January – a month for Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is sacred reading, listening to Scripture or other text with the ‘ear of the heart’ and responding to it both in prayer and in the whole of our life.

During this holiday month, you are invited to join by Zoom on Wednesdays at 5.30 pm, from this week, the 6th of January. Contact the church office (office@boxhillbaptist.org.au) if you’re keen to get involved and we’ll send you the Zoom link.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree – Readings for the 12 days of Christmas

Among the traditional carols of the Christmas season is the English song The Twelve Days of Christmas with its gradually escalating numbers of fanciful gifts (eleven lords a-leaping?) sent by “my true love”. There have been many variations of this carol, including an Australian version.

My favourite is the comedy skit Christmas Countdown written and recorded by the Irish actor and singer Frank Kelly. However, Kelly treats the twelve days of Christmas as if they were a countdown (the days leading up to Christmas). This is consistent with our culture’s strong and gradually rising sense of expectation in the time before Christmas Day.

However, within the Christian community the season of Advent is the lead-up to Christmas. Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas. We have just celebrated that season with daily events co-ordinated through the church website.

The twelve Days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day and end on Epiphany Eve – the 5th of January. The good news is that, for Christians, Christmas is not one day but twelve! 

We began our celebration of Christmas with live-streamed services on Christmas Day and the third day of Christmas (Sunday 27th December).  Today we start a series of very brief readings / reflections for the remaining days of Christmas but there will be only a single reading from the gospels for each day. Where the Lectionary provides a gospel reading we reflect on that reading and I have provided other gospel readings where the Lectionary does not provide one. Our reflections will focus on Jesus, Family & Community.

Monday 28th December – The fourth day of Christmas: Matthew 2.13-18

This passage was at the heart of our service yesterday. Our culture completely ignores the grim side of the Christmas story. We want it to be only a happy time, with no note at all of deprivation, violence or displacement. Yet these are the reality for many of the world’s population, now as in the time of that first Christmas.

One of the ironies of our current situation is that there are stories in the media of how difficult it is for families to be separated at Christmas by Covid -19 rules or how traumatic it is to be held in hotel quarantine. Yet our nation has held refugees sent to the mainland for medical treatment in hotels for up to two years and has kept refugees in island detention centres for years on end compounding the trauma they have already experienced.

At Christmas we remember that Jesus experienced the lot of the refugee as a child and this was part of what shaped and made him the redeemer of the world. Let us remember, and pray for, others who find themselves detained or displaced from their homes

Tuesday 29th December – The fifth day of Christmas: Matthew 12.46-50

Christians have often referred to one another as ‘sisters and brothers’. This goes back to Jesus himself. The bonds within the Christian community are strong. We do see ourselves as ‘family’ -perhaps with the dysfunctional and difficult overtones of what family can sometimes be.

One aspect of family is the enduring and ‘given’ nature of its bonds: as the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relatives. Within the Christian community we draw close to one another. The relationships we form can endure for decades, giving strength and blessing to one another.

There have been Christian communities where this sense of ‘family’ has overtaken and squeezed out the biological family. Sometimes identified as ‘cults’, such groups have discouraged contact with biological families and become stultifying and dominating in the lives of their followers. In Luke 14.26 Jesus would seem to offer some support for this approach, although I think this is a misreading of Jesus’ intent.

At Christmas we celebrate not only the gift of our biological families that gave us life and shaped our lives, but also the family of our Christian communities that sustain us and guide us in life today.

Wednesday 30th December – The sixth day of Christmas: Luke 2.36-38

Anna, the prophet (and we should recognise and acknowledge that an old woman held such an honoured title!) holds our attention for a brief 3 verses of the gospel. She flits through the narrative like a swallow flashing past. That she was old is attested by vs 37 – but see the footnote: she was either 84 years old at the time Jesus was born, or she had been a widow for 84 years, after 7 years of marriage. Even given the early years of marriage for girls in ancient Palestine, if she had been married 91 years before Jesus’ birth she must then have been over 100 years old.

Whichever it was, she was certainly ‘well stricken in years’ as the Old Testament puts it. Older people in many cultures are respected and even revered as ‘the elders’. Our Western cultures tend to value youth and vigour and the old are often discounted or not seen.  When they are widowed they are even less visible, and the sense of loss they experience when a partner dies can feel like a diminution, a loss of part of their own selfhood.

Christian communities often have older members. Like Anna they are a resource, a treasure. Our church has older people, especially older women. May we treasure and celebrate them, for they, like Anna, are filled with wisdom, experience, memory, and love. Those who are looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (vs 38) do well to listen to them, respect them and treasure them!

Thursday 31st December – The seventh day of Christmas: John 8.12-19

This passage from John is not well known. It is a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees centred around Jesus testifying to himself: nobody has right to testify to themselves – other people can speak about who you are, but you shouldn’t go around blowing your own trumpet.

Vs 15 is what I want to focus on: You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. John is also the gospel that, just a few chapters before this, has presented the story of the woman caught in adultery, (John 7.53-8.11). The most ancient manuscripts omit this passage and others have it in different places, or with different text, or mark it as doubtful. What was going on behind the manuscripts to create such a confusion of texts?

One thing that is very clear from the gospels is that Jesus was not judgmental of people – other than religious people! He fought with Pharisees, and priests, and scribes, but befriended prostitutes and tax collectors.

One thing that is very clear from the history of the church is that the battle with Pharisees and moralists continues in every age. Like that story of the woman caught in adultery, we don’t know quite what to do with a Jesus who says I pass judgment on no one.

In the season of Christmas, we remember all the great songs and prophecies about Jesus at the time and in the centuries before his birth.  We acknowledge that at the heart of peace and goodwill and the transformation of the social order promised in Jesus, lies a turning away from judgment, a focus on mercy and forgiveness and grace that should characterise the life and actions of all who seek to follow Him.

Friday 1st January – The eighth day of Christmas:  Matthew 4.12-17

Christmas is a time for celebrating that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14). But where did Jesus actually dwell? Every one of us carries an internal list of the houses and towns we have lived in and who we lived with and what we did. What would Jesus’ list look like?

We know he was born in Bethlehem (read Luke 2 and Matthew 2). According to Matthew he left Bethlehem to flee to Egypt at around the age of 2 and that he returned when Herod died, only to relocate from Bethlehem to Nazareth in Galilee because Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling over Judea (Matthew 2.19-23). Now historians date the death of Herod between 4BCE and 1BCE. Historians confirm that Herod was succeeded by Archelaus as ruler of Judea so the relocation of the Holy Family to Nazareth is quite probable. Historically there is no evidence of the Massacre of the Innocents and the close timing of the death of Herod and the birth of Jesus casts doubt on whether Jesus actually went to Egypt: while it was important to Matthew theologically to portray Jesus fleeing to Egypt there is doubt that it happened historically.

Luke, on the other hand, is far more straightforward. Joseph was living in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2.4) and only went to Bethlehem because he had to register there. After the birth they returned to Nazareth (Luke 2.39).

So there is agreement about the birth in Bethlehem, and the childhood in Nazareth, but the Egypt residence is less certain.

In today’s reading there is a small nugget that is very significant: He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea (vs 13). This is where the adult Jesus chose to live. Today it is a ruin, but sited on the water’s edge at the northern tip of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) with magnificent views to the south over all of Lake Tiberias and the countryside of Galilee. Jane and I visited there some years ago and were struck by the beauty of the place. As people who have chosen to live by the sea, we are encouraged that Jesus might have been of similar tastes and outlook to ourselves.

The emphasis within the Christian churches is often on the universal, ‘the church invisible’, the gospel proclaimed in every place and every age. We do not take the time to focus on our place, our surroundings, the time and circumstances in which we find ourselves. Jesus made choices, and located himself in one place, and from that place moved in increasing circles as he preached and ministered throughout Galilee and Judea.

As we celebrate the Incarnation, of the Word dwelling among us,  it is important for our vision to be ‘focal on the local’, to reflect upon where we live, and why we live there. What is our community and how is it changing? Who are its people and how are they linked to the wider region and even the world?

If we are to be true to Jesus, we too need to be engaged with place and very aware of our community, its people and its history.

Saturday 2nd January – The ninth day of Christmas: Luke 8.1-3

The heading in some translations of Luke is misleading. The NIV has The Parable of the Sower. Sure, that follows from vs 4, but the editors of this version of the gospel don’t value vss 1-3 in their own right. The NRSV gets it better with the heading Some women Accompany Jesus.

Why did Luke think it necessary to give us the detail of these verses?  The twelve (the disciples) were with him (vs 1) but also some women who had been cured of diseases or demons (vs 2). Three are named, and one of them was Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward. It is interesting that Luke alone, of all the gospels, gives Herod a role in the trial of Jesus (see Luke 23.6-12). Here in chapter 8, Joanna who by marriage is firmly in the camp of Jesus’ enemies, finds her place among the faithful women who accompany Jesus.

We are gradually learning more and more about women and their links to one another, the social networks and bonds that are stronger than class interests and their alliances with men. One thing a male pastor learns early is to respect and not interfere with the groups and networks of women in the congregation: within an institution and culture that has been very patriarchal they have been a vital means of protecting women’s interests and nurturing women’s lives.

In the gospels women are some of the strongest supporters of Jesus. They are standing by the cross when the men have fled. They are the first witnesses of the Resurrection. They are the leaders in many of the churches that Paul founded. We are blessed to have women in our community who are leaders, mentors, and guides. 

Today be thankful for the women of our community, and the women who are part of your life.

Sunday 3rd January –  The tenth day of Christmas (Second Sunday after Christmas) John 1.10-18

These well-known and beautiful words express poetically the relationship between ‘the Word’ and ‘the world’. It is a relationship of deep connection (vss 10ab, 11a) but also deep estrangement (vss 10c, 11b). This tension is overcome through faith (vss 12-13).

The central verse is vs 14: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, the fullness of the gift of truth.

If you are a careful Bible reader you will see the translation above is slightly different to any of the usual translations of this verse. The reason I have opted for this translation is that Johannine scholars (those who study the gospel and letters of John) are of the view that John does not have a strong concept of grace as Paul certainly has. Christian translators have read John through the lens of Paul, importing a Pauline view of grace where it does not belong. The Greek word usually translated grace can also mean gift. Hence my preferred translation (one shared by some eminent scholars) presents Jesus as the fullness of the gift of truth.

This has implications for the community of Jesus, for it places truth at the heart of our understanding of the gospel. The word truth appears 95 times in the New Testament and 37 of those occurrences are in the writings of John. 

There are fads and fashions in Christian virtue. In the 6th century patience was a cardinal virtue in the Christian community. I think that the second half of the 20th century many Christians would have said love was the most important virtue. While not technically a virtue (truthfulness or honesty would be the related virtue) we may be moving into a time when truth is the most important thing characterising the Christian community.

Different carols focus on different elements of the Christmas message. For instance, Christina Rossetti wrote the carol Love came down at Christmas. Others have focussed on glory, or peace. John states clearly that what is given to the world in Jesus is the fullness of the gift of truth.

There are not many carols that celebrate truth coming in Jesus. The festival itself is so overlain with traditions, sentimentality and even ‘spin’ that we do not associate Christmas with truth. In an age when truth is being assailed in so many different ways rethinking Christmas as a message of deep truth would be a real gift to the world. 

Monday 4th January – The eleventh day of Christmas: Luke 2.41-52

This story is one that every parent can relate to. Losing a child can be a great trauma. Most children have wandered off or been lost at some point in their lives – especially in large public gatherings. Some just ‘run away’ for a time – usually in childish protest and not for long.

But for some the disappearance of a child in this way is not a passing anxiety. When children or teenagers run away only to disappear and never be found, families are left with agonising and extended uncertainty and pain.

Another form of loss is when children as they grow up reject their parents and exclude them from their lives and the lives of their own children, the parents’ grandchildren. I have known several people who have experienced this sorrow in life. They are spared the pain of not knowing what happened to their children, and they have the comfort of knowing they are alive, but the deliberate and wilful exclusion from their children’s lives is a deep and continuing wound.

At Christmas, when so many families are re-uniting and celebrating, remember those who have lost their children through death, disappearance or estrangement. This is one of the most painful aspects of being a family, and Christmas is a time when such losses are re-focussed and experienced quite acutely.

Tuesday 5th January: The twelfth day of Christmas: Luke 6.27-31

Where can the Twelve Days of Christmas close but with this, perhaps the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings?  Christmas opens with a blaze of glory and a heavenly choir singing of peace and goodwill, but none of this can become real without a willingness to love our enemies and offer the other cheek to abuse and violence (vs 29). This covers not only non-violence but the deep spirit of sharing with those who have nothing (vss 29-30). The reading ends with the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you (vs 31).

If Christmas starts with glory and joy, it ends with the hard work of loving your enemies, and sharing your goods, and doing to others as we would have them do to us. All the world is happy to sing the song we learned from the angels in Luke 2.14, but only those who follow Jesus remember and seek to practice these teachings of the one through whom peace on earth will come.

Readings for the Fourth Week of Advent

Readings for the Fourth Week of Advent

Monday, December 21, 2020Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 1:1-18; Hebrews 9:1-14

Luke 1.46b-55: In place of a Psalm during the week leading up to Christmas the Lectionary gives us the Song of Mary.  Note the footnote in Biblegateway that this song may have originally been attributed to Elizabeth. Luke has taken the Song and placed in clearly in Mary’s mouth, perhaps adding vs 48b to affirm Mary’s precedence over Elizabeth. In the time of the early church followers of John the Baptist were also active and (in some ways) ‘in competition’ with the followers of Jesus (see Acts 19.1-7) so there may also have been respect attributed to the mothers of both John and Jesus. While Elizabeth has blessed Mary in the preceding verses, here Mary is responding not to Elizabeth but to God.

Vss 46b -49a express the personal experience of Mary in the first person. Vss 49b-53 describe the universal experience of God expressed in the third person. Vss 54-55 describe the experience of God in  history through the third person plural (his servant Israel …. our ancestors…).

In the first section as Mary ‘exults’ in God, the description of the lowliness of his servant is more applicable to Elizabeth (see vs 6, and he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people vs 25) than to Mary. In vs 49 God’s great act cannot be overlooked and Mary acknowledges this act and praises God.

Vss 51-53 point to a future in which fortunes are radically reversed through the direct action of God, and vss 54 and 55 anchor these actions of reversal in the hopes and expectations of Israel.

There are strong connections between Mary’s Song and Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel. As Mary’s Song is read over each of the next three days, the story of Hannah (mother of Samuel) and her Song unfolds alongside.

1 Samuel 1.1-18 is the background story to tomorrow’s Old Testament Lesson. Tomorrow we hear further of Hannah before on Wednesday we read the Song of Hannah, another godly woman who experienced barrenness and prayed to the Lord. Reading this story one can see more similarities between the story of Hannah and Elizabeth (Luke 1.5-25) than Hannah and Mary. 

In a polygamous culture where Elkanah had two wives Hannah was the childless one (vs 2), a source of shame (vs 6) even though her husband loved her (vs 5). The encounter with the old priest Eli described in vss 12-18, turns from rebuke (vs 14) to promise (vs 17) and Hannah’s countenance was sad no longer (vs 18).

The whole setting of the Psalm and the OT in this early part of the week of Christmas is about barrenness and promise. In these days of IVF and other forms of medical diagnosis and intervention, it is hard for us to reconnect with the sense of hopelessness, failure and even despair that women like Elizabeth and Hannah experienced. We live in a society where fertility is largely controlled through contraception, intra-uterine foetal testing, abortion, medical diagnosis of the causes of infertility, fertility treatments and IVF. Prior to the middle of the last century there was far less ‘technology of control’: for a married, sexually active woman, pregnancy and bearing children were a ‘social norm’. The number of women who choose not to have children in our society means that an involuntarily childless woman is not so socially visible today, but we know from women experiencing IVF or other treatments how much their experience is a source of great personal anxiety and stress. 

When we consider that children in 1st century Palestine were the safety net for a woman’s old age, we can see just how much was riding on being able to bear a child. All of these factors are the background to Hannah’s song, which is the model for Mary’s Song – which as we saw above may have originally been Elizabeth’s Song. While Mary was not expecting to have a child, she had no reason to doubt that she was not able to have a child, which does suggest that the Song may have originally been Elizabeth’s.

Hebrews 9.1-14: this week we have two readings from Hebrews. Why?  Both readings speak about Jesus in his role as high priest. They speak of the cosmic role of Jesus in redemption, as the fulfilment and completion of God’s plan prefigured in both Tabernacle and Temple of Jewish history. Just as Mary’s Song sees the coming birth as the fulfilment of the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever (Luke 1.55), so Hebrews links the cosmic resurrected Christ to the fulfilment of that ancient pattern of worship and faithfulness prefigured in the worship of Israel.

Vss 1-5 are a description of the setup of the tent (vs 2) although vs 5b acknowledges Of these things we cannot speak in detail because what is described belongs to the ancient history of Israel.

Vss 6-11 then interpret this cultic practice and see it as a symbol of the present time (vs 9) which has various limitations and inadequacies until the time comes to set things right (vs 10b).

Vss 11-14 present Christ as the one who came as a high priest of the good things that have come (vs 11), the promised fulfilment of the practice and hope of Israel.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 1:19-28; Hebrews 8:1-13

For the Psalm, see Monday.

1 Samuel 1.19-28 tells of the conception and birth of Samuel, and of Hannah’s decision, and Elkanah’s agreement, to dedicate Samuel as a Nazirite to the Lord (vs 22 – see also yesterday’s reading at vs 11 for a description of the life of a Nazirite). Vs 21 makes clear the trip was an annual observance, but Hannah defers her trip until Samuel is weaned. We are not told the age of the boy at the time he is left in the shrine (Eli was serving at the shrine at Shiloh, not the Temple in Jerusalem) but the three-year-old bull as a sacrifice in lieu of the boy might suggest he was three years old. We are told and the child was young (vs 24c).

Hebrews 8.1-13 is an extended contrast between a pattern of worship that is earthly, based on a pattern that was shown you on the mountain (vs 5b) and worship in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up (vs 2).  Vs 6-7 make clear the superiority of Jesus over Moses, and of the latter covenant over the earlier.

Vss 8-12 anchor this superiority in the Old Testament prophets who are quoted here. Vs 13 makes crystal clear that the ‘old covenant’ is not only obsolete but will soon disappear.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 11:1-11

For the Psalm, see Monday.

1 Samuel 2.1-10: Today’s reading is the Song of Hannah. Comparison with the Song of Mary reveals similar themes. Reversals of fortune are listed here at vs 5 and the Lord’s work in deciding the fortunes of rich and poor is described in vss 7-8. One can see clear similarities, but also some differences. Read the two Songs side by side and see what you can see in common, and where Mary’s song takes Hannah’s song and extends it.

Mark 11.1-11 is Mark’s version of the triumphal entry. The New Testament lessons this week are celebrating Jesus and his central role in the drama of salvation. Central to this reading in the context of this week are vss 9-10 and the affirmation of Jesus as the one who comes in the name of the Lord (vs 9) and also the one who is born in the Davidic line (vs 10).  As the Christmas carol puts it: 

To you, in David’s town this day, is born of David’s line, 

the Saviour who is Christ the Lord and this shall be the sign…

Thursday, December 24 & 25, 2020Nativity of the Lord

The readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are combined. We will read them today and leave Christmas Day free for church and for family!

The Lectionary actually gives three sets of readings for Christmas but I have chosen the first set.  The Psalm is Psalm 96, a communal song of praise. Note that the Psalm calls not just on Israel to praise, but all the earth (vss 1,9) all the peoples (vs 3), families of the peoples (vs 7), the nations (vss 3, 10).

While there is mention of strength and beauty are in his sanctuary (vs 6) this is the only mention of the cult and the temple. The focus is more on the cosmic nature of God (see vss 4-6) which results in all people being called to praise (vss 7-10). Then follows a call for all creation to join in the cosmic praise (vss 11-12) before the final action of God in judging the whole world is proclaimed in vs 13.

Isaiah 9.2-7 is a prophecy of deliverance from warfare and violence through the birth of a son (vs 6). The prophecy is artfully delivered with hints of the suffering of the people described in vss 2,4 and 5, (even as they are declared to be overturned, reversed), together with clearly positive expressions of deliverance and joy in vss 2 and 3. 

Isaiah the prophet was urging King Ahaz to stand firm and not seek alliance with the Assyrians, the great regional power. The promise of a son may have referred in the first instance to Hezekiah, who succeeded his father Ahaz.

In the New Testament this text is quoted not in relation to the birth of Jesus (unless the angel’s announcement in Luke 2.11 is an oblique reference) but in Matthew 4.14-15 to explain why Jesus started his ministry in Galilee. In our minds the association with the birth of Jesus comes more from Handel’s Messiah and the song Unto us a child is born.  The fabric of Christmas is a closely woven tapestry of texts, music and meanings woven over many centuries and it is still evolving.

Titus 2.11-14: This an interesting little Christmas reading in which the Incarnation is referred to in vs 11. Vs 12 describes Christian life in the present and the unfinished nature of salvation in vs 13. The self-giving of Christ and the way his sacrifice has formed a new people is the focus of vs 14. These four verses are like a polished catechism – a doctrinal expression of the gospel message! 

Luke 2.1-14: Is any passage of Scripture as well-known in the Church as Luke chapter 2? Here the popular story of the birth of Jesus is told in vss 5-7, soon followed by the appearance of an angel to the shepherds (vss 8-14). We tend to glide over vss 1-4, seeing only the romantic journey of Joseph and Mary and the lack of room at the inn. 

But Luke has taken great care to locate these events within the arc of imperial politics. Vs 1 declares the imperial edict and the name of the Emperor. Lest this be lost on the locals he then clarifies that This was the first registration and that it occurred while Quirinius was governor of Syria (vs 2). These registrations must have been an impost on the local population by the occupying power Rome, and Luke wants to anchor the birth of Jesus firmly within the experience of occupied people and the time frames of empire.

Saturday, December 26, 2020Psalm 148; Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15; Acts 6:8-15; 7:51-60

Psalm 148 is another psalm calling for all creation, all kings and peoples to join in praise. Vss 1-2 call on the heavens and heights and all his angels… all his host! to praise God.

Vss 3-6 call on the heavens and you waters above the heavens to praise God, their creator. This refers to the ancient cosmology where the firmament of the heavens separated the waters above and the waters below (see Genesis 1.7).

Vss 7-10 call on all the earth and everything created in it to praise, before vss 11-12 draw in kings nations, people, young and old, men and women.

Vs 13 focusses all that praise on the Lord and vs 14 gives the reason: he has raised up a horn for his people…   Hence this Psalm in the festival of Christmas when the birth of Jesus is recognised as the one who has been raised up.

The lectionary then delivers a matched pair of readings about the arrest and ill-treatment of two of God’s prophets and preachers.

Jeremiah 26.1-19,12-15 tell of Jeremiah’s preaching (vss 1-6) the hearer’s enraged reaction (note that the hearers are the priests and the prophets and all the people – vs 7). Vss 12 – 15 tell of Jeremiah’s response to the officials to whom his hearers had reported him (see vss 10-11 – deleted from the reading).

Acts 6.8-15, 51-60 tell an almost identical story of strong preaching by Stephen (summarised in vss 51-53) which led to similarly enraged reactions (vs 54) and his death.

The framers of the lectionary have immediately followed Jesus’ birth with two stories from the history of God’s people that clearly show the fate of the prophets and those God calls. Jeremiah was the prophet most attacked and persecuted in the Old Testament. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. By telling their stories immediately after Jesus’ birth, the lectionary is hinting at what the future will be for the One so gloriously prophesied, announced and celebrated this week!

Readings for the Third Week of Advent

Monday, December 14, 2020Psalm 125; 1 Kings 18:1-18; Ephesians 6:10-17

Psalm 125 is a Song of Ascents or A pilgrimage Song (see the title). The form of the Psalm is difficult to categorise but vs 4 leads toward the conclusion that it is a ‘community prayer song’. 

Vss 1-2 are an expression of trust in God where the surrounding protection of the Lord for his people is likened to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem.

The setting of the psalm is revealed in vs 3 where a sceptre of wickedness has rested on the land, probably for some time for the wickedness of the occupying power seems to be leading the righteous to stretch out their hands to do wrong. The form of vs 3 can either be a promise or a prophecy of God’s impending action.

Whichever it is, vs 4 is a prayer that God will act as announced in vs 3 and deliver those who are good and those who are upright in their hearts.

Vs 5 is a judgement on those among the people who turn aside to their own crooked ways, a reference to those in Vs 3b who, although of the people of God, have stretched out their hands to do wrong.

1 Kings 18.1-18 is an unusual choice of reading. It is the precursor to the dramatic triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal but this dramatic story is completely passed over by the lectionary.

What we see in the text is narrative detail that richly evokes the context of the time.

The first is the story of Obadiah (vss 3-6). While some Jewish traditions attribute the book of the prophet Obadiah to this Obadiah, the steward of the palace of Ahab and Jezebel, it was a common name in Israel. The Islamic version of the name is Abdullah. Obadiah is faithful to God and sheltered 100 ‘prophets’ in two groups of 50 in separate caves, so that if one was discovered the other might survive. We learn of a faithful man, and of the social movement of ‘the prophets’ who lived and worked in companies, bands or ‘schools’. In contrast to the solitary prophets like Elijah and Elisha (who had dealings with the ‘companies of prophets’), these prophets were communal, even communistic in their lifestyle – perhaps more akin to medieval monks than the writing prophets of Israel (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah etc). We know very little about these mysterious Old Testament groups but they are an intriguing hint of a different religious time and a vocation very different to that of the priests of ancient Israel.

The second strand of the story (vs 7-15) tells of Obadiah’s anxiety in carrying Elijah’s message to Ahab (vs 12b) and both the faithfulness of Obadiah (vs 13) and Ahab’s persisting rage against Elijah (vss 9-12). Note the source of Obadiah’s anxiety – that the spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where (vs 12a): prophets like Elijah travelled and wandered and were thought to be transported around the landscape by God’s spirit.

After being assured  that Elijah will surely meet Ahab, Obadiah delivers the message. Ahab’s opening greeting is classic: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (vs 17) only to be met and doubly repaid by Elijah (vs 18).

If I ever have the leisure, I would love to write a book about the pithy comments between political rulers and ministers, priests and prophets through the ages, and this one would certainly be included!

Ephesians 6.10-17 is a very well-known passage in some Christian circles. It is seen by some as a key commissioning text for the so-called ‘prayer warriors’. I think this language should be used carefully and wisely. 

The key verse is vs 12 which describes a struggle not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Such language is steeped in ancient world views and should be carefully studied. The language and theology of ‘the powers’ (to use a shorthand term) has been largely rehabilitated through the work of scholars like Walter Wink and his powerful trilogy Naming the Powers, Understanding the Powers and Engaging the Powers. Wink’s big contribution was his recognition that the Biblical language of the powers (as reflected here in Ephesians) reflects a binary nature of spiritual reality where we are always dealing with an inner spiritual essence and an outer human, sometimes institutional, structure.

Ironically – or perhaps understandably (?) – some of those most at ease with the language of spiritual warfare are most ill-at-ease with the current Bill before the Victorian Parliament prohibiting Change or Suppression practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation (so-called ‘gay conversion’ therapy). What is outlawed is a ‘prayer act’ (such as an exorcism, or ‘praying over’ someone) that results in harm, or significant harm to the person and has been conducted with negligence as to the impact of the practice on that person. Some mischief-makers have said that ‘the government is outlawing prayer’ but it is clear that the Act is outlawing harming people negligently through the use of some prayer practices. 

I understand what people mean by the language of spiritual warfare and prayer warriors and I respect it as a practice – if it is engaged in responsibly and wisely. However, if we in the church are happy to use the language of spiritual warfare and prayer warriors, we should not be surprised when our government recognises that people might be harmed through prayer, and prayer can be done negligently and in a damaging way. If we want to be ‘prayer warriors’ we need the kind of ‘rules of engagement’ that all responsible soldiers have to guide them in battle. The government’s Bill is the very minimum we should seek – as Hippocrates put it: First, do no harm!

If you have concerns about the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 I invite you to contact me and we can talk about it. There are certainly issues around the Bill, and some valid points are made its critics, but I don’t see it as a wholesale attack on the churches and other faith communities.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020Psalm 125; 2 Kings 2:9-22; Acts 3:17-4:4

For the Psalm, see Monday.

2 Kings 2.9-22: This story is again a ‘clipped’ or truncated narrative that omits the lead-up to the first of three stories in this passage. The first story is of Elijah’s being taken up in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire (vs 11) and the prophetic mantle falling to Elisha (see vss 13-14 and read vs 8). 

The second is another story about the company of prophets (vss 15-18). The company of prophets figures also in vss 1-8. Here also is the motif from yesterday of the Lord almost ‘teleporting’ his prophets through the spirit (vs 16b). Eventually giving in to this kind of thinking, Elisha lets them search only to be finally vindicated (vs 18) when they find no trace of Elijah.

The third (vss 19-22) is a story emphasising how the prophetic authority and powers of Elijah now rested on Elisha.

Acts 3.17-4.4 is part of a sermon preached by Peter that starts in vs 12. Perhaps the framers of the Lectionary have decided to omit vss 12-16 because of vss 13-15 which are highly critical of the Jews and have contributed to the idea of Jews as ‘Christ -killers’ a charge specifically laid in vs 15. This passage starts with the exculpatory I know that you acted in ignorance… (vs 17).  A reference that reflects the Advent season is vs 21 how Jesus must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Chapter 4.4 mentions the five thousand who were converted through this second sermon of Peter in addition to the three thousand who converted in Chapter 2.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020Psalm 125; Malachi 3:16-4:6; Mark 9:9-13

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The reading from Malachi 3.16-4.6 introduces several prophecies that relate to Advent expectation.

First are the oracles of judgement and salvation woven together in 3.16 through to 4.3.  Vss 16-18 introduce the concept of the book of remembrance (vs 16) which records the names of the faithful so that they may be preserved and protected from the fate of the wicked. Vss 17-18 detail how this protection will work.

Chapter 4.1 introduces the terrible day of the Lord, burning like an oven, but vss 2 and 3 reassure the faithful that they will be delivered from judgement (because they are recorded in the book of remembrance).

Vs 4 repeats the Deuteronomic principle of adherence to the law but vs 5 and 6 mention the return of Elijah as the forerunner to the day of the Lord (vs 5) and how the role of the forerunner will be to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. This text is quoted by the angel in his announcement to the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1.17) but see how the second half of the verse (Malachi 4.6b) has been changed by Gabriel when speaking to John!

Mark 9.9-13: The coming of Elijah figures throughout the gospels both in relation to John the Baptist but also at the Crucifixion when bystanders heard Jesus’ last cry (Mark 15.34-35). The expectation Elijah’s return must have been very strong in the minds of pious Jews at that time. 

Here Jesus says that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him (vs 13). While it is not specifically stated that Jesus means John the Baptist, the context of this passage leaves little room for other conclusion. Jesus and his disciples are coming down the mountain (vs 9) from the Transfiguration (vss  2-8) during which there appeared to them [the disciples] Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus (vs 4). Furthermore, the death of John the Baptist has just been related at some length in Mk 6. 14-29.

Thursday, December 17, 2020Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:1-11; Hebrews 1:1-4

Psalm 89.1-4, 19-26 is part of a complex and ancient Psalm. The framers of the Lectionary have simplified our reading by focussing the text on only one of three significant sections in the 52 verses of this long Psalm. Reading the Psalm in full reveals three main sections: vss 1-18, a complex and lively hymn on God’s creative power and restraining of chaos; vss 19-37, a detailed reference to a prophetic oracle on the election of David and his house to the kingship and; vss 38-51, a lament over the decline of the kingship. Vs 52 is a closing ascription of praise to integrate all elements in praise.

Our passage takes only the first 4 verses of the first section and the first eight verses of the second. This makes a neat Psalm completely focussed on the promise to David, a psalm very appropriate to Advent when we celebrate the coming of Jesus in the line of David.

Vss 1-2 strike a note of praise to God and God’s love and steadfast faithfulness. Vss 3 & 4 prefigure the focus on the promise to David as an expression of God’s steadfast love.

Cutting out vss 5-18 enables the Lectionary to immediately reinforce vss 3-4 with the development of the theme of the Davidic kingship. Vss 19-20 reinforce not the original anointing of David as king by Samuel (described in 1 Samuel 16) but is far more suggestive of the prophetic vision of Nathan about God’s covenant with David described in 2 Samuel 7. The Psalm seems to embody a multi-layered or developing tradition as to what the promise to the Davidic kingship actually was.

Vs 21 describes how God’s hand shall always remain with him; my arm shall also strengthen him.

Vss 22-24 describe the victory and cunning that the King shall have through God’s support and faithfulness. Vs 25 is almost a reprise of the missing hymn (vss 5-18) to God’s control of the forces of chaos symbolised in the seas and rivers enacted through the King. Vs 26 reflects the ancient idea of the King as the adopted son of God. 

2 Samuel 6.1-11: This passage has inspired (amongst other things) one of the Indiana Jones movies Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike nearly everyone in the movie (who couldn’t wait to get hold of the Ark), David becomes very reluctant to take delivery because of the danger (vs 9). Despite the danger, the Ark of the Covenant has held a special place in the human imagination.

The Ark enclosed the tablets of the law and on the lid were two sculptures of the cherubim on which the Lord was enthroned (vs 2). Just what ‘the cherubim’ were in a culture where religious image-making was strictly prohibited does invite question.

The critical incident in this passage is the death of Uzzah (vs 7) although the meaning of the Hebrew at this point is uncertain (see the textual note in biblegateway.com).

The fate of the Ark is one of the great puzzles of history. In the movie it is lost among a vast trove of treasures from world cultures in a government warehouse somewhere in Washington USA. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to have it in Axum, Ethiopia. Various other possible locations are described in the Wikipedia entry for Ark of the Covenant. 

If you do happen to come across the Ark in your travels, the common wisdom is that, like Pandora’s Box, you shouldn’t touch it, and never try to open it!

Hebrews 1.1-4 is the opening of the book of Hebrews describing the ascension and exaltation of Jesus. In a brief few verses we have the sweep of salvation history from the prophets (vs 1), and the status of Jesus as a Son or the Son (attested in various places in the NT), the heir of all things (cf 1 Corinthians 15.20-28) and the one through whom he also created the worlds (note the plural, cf John 1.3). In this language vs 2 paints a cosmic picture of Jesus, a picture then extended in vs 3 where Jesus is not only the reflection of God’s glory but also the exact imprint of God’s very being who sustains all things by his powerful word.  This is a high and closely woven Christology.  Vs 3 includes the saving work of Jesus in his having made purification for sins. The closing verse caps this off with the contrast between Jesus and the angels, a lead in to tomorrow’s reading.

Friday, December 18, 2020Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:12-19; Hebrews 1:5-14

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

In 2 Samuel 6.12-19 David overcomes his fear and brings the Ark into the city. When he saw the blessing the Ark brought to Obed-edom he brought it into Jerusalem with both rejoicing and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling every six paces (vs 13).

His wife Michal was upset, and the consequences of this are explored in vss 20-23 where David defended himself against her contempt. The text then says she was childless to her dying day.

Vss 17-19 give a sense of the nature of a religious festival in which the cattle offerings were shared and the people were given food (vs 19). If you read the detail of the sacrificial arrangements in the OT you will see that the parts of the sacrificed animals that the Lord ‘savoured’ was the fat over the kidneys rather than the prime steaks. I suspect this arrangement suited the Lord’s people very well.

Hebrews 1.5-14 carries on from yesterday’s reading and would suggests that the people to whom Hebrews was written were into angels in a big way. We do not think much about angels – except perhaps in the lead up to Christmas.

Mention of angels is not uniform across the New Testament. Mark mentions them 5 times and John  3 times. Paul in all his writings mentions angels on average less than one and a half times in each of his letters. But Matthew has 19 angel references, Luke 46 (in his gospel and in Acts), Revelation 28 and Hebrews 14!

So angels were important to the people to whom Hebrews was written and in this passage the writer makes very clear that, if angels are good, Jesus is far better. The structure of the passage is an extended collection of OT quotations employed to support the pre-eminence of Jesus.

Do you have a belief in angels and what is the substance of that belief? Have angels ever been a part of your personal experience? If so, are you able to talk about this with others or does it remain private? 

Saturday, December 19, 2020Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Judges 13:2-24; John 7:40-52

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Judges 13.2-24 is the back story to the life of Samson, probably included in this week for the insight it gives us into the experience of angels in the life of God’s people and for the insight into the lifestyle of the Nazirite (see vss 4-7). The Nazirites lived an abstemious and pure life and let their hair grow. John the Baptist may have been a form of Nazirite. There was nothing magical about Samson’s hair – it was simply a sign of his devotion to God, his dedication. When Delilah cut it off, he had breached his vow and his strength left him, only to return when his hair regrew. As well as being a Nazirite, Samson was a judge, a deliverer of his people (vs 5b) raised up by God as a great military leader.

But what is fascinating this week with all the celebration of angels in the lead up to Christmas, is how the angel was experienced by Manoah and his wife (described only as his wife, or the woman throughout. I will just list what we learn:

  • He is identified throughout as a man or a man of God although he looked like an angel of God (vss 6, 10)
  • Manoah didn’t recognise him as an angel (vss 11, 16b)
  • The angel’s name  was too wonderful to be disclosed (vs 18)
  • He was recognised in the act of sacrifice when the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar (vs 20)
  • Manoah was very afraid (vs 22) but his wife calmed him down (vs 23).

What can we learn through this? Angels are hard to spot. They look like ordinary human beings. It is not how they look but what they say that matters. Encountering them can be frightening, but if we are frightened listen to our sensible partners and realise that angels happen in our lives, they are a gift, and there is a lot more to be frightened of than angels.

John 7.40-52:  this is another controversy where Jesus’ enemies mingle with the crowds but there is such a confused and mixed opinion that they cannot arrest him. A sub-theme in John is the way the Temple police who are actually interacting with Jesus, are drawn to him (vss 45-46) but the chief priests and Pharisees reject their testimony. Another element of John is the hidden disciples or fellow travellers who are working away within the system and trying to protect Jesus. Here it is Nicodemus (described as going to Jesus in John chapter 3) who defends him (vss 50-51). Another example is the nameless disciple known to the high priest (John 18.15) who was able to get Simon Peter into the courtyard of the high priest, where he then denied Jesus three times.

Daily Readings for the Second week of Advent

Monday, December 7, 2020Psalm 27; Isaiah 26:7-15; Acts 2:37-42

Psalm 27 is a remarkable Psalm that seems to breathe two very different ‘spirits’ or moods. Vss 1-6 are filled with trust and confidence, calm and assurance. Vss 7-13 are petitions and pleading in the midst of danger, distress and rejection. Vs 14 with its call to trust and hope, strikes a new note of patience and trust.

Many commentators have seen the contrast between the first and second parts of the Psalm to be so great as to require a conclusion that here we have two different Psalms – that they cannot belong together. A more reflective position is that here we have the prayer of someone who is falsely accused (vs 12) and who has been rejected and isolated (vs 10), who nonetheless rests in the calm assurance of their faith, described in vs 1-6.

The metaphors of the kinds trouble that faith can meet are invoked in the early section in terms of military conflict (vs 3), and individual wickedness (vs 2). When such troubles come (in this case in some form of false accusation – vs 12), the faith of the singer leads them to call on God (vss 7-12).

Vs 13 is the conclusion of these petitions, expressing confidence that the singer will be vindicated not in the next life, in some kind of heavenly acquittal, but now, in their current existence: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (vs 13b).

Vs 14 is a profound re-affirmation of what has been declared in vss 1-6, a final integrating statement that binds together the content of the singer’s faith to this point (vss 1-6), and the pleading arising from their current travails (vss 7-13) in an encouraging exhortation to wait, trust and be strong in the Lord.

In this time of Advent note the theme of ‘waiting’ that is affirmed in vs 14.

This psalm can strengthen and encourage those who are in the trouble of a personal tension where someone has accused them, or misunderstands their motivations, right through to the peculiarly modern distress of a social media ‘pile-on’ in which it seems the whole world is attacking and hating you. In the latter situation the pressure can be intense, even leading to suicide or enduring trauma. Psalm 27 is one of the ‘shields’ that the Scripture gives to us to strengthen and encourage us. It is well worth returning to regularly! 

Isaiah 26.7-15 has probably been selected for this week because of its theme of waiting (vs 8a). It affirms that the Lord makes the way of the righteous level and smooth (vs 7, and through to vs 9) while the wicked find their way confounded because of the own limitations (vs 10).

Vss 11-13 returns to the theme of the Lord’s establishment of your people and vs 14 celebrates the triumph of the Lord over other gods.

Vs 15 announces that the Lord has enlarged the nation by extend[ing] all the borders of the land. If you have been following the international negotiations over peace in Palestine/Israel you will know that this is contentious. Israel is still forming ‘settlements’ within the Occupied territories which is a form of land theft in contravention of international law. If Israel were to simply annex all the Palestinian territories it would be far simpler and perhaps more legal, but then Israel would have to grant citizenship to millions of Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) which would make impossible the Jewish state. The taking of land, squeezing the Palestinians into ever smaller areas, without granting either the right of citizenship of an extended Israel or the right to form an independent state in the remaining territory, is a continuing and extensive oppression. Is this really the work of the Lord to be celebrated, or something to be condemned and opposed?

Acts 2.37-42 describes the first flowering of the Christian church after the resurrection of Jesus, with 3,000 new converts on that day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020Psalm 27; Isaiah 4:2-6; Acts 11:1-18

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Isaiah 4.2-6 is a brief oracle looking to the future (On that day – vs 2).   Vs 2 uses fruit and branch as metaphors of blessing but the overall context is one of the depletion of Jerusalem (whoever is left in Zion – vs 3).  What are the bloodstains of Jerusalem and the filth of the daughters of Zion (vs 4)?  Are these references to violence and corruption within the prior Israelite society? Or are they references to the devastation of the fall of the city in 587 BCE? It would appear that the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning (vs 4b) refer to the fall of the city, but interprets them as cleansing and ultimately restorative. Vs 5 sees the smoke of the burning city being replaced by a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night as symbols of God’s glory (vs 5), a reminder of the Exodus experience in the wilderness. Over the glory is a canopy which is both shade, shelter and refuge (vs 6).

Acts 11.1-13 describes the next stage in the expansion of the early church – the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles. The full story actually starts in Acts 10, but here Peter gives a summary of that previous chapter in vss 5-17. Vs 18 is the climax in which the circumcised believers who criticized him (vs 2) are silenced and then praise God, accepting the Gentile believers.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020Psalm 27; Malachi 2:10-3:1; Luke 1:5-17

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Malachi 2.20-3.1 is a reading for Advent because of vs 3.1 – the well-known I am sending my messenger to prepare the way… But what is helpful here is the context of the original prophecy given in 2.10-17. The key accusation is stated in vs 11: … for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. Some kind of syncretism (bringing worship of Yahweh and other gods together) seems to have occurred and even spread through the tents of Jacob (vs 12).

The failure of the worship of Yahweh is described in vss 13-14 and the true faith is presented as the wife of your youth  (vs 15) who has been abandoned, divorced. Both divorce and violence are condemned in vs 16. Note the double mention of one God in vs 15: is this a reference to a polytheism that may be the essence of the abomination occurring in Jerusalem? Or is it simply expressing that Yahweh is the only God, and having any other gods beside him is to forsake the one true God?

Luke 1.5-17 is the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist and is fairly straightforward. What is missing is the aftermath of this angelic pronouncement found in vss 18-25. I encourage you to read on! 

Of all the characters in the drama of Christmas, Zechariah alone is a ‘religious professional’ – he was a priest and all this ‘God stuff’ was his business. And Zecharaiah is the only person in the drama (apart from King Herod) who does not ‘get with the program’ and play his part in the narrative. What we read today is all very good, right and proper. It was a high and holy day with all the people assembled outside (vs 10), Zechariah chosen by lot to play the most important part in the day’s worship (vs 9), and then to add to the drama an angel appears in the temple with a message. Not your average Sunday, that’s for sure!

And Zechariah is terrified (vs 12). When the happy news and all that will flow from it is communicated by the angel to the priest, Zechariah doubts and there, in the heart of the Temple, asks the great question that tempts every religious professional from time to time (all the time?): how do I know that any of this is true? (vs 18). You can read the rest of the story and see how it plays out.

Thursday, December 10, 2020Psalm 126; Habakkuk 2:1-5; Philippians 3:7-11

Psalm 126 presents various difficulties of interpretation that are not immediately obvious in English translation. It falls into three sections. Vss 1-3 look back to dramatic events of deliverance at the hand of the Lord. Vs 4 is a lament and call for the Lord to act again in the present. Vss 5-6 are set in the future tense and assure the hearers that God will indeed act to save.

The heart of the interpretive problem is that the tense of vss 1-3 could also be read as a future tense. Some scholars refer to this kind of grammatical construction as the ‘prophetic perfect’. Similar issues (and a very similar structure) are found in Psalm 85. The issue with these ambiguities of tense is just how we situate the psalm in the history of Israel so as to make sense of what it refers to.

You can see in the footnotes on biblegateway.com how the translation of the text is dependent on which context the translators think it is referring to.

If vss 1-3 are read in the (future) perfect tense, then this could be a prayer dating from the Exile where vss 1-3 predict what God will surely do, vss 5-6 confirm this and vs 4 is the substance of the people’s lament and petition from their experience of Exile.

If vss 1-3 are read as a past tense, referring back to the Exile, then the Psalm has a post-Exilic setting – but what was left for the Lord to do? Why did the joyous Exiles who had experienced great things need further deliverance?

One solution of this issue is to read the setting as indeed post-Exilic, but during that early time – the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the project of re-founding and rebuilding Jerusalem and Israel as a nation were indeed fragile. The mighty event of return from Exile has occurred, but more was needed. ‘We are finding that we are like a stream in the desert, running dry and failing’ (vs 4). Then comes the re-assurance of the promise of vss 5-6.

The ‘sowing with tears/reaping with joy’ metaphor could reflect some ancient Near-Eastern cultures in which ritual weeping was associated with the sowing season because the seed was seen as the body of the deity, interred in the earth in a form of burial. Without rain it would indeed be a burial and no crop would come forth (thus, for example, the cult of Osiris). It could also be a metaphor for the hard work of ploughing and sowing. Finally, if the setting of the psalm was the time of re-establishing the ruined Jerusalem with the danger and privations attested in Nehemiah and Ezra, ‘sowing with tears’ would be an apt way of describing those difficult years, from which future generations would reap a joyful harvest.

Habakkuk 2.1-5: Habakkuk is a little-read book of the Old Testament. The reading for today is very apt, given that we are in a time of waiting, of expectation. Habakkuk was prophesying in the late 7th century BCE, before the fall of Jerusalem.

This reading has some beautiful poetry. The opening metaphor is that of the prophet as watchman  (vs 1), but a watchman who doesn’t just passively wait scanning an empty horizon, but has put (presumably to the Lord) my complaint.  As a preacher who feels a responsibility for the word, I find the next 2 verses so profound and encouraging! The answer comes: write the vision… so that a runner may read it (vs 2), a reference to the practice of messengers (runners) carrying news in the ancient world. Vs 3 gets to the nub of the problem: the prophet cannot see the vision, doesn’t know what it is. God says, 

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;

it speaks of the end, and does not lie.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it; 

it will surely come, it will not delay.  (vs 3)

For the church in the early 21st century wondering what the future holds, these are glad words indeed! How often on a Sunday morning when I am due to preach have I pondered this text, and trusted it!

Again, note the theme of waiting – central to this season.

Vss 4-5 are an oracle against the wealthy and proud (how often those go together). Vs 4b (the righteous will live by their faith) is quoted in the New Testament, a pivotal text in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. It is seen by many early Christian writers as a starting point in the OT for an NT understanding of faith.

Philippians 3.7-11 is a well-known reflection by Paul pondering his own faith. It is probably vs 11 that has led to it being included in this week of Advent: Paul looks forward to the completion of his faith in a future resurrection. Faith, for Paul, has meant a re-evaluation of what he had previously gained, now to be considered as loss (vs 7). 

The surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord  leads him to regard everything else as loss (vs 8).  The word translated rubbish in Greek (skubalon) is quite strong. My Gk dictionary gives the meaning: dung, garbage. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message catches the sense of the Greek when he translates this as everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant – dog dung

Vss 9, 10 and 11 are a powerful statement of what it means to gain Christ (vs  8c).

Friday, December 11, 2020Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:2-6; Philippians 3:12-16

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Habakkuk 3.2-6: If Habbakuk chapters 1-2 are a dialogue between God and the prophet, chapter 3 is a more liturgical piece. It is described as a prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth (Hab 3.1). It only appears here (in the plural) and in Psalm 7 (in the singular). We do not know what the word means. My internet searching found the following interesting (but unattributed) reflection:

Comparing Habakkuk 3 with Psalm 7, we find similar themes. Both songs paint a picture of dire trouble. Habakkuk 3 speaks of earthquakes, crumbling mountains, pestilence, floods, arrows, spears, and calamity; Psalm 7describes vicious lions, trampled lives, rage, swords, flaming arrows, and violence. Both songs end with praise to the Lord for His deliverance from the surrounding trouble. And both songs mention the shiggaion or shigionoth.

David classifies his song as a shiggaion. Habakkuk says that his song should be sung in the manner of the shigionoth. As best we can tell, the tumultuous poetry of Habakkuk 3 and Psalm 7 was to be accompanied by music that fit the theme. “On shigionoth” probably meant “with impassioned triumph,” “with rapidity,” or “with abrupt changes of tune.”

Philippians 3.12-16 follows on from yesterday’s reading. Here the future orientation of faith is very clear. Vs 15 says that this future orientation is a characteristic of the faith of those of us then who are mature but vs 16 reminds us also to hold fast to what we have attained.

This balance between looking forward and not being satisfied with how we are now, AND not lightly abandoning what we have learned and believed in the past, is the mark of a truly mature faith. We are not called to be smug and satisfied with what we have always known to be true, locked into little bubbles of certainty and prejudice. Neither are we called to be spiritual gadflies who flit from one bloom to another, carrying neither conviction nor memory of how we came to faith and what we have believed. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:13-19; Matthew 21:28-32

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Habakkuk 3.13-19 is another piece from the third chapter of Habakkuk and forms the end of the book. This can be seen in vs 19c because of the final note to the musicians (lit. to the leader:  ) that the accompaniment is to be with stringed instruments.  The first section alternates descriptions of the work of God (vss 13, 15) with descriptions of judgment and distress (vss 14, 16). This pattern is reversed in vss 17-18 where the opening verse describes an even if.. scenario of possible barrenness caused by either drought or the destruction brought by conquest. Even if this is so – 

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
     I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Vs 19 ends with an affirmation of the strength and trust of the prophet with a final technical note to the performers of this rich and dramatic poem (chapter 3).

Matthew 21.28-32 ends the week on a sombre note. The context for this dialogue is the Temple on the day after Jesus has disrupted and ‘cleansed’ it. The people addressed (the They of vs 31) are the chief priests and the elders of the people (Mt 21.23) who have just challenged the authority of Jesus (Mt 21.23-27).

Having successfully deflected their attack on his authority, Jesus goes after them in this passage. He lays to their charge a double failure : that they did not repent and believe John the Baptist, and secondly, that they did not repent when they saw the tax collectors and sinners repenting (vs 32).

The parable that opens the passage is an interesting one: it is not what we confess or what we say that matters to God, but what we actually do, regardless of our protestations (vss 28-30). That They ‘get it’ is clear from vs 31. Do we who claim to follow Jesus really understand and live in accordance with this parable? 

Daily Readings for the first week of Advent

It is Advent! This is a season of expectation, of looking forward to the coming of the Lord. Throughout the history of the people of God we have looked forward to what God will do in either judgment or deliverance, punishment or rescue. The readings for this month come from across the whole Bible and speak of God’s coming action, as understood in the historical context of that reading. Sometimes the readings are a warning, sometimes a promise. 

Our readings this month will have minimal notes. The notes will give the background to the passage, its historical context and the challenges then facing the people of God. It is up to the reader to think about the challenges of our own day and what the readings can teach us about our own expectation of what God might do in our future, in our context.

Monday, November 30, 2020Psalm 79; Micah 4:1-5; Revelation 15:1-8

Psalm 79 is steeped in the experience of war and desolation, most probably the fall of Jerusalem to the invading Babylonians dated 587 BCE. Vss 1-4 outline the calamity, noting the ruination of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple, the massacre of the citizens and that they were unburied (vss 2-3), and the taunting and mocking they endured from their neighbours (vs 4), a taunt that is ultimately directed at God (see vss 10a, 12b).

Vss 5-12 are a series of petitions for deliverance and  vengeance. Vs 13 strikes a note of confidence that God will hear and act and affirms the enduring relationship of the shepherd and the sheep and the thankfulness of the people.

Among the petitions is the recognition that we are all the inheritors of ancestral sins (vs 8) and that there is a collective responsibility for the past that we seek to move beyond so that compassion [might] come speedily to us, for we are brought very low. How much does expectation and hope for the future rest in a realistic acknowledgment of our (collective) past sins and our present predicament?

Micah 4.1-5: Micah was a contemporary of the prophets IsaiahAmos and Hosea.  He prophesied from approximately approximately 737 to 696 BCE during the reigns of kings JothamAhaz, and Hezekiah of Judah. This was a time when Assyria was the dominant regional power and threatened the northern kingdom of Israel. Around 701 BCE Assyria besieged and conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom.

Micah’s prophesy was directed chiefly toward Jerusalem. He prophesied the future destruction of Jerusalem and Samaria, although these events were separated by over 100 years. In foreseeing the destruction and then the future restoration of the Judean state, he rebuked the people of Judah for dishonesty and idolatry.

This passage looks to days to come (vs 4a) when the people of Israel will be restored and become a focal point for the ingathering of many nations (vs 4b). Note the action of God in arbitrating between strong nations far away (vs 2a), reference to the power struggles between Egypt and Assyria (and later Babylon), with the promise of peace (vss 3b-4).

What will God do in the future struggles for power of our age amid the dynamics of the old colonial powers of Europe exploring their new Union, the current (or waning?) power of the USA and the rising powers of Asia, especially China? What can we learn from Micah about our future?

Revelation 15.1-8:  Revelation is presented as a ‘prophecy’ of what the future of the Roman empire will be, with Rome represented under the figure of ‘Babylon’. After a series of apocalyptic disasters, plagues and punishments, chapter 15 presents a vision of empowerment and witness by those who had conquered the beast and its image (vs 2b). Vss 3 – 4 reveal their power and their song and vss 5 -8 tell that the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened…

How will the church of God bear witness in the current travails and challenges of world history? What does the angel of the Lord call us to proclaim and prophesy in this age?

Tuesday, December 1, 2020Psalm 79; Micah 4:6-13; Revelation 18:1-10

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Micah 4.6-13:  Today’s reading carries on from yesterday’s. In that day (vs 6) reveals the start of another oracle. This is another oracle of salvation, of rescue. The lame that are here welcomed in (vs 7) were by Deuteronomic law to be shut out of the temple (a reference to the taunt of the original defenders of Jerusalem see 2 Samuel 5.6 ff). Jesus seems to fulfil this prophesy when the blind and the lame came to him in the temple and he healed them (Matthew 21.14) in contradiction of the Jewish exclusion of such people from their holy places (2 Samuel 5.8)

Vs 11 is a marked change. This verse is an oracle of judgement, of many nations arraigned against Israel. Vs 12 reveals a secret plan of the Lord, revealed in vs 13.

Who are the marginalised and excluded in our society that the Lord calls us (unexpectedly!) to include and welcome? What twists and turns and reversals of fortune are coming in the fortunes of the powerful and arrogant in the world?

Revelation 18 is the narrative of the fall and judgment of Babylon, one of my favourite passages of the whole Bible. I love the poetry and symbolism of it, the successive laments of all these who had become rich through their involvement with the city. The first voice announces the end of Babylon (vss 1-3). The second voice calls Come out of her , my people… (vss 4-8). Vss 9-10 give the first of the laments of those who watch her destruction.  Reading the whole chapter is worth it. Lament after lament over her judgment is offered before the people of God are finally called to rejoice over her judgement (Revelation 18.20).

When we see the rise and fall of nations in our own time are we called to lament, or to rejoice? How shall we find our voice for this vital work in the unfolding of the future?

Wednesday, December 2, 2020Psalm 79; Micah 5:1-5a; Luke 21:34-38

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Micah 5.1-5 continues the cycle of oracles. Vs 1 is an oracle of judgement, but vss 2-5 are oracles of salvation. Vs 2 has become a part of the Christmas narrative as we can see in Matthew 2.1-12 and the following oracles in vss 4-5a have been applied to Jesus. Vs 5b returns with some abruptness to the late 8th century BCE and the threat of Assyria to the small and weak state of Israel.

In this chapter the geopolitics of ancient Israel and the many threads of the first Advent of Christ mingle together. In our own age how do geopolitics and Christian expectation interact? Is it only in the time of Jesus that prophecies of empires and their rise and fall are linked with the expectations of the people of God, or are we called to similar watchfulness and readiness in our own age?

Luke 21.34-38: This passage emphasises Jesus’ message of readiness and watchfulness. The final verse is interesting: if our preaching were more engaged (like Jesus) with preparedness for the challenges of our time, would we find all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to [us]? (vs 38).

Thursday, December 3, 2020Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Hosea 6:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10 

Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13 is a reading that removes a key section – vss 3-7. This ‘harmonises’ the opening section (usually vss 1-3: an acknowledgement of past salvation) and the concluding section (vss 8-13: an oracle of future salvation) by omitting a lament about the current struggles and misfortune of the people (vss 4-7).

Let us attend to the final oracle of salvation: vs 8 is of an unusual form  which introduces a prophetic oracle in vss 9-13. It is almost as if a priest introduces another speaker who from vs 9 on assures the people of coming salvation, which is both imminent (vs 9) and marked by the salvific powers of love, faithfulness, righteousness (or justice) and peace coming together (vss 10-13).

But what of verse 8? How do we hear what God the Lord will speak in our own time? Who names or introduces the prophetic word? In an age of social media, constant chatter and the endless dump of information into our ears, eyes and minds, how do we still ourselves enough, and find the quiet, ordering rituals to be people who turn to him in their hearts (vs 8c)? 

Hosea was a prophet who found in his tumultuous private life (for his wife was unfaithful and appears to have borne children by other men – see Hosea 1.2-9, 2.2-5) an allegory of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Here in Chapter 6 he prophesies a return to the Lord in vss 1-3. In vss 4-6 there is an oracle of judgment spoken in the very voice of the Lord. Vs 6 was quoted by Jesus in Matthew 9.13.

In 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul offers his thanksgiving for the Thessalonian church (in vss 2-10). The reason for its inclusion in this week is in vs 10 – how all their faithfulness and service and exemplary life leads them to expectation, waiting and rescue… from the wrath that is coming (vs 10).

Friday, December 4, 2020Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Jeremiah 1:4-10; Acts 11:19-26

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Jeremiah 1. 4-10 is the call narrative of Jeremiah. Each of the prophets had a story about how they were commissioned, how God spoke to them and called them. It was part of their authentication, their validation for prophetic ministry in the eyes of the people. Sometimes, as with Moses, it came with protest and reluctance on the part of the prophet. Here Jeremiah protests his youth. This is overridden by God’s call which predates his birth in its origin (vs 5) and its final destiny in the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms (vs 10).

Does our sense of expectation in this day, our sense of the gospel, have roots so deep and consequences so high?

While Acts 11.19-26 starts with scattering, death and foreboding, it soon changes because the hand of the Lord was with them (vs 21). Barnabas comes into this environment and is impressed (vss 23-24). He then looks for Paul and brings him into this ferment of the community now energised by the martyrdom of Stephen.

We know well the conversion of Saul (Acts 9) and his later missionary work and Christian theologising, but the link between these two phases of Paul’s Christian experience is the way Barnabas sought him out (vs 25), encouraged him and mentored him in service for a whole year (vs 26).  Expectation is not always about waiting and watching, but sometimes discerning who are the ones who will initiate and shape the future and encouraging and mentoring them in their calling.

Who are we called to seek out, encourage and train for the tasks of the future?

Saturday, December 5, 2020Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Mark 11:27-33

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Ezekiel was a prophet who worked in the time of the Exile in Babylon. In Ezekiel 36.24-28 he prophesies the restoration of the scattered people of Israel. In vs 26 he prophesies a change of heart in terms similar to Jeremiah 31.33. Vs 28 repeats the terms of the covenant known from the Deuteronomic writings.

In a time of repression and exile, of military defeat and cultural retreat, the prophet looks to a time of restoration and return, but not just a return to the status quo. He foresees a new spiritual vitality and energy, reinterpreting the ancient covenant. 

As we live through an age of cultural marginalisation and institutional decay, what is the prophetic word to God’s people in the 21st century?

Mark 11.27-33 ends the week with a fascinating argument between Jesus and the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vs 27). The setting is the week before Jesus’ death. The issue is his authority. They ask Jesus a question about his authority. In posing a counter question, which they refuse to answer, Jesus exposes their failure to understand the work of John the Baptist, the forerunner to Jesus. Because they were caught between the expectation of the people (vs 32) and their own lack of faith (vs 31) they were powerless to force an answer from Jesus – and even if they had received an answer they would not have understood or responded to it.

Expectation, preparedness, is a force that constrains the powerful and shapes the courses of action open to others in our own day. How does our expectation act to constrain and shape the actions of others who will create the future?

Daily Readings for the 26th Week after Pentecost

We are approaching the season of Advent, which is focussed on the coming of the Lord. Next Sunday is Advent Sunday. Some of our texts this week engage with this theme exploring some of the Apocalyptic passages of scripture that look to the Day of the Lord or similar themes.

Monday, November 23, 2020: Psalm 7; Esther 2:1-18; 2 Timothy 2:8-13

Psalm 7 belongs to the group psalms of David. It is a prayer song from a setting where a petitioner seeks justice in the Court of the Lord – in the temple as a place for legal remedy.

The heading of the Psalm calls it a shiggaion of David. This unusual designation is possibly related to an Akkadian word meaning ‘lamentation’, giving the sense of ‘an agitated lamentation’ which is consistent with the content and style of the Psalm. The offense or charge that the singer is defending himself against has been brought by the Benjaminite Cush (heading).

The structure of the psalm is clear: in vss 1-2 the petitioner invokes and approaches Yahweh.

In vss 3-5 he solemnly affirms his innocence with a form sometimes referred to as an ‘oath of cleansing’.

Vss 6-9 appeal for Yahweh’s action and intervention.

Vss 10-11 are an assertion of the petitioner’s trust in God and certainty of the outcome – what some scholars have called ‘a doxology of judgement’.

Vss 12 refers to the attack the petitioner has suffered and vss 13-16 anticipate what the enemy will suffer in the judgement of God.

Vs 17 offers a closing ascription of praise and thankfulness. 

Many have questioned whether Psalm 7 has any function in the worship of the Christian church. The primary function of the delivery of justice has moved from the Courts of the Lord to the Courts of the law. But a theological objection to this psalm is sometimes raised: Is not the Christian’s entire need for justice given a completely new orientation by means of the judgement spoken at the cross of Jesus Christ? (Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 1993: 176) The answer comes that this psalm is not about the justification of the sinner, but the justification of the righteous. We must all fight for truth and justice, and this Psalm is of lasting importance and can be a prayer formula used by Christians.

We began to explore the book of Esther last week. Today’s reading, Esther 2.1-18, tells of how Esther became Queen. Vs 1 refers to the backstory of Chapter 1, which is important to read as the context for this passage. Vss 1-4, 8-10, and 12-18 tell the narrative of the harem and Esther’s progress to the privileged place within it, and how she captivated King Ahaseurus and became queen.

Vss 5-7 and 11 are a subplot about her uncle Mordecai, artfully interwoven with the harem narrative. As the story unfolds in later chapters the various plots come together. A vital element in the unfolding story is vs 10: Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell. This keeps the narratives of the successful Queen and the doomed Jews running along separate plot lines until Esther chooses to bring them together at her banquet in the passage that we read last week.

2 Timothy 2.8-13 is a lovely little nugget of Scripture. Vss 8-10 relate Paul’s understanding of the gospel which is intertwined with his own experience.  Vs 8 is a charming summary – that is my gospel (vs 8b). In a pithy shorthand it brings two key threads together: raised from the dead  embracing in a few words the whole Christian narrative of the earthly life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and a descendant of David invoking the entire history of Israel and the Messianic hopes and promise that attach to the Davidic lineage.

Having so artfully expressed the power of his gospel, Paul links it to his own suffering …being chained like a criminal (vs 9a) before pivoting deftly to contrasting this with But the word of God is not chained (vs 9b). These various threads are woven together in vs 10 which combines his own suffering with the status of the elect (appropriating a Jewish concept and applying it to the church) who will obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (vs 10b). It is so carefully worked together!

Then comes the gem of vss 11-13. The logic of this saying starts with two developmental comparisons in the form if we do “a”, then we shall have “b” (if we have died, then we shall live; if we endure, then we shall reign…).

This is followed by two comparisons of reciprocal actions: if we do “c” to him, he will also do “c” to us (if we deny him, he will also deny us). 

But the fourth term of this progression is beautifully and surprisingly contradicted: the expected “if we are faithless, he will be faithless toward us” is turned on its head. What we get is if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself (vs 13 – in itself also a delightful play on vs 12b).

This one of the most beautiful and poetic teachings about grace in the whole of the New Testament. God’s action is not governed by our doings, or the usual reciprocity that characterises human relationships: God’s faithfulness has nothing to do with our actions, or our prayers or our love of God or praise of God. It is grounded completely in the being of God, for God cannot deny Godself!  After three sayings that would be quite at home in a Hindu framework of karma or a Muslim framework of submission we have the surprising and intrinsically Christian fourth clause – a contradiction of all that has been said in vss 11 and 12: 

if we are faithless, he remains faithful –

for he cannot deny himself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020: Psalm 7; Esther 8:3-17; Revelation 19:1-9
For Psalm. see Monday.

In Esther 8.3-17 we have the rather grim sequel to Esther’s actions of deliverance of Mordecai and her people that we explored last week. In vss 3-6 Esther makes her appeal to King Ahaseurus. For those of us who have been following Esther’s story with a feminist lens we can see the technique at work when she fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him (vs 3) and the rather grovelling and submissive address of vss 5-6. These are the tools of women engaging with patriarchal power and are consistent with Esther’s previous strategies.

The tragic twist of the whole plot of Esther comes in in vs 8: the cocky king hands to Esther the power to write as you please with regard to the Jews but also hands over the authority to seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked. How lightly and off-handedly do those with political and patriarchal power sometimes allow others to wield it!

The tragic consequence of Ahaseurus’ ‘delegation’ is seen in vss 11-12: By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.

Now this may have led to celebrations and honour for the Jews (vss 15-17), but the lectionary rather coyly does not mention the terrifying outcome of that single day of slaughter of their enemies. In Esther chapter 9 we read how Esther had Ahaseurus extend the killing time in the capital to two days. The final death toll is given in chapter 9 vs 16: seventy-five thousand died across all the king’s provinces.

Now the Jews have endured more than their share of pogroms, slaughters and holocausts over the course of world history. Perhaps we should not begrudge them the Esther story. It is the centre of the Jewish festival of Purim.  I am reluctant to celebrate any slaughter, but that is not the way the world works.

In the Imperial War Museum in London is a typed and framed memo dictated by Winston Churchill in the days after the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II which killed around 25,000 people in a single night. Churchill refers to the raid and uses the word ‘atrocity’ somewhere in the body of that paragraph. A government censor has crossed out the word and written in the margin, “Prime Minister, our side does not commit atrocities.”  That censor would have felt right at home with Esther!

Revelation 19.1-9:  After all of the plagues and wrath and destruction that have unfolded through the book of Revelation up to this point, finally come a mighty thundering answer!  The great chorus of the multitude of heaven answers, telling of God’s justice and action in vss 1-3 and again in vss 6-8. In a change to the idea of a Greek chorus answering the main speakers, we then find confirming responses to the chorus being delivered by the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures (vs 4) and a voice … from the throne (vs 5).

In answer to the second great chorus (vss 6-8) comes a word from an angel to John to write down the blessing and the attestation of the truth of these words (vs 9).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020: Psalm 7; Ezekiel 33:7-20; John 5:19-40
For Psalm. see Monday.

Ezekiel 33.7-20: Ezekiel was a prophet contemporaneous with Jeremiah in the 6th C BCE but with a very different style of writing. Here he grapples with two issues in ethics.

Vss 7-9 deal with the ethical responsibilities of the prophetic office. If the prophet doesn’t denounce the sins of the wicked and they die, the prophet will be responsible and will be judged by God. But if the prophet does denounce them and they continue in their wickedness and die, at least the prophet will not be held accountable: you will have saved your life (vs 9).

Vss 10-16 deal with the fact that ‘the wicked’ and ‘the righteous’ are not separate categories who stand condemned and saved respectively. When the wicked do what is right, they will be saved (vss 11, 14-16) and when the righteous do what is evil, they will die (vss 12-13).

Vss 17-20 engage with a question as to whether God is just when God works in this way. In some ways it picks up theme of vs 10 and turns it back and forth before forcefully stating God’s conclusion O house of Israel, I will judge all of you according to your ways! (vs 20b).

John 5.19-40:  Unlike the synoptic gospels which have a basically narrative (story-telling) structure with an occasional long sermon (the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.20-49), John has extended passages of Jesus teaching in an involved and seemingly repetitious way. 

Some themes recur in John, such as the relationship between the Father and the Son, as here in vss 19-24 and then woven in a slightly different key through the later verses (see for instance vss 26-27, 30, 36-38).

Vss 25-29 deal with the time when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God (vs 25). John also uses titles for Jesus in a way the other gospels do not. Note here the playful juxtaposition of ‘Son of God’ (vs 25), ‘Son’ (vs 26) and ‘Son of Man’ (vs 27).

Vss 31 – 36a engage with the witness of John the Baptist as a testimony to Christ until that focus on testimony is redirected to the Father in vss 36b to 38, and then to the Scriptures, they that testify on my behalf (vs 39b).

Thursday, November 26, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Zechariah 13:1-9; Revelation 14:6-13

Psalm 80 belongs to the category of community prayer songs. That it had the form of a liturgy for responsorial public use can be seen in the presence of a refrain repeated in vss 3, 7 and 19: Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. Vs 14 can also be seen as a variation of this refrain.

The lectionary has omitted vss 8-16, a section recounting the intervention of Yahweh in rescuing Israel from Egypt (vss 8-10) but then querying why God has then abandoned her (vss 11-16).

Vss 1-2 call upon the Shepherd of Israel to hear. It identifies the Lord as you who lead Joseph [not Jacob] like a flock (vs 1b) before confirming that the disaster and calamity is threatening the Northern tribes of Israel Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh (vs 2a). This Psalm must date from sometime after the northern tribes split from Judah following the death of Solomon.

Following the refrain (vs 3) vss 4-6 ask the how long will you be angry…? Question. This question, followed by the metaphors of the bread of tears and tears to drink in full measure combined with the scorn of our neighbours and our enemies laugh among themselves, suggest that this is not a pending threat but an accomplished state of affairs of some duration. The refrain then follows again (vs 7).

Jumping over the missing middle session the Psalmist then turns to a final petition (vs 17) and a statement of commitment and faithfulness strikingly similar to the form of the promise of the people at the convocation at Shechem related in Joshua 24.16-18.

The closing verse repeats the responsive refrain which runs through the Psalm.

Zechariah 13.1-9: The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai and prophesied in the early years of the restoration of Jerusalem after the Exile. That is, the author of Zechariah chapters 1-8 prophesied then.  The later chapters probably came from the 5th C BCE and represent a later expression of the Zechariah tradition. This later Zechariah is some of the earliest literature in the apocalyptic tradition which is probably why it is selected to be read today, alongside Revelation 14. Note the similarities between Zech 13.7-9 and the Revelation reading.

Zechariah 13. 1 announces the theme of a cleansing fountain …for the house of David. This cleansing results in two movements of purification: I will cut off the names of the idols from the land (vs 2a) and I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit (vs 2b). The denunciation of the prophets continues through vss 3-6. This probably reflects a move away from prophecy, a relatively uncontrolled and individualised form of religious authority and proclamation towards a disciplined and organised priesthood. Note the unusual signs associated with prophecy of a hairy mantle in order to deceive (vs 4b) and the ritual scarring of the chest (vs 6).

Vss 7-9 speak of the devastation of the flock after the striking of the shepherd (a text quoted in association with the arrest and trial of Jesus). The 2/3 destroyed – 1/3 refined through fire division of humankind is somewhat similar to the “one third was destroyed” theme of Revelation 8.6ff we read recently.

Revelation 14.6-13: Again, we are jumping around in Revelation. This passage follows the vision of the Lamb and the 144,000 we read last week. Here we are presented with three angels who do not announce woe and plague and generalised mayhem. If the previous wrath and judgement had been poured fairly indiscriminately upon the world, these angels bring carefully focussed good news for the people of God.

The first brings an eternal gospel to proclaim (vs 6) (with gospel in the original sense of a proclamation announced on behalf of a king). The second announces the fall of Babylon (vs 8) which will be described in chapter 18. The third announces the punishment of all those who have ‘sold out’ and worship the Beast and its image (vss 9-11).

Vs 12 clarifies that all this constitutes a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus Christ. The pastoral intention of Revelation is very much to encourage and strengthen those under persecution, people suffering, and even dying for their faith. This latter category are encouraged by what is announced in vs 13: And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord” together with a confirming word from the Spirit (vs 13b).

Friday, November 27, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Zechariah 14:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-18

For Psalm. see Thursday.

Now the Zechariah reading for the day is probably linked to 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. Just as Thessalonians looks to the coming of the Lord in final vindication and victory, so Zechariah 14.3ff speaks of the final day of the Lord. This is hardly a day of victory for Jerusalem (see vss 1-2) but the Lord will go forth and fight (vs 3) and win (vss 4-5).

The result is that there shall be continuous day (vs 7), living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, flowing to both eastern and western seas (vs 8) and the Lord will become king over all the earth (vs 9). Compare these prophecies with the vison of John the Seer in Revelation 22.1-6.

I Thessalonians 4.1-18 includes the famous and formative passage of Scripture that has yielded the doctrine known as the Rapture (see vss 13-18).

The first part of the chapter is ethical teaching focussing on abstaining from fornication (vs 3), controlling the body (vs 4) and overcoming lustful passion (vs 5) and not exploiting a sister or brother (vs 6). Vss 9-10 deal with loving the brethren. 

Vss 11-12 are a polished little pearl of teaching: aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

The Coming of the Lord, the identified subject of vss 13-18, has been made a touchstone of orthodoxy in some Christian traditions. On a recent Sunday (15th November) I preached on 1 Thessalonians 5 where a similar theme emerges in 1 Thessalonians 5.10.

To put all this into perspective we have to realise that 1 Thessalonians is one of, if not the earliest book of the New Testament. It is very clear from the earliest strands of the Christian tradition that they believed that the return of Christ would be very, very soon. In Mark 13.30, for instance, Jesus tells the disciples “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” In Mark 9.1 Jesus says, “Truly I tell you there are some standing here who will not taste death until they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”

Against that background and that expectation, the death of some believers before Christ returned provoked anxiety and consternation. When Jesus returns we who walk on the earth will meet with him, but what of those who sleep under the earth? Paul ‘levels the playing field’ (so to speak) by speaking of the dead of Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds, together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever (vss 16b-17).

Note several things here. The first is the little comment “ …we who are alive, who are left, …” suggesting that significant numbers of believers had already died. 

Note secondly the contrast in Paul’s teaching is between those who are alive and those who have died, and his teaching is to bring them together in the same saving and reuniting experience of meeting with Jesus ‘in the air’. In much preaching, ‘the Rapture’ (as ‘this meeting in the air’ is known) is presented not as the reunion of believers past and present in joy and gladness, but the dramatic and painful separation of those who are redeemed, caught up in the air, from those who are damned, left behind as the title of a best-selling Rapture-based novel expresses it. This twists and corrupts Paul’s teaching: the ones who are left in Paul’s teaching are actually the living saints who are to be reunited with their dead sisters and brothers and their Lord.

Thirdly, where Paul offers this teaching with a final recommendation Therefore encourage one another with these words, the preachers of the Rapture are more in line with the principle Therefore torment one another with these words as they play on people’s fears of being ‘left behind’ and heighten their anxiety.

This early Christian eschatology gave way to different expression of Christian hope as the decades passed. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15.21-25, we see not an instantaneous and miraculous reunion of the dead and the living ‘in the air’ but an ordered process of resurrection and re-ordering of the world.  This reflects a more cosmic view of the future than the simple, immediate, and Christian-community focussed doctrine of 1 Thessalonians 4.

Saturday, November 28, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Micah 2:1-13; Matthew 24:15-31

For Psalm. see Thursday.

The prophet Micah, prophesied in Judah in the late 8th C BCE, mainly preaching to Jerusalem against injustice and wickedness.  This passage (Micah 2.1-13) comprises three main sections.

Vss 1-5 are directed against those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds (vs 1). The accusation against them comes in vs 2 and the Lord’s judgement in vss 3-5.

Vss 6-11 are a reflection on the theme of preaching and those who oppose Micah’s preaching. The basic petition of the crowd (do not preach … disgrace will not overtake us) is given in vs 6. Micah questions this attitude in vs 7 both with reference to the Lord and the intrinsic value of his preaching (Do not my words do good to one who walks uprightly?) Vss 8-10 is Micah expressing the Lord’s condemnation of those who tell Micah “Do not preach!” and vs 11 is a sarcastic comment about the kind of preacher they would prefer.

As so often in the prophets, in vss 12-13 the tone changes from oracles of denunciation and condemnation to an oracle of salvation and restoration. Micah was prophesying around the time the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom. While we cannot place precisely the circumstances of this oracle the survivors of Israel (vs 12a) suggests the aftermath of a military defeat. The metaphors of vs 12 of gathering, shepherds and sheep in a fold sound a little strained in the context of the breaking out theme of vs 13. Is the context a gathering of prisoners of war, or a remnant of Israel, which the Lord will mysteriously deliver in a mass breakout?

Matthew 24.15-31 is Matthew’s version of what in Mark 13 is called the Little Apocalypse taught by Jesus. Again, this text is offered today because this is the eve of Advent Sunday, the day that looks to the future coming of Jesus. Vs 31 has echoes of the eschatology we studied yesterday in 1 Thessalonians 4 but note the subtle difference: where 1 Thessalonians spoke of being caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air (vs 17) this verse he will send out his angels … with a loud trumpet call. And they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.  While they share in common a trumpet call/the sound of God’s trumpet, in one the meeting is in the air – a physical location,  but in the other the elect are gathered from the four winds – a metaphorical description of a wide coverage of the gathering actions of the angels.