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Free English Language Classes @ BHBC

Starting on the 1st of March 2021, Box Hill Baptist will be delivering twice-weekly English language classes to the local community.

Supported by the Whitehorse Council and in partnership with the Box Hill Central Community Connector, these classes will improve English language skills (both written and conversational) and help you make new friends in your local community. Classes will be taught by a qualified teacher and supported by local volunteers, and include both formal teaching and fun, informal conversation.

Classe are taking place at Box Hill Baptist Church (corner of Station St & Ellingworth Parade, Box Hill) on:

Mondays: 11am-1pm (changing to Tuesdays in April)

Thursdays: 11am-1pm

To enrol or for more information, contact Box Hill Baptist Church at office@boxhillbaptist.org.au or text/call 0481 350 251.

The building is closed… the Church has never been more open!

This is without a doubt a strange and stressful time for our communities and churches. However, within it we see a real challenge to take church ‘beyond the building’. To support you and your community at this time, we’ve got a range of activities, groups and resources for you.

For all of these activities, you can find out more about how to get involved by contacting office@boxhillbaptist.org.au

Sunday worship services and Zoom fellowship:

Each Sunday morning we produce an online service (available on YouTube at 10.15am) incorporating music, messages and prayers, followed by a time of sharing and fellowship via Zoom at 11am.

Links to the services are uploaded on this website or our Facebook page. Links to the Zoom fellowship can be obtained by emailing office@boxhillbaptist.org.au

We will be returning to face-to-face worship when it is permitted and safe to do so.

Weekly inspiration and updates

During the week we provide a range of messages, reflections and inspiration from our Pastor (and others!). This is available on our website or our Facebook page.

Box Hill Central Community Choir

The Community Choir, which was previously meeting in the church building, continues to meet on Tuesday mornings via Zoom for an entertaining and engaging time of singing and friendship. They are always keen for new members and this is a great opportunity to join the choir and scrub up on your singing skills before we meet again in person!

Box Hill Community Boatbuilding

When we are able to return from isolation, we have a new project where you can learn some new skills and make some new friends as together we build a traditional wooden boat together.

Until that time, the Boatbuilding group meets and plans for the project over Zoom, and warmly welcomes new members who might be keen to get their hands dirty in the coming months.

Prayer and study groups

Box Hill Baptist operates a range of groups which are gathering via Zoom to study the Bible, share news and encouragement, and pray for each other. If you’re keen to get involved just drop us a message at office@boxhillbaptist.org.au and we’ll find you the group that’s best for you.

Contemplative Service

Once a month we also run a quiet, contemplative service for those who value some time to quieten our minds and selves and find some peace in the midst of this hectic time. Times vary, so keep an eye on our website or Facebook page for more information.  


And of course we always want to know how we can help you? Feel free to email us and let us know if there’s anything that the church might be able to do to support you, your family, or your community. If we can’t, we can certainly reach out to our broader church and community networks to find someone who can!

Holy Week – Saturday

Reading: John 19:38-42
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Reflection: 

In his book Real Presences George Steiner writes:

There is one particular day in Western history about which neither historical record nor myth nor Scripture make report. It is a Saturday. And it has become the longest of days. (Faber and Faber, 1991: 231)

He goes on to write of Good Friday, well attested and known by Christians, but also experienced and understood by atheists as well: 

This is to say that he [the atheist] knows of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historical dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives.   (Faber and Faber, 1991: 231-2)

In the same way he writes of the hope and renewal of Easter Day, known to Christian and non-Christian alike. He then ends the book by speaking of the day that falls between them:

But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness and unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other…. (Faber and Faber, 1991: 232)

He anchors the aesthetic and artistic pursuits of humankind in this experience of the ‘long day’s journey’ of the Saturday. As Steiner is a Jew, this Sabbatarian understanding of the meaning of Holy Saturday should not surprise us. It is very much an in-between time. For modern Christians it has not resonated deeply. We have little empathy for days of waiting and emptiness. We tend to slide from the drama and tragedy of Good Friday directly to the delight and astonishment of Easter.

But many people in the world, as Steiner recognises, cannot live in the experience of Easter hope even if they can glimpse it. They may not be living personally in the pain or trauma of Good Friday, but neither can they pass into living the experience of Easter. Theirs IS the long day’s journey of the Saturday, not for one day of the year but as the stuff of their life. It is a day in which Christians are called to feel empathy and solidarity with the fallen world and all its citizens, our fellow creatures.

Yet somehow it is also on this day, Holy Saturday,  that the deep mystery of resurrection begins to stir, and stamp its glory on the rock walls of the tomb. For those of us who seek to enter into all of this Week, Holy Saturday is a day of waiting and of wonder – of solidarity with, and empathy for, all who live the long day’s journey of the Saturday, but also of pondering the amazing mystery in which we have trusted, and which will soon dawn upon the world again in another Easter Day.

Holy Week Reflection – Wednesday

Reading: John 13:21-32
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”  The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking.

One of his disciples–the one whom Jesus loved–was reclining next to him;  Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.  So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”  Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.”   So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.

After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”  

Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him.  Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor.  So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

Reflection: The Christian church treasures the Lord’s Supper in its various forms as a supreme expression of our fellowship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. We tend to forget that in three of the Gospels the betrayal of Jesus is also directly and intimately involved in the Lord’s Supper (see Mark 14.17-21,  Luke 22.21-23 and here in John 13). In the other Gospel the announcement of betrayal immediately follows the Supper (see Matthew 26.31).

John captures the pathos and the wonder of this in the artful combination of vss 30b and then vss 31 and 32.

And it was night (vs 30b). This stark and simple statement of fact summarises the whole situation late on that Thursday night. The die was set and Judas was on his way to summon the arrest party. Right in the heart of the community of Jesus at this moment of supreme ‘communion’ there was not only fellowship, and feasting, and solidarity and love, but also betrayal and suspicion, and selfishness and a startling lack of awareness and honesty. It doesn’t get darker than that!

And the community of Jesus is still like that in many ways. We too commit our betrayals, and protect our own interests and can be alarmingly witless about the failings of our common life. How often in the long and varied history of the people of God has that four-word judgment been attached to some colourful escapade or period of our history: And it was night?

And yet, and yet … in the depth and the darkness of that night, Jesus immediately speaks of glory, of the glorification of the Son of Man, and the glorification of God in the Son of Man. And that glorification is not some distant hope or future aspiration: God … will glorify him at once (vs 32).

It is good to remember – especially in the drama, betrayal and violence of Holy Week – that the field of God’s work contains both wheat and tares, and both remain. The church can have its dark side, and we sometimes find ourselves in the depths of the night, but the glory of God is never far away and can transform the darkness in an instant.

Holy Week Reflection – Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Week Reflection – Monday

Reading: John 12:1-11
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,  “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Reflection: This well-known reading contrasts the loving devotion of Mary with the self-serving hypocrisy of Judas. All four of the gospels record a version of this story (Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, and (with significant differences) Luke 7.36-50) but John draws the picture most sharply. In Matthew and Mark the concern for the poor on the part of the disciples may well be genuine. (In Luke, Jesus draws a different contrast between the love shown by the woman who anoints him and the disapproving moralism of the Pharisee who despises her.)  However, here in John the expression of ‘care’ for the poor is explicitly the work of a hypocrite and a thief. 

In this cycle of Holy Week readings there is no room for a balanced discussion of means and ends, of working through the relative importance of religious devotion on the one hand and works of mercy on the other. Now it is all about Jesus, and a sense of death begins to pervade the story.

Of all the seasons of Christian life, there is none that focusses so exclusively on the person and character of Jesus Christ as Holy Week. At other times we might engage with his preaching about the kingdom of God, or about good news to the poor, or about hope for the human future – but now the focus is entirely on Jesus the man and his fate. This week is all about what will happen to Jesus, his actions in the face of profound threat and danger, how he loves and forgives in the face of hatred and harm.  It is one thing to preach warm words of love to an appreciative crowd, and quite another to practice love when one is framed and tortured by that same crowd and their leaders. 

Jesus is ‘on trial’ not just on Good Friday but every day of this challenging week and it is all, ALL about him. Not about issues, not about social justice, not about goodness and morality, but simply about who he is and whether there is room in the world for a person like him.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (vs 3b)  John is the only gospel that includes this little detail. In the other gospels various people saw it (what the woman did) and disapproved, but in John’s gospel we smell it! That fragrance fills not only the house, but all of Holy Week. That woman’s faithfulness fills our nostrils still, as we wonder at the love and sacrifice of Jesus and prepare to accompany him the through the last days of his life.

Readings for Epiphany 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round about you stand noblemen 

in the day of your power.

“On the holy mountains,

from the womb of the rosy dawn,

have I begotten you like the dew.”

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

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

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

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

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

It was declared at first through the Lord, 

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

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

and by gifts of the Holy Spirit,

 distributed according to his will.

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

Readings for the fifth week after Epiphany

Monday, February 1, 2021Psalm 35:1-10; Numbers 22:1-21; Acts 21:17-26

Psalm 35 is a complex Psalm that has been simplified by only including the first 10 verses. It is a prayer song in which the petitioner her innocence in the face of her enemies and accusers.  The situation of the singer is made very clear in vs 1 – she is in a serious dispute or fight with others. Further details are provided in vs 7. The singer has been trapped and falsely accused.

The Psalmist appeals with calls for help in vss 1-3 that originally belonged to the institution of holy war. Yahweh is appealed to as the great warrior and deliver who brings salvation to the oppressed who are dependent solely on him.

Vss 4-6, (and then  vs 8) are petitions for the punishment and destruction of the singer’s enemies.

Vs 7 describes what the singer’s enemies have done and vs 8 seeks to turn back the traps and net they laid for the singer on their own heads.

Vss 9-10 prefigure the song of thanksgiving that is found at the conclusion of the Psalm in vss 27-28.

The Psalm as a whole is a lament of one who is falsely accused and engaged in a legal case, even a war with her enemies.  It shows similarities to Psalm 7. While still engulfed by dangers the singer breaks into songs of thanksgiving.

In these days of cyber-bullying and our relentless exposure to communication technology we can feel as if we are harried, threatened, overwhelmed. This ancient psalm is a source of both comfort and wisdom in the challenges of modern times.

Numbers 22 presents the story of Balaam. A bit like the after-dinner speaker circuit of today in which celebrities demand high prices for short addresses, Balaam was a diviner for hire. The situation of Israel’s rise is outlined in vss 1-5. Balaam is engaged (vs 7) by Balak son of Zippor [who] was king of Moab at that time (vs 4b).

In vss 7-14 the first round of negotiations ends in Balaam’s refusal to take the job. But a second round of negotiations (vss 15-21) appears to be more successful. Note however, two key triggers for the action that will come in tomorrow’s reading buried in the today’s text: but do only what I tell you to do (vs 20c) and So Balaam … saddled his donkey (vs 21)

Acts 21.17-26 is a follow-up to the Council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15 – note today’s text vs 25 cf. Acts 15.19-29). The meeting of Paul with James is a meeting between the leaders of the Gentile and Jewish factions of the early church. Vss 20-21 make clear that the ‘settlement’ of Acts 15 between these factions is still controversial among the Jews and vs 22 expresses the problem. Vss 23-24 propose a strategic action that will placate the Jews (see vs 24b), which Paul then agrees to do (vs 26).

Tuesday, February 2, 2021Psalm 35:1-10; Numbers 22:22-28; 1 Corinthians 7:32-40

For the Psalm see Monday.

Numbers 22.22-28 is a lovely story, although we only have the first half of it here. Why has the lectionary ‘spoilt’ such a good story by leaving out the ending? There are several interesting points to note. The first is that, in vs 20 the Lord has commanded Balaam to go, but in vs 22 God’s anger was kindled because he was going and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. These inconsistencies are sometimes a part of Scripture – seemingly contradictory narratives about what God says and does. There are other examples of this in the OT. It may be that different traditions have been conflated. Whatever is happening, we cannot smooth over these difficulties but must simply accept the sovereignty of God. Whatever the case, that is what the text says. 

The donkey sees the angel, while Balaam cannot. When the donkey saves him from disaster, Balaam starts to beat it, until the donkey finally finds the power of speech and queries the actions of his owner. We are not given the rest of the chapter in which Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees the danger he is in and goes on to bless, rather than curse, the Israelites.

This truncated story is perhaps appropriate for this moment in human history. Who knows what avenging angels stand in the path of humankind in this age of climate change? Nature itself might be bucking and rearing, seeing the looming disaster and resisting, but many human beings want to wield the staff of human power and continue to bend Nature to our will. The Lectionary has focussed for us very crisply the crisis of this moment, and it is up to us to determine whether we will listen to the voices of nature, and of science, or keep trying to force our way. We cannot yet see how the story will end. That is in our collective power, and the ending is not yet known!

1 Corinthians 7.32-40: I want you to be free from anxieties (vs 32). What a comforting and reassuring thought! Here Paul engages with issues about relationships – and the lack of relationships. There is no doubt that human relationships remain a key source of anxiety for many people. Paul engages with the anxieties of a) being in sexual relationships (vss 32-35), of b) whether to get involved in sexual relationships (vs 36-38) and of c) managing life after the end of sexual relationships (vss 39-40). Now Paul, consistent with his day, speaks of married relationships. There were also relationships under the structures of slavery in his day of which he does not here speak. I have generalised his comment  because in our day we have legal marriage, common-law marriage (cohabitation) and we also live in an age when many people choose casual relationships.

I think Paul’s point is that whether you are in relationship, thinking of getting into relationships or have just come out of relationship there are challenges and anxieties. I think what he says is true not just for the married, but for anyone negotiating the paths of active relationship, or singleness, or separation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021Psalm 35:1-10; Jeremiah 29:1-14; Mark 5:1-20

For the Psalm see Monday.

Jeremiah 29.1-14: This letter of Jeremiah to the Exiles in Babylon is one of the treasures of the Old Testament. Having spent twenty years preaching that Jerusalem was going to be overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians – and being rejected and mocked and abused for his trouble – Jeremiah might have been entitled to a big spray of “I TOLD YOU SO!”  But he goes exactly the opposite way, He guides and encourages and consoles and gives hope.

The essence of his message is the encouraging and hopeful words of  vss 4-7, and summarised and encapsulated in the final exhortation But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (vs 7).

In vss 8-9 is the explanation for these words. Many others are prophesying a quick turnaround, a miraculous deliverance. ‘False hope!’ shouts Jeremiah. ‘Set yourself for the long haul. Knuckle down and build a life in the circumstances God gives you!”

In vss 10-14 the prophet of doom becomes the prophet of hope. This oracle may have been proclaimed by a later prophet in the tradition of Jeremiah who saw the imminent restoration of Jerusalem.

Mark 5.1-20: This fascinating exorcism is rich in detail and poses many questions. What is a herd of pigs (unclean animals) doing in the story?  “My name is legion; for we are many” (vs 9) what is all that about? Why did the people beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood (vs 17)?

Some modern commentators have seen in this exorcism a very political message given by the gospel writer. In this part of the country some historians have found evidence of a large Roman garrison (‘our name is Legion’). Is the exorcism some kind of symbolic expulsion of Rome?

Why did they reject Jesus and ask him to go? Was it that the sending of the demons into a herd of 2000 pigs might look like a condemnation of Roman soldiers in the minds of those suffering under their occupation? Was the entreaty for Jesus to leave because of the destruction of the local economy (thousands of dead pigs is a big economic price in this Gentile community)? Or was it a stylized request for the Romans to leave? Or is it a fear of retribution from Rome should the story of this exorcism be seen as an anti-Roman parable? 

We are only just beginning to read the Bible against the political and social realities of the time. This story is one that is assuming an increasingly central role in our evolving understanding of how Mark was presenting the teaching and action of Jesus in the context of his time. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; Proverbs 12:10-21; Galatians 5:2-15

Psalm 147 belongs to the category of songs of praise. Is is a smoothly crafted song of three strophes or stanzas: vss 1-6, 7-11, 12-20. So consistent is the structure that some commentators have suggested it may be three separate psalms! The lectionary has given us the first two stanzas of this song or poem. The psalm is situated within the worship of the OT cultic community. It is dependent on more ancient hymnic traditions and has similarities to Ps 33 and has some individual figures of speech from Ps 104.  The statements from vss 2 and 13 give a hint that the date is post-Exilic, from the time of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

The psalm calls the people to worship the Lord (vs 1). Framed by statements of the saving activity of the Lord (vss 2,3,6), vss 4 and 5 proclaim the creative power of God. The psalm suggest that Yahweh’s creative and salvific powers are as one and the same thing.

In vs 7 a new beginning is made with a call to thanksgiving (the keynote of the first stanza has been praise!). Vss 8-9 declare that God is the Lord of creation. Vs 9b suggest the cry of the ravens is a form of prayer that is answered by the Lord – a lovely thought that the bird song that surrounds is a part of nature’s prayer, ceaselessly raised by all things.

So great is the Lord’s power that he takes no delight in the usual sources of strength that humans respect and admire (see the footnote to verse 10b – ‘the legs of a person’). Instead the delight of the Lord is in those who fear him. Note that the parallelism of  vs 11 a & b here equates the fear of the Lord with hope.

Proverbs 12.10-21: Proverbs is at the heart of the Wisdom literature of the OT. Here we have a series of Wisdom reflections and insights. I mused yesterday why the lectionary cut short the story of Balaam and left us with the donkey’s accusation but not the later narrative resolution.

Here we have a clue as to what the lectionary is doing! The righteous know the needs of their animals… (vs 10) is the hint. The lectionary has juxtaposed the truncated Balaam story with these insights. Read through and prayerfully reflect on them in the context of Balaam and his ass, of Israel and Moab, of the great question as to whether we should bless or curse the movements of history as they pass before our eyes.

Galatians 5.2-15 is helpfully headed The Nature of Christian Freedom. The letter to the Galatians was written to a community that had been living under the Gentile ‘minimalist’ understanding of what the gospel requires, but had ‘turned back’ (in Paul’s understanding) to a fuller observance of the Jewish law. We saw on Monday in the Acts reading how Paul might occasionally undergo Jewish rites to placate the Jewish wing of the church. In Galatians he writes to a church that wants to opt for a fuller Jewish observance and identity.

The circumcision mentioned in vss 2, 3, 6, 11 is a shorthand way of referring to the full gamut of Jewish ceremonial and law. We can see some of the issues that may have drawn the community to this path in vs 13b and in vs 15. Obviously, the freedom of which Paul speaks has led to problems.

In vs 12 we have perhaps the most bitter condemnation of the Judaizers that Paul offers anywhere.

In vss 4b to 6 Paul elegantly and simply expresses the relationships between grace, faith, hope, righteousness and love, the core aspects of his understanding of Christian life.

Friday, February 5, 2021Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; Job 36:1-23; 1 Corinthians 9:1-16

For the Psalm see Thursday.

In the book of Job we find an extended poetic engagement with issues of justice and theodicy (whether God is fair and acts justly). The narrative framing is the fortunes of Job (described in chapters 1 & 2, and 42.) The remaining 39 chapters are an extended dialogue between Job, three of his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar). Later, Elihu joins the dialogue, angry with Job and with the three friends. Elihu offers an extended commentary (chapters 32-37) on the whole drama before the Lord answers Job and brings the argument to close.

Today’s passage (Job 36.1-23) comes from the middle of Elihu’s long speech. Elihu’s role is almost amicus curiae – a ‘friend of the court’ (see vs 2b).  Against Job (who has argued he is innocent), and Job’s friends (who have argued that God is fair and manages the minutiae of life – so Job’s suffering shows he must have sinned), Elihu offers a bigger picture of how God works in the world. 

He defends his authority to speak (vss 2-4) describes God and God’s advocacy/protection for the righteous (vss 5-12). He describes the godless in heart (vss 13-14) and then focusses on Job’s situation describing God’s goodness and purpose in general (vs 15) and specific-to-Job (vs 16) terms.

In vss 17-23 Elihu engages the nub of the issue: you are obsessed with the case of the wicked; judgement and justice seize you (vs 17). These 7 verses are a treasury of wisdom for those who feel aggrieved, or who have experienced injustice or affliction.

1 Corinthians 9.1-16: The key to this passage is declared in vs 3: This is my defence to those who would examine me. Paul is in conflict with some in the church who are critical of him. Here he defends his bona fides – that he acting in good faith. Vss 1-2 emphasise his apostleship with the Corinthian church, if not with others.

Vss 4-7 outline his rights to food and companionship, rights he has not taken up.  Vss 8-12a explore the biblical foundation of those rights.  Vss 12b asserts that he hasn’t used this right before giving another foundation for his rights in vss 13-14.

Vss 15-16 declare that he has not used these rights and his obligation to preach the gospel is not a matter of right but of compulsion.

Saturday, February 6, 2021Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; Isaiah 46:1-13; Matthew 12:9-14

For the Psalm see Thursday.

Isaiah 46.1-13 comes from the work of Second Isaiah who prophesied in the time leading up to the return from Exile in Babylon. The imminent rescue of Israel is declared at the end (vss 12-13). The earlier part of the oracle is built on a contrast between the idols which must be carried on beasts and cattle (vss 1-2) and the living God who isn’t carried, but in fact carries you (vss 3-4)!

Vss 5-7 carries on the contrast between the living God and the idols and vss 8-11 are a declaration of the power of this living God.

Matthew 12.9-14: Here is a controversy story, an argument between Jesus and his enemies, built around a healing. Their question in vs 10 is a taunt, almost a dare. And Jesus takes up the challenge. He draws on an exception to the law of the Sabbath (If your sheep falls in the ditch on the sabbath, pull it out…) and then uses the greater value of a person to a sheep as his rationale for authorising healing on the Sabbath.

The response of the Pharisees (vs 14) indicates that the die is set, Jesus must die!

At the heart of this passage is the caring, loving, liberalising message of Jesus in conflict with the spirit of religious rules. Those who defend the rules are still conspiring against the Spirit of Love, how to destroy him (vs 14).

Readings for the 4th week of Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul develops his case through three phases:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

Readings for the 3rd week of Epiphany

Readings for Epiphany 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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