find Samuel angered by the Lord’s rejection of Saul (vs 11). Samuel wasn’t happy about it all in the first place (chapter 8), and I suppose it is a bit embarrassing to find the man you anointed in the Lord’s name suddenly ‘un-anointed’ by the Lord.

The background to the dialogue in vss 13-16 is that earlier in this chapter Samuel has given a word from the Lord that Saul must attack and completely destroy the Amalekites and all their flocks and herds. The bleating of sheep in my ears and the lowing of cattle that I hear vs 14) is clear evidence that Saul has disobeyed the Lord. Saul is penitent but Samuel wants to leave.

The interactions of vss 24-31 are a fascinating parley about how the rejection of Saul by the Lord will be ‘enacted’ before the people. The sign of the torn robe/kingdom (vs 27-28) comes when Saul tries to hold Samuel in the moment and get some credibility by his continued friendship and presence. Although the Lord will not recant or change his mind (vs 29), Samuel eventually does change his mind and goes with Saul to Gilgal.

How we deal with fallen political leaders, ex-kings and presidents, is a perennial human problem. In coming weeks the United States Senate has exactly this challenge. Will Republican senators continue to journey on with Donald Trump and offer sacrifices/celebrations  because I feared the people and obeyed their voice (vs 24b)? Or will they say with Samuel I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of the Lord [in the oath you swore before almighty God] and the Lord has rejected you as king… (vs 26)?

In the end some senators may choose the compromise solution: just as Saul asked Samuel journey with him and honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel (vs 30), they might, like Samuel, turn back after Saul (vs 31).

It is not every day that a 2,500 year old political drama is enacted before us on prime-time TV – with almost identical dynamics, in almost the very same words!

Acts 5.1-11: Having just given us a story with obvious parallels to the immediate past president of the United States, the lectionary takes us straight to a story about a family of shonky real estate traders, who promised bigly, but didn’t deliver.

No, no, really – NO! I just can’t …. You will have to work this one out for yourselves.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021Psalm 86; Genesis 16:1-14; Luke 18:15-17

For the Psalm see Monday.

Genesis 16.1-14:  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a saga of dystopian gender relations in a modern society where female fertility is in short supply. In today’s reading we have a more ancient story with very similar dynamics. Like the Handmaids of Atwood’s tale, Hagar is given by her mistress Sarah to Abram so that I may obtain children by her (vs 2). The narrative explores the changing fortunes of the two female protagonists (see vss 5, 6b) and the refusal of Abram to get involved.  This story prefigures in some ways the later banishment of Hagar and Ishmael narrated in Gen 21.8-21.

Luke 18.15-17: This vignette from Scripture is a beautiful story of Jesus welcoming children. It is the disciples who try to stop the children being brought (vs 15b) but Jesus rebukes the disciples and welcomes the children. The passage is drawn from Mark Chapter 10. In Mark three examples of Jesus critique of the use of power are brought together – the power of men to divorce women, the power of adults over children and the power of the rich. Luke has reframed the material somewhat bringing only the stories of the children and the rich young ruler together into his chapter 18.

Thursday, January 21, 2021Psalm 62:5-12; Jeremiah 19:1-15; Revelation 18:11-20

Psalm 62.5-12: In starting the Psalm at vs 5 the lectionary has simplified and streamlined an otherwise more complex poem. Vss 1-2 are very similar to vss 5-6. Is this a ‘refrain’ with slight changes to the words, or are there variant texts that have been brought together here?  Vss 3-4 are a bitter lament outlining the criticism and attacks that the singer is experiencing. By starting at verse 5 the Psalm is both simplified and integrated around a single theme of calm and trust.

Vss 5-6 repeat (with some changed wording) the opening verses 1-2. There is a sense of calm assurance and trust here. After the lament of vss 3-4 it is almost as if, in vss 5-6, the singer has already heard the oracle of salvation that sounds in vss 11-12.

Everything up to and including vs 7 are the experience and testimony of the singer: it is all in the first person and is all about ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘my soul’, ‘my honour’, my refuge’ etc etc. From vs 8 through to vs 11 it changes into an exhortation to the community. Because of the singer’s experience, she can reach out to encourage and exhort the whole community to trust in God.

After the bitter accusations of vss 3 & 4, vs 9 introduces the idea of the scales of justice, in which humankind of high and low birth fly up because they cannot balance in the scales of justice, they are found wanting.

Vss 11-12 declare that God has spoken, God is powerful and loving and it is his justice that repays all humankind according to their work.

Jeremiah 19: Jeremiah was a great preacher, the master of the dramatic, symbolic action to illustrate and emphasise the words of his message. Here a pot is bought (vs 1) and smashed (vs 10) in a powerful piece of prophetic theatre. The accusation is announced in vss 4-5 and the terrifying judgement is pronounced in verses 6-9.

The background is the threat of invasion by the Babylonians which Jeremiah prophesied for years even though he was ignored. When the city finally did fall, his predictions and judgements were amazingly prescient.

Revelation 18.11-20: Where our Old Testament passage is a prophecy that  Jerusalem will be overthrown and devastated by Babylon, the New Testament passage is a detail from the prophesy that Babylon will in turn be overthrown and judged. ‘Babylon’ of course had already been overthrown and judged centuries before Revelation was written, but ‘Babylon’ is used as a code-word for Rome, the great empire of the age and oppressor of the people of God.

Empires come and go. There are struggles between nations and often the church gets caught within the clashes of historical forces. What Revelation reminds us is that there is judgment on behalf of the people of God and vindication of the sufferings of the people of God. The two readings today show us the two sides of how this appears to work.

Friday, January 22, 2021Psalm 62:5-12; Jeremiah 20:7-13; 2 Peter 3:1-7

For the Psalm see Thursday.

Jeremiah 20.7-13: One of the truly delightful aspects of Jeremiah is that he is tremendously revealing of his inner life, his struggles and even of his depression. There are several passages (together called the ‘Confessions’ of Jeremiah) where he reveals his deep inner struggles with his vocation and even with God. This passage is one of them.

When he says ‘O Lord you have enticed me and I was enticed, you have overpowered me and you have prevailed’ (vs 7)  the language is that of a girl who has been seduced: you tricked me, you got under my defences. The translation I was given in theological college was ‘O Lord you have seduced me, and I have allowed myself to be seduced!’ Being a laughingstock all day long (vs 7b) is a consequence of that initial seduction.

The content of the seduction is revealed is vs 8: the Lord has conned him into becoming a prophet and a preacher! That vocation has become for me a reproach and derision all day long (vs 8b). What is worse is that he cannot get it out of his head or his soul: he has been so thoroughly seduced that he has to keep on with the Lord, he cannot turn back:

If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
    shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot. (vs 9)

This is one of the most gripping and tragic expressions of the call to ministry to be found in all of Scripture, and there are many preachers and ministers who resonate with it. All of this continues despite the terrors and setbacks of vs 10.

The resolution is found in vss 11-13 where the whole tone changes and God is trusted and praised. Each of the ‘Confessions’ of Jeremiah ends with resolution in different ways. Sometimes there is a recommissioning voice from God, sometimes a dose of bracing reality therapy, sometimes the prophet seeming to turn back and find joy and deep satisfaction in his vocation.

2 Peter 3.1-7:  Fire and brimstone preaching seems to go in and out of fashion, as does a focus on the coming of the Lord. Here Peter suggests that the times in which he is writing has lost focus on the coming of the Lord (vs 4) with attendant scoffing and bad behaviour. His answer is a hint that fire and brimstone lies ahead for us all (vs 7).

It’s important to balance all of this out with some serious theologising at work in this passage. The cynicism of the scoffers comes from a sense that all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation (vs 4b). Peter corrects this by relating both the creative word of God (vss 2, 5) and the creation of an earth … formed out of water and by means of water (vs 5c – underline added). That same water was the means of its destruction (vs 6)

We are living in a time when some people, like the scoffers in this passage, think that creation will go one for ever and nothing changes. But many people increasingly recognise that water and fire threaten us in different ways and the catastrophes of the Bible are not things long past or metaphors for the distant future, but a current possibility/probability.

Our challenge is to look for the coming of the Lord in our own circumstances and needs, and seriously countenance what judgements may lie ahead of us and how we will prepare for them and engage them.

Saturday, January 23, 2021Psalm 62:5-12; Jeremiah 20:14-18; Luke 10:13-16

For the Psalm see Thursday.

Jeremiah 20.14-18: Here is another of Jeremiah’s ‘Confessions’. ‘I wish I had never been born’ is the gist of his complaint – and many of us may have felt like that from time to time. But few of us have ever expressed it so poetically, or so horrifyingly, as Jeremiah.

Vs 14 curses the day I was born. I’ve just had a birthday – it would be terrible for one’s birthday to be forever cursed, rather than celebrated. Vss 15-17a curses the man who brought the news to my father who would have served me better if he has killed me in the womb (vs 17a).

Then comes what I think is the most terrifying of his images: so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great (vs 17b,c).  The image of the dead child being carried and cared for forever within its mother, her womb forever great is a horrifying transformation of the safety of the womb into a tomb, and a mother’s pregnant body not a sign of hope and a future but of an eternal deathliness. It’s quite chilling.

This time there is no resolution, simply a life of toil and sorrow and shame (vs 18).

Luke 10.13-18:  Why this passage? I think it may be because of the link to Jeremiah 20.16: Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity…  This denunciation of cities names local towns within Israel. Where the prophets of old railed against the cities of Tyre and Sidon – cities of people other than Israel (vss 13-14) , Jesus denounces Chorazin, Bethsaida (vs 13) and even Capernaum which he had chosen as his own hometown (vs 15 cf. Matthew 4.13).

Vs 16 is actually addressed to the disciples. The overall context of this prophesy against the cities is the sending out of the Seventy on their mission (Luke 10.1-12). In vs 12 there is mention of Sodom and the ancient judgement of Sodom, but in this passage Jesus updates it to Tyre and Sidon, but then turns the focus onto the towns and cities of Israel.

Daily Readings for the 2nd Week after Epiphany

Our readings this week come from the Revised Common Lectionary. They are a whirlwind tour of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people, visiting some of the key symbols, the key moments of the long history of the people of God from Abraham to Jesus Christ and the early preachers of Jesus Christ. 

They are best read not for the fine detail of their teaching but for the panoramic view they give of the Bible and it’s story. Set your focus on the long view as you read these passages and let your imagination roam down the thirty centuries since these events were first lived and told!

Monday, January 11, 2021Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Genesis 17:1-13; Romans 4:1-12

Psalm 69 is a prayer song offered by someone who has been falsely accused of stealing something that they now have to restore (vs 4). That they have been overwhelmed by the accusation and the pressure it has placed on their life is clear from vss 1-3. Vs 5 is a form of confession. The Lectionary has omitted the part of the Psalm that relates to the penitence and petitions of the sufferer for deliverance and goes straight to the vow of praise that is offered in vss 30-36.

In the Christian tradition the Psalm as a whole has been closely identified with the suffering of Jesus and is quoted in the New Testament in various places. That the original setting dates from after the Exile can be seen from vs 35.

Genesis 17.1-13 deals with the origins of circumcision as a sign of the Covenant between God and Abraham. Note that this sign predates even the promise of the birth of Isaac (Genesis 18.9ff) and the first acts of circumcision involve Ishmael and the other men of Abraham’s household (see Genesis 17.23-27). The narrative stresses that Abraham is to be the father of many nations and the sign of circumcision includes all his sons, not just Isaac, the son of promise.

Romans 4.1-12 is Paul’s treatment of circumcision as a sign of Abraham’s faith rather than an ethnically defined Jewish community. Bearing in mind that circumcision is already in Genesis a sign shared by many nations, Paul expands the symbol even more, rejecting the physical sign and redefining it as an inclusive badge of all who live by faith.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Exodus 30:22-38; Acts 22:2-16

For the Psalm see Monday.

After dealing with the sign of circumcision in yesterday’s readings, the reading from Exodus 30.22-28 today explores another sign of covenant and commitment: anointing. Anointing oils are part of the care of the body from the ancient world (vs 25a), but these provisions deal with holy oil (vs 25b) to be used only for the consecration of sacred things (vss 26-29) and sacred  people or priests (vs 30). Such holy anointing oils were to be strictly used only for their sacred purpose and not for everyday use (vss 32-33, 38).

Acts 22.2-16 actually come from late in Paul’s ministry, even though he is describing the start of his ministry. He is now a prisoner, like Jesus before his crucifixion, and Stephen before his martyrdom, and will remain a prisoner for the rest of the book of Acts. In pairing this reading with Exodus 30, is the Lectionary suggesting that just as anointing was the sign of being appointed for ministry among the Old Testament priests, arrest and trial is the sign of authentic ministry for Jesus and his followers?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Isaiah 41:14-20; John 1:29-34

For the Psalm see Monday.

Isaiah 41.14-20 comprises 2 oracles. The first (vss 14-16) prophesies that the Lord will give dominance and strength to you worm Jacob, you insect Israel (vs 14). The second affirms that the Lord will provide water in the desert for the poor of God’s people as they return from exile (vss 17-18) and fill the wilderness with trees (vs 19) so that all may see and know… that the hand of the Lord has done this (vs 19). The passage comes from that part of Isaiah that teaches of the promised return from Exile and reflects both the powerless ignominy of Babylonian captivity and the promise of return and rebuilding from disaster.

John 1.29-34 links together John’s declaration of Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Baptism of Jesus by John. The sign of the descending Spirit (vs 33) validates Jesus as the Son of God as John testifies (vs 34). Here we see the ministry of Jesus Christ commencing.

Thursday, January 14, 2021Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Judges 2:6-15; 2 Corinthians 10:1-11

Again, the lectionary has partitioned Psalm 139, but in a way that reflects its structure. So many of the Psalms open with a lament expressing the circumstances of the Psalmist, call vigorously for the Lord to ‘answer me!’ or ‘vindicate me!’, and then tell of how the Lord did answer the singer’s prayer. This Psalm very artfully reverses that order: it opens with the conclusion – the declaration of the Lord’s action (O Lord, you have searched me and known me. / You know when I sit down and when I rise up  vss 1-2a) – and closes with the petition or appeal for the Lord to act (Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts./See if there is any wicked way in me, / and lead me in the way everlasting. vss 23-24) It’s a structure worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie, or the quote attributed to Jean-Luc Godard: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”.

The omniscience of God and especially God’s knowledge of the individual is the theme of vss 1-6. In vss 7-12 (omitted from our reading) this is extended into a reflection on the omnipresence of God – that fleeing from or hiding from God is impossible. Vss 13-16 bring a profound reflection on the Lord’s creation, and intimate knowledge, of the singer. The final section (vss 19-24) have again been omitted.

It remains one of the great psalms of the Bible, and one of the poetic treasures of world literature.

Judges 2.6-15 marks a key transition point in the story of Israel. Following the wilderness wandering and the occupation of the land under Joshua, Joshua (vs 8) and his whole generation (vs 10) die. This then exposes the waywardness of Israel (vss 11-13) and the resulting judgement of God (vss 14-15). How God then responds to, and rescues, Israel will be the subject of tomorrow’s reading.

2 Corinthians 10.1-11 is Paul’s spirited defence of his ministry against those who criticise him for acting according to human standards (vs 2) and boast[ing] a little too much of our authority (vs 8) and say his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible (vs 10). 

This reading ‘lifts the veil’ on some of the contested dynamics surrounding Paul’s ministry and writing which has been a major element of the New Testament witness and has shaped the church in every generation. We often read Paul from a place of armchair comfort. This passage reminds us that the church of Jesus Christ can be a contested and argumentative space.

Friday, January 15, 2021Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Judges 2:16-23; Acts 13:16-25

For the Psalm see Thursday.

In Judges 2.16-31 we see God’s answer to the end of the time of the great heroes of the Exodus, Moses and Aaron, Joshua and all his generation. Then the Lord raised up judges (vs 16), a form of charismatic leadership that was commissioned in times of need (vs 18). The rhythm of deliverance under a judge (vs 18) and backsliding when the judge died (vs 19) became a repeated pattern. Vss 21-22 make clear than some of the other nations were left in the land in order to test Israel (vs 22a).

Acts 13.16-25 is more preaching by Paul. In vss 16-22 (7 verses!) he summarises the history of Israel from the captivity in Egypt, through the Exodus and conquest, the time of the judges, and the origins of the kingship with Saul in the time of Samuel and the rise of King David. This is a magisterial summary of Israel’s history covering a period (according to the times given in the text) of over 500 years. Modern scholars would see the period covered as perhaps 350-400 years, but in keeping with the readings this week which summarise or ‘sample’ the history of the people of God, it’s a very good summary.

Saturday, January 16, 2021Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Samuel 2:21-25; Matthew 25:1-13

For the Psalm see Thursday.

The reading from 1 Samuel 2 is the background to the rise of Samuel, the prophet who marks the transition from the time of the judges to the early kings of Israel. Vs 21 introduces very succinctly the boy Samuel who would grow up to be the great prophet. Vss 22-25 describes the wickedness of Eli’s sons and makes clear that the Lord had decided to end the priestly line of Eli.

Matthew 25.1-13 is Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids – five were foolish and five were wise. It is another parable of preparedness for the coming of Lord. This week has been whirlwind tour of the history of God’s people. Just as we were introduced to the signs of circumcision (on Monday) and the oil of anointing (Tuesday), the lectionary invites us to be wise in how we trim the oil of our own lamps.  The readings and wisdom of this week invite us to carry with us the story of God’s dealing with the people of God in the past so we are always ready to meet the Lord in the present.

Daily Readings for Epiphany

We are somewhat used to the “seasons” of the church. Liturgical Seasons made greater sense to communities more intimately connected to the rhythms of nature and especially of farming. When the cycles of communal life were linked to changing weather and the various seasonal activities of sowing and reaping, lying fallow, preparing the soil, processing and storing the harvests, it was natural for the village church to have its own seasons related to the life of Jesus and the story of the church. The seasonal rhythms of land and church would become linked, and feel ‘natural’.

In earlier times there were fewer alternate forms of communication. Medieval congregations may not even have been able to read. Newspapers didn’t come into being until the second half of the 17th century and were not widespread until the 19th century. Radio, telephones, cinema, TV and the internet are all children of the 20th century. In those earlier communities the church was a main channel for disseminating information, discussing and enacting community values and reinforcing the sense of belonging and community. The seasonal structure of church life reflected a settled and not very mobile social world, in which communication was very much centred in the life of church as community hub. 

We live in a very different world. Over the months of lockdown we prepared daily readings that reflected the seasonal nature of church life. We acknowledge that this is countercultural to our world of rapid communications, high mobility and 24/7 engagement. We propose to continue this for the coming church year but in an amended way.

The readings will generally follow, but not always be linked to, the Revised Common Lectionary for the day. The notes might not engage with every reading for a day but might select from among them for comment. We will leave the links to the full range of readings so you can ‘click and read’ even if there are no notes for that passage. It is a way of grounding ourselves in a different rhythm of life and anchoring our hearts and minds in the priorities of the church’s agenda, not that of our political masters or the advertisers hungry for our purses or social media clamouring for our opinion.

Feast of the Epiphany – Wednesday, January 6, 2021Psalm 29; Matthew 2.1-12

If Christmas is the most widely known of all the festivals and seasons of church life, one of the least known and most diverse in practice is that of Epiphany (the feast day observed on or around today January 6th). Some churches have Epiphanytide (a season of varying duration celebrated after January 6th). The focus of the day, or the season, is ‘the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles’. Personally, I think it is one of the most significant and challenging of all the church seasons because it relates to the nature of the presentation of Jesus to the wider world, one of the more contentious and confused strategic challenges that the church today must engage. 

With that in mind we are going to spend the next few weeks reflecting on this theme of the Revelation of Christ to the World.

Psalm 29 presents Yahweh as the one whose great voice speaks through the thunderstorm. We studied this Psalm in the middle of last year and I reproduce the notes here. 

There are clear marks that this is a very ancient Psalm, most likely taken over from early Canaanite worship. There are ancient Ugaritic and Egyptian writings with very similar themes. This is possibly the oldest Psalm in the whole of Hebrew poetry. Some of the marks of this ancient lineage are the mention of ‘the heavenly beings’ in vs 1 – a reflection of an original pantheon of gods – over which a ‘god King’ (cf. vs 10b) ruled with his mighty thunderous voice.

In taking over an ancient pagan hymn of praise the Psalmist is very keen to make sure that there is no mistake that the hymn has been pressed into the service of Yahweh, represented in the NRSV by the capitalised form ‘the Lord’. This form, ‘the Lord’, recurs in every line of the hymn for the first 5 verses (with the exception of vs 3b) – ten occurrences in all! A further 8 occurrences in vss 7-11 yield 18 declarations of the divine name in 11 verses.

Lines not to mention the tetragrammaton (the four letter divine name in Hebrew – YHWH) are 3b, where an artful theological point is made – God is not ‘the God of thunder’ (as elsewhere across the ancient near East) but ‘the god of glory’ – who thunders!)  Vs 6 describes how ‘he’ makes Lebanon and Sirion ‘skip’ like young animals and vs 9b, c describe the impact of the voice of ‘the Lord’ mentioned in vs 9a.

Vs 9c introduces a marked change – so sudden that many scholars think something may have slipped from the text here. To this point the psalm has described the mighty God who is heard in thunder and whose voice flashes forth flames of fire (literally ‘splits’ the flames of fire –lightning,  vs 7) and outlined the impact of the thunderstorm on forests, deserts, oceans, trees and animals (see the alternate reading of vs 9a in the notes to the internet version of this verse). Vs 9c takes us away from nature and the wider region into the heart of the temple in Jerusalem: and in his temple all say “Glory!” The cosmic power of the natural realm is here grounded in the temple, and while the Lord sits enthroned over the flood (reference to the waters of the heavens – vs 10a) and the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever (reference to a pantheon of ‘the gods’ over which Yahweh rules – vs 10b), all this power and might is invoked as God’s strength and peace to be shared with God’s people (vs 11a, 11b).

In an age when science has demythologised thunder and lightning and largely taken away their terror, this Psalm may lose some of its power. That is a tragedy! The repeated uttering of the sacred name YHWH – revealed to Moses on Sinai – rolls repeatedly through this psalm like thunder rolling through a great thunderstorm. In the poetry the previous cultural understandings of a ‘god of thunder’ known from ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Scandinavian mythologies (among others) are reinterpreted through a theology of a god of glory who reigns over all other ‘gods’ and blesses his people with both power and peace.

In an age of increasingly common ‘extreme weather’ this Psalm may recover some of it ancient authority – although even as we think of God’s power behind the might of the weather we will perhaps also reflect upon the sins and negligence of humanity in our stewardship of oceans and wilderness, forests and animals.

Lest we relegate this Psalm to a primitive age and primitive people, remember that on 2nd July 1505 Martin Luther was caught in a terrible thunderstorm while returning to his home at Erfurt. He was terrified. Lightning struck very near him. Luther vowed that if he survived the storm he would enter a monastery. He fulfilled his vow – in consequence of which I am writing these notes, and you are reading them because he went on to become one of the great voices of the Protestant Reformation. The Voice of God can still speak in a Great Storm!

Matthew 2.1-12: The biblical text that anchors this day in the narrative of the Gospel is the Visit of the Magi. Here there was no proclamation of Jesus other than the silent witness of nature through the star in the heavens. Through their own study of nature they were drawn towards Christ. They needed the guidance of Israel’s prophetic tradition to finalise their search but the initiator and driver of the search was the mysterious star in the sky.

Both the Psalm and the gospel today speak of what can be known through engaging with nature. Our Catholic sisters and brothers have a much stronger connection to ‘natural theology’, what can be learned about God through the engagement of reason with the ‘book of nature’. As we continue to respond to the ecological crises around us a return to some of this ancient spirituality that heard the voice of God through the forces and wonders of nature is much needed.

Thursday, January 7, 2021Psalm 29; 1 Samuel 3:1-21; Acts 9:10-19a

For the Psalm, see Wednesday.

The other two readings present a God who speaks to Samuel and to Paul ‘out of clear blue sky’ (read Acts 9 from verse 1). We do not always need someone to tell us about Jesus: God is already there in the world and will communicate Godself in various ways. What is critical in these passages is the work of Eli and Ananias who helped Samuel and Paul to enter more deeply into their experiences of God and to understand what those experiences meant.

Too often the church has celebrated the great proclaimers like Paul and Peter, not the Eli’s and Ananiases of the world without whom Paul and Peter would not have come into a healthy faith. 

Have you ever played this role of encourager and guide in the life of someone responding to God?

Friday, January 8, 2021Psalm 29; 1 Samuel 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 4:11-16

For the Psalm, see Wednesday.

What a lovely little couplet of readings accompany the Psalm! Yesterday we saw the young child Samuel grappling with his first experience of call. Today we see him in the height of his powers as prophet, anointing another young man – almost overlooked amid his older and more impressive brothers – for the great and revolutionary work of becoming king. Remember that anointing a king was effectively an act of sedition – you were announcing the end of the reign of the existing king, even if it took time coming.

Then Paul writing to Timothy reminds him Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young (vs 12). The readings today remind us of the importance of young people in God’s work of revealing God to the world.

Who are the young people around us to be encouraged and ‘anointed’ and prayed for as the prophets and leaders of tomorrow? If we want to gospel to flourish and the world to see Jesus, there is no work more important for tomorrow than praying for and encouraging the young of today!

Saturday, January 9, 2021Psalm 29 ; 1 Kings 2:1-4, 10-12; Luke 5:1-11

For the Psalm, see Wednesday.

Today’s readings relate to faithfulness and abundance in our experience of God. In the 1 Kings reading a dying David (remember him – the young shepherd anointed yesterday?) gives a charge to his son Solomon. 

A vital task of those of us who are older is giving our ‘charge’ and our blessing to our descendants. That is the essential and important work of older people. There is not enough of it being done. If you are over seventy this is part of your work, to be done wisely and gently, but quite intentionally.

Note also here that vss 5-9 are missing. Why?  What has been left out?  Those of a detective orientation will enjoy looking for clues in these verses. What you will find is a part of David’s legacy that is very dark, straight out of The Godfather movies. To what extent do we leave our resentments, anger and thirst for revenge also to our children? Should we do that?

One of the inspiring men I have met was a Palestinian leader who spoke of his childhood after the catastrophe of 1948 and the expulsion of his family from their home and their land. Every night as a child he and his siblings drifted off to sleep to the sound of their parents weeping in the next room over all that had been lost. When later courting the girl he married, they discussed the past and resolved to NOT communicate to their children the wounds and sadness of their people’s trauma – the history, yes, but not the crippling emotions that they had lived with as children. He said to me, “There is no greater burden you can bear in life than your parent’s grief. We decided that it stops with us.”

The Luke reading reveals the startling abundance of the gospel – the full net as a symbol of the fruitfulness of Jesus’ mission in revealing the kingdom of God. This story appears twice in the gospel tradition: in Luke 5 at the call and commissioning of Peter and in John 21 where it is an appearance of the risen Christ who then re-commissions Peter after his threefold denial (John 18).

I find it a wonderful instance of grace that the same story presents both Peter’s first meeting with Jesus, AND his restoration and re-commissioning after a terrible failure.

The readings over these first few days of Epiphany have shown the intergenerational nature of God’s revelation – the roles of young and old in hearing God’s self-revelation, helping each other understand it, and passing from generation to generation the light of witness and experience despite distraction and even failure.