Our readings this week come from the Revised Common Lectionary. They are a whirlwind tour of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people, visiting some of the key symbols, the key moments of the long history of the people of God from Abraham to Jesus Christ and the early preachers of Jesus Christ.
They are best read not for the fine detail of their teaching but for the panoramic view they give of the Bible and it’s story. Set your focus on the long view as you read these passages and let your imagination roam down the thirty centuries since these events were first lived and told!
Monday, January 11, 2021: Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Genesis 17:1-13; Romans 4:1-12
Psalm 69 is a prayer song offered by someone who has been falsely accused of stealing something that they now have to restore (vs 4). That they have been overwhelmed by the accusation and the pressure it has placed on their life is clear from vss 1-3. Vs 5 is a form of confession. The Lectionary has omitted the part of the Psalm that relates to the penitence and petitions of the sufferer for deliverance and goes straight to the vow of praise that is offered in vss 30-36.
In the Christian tradition the Psalm as a whole has been closely identified with the suffering of Jesus and is quoted in the New Testament in various places. That the original setting dates from after the Exile can be seen from vs 35.
Genesis 17.1-13 deals with the origins of circumcision as a sign of the Covenant between God and Abraham. Note that this sign predates even the promise of the birth of Isaac (Genesis 18.9ff) and the first acts of circumcision involve Ishmael and the other men of Abraham’s household (see Genesis 17.23-27). The narrative stresses that Abraham is to be the father of many nations and the sign of circumcision includes all his sons, not just Isaac, the son of promise.
Romans 4.1-12 is Paul’s treatment of circumcision as a sign of Abraham’s faith rather than an ethnically defined Jewish community. Bearing in mind that circumcision is already in Genesis a sign shared by many nations, Paul expands the symbol even more, rejecting the physical sign and redefining it as an inclusive badge of all who live by faith.
Tuesday, January 12, 2021: Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Exodus 30:22-38; Acts 22:2-16
For the Psalm see Monday.
After dealing with the sign of circumcision in yesterday’s readings, the reading from Exodus 30.22-28 today explores another sign of covenant and commitment: anointing. Anointing oils are part of the care of the body from the ancient world (vs 25a), but these provisions deal with holy oil (vs 25b) to be used only for the consecration of sacred things (vss 26-29) and sacred people or priests (vs 30). Such holy anointing oils were to be strictly used only for their sacred purpose and not for everyday use (vss 32-33, 38).
Acts 22.2-16 actually come from late in Paul’s ministry, even though he is describing the start of his ministry. He is now a prisoner, like Jesus before his crucifixion, and Stephen before his martyrdom, and will remain a prisoner for the rest of the book of Acts. In pairing this reading with Exodus 30, is the Lectionary suggesting that just as anointing was the sign of being appointed for ministry among the Old Testament priests, arrest and trial is the sign of authentic ministry for Jesus and his followers?
Wednesday, January 13, 2021: Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Isaiah 41:14-20; John 1:29-34
For the Psalm see Monday.
Isaiah 41.14-20 comprises 2 oracles. The first (vss 14-16) prophesies that the Lord will give dominance and strength to you worm Jacob, you insect Israel (vs 14). The second affirms that the Lord will provide water in the desert for the poor of God’s people as they return from exile (vss 17-18) and fill the wilderness with trees (vs 19) so that all may see and know… that the hand of the Lord has done this (vs 19). The passage comes from that part of Isaiah that teaches of the promised return from Exile and reflects both the powerless ignominy of Babylonian captivity and the promise of return and rebuilding from disaster.
John 1.29-34 links together John’s declaration of Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Baptism of Jesus by John. The sign of the descending Spirit (vs 33) validates Jesus as the Son of God as John testifies (vs 34). Here we see the ministry of Jesus Christ commencing.
Thursday, January 14, 2021: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Judges 2:6-15; 2 Corinthians 10:1-11
Again, the lectionary has partitioned Psalm 139, but in a way that reflects its structure. So many of the Psalms open with a lament expressing the circumstances of the Psalmist, call vigorously for the Lord to ‘answer me!’ or ‘vindicate me!’, and then tell of how the Lord did answer the singer’s prayer. This Psalm very artfully reverses that order: it opens with the conclusion – the declaration of the Lord’s action (O Lord, you have searched me and known me. / You know when I sit down and when I rise up vss 1-2a) – and closes with the petition or appeal for the Lord to act (Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts./See if there is any wicked way in me, / and lead me in the way everlasting. vss 23-24) It’s a structure worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie, or the quote attributed to Jean-Luc Godard: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”.
The omniscience of God and especially God’s knowledge of the individual is the theme of vss 1-6. In vss 7-12 (omitted from our reading) this is extended into a reflection on the omnipresence of God – that fleeing from or hiding from God is impossible. Vss 13-16 bring a profound reflection on the Lord’s creation, and intimate knowledge, of the singer. The final section (vss 19-24) have again been omitted.
It remains one of the great psalms of the Bible, and one of the poetic treasures of world literature.
Judges 2.6-15 marks a key transition point in the story of Israel. Following the wilderness wandering and the occupation of the land under Joshua, Joshua (vs 8) and his whole generation (vs 10) die. This then exposes the waywardness of Israel (vss 11-13) and the resulting judgement of God (vss 14-15). How God then responds to, and rescues, Israel will be the subject of tomorrow’s reading.
2 Corinthians 10.1-11 is Paul’s spirited defence of his ministry against those who criticise him for acting according to human standards (vs 2) and boast[ing] a little too much of our authority (vs 8) and say his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible (vs 10).
This reading ‘lifts the veil’ on some of the contested dynamics surrounding Paul’s ministry and writing which has been a major element of the New Testament witness and has shaped the church in every generation. We often read Paul from a place of armchair comfort. This passage reminds us that the church of Jesus Christ can be a contested and argumentative space.
Friday, January 15, 2021: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Judges 2:16-23; Acts 13:16-25
For the Psalm see Thursday.
In Judges 2.16-31 we see God’s answer to the end of the time of the great heroes of the Exodus, Moses and Aaron, Joshua and all his generation. Then the Lord raised up judges (vs 16), a form of charismatic leadership that was commissioned in times of need (vs 18). The rhythm of deliverance under a judge (vs 18) and backsliding when the judge died (vs 19) became a repeated pattern. Vss 21-22 make clear than some of the other nations were left in the land in order to test Israel (vs 22a).
Acts 13.16-25 is more preaching by Paul. In vss 16-22 (7 verses!) he summarises the history of Israel from the captivity in Egypt, through the Exodus and conquest, the time of the judges, and the origins of the kingship with Saul in the time of Samuel and the rise of King David. This is a magisterial summary of Israel’s history covering a period (according to the times given in the text) of over 500 years. Modern scholars would see the period covered as perhaps 350-400 years, but in keeping with the readings this week which summarise or ‘sample’ the history of the people of God, it’s a very good summary.
Saturday, January 16, 2021: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Samuel 2:21-25; Matthew 25:1-13
For the Psalm see Thursday.
The reading from 1 Samuel 2 is the background to the rise of Samuel, the prophet who marks the transition from the time of the judges to the early kings of Israel. Vs 21 introduces very succinctly the boy Samuel who would grow up to be the great prophet. Vss 22-25 describes the wickedness of Eli’s sons and makes clear that the Lord had decided to end the priestly line of Eli.
Matthew 25.1-13 is Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids – five were foolish and five were wise. It is another parable of preparedness for the coming of Lord. This week has been whirlwind tour of the history of God’s people. Just as we were introduced to the signs of circumcision (on Monday) and the oil of anointing (Tuesday), the lectionary invites us to be wise in how we trim the oil of our own lamps. The readings and wisdom of this week invite us to carry with us the story of God’s dealing with the people of God in the past so we are always ready to meet the Lord in the present.
We are somewhat used to the “seasons” of the church. Liturgical Seasons made greater sense to communities more intimately connected to the rhythms of nature and especially of farming. When the cycles of communal life were linked to changing weather and the various seasonal activities of sowing and reaping, lying fallow, preparing the soil, processing and storing the harvests, it was natural for the village church to have its own seasons related to the life of Jesus and the story of the church. The seasonal rhythms of land and church would become linked, and feel ‘natural’.
In earlier times there were fewer alternate forms of communication. Medieval congregations may not even have been able to read. Newspapers didn’t come into being until the second half of the 17th century and were not widespread until the 19th century. Radio, telephones, cinema, TV and the internet are all children of the 20th century. In those earlier communities the church was a main channel for disseminating information, discussing and enacting community values and reinforcing the sense of belonging and community. The seasonal structure of church life reflected a settled and not very mobile social world, in which communication was very much centred in the life of church as community hub.
We live in a very different world. Over the months of lockdown we prepared daily readings that reflected the seasonal nature of church life. We acknowledge that this is countercultural to our world of rapid communications, high mobility and 24/7 engagement. We propose to continue this for the coming church year but in an amended way.
The readings will generally follow, but not always be linked to, the Revised Common Lectionary for the day. The notes might not engage with every reading for a day but might select from among them for comment. We will leave the links to the full range of readings so you can ‘click and read’ even if there are no notes for that passage. It is a way of grounding ourselves in a different rhythm of life and anchoring our hearts and minds in the priorities of the church’s agenda, not that of our political masters or the advertisers hungry for our purses or social media clamouring for our opinion.
Feast of the Epiphany – Wednesday, January 6, 2021: Psalm 29; Matthew 2.1-12
If Christmas is the most widely known of all the festivals and seasons of church life, one of the least known and most diverse in practice is that of Epiphany (the feast day observed on or around today January 6th). Some churches have Epiphanytide (a season of varying duration celebrated after January 6th). The focus of the day, or the season, is ‘the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles’. Personally, I think it is one of the most significant and challenging of all the church seasons because it relates to the nature of the presentation of Jesus to the wider world, one of the more contentious and confused strategic challenges that the church today must engage.
With that in mind we are going to spend the next few weeks reflecting on this theme of the Revelation of Christ to the World.
Psalm 29 presents Yahweh as the one whose great voice speaks through the thunderstorm. We studied this Psalm in the middle of last year and I reproduce the notes here.
There are clear marks that this is a very ancient Psalm, most likely taken over from early Canaanite worship. There are ancient Ugaritic and Egyptian writings with very similar themes. This is possibly the oldest Psalm in the whole of Hebrew poetry. Some of the marks of this ancient lineage are the mention of ‘the heavenly beings’ in vs 1 – a reflection of an original pantheon of gods – over which a ‘god King’ (cf. vs 10b) ruled with his mighty thunderous voice.
In taking over an ancient pagan hymn of praise the Psalmist is very keen to make sure that there is no mistake that the hymn has been pressed into the service of Yahweh, represented in the NRSV by the capitalised form ‘the Lord’. This form, ‘the Lord’, recurs in every line of the hymn for the first 5 verses (with the exception of vs 3b) – ten occurrences in all! A further 8 occurrences in vss 7-11 yield 18 declarations of the divine name in 11 verses.
Lines not to mention the tetragrammaton (the four letter divine name in Hebrew – YHWH) are 3b, where an artful theological point is made – God is not ‘the God of thunder’ (as elsewhere across the ancient near East) but ‘the god of glory’ – who thunders!) Vs 6 describes how ‘he’ makes Lebanon and Sirion ‘skip’ like young animals and vs 9b, c describe the impact of the voice of ‘the Lord’ mentioned in vs 9a.
Vs 9c introduces a marked change – so sudden that many scholars think something may have slipped from the text here. To this point the psalm has described the mighty God who is heard in thunder and whose voice flashes forth flames of fire (literally ‘splits’ the flames of fire –lightning, vs 7) and outlined the impact of the thunderstorm on forests, deserts, oceans, trees and animals (see the alternate reading of vs 9a in the notes to the internet version of this verse). Vs 9c takes us away from nature and the wider region into the heart of the temple in Jerusalem: and in his temple all say “Glory!” The cosmic power of the natural realm is here grounded in the temple, and while the Lord sits enthroned over the flood (reference to the waters of the heavens – vs 10a) and the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever (reference to a pantheon of ‘the gods’ over which Yahweh rules – vs 10b), all this power and might is invoked as God’s strength and peace to be shared with God’s people (vs 11a, 11b).
In an age when science has demythologised thunder and lightning and largely taken away their terror, this Psalm may lose some of its power. That is a tragedy! The repeated uttering of the sacred name YHWH – revealed to Moses on Sinai – rolls repeatedly through this psalm like thunder rolling through a great thunderstorm. In the poetry the previous cultural understandings of a ‘god of thunder’ known from ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Scandinavian mythologies (among others) are reinterpreted through a theology of a god of glory who reigns over all other ‘gods’ and blesses his people with both power and peace.
In an age of increasingly common ‘extreme weather’ this Psalm may recover some of it ancient authority – although even as we think of God’s power behind the might of the weather we will perhaps also reflect upon the sins and negligence of humanity in our stewardship of oceans and wilderness, forests and animals.
Lest we relegate this Psalm to a primitive age and primitive people, remember that on 2nd July 1505 Martin Luther was caught in a terrible thunderstorm while returning to his home at Erfurt. He was terrified. Lightning struck very near him. Luther vowed that if he survived the storm he would enter a monastery. He fulfilled his vow – in consequence of which I am writing these notes, and you are reading them because he went on to become one of the great voices of the Protestant Reformation. The Voice of God can still speak in a Great Storm!
Matthew 2.1-12: The biblical text that anchors this day in the narrative of the Gospel is the Visit of the Magi. Here there was no proclamation of Jesus other than the silent witness of nature through the star in the heavens. Through their own study of nature they were drawn towards Christ. They needed the guidance of Israel’s prophetic tradition to finalise their search but the initiator and driver of the search was the mysterious star in the sky.
Both the Psalm and the gospel today speak of what can be known through engaging with nature. Our Catholic sisters and brothers have a much stronger connection to ‘natural theology’, what can be learned about God through the engagement of reason with the ‘book of nature’. As we continue to respond to the ecological crises around us a return to some of this ancient spirituality that heard the voice of God through the forces and wonders of nature is much needed.
Thursday, January 7, 2021: Psalm 29; 1 Samuel 3:1-21; Acts 9:10-19a
For the Psalm, see Wednesday.
The other two readings present a God who speaks to Samuel and to Paul ‘out of clear blue sky’ (read Acts 9 from verse 1). We do not always need someone to tell us about Jesus: God is already there in the world and will communicate Godself in various ways. What is critical in these passages is the work of Eli and Ananias who helped Samuel and Paul to enter more deeply into their experiences of God and to understand what those experiences meant.
Too often the church has celebrated the great proclaimers like Paul and Peter, not the Eli’s and Ananiases of the world without whom Paul and Peter would not have come into a healthy faith.
Have you ever played this role of encourager and guide in the life of someone responding to God?
Friday, January 8, 2021: Psalm 29; 1 Samuel 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 4:11-16
For the Psalm, see Wednesday.
What a lovely little couplet of readings accompany the Psalm! Yesterday we saw the young child Samuel grappling with his first experience of call. Today we see him in the height of his powers as prophet, anointing another young man – almost overlooked amid his older and more impressive brothers – for the great and revolutionary work of becoming king. Remember that anointing a king was effectively an act of sedition – you were announcing the end of the reign of the existing king, even if it took time coming.
Then Paul writing to Timothy reminds him Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young (vs 12). The readings today remind us of the importance of young people in God’s work of revealing God to the world.
Who are the young people around us to be encouraged and ‘anointed’ and prayed for as the prophets and leaders of tomorrow? If we want to gospel to flourish and the world to see Jesus, there is no work more important for tomorrow than praying for and encouraging the young of today!
Saturday, January 9, 2021: Psalm 29 ; 1 Kings 2:1-4, 10-12; Luke 5:1-11
For the Psalm, see Wednesday.
Today’s readings relate to faithfulness and abundance in our experience of God. In the 1 Kings reading a dying David (remember him – the young shepherd anointed yesterday?) gives a charge to his son Solomon.
A vital task of those of us who are older is giving our ‘charge’ and our blessing to our descendants. That is the essential and important work of older people. There is not enough of it being done. If you are over seventy this is part of your work, to be done wisely and gently, but quite intentionally.
Note also here that vss 5-9 are missing. Why? What has been left out? Those of a detective orientation will enjoy looking for clues in these verses. What you will find is a part of David’s legacy that is very dark, straight out of The Godfather movies. To what extent do we leave our resentments, anger and thirst for revenge also to our children? Should we do that?
One of the inspiring men I have met was a Palestinian leader who spoke of his childhood after the catastrophe of 1948 and the expulsion of his family from their home and their land. Every night as a child he and his siblings drifted off to sleep to the sound of their parents weeping in the next room over all that had been lost. When later courting the girl he married, they discussed the past and resolved to NOT communicate to their children the wounds and sadness of their people’s trauma – the history, yes, but not the crippling emotions that they had lived with as children. He said to me, “There is no greater burden you can bear in life than your parent’s grief. We decided that it stops with us.”
The Luke reading reveals the startling abundance of the gospel – the full net as a symbol of the fruitfulness of Jesus’ mission in revealing the kingdom of God. This story appears twice in the gospel tradition: in Luke 5 at the call and commissioning of Peter and in John 21 where it is an appearance of the risen Christ who then re-commissions Peter after his threefold denial (John 18).
I find it a wonderful instance of grace that the same story presents both Peter’s first meeting with Jesus, AND his restoration and re-commissioning after a terrible failure.
The readings over these first few days of Epiphany have shown the intergenerational nature of God’s revelation – the roles of young and old in hearing God’s self-revelation, helping each other understand it, and passing from generation to generation the light of witness and experience despite distraction and even failure.
Lectio Divina is sacred reading, listening to Scripture or other text with the ‘ear of the heart’ and responding to it both in prayer and in the whole of our life.
During this holiday month, you are invited to join by Zoom on Wednesdays at 5.30 pm, from this week, the 6th of January. Contact the church office (email@example.com) if you’re keen to get involved and we’ll send you the Zoom link.
Among the traditional carols of the Christmas season is the English song The Twelve Days of Christmas with its gradually escalating numbers of fanciful gifts (eleven lords a-leaping?) sent by “my true love”. There have been many variations of this carol, including an Australian version.
My favourite is the comedy skit Christmas Countdown written and recorded by the Irish actor and singer Frank Kelly. However, Kelly treats the twelve days of Christmas as if they were a countdown (the days leading up to Christmas). This is consistent with our culture’s strong and gradually rising sense of expectation in the time before Christmas Day.
However, within the Christian community the season of Advent is the lead-up to Christmas. Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas. We have just celebrated that season with daily events co-ordinated through the church website.
The twelve Days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day and end on Epiphany Eve – the 5th of January. The good news is that, for Christians, Christmas is not one day but twelve!
We began our celebration of Christmas with live-streamed services on Christmas Day and the third day of Christmas (Sunday 27th December). Today we start a series of very brief readings / reflections for the remaining days of Christmas but there will be only a single reading from the gospels for each day. Where the Lectionary provides a gospel reading we reflect on that reading and I have provided other gospel readings where the Lectionary does not provide one. Our reflections will focus on Jesus, Family & Community.
Monday 28th December – The fourth day of Christmas: Matthew 2.13-18
This passage was at the heart of our service yesterday. Our culture completely ignores the grim side of the Christmas story. We want it to be only a happy time, with no note at all of deprivation, violence or displacement. Yet these are the reality for many of the world’s population, now as in the time of that first Christmas.
One of the ironies of our current situation is that there are stories in the media of how difficult it is for families to be separated at Christmas by Covid -19 rules or how traumatic it is to be held in hotel quarantine. Yet our nation has held refugees sent to the mainland for medical treatment in hotels for up to two years and has kept refugees in island detention centres for years on end compounding the trauma they have already experienced.
At Christmas we remember that Jesus experienced the lot of the refugee as a child and this was part of what shaped and made him the redeemer of the world. Let us remember, and pray for, others who find themselves detained or displaced from their homes
Tuesday 29th December – The fifth day of Christmas: Matthew 12.46-50
Christians have often referred to one another as ‘sisters and brothers’. This goes back to Jesus himself. The bonds within the Christian community are strong. We do see ourselves as ‘family’ -perhaps with the dysfunctional and difficult overtones of what family can sometimes be.
One aspect of family is the enduring and ‘given’ nature of its bonds: as the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relatives. Within the Christian community we draw close to one another. The relationships we form can endure for decades, giving strength and blessing to one another.
There have been Christian communities where this sense of ‘family’ has overtaken and squeezed out the biological family. Sometimes identified as ‘cults’, such groups have discouraged contact with biological families and become stultifying and dominating in the lives of their followers. In Luke 14.26 Jesus would seem to offer some support for this approach, although I think this is a misreading of Jesus’ intent.
At Christmas we celebrate not only the gift of our biological families that gave us life and shaped our lives, but also the family of our Christian communities that sustain us and guide us in life today.
Wednesday 30th December – The sixth day of Christmas: Luke 2.36-38
Anna, the prophet (and we should recognise and acknowledge that an old woman held such an honoured title!) holds our attention for a brief 3 verses of the gospel. She flits through the narrative like a swallow flashing past. That she was old is attested by vs 37 – but see the footnote: she was either 84 years old at the time Jesus was born, or she had been a widow for 84 years, after 7 years of marriage. Even given the early years of marriage for girls in ancient Palestine, if she had been married 91 years before Jesus’ birth she must then have been over 100 years old.
Whichever it was, she was certainly ‘well stricken in years’ as the Old Testament puts it. Older people in many cultures are respected and even revered as ‘the elders’. Our Western cultures tend to value youth and vigour and the old are often discounted or not seen. When they are widowed they are even less visible, and the sense of loss they experience when a partner dies can feel like a diminution, a loss of part of their own selfhood.
Christian communities often have older members. Like Anna they are a resource, a treasure. Our church has older people, especially older women. May we treasure and celebrate them, for they, like Anna, are filled with wisdom, experience, memory, and love. Those who are looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (vs 38) do well to listen to them, respect them and treasure them!
Thursday 31st December – The seventh day of Christmas: John 8.12-19
This passage from John is not well known. It is a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees centred around Jesus testifying to himself: nobody has right to testify to themselves – other people can speak about who you are, but you shouldn’t go around blowing your own trumpet.
Vs 15 is what I want to focus on: You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. John is also the gospel that, just a few chapters before this, has presented the story of the woman caught in adultery, (John 7.53-8.11). The most ancient manuscripts omit this passage and others have it in different places, or with different text, or mark it as doubtful. What was going on behind the manuscripts to create such a confusion of texts?
One thing that is very clear from the gospels is that Jesus was not judgmental of people – other than religious people! He fought with Pharisees, and priests, and scribes, but befriended prostitutes and tax collectors.
One thing that is very clear from the history of the church is that the battle with Pharisees and moralists continues in every age. Like that story of the woman caught in adultery, we don’t know quite what to do with a Jesus who says I pass judgment on no one.
In the season of Christmas, we remember all the great songs and prophecies about Jesus at the time and in the centuries before his birth. We acknowledge that at the heart of peace and goodwill and the transformation of the social order promised in Jesus, lies a turning away from judgment, a focus on mercy and forgiveness and grace that should characterise the life and actions of all who seek to follow Him.
Friday 1st January – The eighth day of Christmas: Matthew 4.12-17
Christmas is a time for celebrating that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14). But where did Jesus actually dwell? Every one of us carries an internal list of the houses and towns we have lived in and who we lived with and what we did. What would Jesus’ list look like?
We know he was born in Bethlehem (read Luke 2 and Matthew 2). According to Matthew he left Bethlehem to flee to Egypt at around the age of 2 and that he returned when Herod died, only to relocate from Bethlehem to Nazareth in Galilee because Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling over Judea (Matthew 2.19-23). Now historians date the death of Herod between 4BCE and 1BCE. Historians confirm that Herod was succeeded by Archelaus as ruler of Judea so the relocation of the Holy Family to Nazareth is quite probable. Historically there is no evidence of the Massacre of the Innocents and the close timing of the death of Herod and the birth of Jesus casts doubt on whether Jesus actually went to Egypt: while it was important to Matthew theologically to portray Jesus fleeing to Egypt there is doubt that it happened historically.
Luke, on the other hand, is far more straightforward. Joseph was living in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2.4) and only went to Bethlehem because he had to register there. After the birth they returned to Nazareth (Luke 2.39).
So there is agreement about the birth in Bethlehem, and the childhood in Nazareth, but the Egypt residence is less certain.
In today’s reading there is a small nugget that is very significant: He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea (vs 13). This is where the adult Jesus chose to live. Today it is a ruin, but sited on the water’s edge at the northern tip of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) with magnificent views to the south over all of Lake Tiberias and the countryside of Galilee. Jane and I visited there some years ago and were struck by the beauty of the place. As people who have chosen to live by the sea, we are encouraged that Jesus might have been of similar tastes and outlook to ourselves.
The emphasis within the Christian churches is often on the universal, ‘the church invisible’, the gospel proclaimed in every place and every age. We do not take the time to focus on our place, our surroundings, the time and circumstances in which we find ourselves. Jesus made choices, and located himself in one place, and from that place moved in increasing circles as he preached and ministered throughout Galilee and Judea.
As we celebrate the Incarnation, of the Word dwelling among us, it is important for our vision to be ‘focal on the local’, to reflect upon where we live, and why we live there. What is our community and how is it changing? Who are its people and how are they linked to the wider region and even the world?
If we are to be true to Jesus, we too need to be engaged with place and very aware of our community, its people and its history.
Saturday 2nd January – The ninth day of Christmas: Luke 8.1-3
The heading in some translations of Luke is misleading. The NIV has The Parable of the Sower. Sure, that follows from vs 4, but the editors of this version of the gospel don’t value vss 1-3 in their own right. The NRSV gets it better with the heading Some women Accompany Jesus.
Why did Luke think it necessary to give us the detail of these verses? The twelve (the disciples) were with him (vs 1) but also some women who had been cured of diseases or demons (vs 2). Three are named, and one of them was Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward. It is interesting that Luke alone, of all the gospels, gives Herod a role in the trial of Jesus (see Luke 23.6-12). Here in chapter 8, Joanna who by marriage is firmly in the camp of Jesus’ enemies, finds her place among the faithful women who accompany Jesus.
We are gradually learning more and more about women and their links to one another, the social networks and bonds that are stronger than class interests and their alliances with men. One thing a male pastor learns early is to respect and not interfere with the groups and networks of women in the congregation: within an institution and culture that has been very patriarchal they have been a vital means of protecting women’s interests and nurturing women’s lives.
In the gospels women are some of the strongest supporters of Jesus. They are standing by the cross when the men have fled. They are the first witnesses of the Resurrection. They are the leaders in many of the churches that Paul founded. We are blessed to have women in our community who are leaders, mentors, and guides.
Today be thankful for the women of our community, and the women who are part of your life.
Sunday 3rd January – The tenth day of Christmas (Second Sunday after Christmas) John 1.10-18
These well-known and beautiful words express poetically the relationship between ‘the Word’ and ‘the world’. It is a relationship of deep connection (vss 10ab, 11a) but also deep estrangement (vss 10c, 11b). This tension is overcome through faith (vss 12-13).
The central verse is vs 14: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, the fullness of the gift of truth.
If you are a careful Bible reader you will see the translation above is slightly different to any of the usual translations of this verse. The reason I have opted for this translation is that Johannine scholars (those who study the gospel and letters of John) are of the view that John does not have a strong concept of grace as Paul certainly has. Christian translators have read John through the lens of Paul, importing a Pauline view of grace where it does not belong. The Greek word usually translated grace can also mean gift. Hence my preferred translation (one shared by some eminent scholars) presents Jesus as the fullness of the gift of truth.
This has implications for the community of Jesus, for it places truth at the heart of our understanding of the gospel. The word truth appears 95 times in the New Testament and 37 of those occurrences are in the writings of John.
There are fads and fashions in Christian virtue. In the 6th century patience was a cardinal virtue in the Christian community. I think that the second half of the 20th century many Christians would have said love was the most important virtue. While not technically a virtue (truthfulness or honesty would be the related virtue) we may be moving into a time when truth is the most important thing characterising the Christian community.
Different carols focus on different elements of the Christmas message. For instance, Christina Rossetti wrote the carol Love came down at Christmas. Others have focussed on glory, or peace. John states clearly that what is given to the world in Jesus is the fullness of the gift of truth.
There are not many carols that celebrate truth coming in Jesus. The festival itself is so overlain with traditions, sentimentality and even ‘spin’ that we do not associate Christmas with truth. In an age when truth is being assailed in so many different ways rethinking Christmas as a message of deep truth would be a real gift to the world.
Monday 4th January – The eleventh day of Christmas: Luke 2.41-52
This story is one that every parent can relate to. Losing a child can be a great trauma. Most children have wandered off or been lost at some point in their lives – especially in large public gatherings. Some just ‘run away’ for a time – usually in childish protest and not for long.
But for some the disappearance of a child in this way is not a passing anxiety. When children or teenagers run away only to disappear and never be found, families are left with agonising and extended uncertainty and pain.
Another form of loss is when children as they grow up reject their parents and exclude them from their lives and the lives of their own children, the parents’ grandchildren. I have known several people who have experienced this sorrow in life. They are spared the pain of not knowing what happened to their children, and they have the comfort of knowing they are alive, but the deliberate and wilful exclusion from their children’s lives is a deep and continuing wound.
At Christmas, when so many families are re-uniting and celebrating, remember those who have lost their children through death, disappearance or estrangement. This is one of the most painful aspects of being a family, and Christmas is a time when such losses are re-focussed and experienced quite acutely.
Tuesday 5th January: The twelfth day of Christmas: Luke 6.27-31
Where can the Twelve Days of Christmas close but with this, perhaps the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings? Christmas opens with a blaze of glory and a heavenly choir singing of peace and goodwill, but none of this can become real without a willingness to love our enemies and offer the other cheek to abuse and violence (vs 29). This covers not only non-violence but the deep spirit of sharing with those who have nothing (vss 29-30). The reading ends with the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you (vs 31).
If Christmas starts with glory and joy, it ends with the hard work of loving your enemies, and sharing your goods, and doing to others as we would have them do to us. All the world is happy to sing the song we learned from the angels in Luke 2.14, but only those who follow Jesus remember and seek to practice these teachings of the one through whom peace on earth will come.
Readings for the Fourth Week of Advent
Monday, December 21, 2020: Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 1:1-18; Hebrews 9:1-14
Luke 1.46b-55: In place of a Psalm during the week leading up to Christmas the Lectionary gives us the Song of Mary. Note the footnote in Biblegateway that this song may have originally been attributed to Elizabeth. Luke has taken the Song and placed in clearly in Mary’s mouth, perhaps adding vs 48b to affirm Mary’s precedence over Elizabeth. In the time of the early church followers of John the Baptist were also active and (in some ways) ‘in competition’ with the followers of Jesus (see Acts 19.1-7) so there may also have been respect attributed to the mothers of both John and Jesus. While Elizabeth has blessed Mary in the preceding verses, here Mary is responding not to Elizabeth but to God.
Vss 46b -49a express the personal experience of Mary in the first person. Vss 49b-53 describe the universal experience of God expressed in the third person. Vss 54-55 describe the experience of God in history through the third person plural (his servant Israel …. our ancestors…).
In the first section as Mary ‘exults’ in God, the description of the lowliness of his servant is more applicable to Elizabeth (see vs 6, and he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people vs 25) than to Mary. In vs 49 God’s great act cannot be overlooked and Mary acknowledges this act and praises God.
Vss 51-53 point to a future in which fortunes are radically reversed through the direct action of God, and vss 54 and 55 anchor these actions of reversal in the hopes and expectations of Israel.
There are strong connections between Mary’s Song and Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel. As Mary’s Song is read over each of the next three days, the story of Hannah (mother of Samuel) and her Song unfolds alongside.
1 Samuel 1.1-18 is the background story to tomorrow’s Old Testament Lesson. Tomorrow we hear further of Hannah before on Wednesday we read the Song of Hannah, another godly woman who experienced barrenness and prayed to the Lord. Reading this story one can see more similarities between the story of Hannah and Elizabeth (Luke 1.5-25) than Hannah and Mary.
In a polygamous culture where Elkanah had two wives Hannah was the childless one (vs 2), a source of shame (vs 6) even though her husband loved her (vs 5). The encounter with the old priest Eli described in vss 12-18, turns from rebuke (vs 14) to promise (vs 17) and Hannah’s countenance was sad no longer (vs 18).
The whole setting of the Psalm and the OT in this early part of the week of Christmas is about barrenness and promise. In these days of IVF and other forms of medical diagnosis and intervention, it is hard for us to reconnect with the sense of hopelessness, failure and even despair that women like Elizabeth and Hannah experienced. We live in a society where fertility is largely controlled through contraception, intra-uterine foetal testing, abortion, medical diagnosis of the causes of infertility, fertility treatments and IVF. Prior to the middle of the last century there was far less ‘technology of control’: for a married, sexually active woman, pregnancy and bearing children were a ‘social norm’. The number of women who choose not to have children in our society means that an involuntarily childless woman is not so socially visible today, but we know from women experiencing IVF or other treatments how much their experience is a source of great personal anxiety and stress.
When we consider that children in 1st century Palestine were the safety net for a woman’s old age, we can see just how much was riding on being able to bear a child. All of these factors are the background to Hannah’s song, which is the model for Mary’s Song – which as we saw above may have originally been Elizabeth’s Song. While Mary was not expecting to have a child, she had no reason to doubt that she was not able to have a child, which does suggest that the Song may have originally been Elizabeth’s.
Hebrews 9.1-14: this week we have two readings from Hebrews. Why? Both readings speak about Jesus in his role as high priest. They speak of the cosmic role of Jesus in redemption, as the fulfilment and completion of God’s plan prefigured in both Tabernacle and Temple of Jewish history. Just as Mary’s Song sees the coming birth as the fulfilment of the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever (Luke 1.55), so Hebrews links the cosmic resurrected Christ to the fulfilment of that ancient pattern of worship and faithfulness prefigured in the worship of Israel.
Vss 1-5 are a description of the setup of the tent (vs 2) although vs 5b acknowledges Of these things we cannot speak in detail because what is described belongs to the ancient history of Israel.
Vss 6-11 then interpret this cultic practice and see it as a symbol of the present time (vs 9) which has various limitations and inadequacies until the time comes to set things right (vs 10b).
Vss 11-14 present Christ as the one who came as a high priest of the good things that have come (vs 11), the promised fulfilment of the practice and hope of Israel.
Tuesday, December 22, 2020: Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 1:19-28; Hebrews 8:1-13
For the Psalm, see Monday.
1 Samuel 1.19-28 tells of the conception and birth of Samuel, and of Hannah’s decision, and Elkanah’s agreement, to dedicate Samuel as a Nazirite to the Lord (vs 22 – see also yesterday’s reading at vs 11 for a description of the life of a Nazirite). Vs 21 makes clear the trip was an annual observance, but Hannah defers her trip until Samuel is weaned. We are not told the age of the boy at the time he is left in the shrine (Eli was serving at the shrine at Shiloh, not the Temple in Jerusalem) but the three-year-old bull as a sacrifice in lieu of the boy might suggest he was three years old. We are told and the child was young (vs 24c).
Hebrews 8.1-13 is an extended contrast between a pattern of worship that is earthly, based on a pattern that was shown you on the mountain (vs 5b) and worship in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up (vs 2). Vs 6-7 make clear the superiority of Jesus over Moses, and of the latter covenant over the earlier.
Vss 8-12 anchor this superiority in the Old Testament prophets who are quoted here. Vs 13 makes crystal clear that the ‘old covenant’ is not only obsolete but will soon disappear.
Wednesday, December 23, 2020: Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 11:1-11
For the Psalm, see Monday.
1 Samuel 2.1-10: Today’s reading is the Song of Hannah. Comparison with the Song of Mary reveals similar themes. Reversals of fortune are listed here at vs 5 and the Lord’s work in deciding the fortunes of rich and poor is described in vss 7-8. One can see clear similarities, but also some differences. Read the two Songs side by side and see what you can see in common, and where Mary’s song takes Hannah’s song and extends it.
Mark 11.1-11 is Mark’s version of the triumphal entry. The New Testament lessons this week are celebrating Jesus and his central role in the drama of salvation. Central to this reading in the context of this week are vss 9-10 and the affirmation of Jesus as the one who comes in the name of the Lord (vs 9) and also the one who is born in the Davidic line (vs 10). As the Christmas carol puts it:
To you, in David’s town this day, is born of David’s line,
the Saviour who is Christ the Lord and this shall be the sign…
Thursday, December 24 & 25, 2020: Nativity of the Lord
The readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are combined. We will read them today and leave Christmas Day free for church and for family!
The Lectionary actually gives three sets of readings for Christmas but I have chosen the first set. The Psalm is Psalm 96, a communal song of praise. Note that the Psalm calls not just on Israel to praise, but all the earth (vss 1,9) all the peoples (vs 3), families of the peoples (vs 7), the nations (vss 3, 10).
While there is mention of strength and beauty are in his sanctuary (vs 6) this is the only mention of the cult and the temple. The focus is more on the cosmic nature of God (see vss 4-6) which results in all people being called to praise (vss 7-10). Then follows a call for all creation to join in the cosmic praise (vss 11-12) before the final action of God in judging the whole world is proclaimed in vs 13.
Isaiah 9.2-7 is a prophecy of deliverance from warfare and violence through the birth of a son (vs 6). The prophecy is artfully delivered with hints of the suffering of the people described in vss 2,4 and 5, (even as they are declared to be overturned, reversed), together with clearly positive expressions of deliverance and joy in vss 2 and 3.
Isaiah the prophet was urging King Ahaz to stand firm and not seek alliance with the Assyrians, the great regional power. The promise of a son may have referred in the first instance to Hezekiah, who succeeded his father Ahaz.
In the New Testament this text is quoted not in relation to the birth of Jesus (unless the angel’s announcement in Luke 2.11 is an oblique reference) but in Matthew 4.14-15 to explain why Jesus started his ministry in Galilee. In our minds the association with the birth of Jesus comes more from Handel’s Messiah and the song Unto us a child is born. The fabric of Christmas is a closely woven tapestry of texts, music and meanings woven over many centuries and it is still evolving.
Titus 2.11-14: This an interesting little Christmas reading in which the Incarnation is referred to in vs 11. Vs 12 describes Christian life in the present and the unfinished nature of salvation in vs 13. The self-giving of Christ and the way his sacrifice has formed a new people is the focus of vs 14. These four verses are like a polished catechism – a doctrinal expression of the gospel message!
Luke 2.1-14: Is any passage of Scripture as well-known in the Church as Luke chapter 2? Here the popular story of the birth of Jesus is told in vss 5-7, soon followed by the appearance of an angel to the shepherds (vss 8-14). We tend to glide over vss 1-4, seeing only the romantic journey of Joseph and Mary and the lack of room at the inn.
But Luke has taken great care to locate these events within the arc of imperial politics. Vs 1 declares the imperial edict and the name of the Emperor. Lest this be lost on the locals he then clarifies that This was the first registration and that it occurred while Quirinius was governor of Syria (vs 2). These registrations must have been an impost on the local population by the occupying power Rome, and Luke wants to anchor the birth of Jesus firmly within the experience of occupied people and the time frames of empire.
Saturday, December 26, 2020: Psalm 148; Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15; Acts 6:8-15; 7:51-60
Psalm 148 is another psalm calling for all creation, all kings and peoples to join in praise. Vss 1-2 call on the heavens and heights and all his angels… all his host! to praise God.
Vss 3-6 call on the heavens and you waters above the heavens to praise God, their creator. This refers to the ancient cosmology where the firmament of the heavens separated the waters above and the waters below (see Genesis 1.7).
Vss 7-10 call on all the earth and everything created in it to praise, before vss 11-12 draw in kings nations, people, young and old, men and women.
Vs 13 focusses all that praise on the Lord and vs 14 gives the reason: he has raised up a horn for his people… Hence this Psalm in the festival of Christmas when the birth of Jesus is recognised as the one who has been raised up.
The lectionary then delivers a matched pair of readings about the arrest and ill-treatment of two of God’s prophets and preachers.
Jeremiah 26.1-19,12-15 tell of Jeremiah’s preaching (vss 1-6) the hearer’s enraged reaction (note that the hearers are the priests and the prophets and all the people – vs 7). Vss 12 – 15 tell of Jeremiah’s response to the officials to whom his hearers had reported him (see vss 10-11 – deleted from the reading).
Acts 6.8-15, 51-60 tell an almost identical story of strong preaching by Stephen (summarised in vss 51-53) which led to similarly enraged reactions (vs 54) and his death.
The framers of the lectionary have immediately followed Jesus’ birth with two stories from the history of God’s people that clearly show the fate of the prophets and those God calls. Jeremiah was the prophet most attacked and persecuted in the Old Testament. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. By telling their stories immediately after Jesus’ birth, the lectionary is hinting at what the future will be for the One so gloriously prophesied, announced and celebrated this week!
Monday, December 14, 2020: Psalm 125; 1 Kings 18:1-18; Ephesians 6:10-17
Psalm 125 is a Song of Ascents or A pilgrimage Song (see the title). The form of the Psalm is difficult to categorise but vs 4 leads toward the conclusion that it is a ‘community prayer song’.
Vss 1-2 are an expression of trust in God where the surrounding protection of the Lord for his people is likened to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem.
The setting of the psalm is revealed in vs 3 where a sceptre of wickedness has rested on the land, probably for some time for the wickedness of the occupying power seems to be leading the righteous to stretch out their hands to do wrong. The form of vs 3 can either be a promise or a prophecy of God’s impending action.
Whichever it is, vs 4 is a prayer that God will act as announced in vs 3 and deliver those who are good and those who are upright in their hearts.
Vs 5 is a judgement on those among the people who turn aside to their own crooked ways, a reference to those in Vs 3b who, although of the people of God, have stretched out their hands to do wrong.
1 Kings 18.1-18 is an unusual choice of reading. It is the precursor to the dramatic triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal but this dramatic story is completely passed over by the lectionary.
What we see in the text is narrative detail that richly evokes the context of the time.
The first is the story of Obadiah (vss 3-6). While some Jewish traditions attribute the book of the prophet Obadiah to this Obadiah, the steward of the palace of Ahab and Jezebel, it was a common name in Israel. The Islamic version of the name is Abdullah. Obadiah is faithful to God and sheltered 100 ‘prophets’ in two groups of 50 in separate caves, so that if one was discovered the other might survive. We learn of a faithful man, and of the social movement of ‘the prophets’ who lived and worked in companies, bands or ‘schools’. In contrast to the solitary prophets like Elijah and Elisha (who had dealings with the ‘companies of prophets’), these prophets were communal, even communistic in their lifestyle – perhaps more akin to medieval monks than the writing prophets of Israel (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah etc). We know very little about these mysterious Old Testament groups but they are an intriguing hint of a different religious time and a vocation very different to that of the priests of ancient Israel.
The second strand of the story (vs 7-15) tells of Obadiah’s anxiety in carrying Elijah’s message to Ahab (vs 12b) and both the faithfulness of Obadiah (vs 13) and Ahab’s persisting rage against Elijah (vss 9-12). Note the source of Obadiah’s anxiety – that the spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where (vs 12a): prophets like Elijah travelled and wandered and were thought to be transported around the landscape by God’s spirit.
After being assured that Elijah will surely meet Ahab, Obadiah delivers the message. Ahab’s opening greeting is classic: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (vs 17) only to be met and doubly repaid by Elijah (vs 18).
If I ever have the leisure, I would love to write a book about the pithy comments between political rulers and ministers, priests and prophets through the ages, and this one would certainly be included!
Ephesians 6.10-17 is a very well-known passage in some Christian circles. It is seen by some as a key commissioning text for the so-called ‘prayer warriors’. I think this language should be used carefully and wisely.
The key verse is vs 12 which describes a struggle not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Such language is steeped in ancient world views and should be carefully studied. The language and theology of ‘the powers’ (to use a shorthand term) has been largely rehabilitated through the work of scholars like Walter Wink and his powerful trilogy Naming the Powers, Understanding the Powers and Engaging the Powers. Wink’s big contribution was his recognition that the Biblical language of the powers (as reflected here in Ephesians) reflects a binary nature of spiritual reality where we are always dealing with an inner spiritual essence and an outer human, sometimes institutional, structure.
Ironically – or perhaps understandably (?) – some of those most at ease with the language of spiritual warfare are most ill-at-ease with the current Bill before the Victorian Parliament prohibiting Change or Suppression practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation (so-called ‘gay conversion’ therapy). What is outlawed is a ‘prayer act’ (such as an exorcism, or ‘praying over’ someone) that results in harm, or significant harm to the person and has been conducted with negligence as to the impact of the practice on that person. Some mischief-makers have said that ‘the government is outlawing prayer’ but it is clear that the Act is outlawing harming people negligently through the use of some prayer practices.
I understand what people mean by the language of spiritual warfare and prayer warriors and I respect it as a practice – if it is engaged in responsibly and wisely. However, if we in the church are happy to use the language of spiritual warfare and prayer warriors, we should not be surprised when our government recognises that people might be harmed through prayer, and prayer can be done negligently and in a damaging way. If we want to be ‘prayer warriors’ we need the kind of ‘rules of engagement’ that all responsible soldiers have to guide them in battle. The government’s Bill is the very minimum we should seek – as Hippocrates put it: First, do no harm!
If you have concerns about the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 I invite you to contact me and we can talk about it. There are certainly issues around the Bill, and some valid points are made its critics, but I don’t see it as a wholesale attack on the churches and other faith communities.
Tuesday, December 15, 2020: Psalm 125; 2 Kings 2:9-22; Acts 3:17-4:4
For the Psalm, see Monday.
2 Kings 2.9-22: This story is again a ‘clipped’ or truncated narrative that omits the lead-up to the first of three stories in this passage. The first story is of Elijah’s being taken up in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire (vs 11) and the prophetic mantle falling to Elisha (see vss 13-14 and read vs 8).
The second is another story about the company of prophets (vss 15-18). The company of prophets figures also in vss 1-8. Here also is the motif from yesterday of the Lord almost ‘teleporting’ his prophets through the spirit (vs 16b). Eventually giving in to this kind of thinking, Elisha lets them search only to be finally vindicated (vs 18) when they find no trace of Elijah.
The third (vss 19-22) is a story emphasising how the prophetic authority and powers of Elijah now rested on Elisha.
Acts 3.17-4.4 is part of a sermon preached by Peter that starts in vs 12. Perhaps the framers of the Lectionary have decided to omit vss 12-16 because of vss 13-15 which are highly critical of the Jews and have contributed to the idea of Jews as ‘Christ -killers’ a charge specifically laid in vs 15. This passage starts with the exculpatory I know that you acted in ignorance… (vs 17). A reference that reflects the Advent season is vs 21 how Jesus must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Chapter 4.4 mentions the five thousand who were converted through this second sermon of Peter in addition to the three thousand who converted in Chapter 2.
Wednesday, December 16, 2020: Psalm 125; Malachi 3:16-4:6; Mark 9:9-13
For the Psalm, see Monday.
The reading from Malachi 3.16-4.6 introduces several prophecies that relate to Advent expectation.
First are the oracles of judgement and salvation woven together in 3.16 through to 4.3. Vss 16-18 introduce the concept of the book of remembrance (vs 16) which records the names of the faithful so that they may be preserved and protected from the fate of the wicked. Vss 17-18 detail how this protection will work.
Chapter 4.1 introduces the terrible day of the Lord, burning like an oven, but vss 2 and 3 reassure the faithful that they will be delivered from judgement (because they are recorded in the book of remembrance).
Vs 4 repeats the Deuteronomic principle of adherence to the law but vs 5 and 6 mention the return of Elijah as the forerunner to the day of the Lord (vs 5) and how the role of the forerunner will be to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. This text is quoted by the angel in his announcement to the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1.17) but see how the second half of the verse (Malachi 4.6b) has been changed by Gabriel when speaking to John!
Mark 9.9-13: The coming of Elijah figures throughout the gospels both in relation to John the Baptist but also at the Crucifixion when bystanders heard Jesus’ last cry (Mark 15.34-35). The expectation Elijah’s return must have been very strong in the minds of pious Jews at that time.
Here Jesus says that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him (vs 13). While it is not specifically stated that Jesus means John the Baptist, the context of this passage leaves little room for other conclusion. Jesus and his disciples are coming down the mountain (vs 9) from the Transfiguration (vss 2-8) during which there appeared to them [the disciples] Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus (vs 4). Furthermore, the death of John the Baptist has just been related at some length in Mk 6. 14-29.
Thursday, December 17, 2020: Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:1-11; Hebrews 1:1-4
Psalm 89.1-4, 19-26 is part of a complex and ancient Psalm. The framers of the Lectionary have simplified our reading by focussing the text on only one of three significant sections in the 52 verses of this long Psalm. Reading the Psalm in full reveals three main sections: vss 1-18, a complex and lively hymn on God’s creative power and restraining of chaos; vss 19-37, a detailed reference to a prophetic oracle on the election of David and his house to the kingship and; vss 38-51, a lament over the decline of the kingship. Vs 52 is a closing ascription of praise to integrate all elements in praise.
Our passage takes only the first 4 verses of the first section and the first eight verses of the second. This makes a neat Psalm completely focussed on the promise to David, a psalm very appropriate to Advent when we celebrate the coming of Jesus in the line of David.
Vss 1-2 strike a note of praise to God and God’s love and steadfast faithfulness. Vss 3 & 4 prefigure the focus on the promise to David as an expression of God’s steadfast love.
Cutting out vss 5-18 enables the Lectionary to immediately reinforce vss 3-4 with the development of the theme of the Davidic kingship. Vss 19-20 reinforce not the original anointing of David as king by Samuel (described in 1 Samuel 16) but is far more suggestive of the prophetic vision of Nathan about God’s covenant with David described in 2 Samuel 7. The Psalm seems to embody a multi-layered or developing tradition as to what the promise to the Davidic kingship actually was.
Vs 21 describes how God’s hand shall always remain with him; my arm shall also strengthen him.
Vss 22-24 describe the victory and cunning that the King shall have through God’s support and faithfulness. Vs 25 is almost a reprise of the missing hymn (vss 5-18) to God’s control of the forces of chaos symbolised in the seas and rivers enacted through the King. Vs 26 reflects the ancient idea of the King as the adopted son of God.
2 Samuel 6.1-11: This passage has inspired (amongst other things) one of the Indiana Jones movies Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike nearly everyone in the movie (who couldn’t wait to get hold of the Ark), David becomes very reluctant to take delivery because of the danger (vs 9). Despite the danger, the Ark of the Covenant has held a special place in the human imagination.
The Ark enclosed the tablets of the law and on the lid were two sculptures of the cherubim on which the Lord was enthroned (vs 2). Just what ‘the cherubim’ were in a culture where religious image-making was strictly prohibited does invite question.
The critical incident in this passage is the death of Uzzah (vs 7) although the meaning of the Hebrew at this point is uncertain (see the textual note in biblegateway.com).
The fate of the Ark is one of the great puzzles of history. In the movie it is lost among a vast trove of treasures from world cultures in a government warehouse somewhere in Washington USA. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to have it in Axum, Ethiopia. Various other possible locations are described in the Wikipedia entry for Ark of the Covenant.
If you do happen to come across the Ark in your travels, the common wisdom is that, like Pandora’s Box, you shouldn’t touch it, and never try to open it!
Hebrews 1.1-4 is the opening of the book of Hebrews describing the ascension and exaltation of Jesus. In a brief few verses we have the sweep of salvation history from the prophets (vs 1), and the status of Jesus as a Son or the Son (attested in various places in the NT), the heir of all things (cf 1 Corinthians 15.20-28) and the one through whom he also created the worlds (note the plural, cf John 1.3). In this language vs 2 paints a cosmic picture of Jesus, a picture then extended in vs 3 where Jesus is not only the reflection of God’s glory but also the exact imprint of God’s very being who sustains all things by his powerful word. This is a high and closely woven Christology. Vs 3 includes the saving work of Jesus in his having made purification for sins. The closing verse caps this off with the contrast between Jesus and the angels, a lead in to tomorrow’s reading.
Friday, December 18, 2020: Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:12-19; Hebrews 1:5-14
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
In 2 Samuel 6.12-19 David overcomes his fear and brings the Ark into the city. When he saw the blessing the Ark brought to Obed-edom he brought it into Jerusalem with both rejoicing and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling every six paces (vs 13).
His wife Michal was upset, and the consequences of this are explored in vss 20-23 where David defended himself against her contempt. The text then says she was childless to her dying day.
Vss 17-19 give a sense of the nature of a religious festival in which the cattle offerings were shared and the people were given food (vs 19). If you read the detail of the sacrificial arrangements in the OT you will see that the parts of the sacrificed animals that the Lord ‘savoured’ was the fat over the kidneys rather than the prime steaks. I suspect this arrangement suited the Lord’s people very well.
Hebrews 1.5-14 carries on from yesterday’s reading and would suggests that the people to whom Hebrews was written were into angels in a big way. We do not think much about angels – except perhaps in the lead up to Christmas.
Mention of angels is not uniform across the New Testament. Mark mentions them 5 times and John 3 times. Paul in all his writings mentions angels on average less than one and a half times in each of his letters. But Matthew has 19 angel references, Luke 46 (in his gospel and in Acts), Revelation 28 and Hebrews 14!
So angels were important to the people to whom Hebrews was written and in this passage the writer makes very clear that, if angels are good, Jesus is far better. The structure of the passage is an extended collection of OT quotations employed to support the pre-eminence of Jesus.
Do you have a belief in angels and what is the substance of that belief? Have angels ever been a part of your personal experience? If so, are you able to talk about this with others or does it remain private?
Saturday, December 19, 2020: Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Judges 13:2-24; John 7:40-52
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Judges 13.2-24 is the back story to the life of Samson, probably included in this week for the insight it gives us into the experience of angels in the life of God’s people and for the insight into the lifestyle of the Nazirite (see vss 4-7). The Nazirites lived an abstemious and pure life and let their hair grow. John the Baptist may have been a form of Nazirite. There was nothing magical about Samson’s hair – it was simply a sign of his devotion to God, his dedication. When Delilah cut it off, he had breached his vow and his strength left him, only to return when his hair regrew. As well as being a Nazirite, Samson was a judge, a deliverer of his people (vs 5b) raised up by God as a great military leader.
But what is fascinating this week with all the celebration of angels in the lead up to Christmas, is how the angel was experienced by Manoah and his wife (described only as his wife, or the woman throughout. I will just list what we learn:
- He is identified throughout as a man or a man of God although he looked like an angel of God (vss 6, 10)
- Manoah didn’t recognise him as an angel (vss 11, 16b)
- The angel’s name was too wonderful to be disclosed (vs 18)
- He was recognised in the act of sacrifice when the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar (vs 20)
- Manoah was very afraid (vs 22) but his wife calmed him down (vs 23).
What can we learn through this? Angels are hard to spot. They look like ordinary human beings. It is not how they look but what they say that matters. Encountering them can be frightening, but if we are frightened listen to our sensible partners and realise that angels happen in our lives, they are a gift, and there is a lot more to be frightened of than angels.
John 7.40-52: this is another controversy where Jesus’ enemies mingle with the crowds but there is such a confused and mixed opinion that they cannot arrest him. A sub-theme in John is the way the Temple police who are actually interacting with Jesus, are drawn to him (vss 45-46) but the chief priests and Pharisees reject their testimony. Another element of John is the hidden disciples or fellow travellers who are working away within the system and trying to protect Jesus. Here it is Nicodemus (described as going to Jesus in John chapter 3) who defends him (vss 50-51). Another example is the nameless disciple known to the high priest (John 18.15) who was able to get Simon Peter into the courtyard of the high priest, where he then denied Jesus three times.
Monday, December 7, 2020: Psalm 27; Isaiah 26:7-15; Acts 2:37-42
Psalm 27 is a remarkable Psalm that seems to breathe two very different ‘spirits’ or moods. Vss 1-6 are filled with trust and confidence, calm and assurance. Vss 7-13 are petitions and pleading in the midst of danger, distress and rejection. Vs 14 with its call to trust and hope, strikes a new note of patience and trust.
Many commentators have seen the contrast between the first and second parts of the Psalm to be so great as to require a conclusion that here we have two different Psalms – that they cannot belong together. A more reflective position is that here we have the prayer of someone who is falsely accused (vs 12) and who has been rejected and isolated (vs 10), who nonetheless rests in the calm assurance of their faith, described in vs 1-6.
The metaphors of the kinds trouble that faith can meet are invoked in the early section in terms of military conflict (vs 3), and individual wickedness (vs 2). When such troubles come (in this case in some form of false accusation – vs 12), the faith of the singer leads them to call on God (vss 7-12).
Vs 13 is the conclusion of these petitions, expressing confidence that the singer will be vindicated not in the next life, in some kind of heavenly acquittal, but now, in their current existence: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (vs 13b).
Vs 14 is a profound re-affirmation of what has been declared in vss 1-6, a final integrating statement that binds together the content of the singer’s faith to this point (vss 1-6), and the pleading arising from their current travails (vss 7-13) in an encouraging exhortation to wait, trust and be strong in the Lord.
In this time of Advent note the theme of ‘waiting’ that is affirmed in vs 14.
This psalm can strengthen and encourage those who are in the trouble of a personal tension where someone has accused them, or misunderstands their motivations, right through to the peculiarly modern distress of a social media ‘pile-on’ in which it seems the whole world is attacking and hating you. In the latter situation the pressure can be intense, even leading to suicide or enduring trauma. Psalm 27 is one of the ‘shields’ that the Scripture gives to us to strengthen and encourage us. It is well worth returning to regularly!
Isaiah 26.7-15 has probably been selected for this week because of its theme of waiting (vs 8a). It affirms that the Lord makes the way of the righteous level and smooth (vs 7, and through to vs 9) while the wicked find their way confounded because of the own limitations (vs 10).
Vss 11-13 returns to the theme of the Lord’s establishment of your people and vs 14 celebrates the triumph of the Lord over other gods.
Vs 15 announces that the Lord has enlarged the nation by extend[ing] all the borders of the land. If you have been following the international negotiations over peace in Palestine/Israel you will know that this is contentious. Israel is still forming ‘settlements’ within the Occupied territories which is a form of land theft in contravention of international law. If Israel were to simply annex all the Palestinian territories it would be far simpler and perhaps more legal, but then Israel would have to grant citizenship to millions of Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) which would make impossible the Jewish state. The taking of land, squeezing the Palestinians into ever smaller areas, without granting either the right of citizenship of an extended Israel or the right to form an independent state in the remaining territory, is a continuing and extensive oppression. Is this really the work of the Lord to be celebrated, or something to be condemned and opposed?
Acts 2.37-42 describes the first flowering of the Christian church after the resurrection of Jesus, with 3,000 new converts on that day.
Tuesday, December 8, 2020: Psalm 27; Isaiah 4:2-6; Acts 11:1-18
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Isaiah 4.2-6 is a brief oracle looking to the future (On that day – vs 2). Vs 2 uses fruit and branch as metaphors of blessing but the overall context is one of the depletion of Jerusalem (whoever is left in Zion – vs 3). What are the bloodstains of Jerusalem and the filth of the daughters of Zion (vs 4)? Are these references to violence and corruption within the prior Israelite society? Or are they references to the devastation of the fall of the city in 587 BCE? It would appear that the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning (vs 4b) refer to the fall of the city, but interprets them as cleansing and ultimately restorative. Vs 5 sees the smoke of the burning city being replaced by a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night as symbols of God’s glory (vs 5), a reminder of the Exodus experience in the wilderness. Over the glory is a canopy which is both shade, shelter and refuge (vs 6).
Acts 11.1-13 describes the next stage in the expansion of the early church – the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles. The full story actually starts in Acts 10, but here Peter gives a summary of that previous chapter in vss 5-17. Vs 18 is the climax in which the circumcised believers who criticized him (vs 2) are silenced and then praise God, accepting the Gentile believers.
Wednesday, December 9, 2020: Psalm 27; Malachi 2:10-3:1; Luke 1:5-17
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Malachi 2.20-3.1 is a reading for Advent because of vs 3.1 – the well-known I am sending my messenger to prepare the way… But what is helpful here is the context of the original prophecy given in 2.10-17. The key accusation is stated in vs 11: … for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. Some kind of syncretism (bringing worship of Yahweh and other gods together) seems to have occurred and even spread through the tents of Jacob (vs 12).
The failure of the worship of Yahweh is described in vss 13-14 and the true faith is presented as the wife of your youth (vs 15) who has been abandoned, divorced. Both divorce and violence are condemned in vs 16. Note the double mention of one God in vs 15: is this a reference to a polytheism that may be the essence of the abomination occurring in Jerusalem? Or is it simply expressing that Yahweh is the only God, and having any other gods beside him is to forsake the one true God?
Luke 1.5-17 is the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist and is fairly straightforward. What is missing is the aftermath of this angelic pronouncement found in vss 18-25. I encourage you to read on!
Of all the characters in the drama of Christmas, Zechariah alone is a ‘religious professional’ – he was a priest and all this ‘God stuff’ was his business. And Zecharaiah is the only person in the drama (apart from King Herod) who does not ‘get with the program’ and play his part in the narrative. What we read today is all very good, right and proper. It was a high and holy day with all the people assembled outside (vs 10), Zechariah chosen by lot to play the most important part in the day’s worship (vs 9), and then to add to the drama an angel appears in the temple with a message. Not your average Sunday, that’s for sure!
And Zechariah is terrified (vs 12). When the happy news and all that will flow from it is communicated by the angel to the priest, Zechariah doubts and there, in the heart of the Temple, asks the great question that tempts every religious professional from time to time (all the time?): how do I know that any of this is true? (vs 18). You can read the rest of the story and see how it plays out.
Thursday, December 10, 2020: Psalm 126; Habakkuk 2:1-5; Philippians 3:7-11
Psalm 126 presents various difficulties of interpretation that are not immediately obvious in English translation. It falls into three sections. Vss 1-3 look back to dramatic events of deliverance at the hand of the Lord. Vs 4 is a lament and call for the Lord to act again in the present. Vss 5-6 are set in the future tense and assure the hearers that God will indeed act to save.
The heart of the interpretive problem is that the tense of vss 1-3 could also be read as a future tense. Some scholars refer to this kind of grammatical construction as the ‘prophetic perfect’. Similar issues (and a very similar structure) are found in Psalm 85. The issue with these ambiguities of tense is just how we situate the psalm in the history of Israel so as to make sense of what it refers to.
You can see in the footnotes on biblegateway.com how the translation of the text is dependent on which context the translators think it is referring to.
If vss 1-3 are read in the (future) perfect tense, then this could be a prayer dating from the Exile where vss 1-3 predict what God will surely do, vss 5-6 confirm this and vs 4 is the substance of the people’s lament and petition from their experience of Exile.
If vss 1-3 are read as a past tense, referring back to the Exile, then the Psalm has a post-Exilic setting – but what was left for the Lord to do? Why did the joyous Exiles who had experienced great things need further deliverance?
One solution of this issue is to read the setting as indeed post-Exilic, but during that early time – the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the project of re-founding and rebuilding Jerusalem and Israel as a nation were indeed fragile. The mighty event of return from Exile has occurred, but more was needed. ‘We are finding that we are like a stream in the desert, running dry and failing’ (vs 4). Then comes the re-assurance of the promise of vss 5-6.
The ‘sowing with tears/reaping with joy’ metaphor could reflect some ancient Near-Eastern cultures in which ritual weeping was associated with the sowing season because the seed was seen as the body of the deity, interred in the earth in a form of burial. Without rain it would indeed be a burial and no crop would come forth (thus, for example, the cult of Osiris). It could also be a metaphor for the hard work of ploughing and sowing. Finally, if the setting of the psalm was the time of re-establishing the ruined Jerusalem with the danger and privations attested in Nehemiah and Ezra, ‘sowing with tears’ would be an apt way of describing those difficult years, from which future generations would reap a joyful harvest.
Habakkuk 2.1-5: Habakkuk is a little-read book of the Old Testament. The reading for today is very apt, given that we are in a time of waiting, of expectation. Habakkuk was prophesying in the late 7th century BCE, before the fall of Jerusalem.
This reading has some beautiful poetry. The opening metaphor is that of the prophet as watchman (vs 1), but a watchman who doesn’t just passively wait scanning an empty horizon, but has put (presumably to the Lord) my complaint. As a preacher who feels a responsibility for the word, I find the next 2 verses so profound and encouraging! The answer comes: write the vision… so that a runner may read it (vs 2), a reference to the practice of messengers (runners) carrying news in the ancient world. Vs 3 gets to the nub of the problem: the prophet cannot see the vision, doesn’t know what it is. God says,
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay. (vs 3)
For the church in the early 21st century wondering what the future holds, these are glad words indeed! How often on a Sunday morning when I am due to preach have I pondered this text, and trusted it!
Again, note the theme of waiting – central to this season.
Vss 4-5 are an oracle against the wealthy and proud (how often those go together). Vs 4b (the righteous will live by their faith) is quoted in the New Testament, a pivotal text in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. It is seen by many early Christian writers as a starting point in the OT for an NT understanding of faith.
Philippians 3.7-11 is a well-known reflection by Paul pondering his own faith. It is probably vs 11 that has led to it being included in this week of Advent: Paul looks forward to the completion of his faith in a future resurrection. Faith, for Paul, has meant a re-evaluation of what he had previously gained, now to be considered as loss (vs 7).
The surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord leads him to regard everything else as loss (vs 8). The word translated rubbish in Greek (skubalon) is quite strong. My Gk dictionary gives the meaning: dung, garbage. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message catches the sense of the Greek when he translates this as everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant – dog dung.
Vss 9, 10 and 11 are a powerful statement of what it means to gain Christ (vs 8c).
Friday, December 11, 2020: Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:2-6; Philippians 3:12-16
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Habakkuk 3.2-6: If Habbakuk chapters 1-2 are a dialogue between God and the prophet, chapter 3 is a more liturgical piece. It is described as a prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth (Hab 3.1). It only appears here (in the plural) and in Psalm 7 (in the singular). We do not know what the word means. My internet searching found the following interesting (but unattributed) reflection:
Comparing Habakkuk 3 with Psalm 7, we find similar themes. Both songs paint a picture of dire trouble. Habakkuk 3 speaks of earthquakes, crumbling mountains, pestilence, floods, arrows, spears, and calamity; Psalm 7describes vicious lions, trampled lives, rage, swords, flaming arrows, and violence. Both songs end with praise to the Lord for His deliverance from the surrounding trouble. And both songs mention the shiggaion or shigionoth.
David classifies his song as a shiggaion. Habakkuk says that his song should be sung in the manner of the shigionoth. As best we can tell, the tumultuous poetry of Habakkuk 3 and Psalm 7 was to be accompanied by music that fit the theme. “On shigionoth” probably meant “with impassioned triumph,” “with rapidity,” or “with abrupt changes of tune.”
Philippians 3.12-16 follows on from yesterday’s reading. Here the future orientation of faith is very clear. Vs 15 says that this future orientation is a characteristic of the faith of those of us then who are mature but vs 16 reminds us also to hold fast to what we have attained.
This balance between looking forward and not being satisfied with how we are now, AND not lightly abandoning what we have learned and believed in the past, is the mark of a truly mature faith. We are not called to be smug and satisfied with what we have always known to be true, locked into little bubbles of certainty and prejudice. Neither are we called to be spiritual gadflies who flit from one bloom to another, carrying neither conviction nor memory of how we came to faith and what we have believed.
Saturday, December 12, 2020: Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:13-19; Matthew 21:28-32
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Habakkuk 3.13-19 is another piece from the third chapter of Habakkuk and forms the end of the book. This can be seen in vs 19c because of the final note to the musicians (lit. to the leader: ) that the accompaniment is to be with stringed instruments. The first section alternates descriptions of the work of God (vss 13, 15) with descriptions of judgment and distress (vss 14, 16). This pattern is reversed in vss 17-18 where the opening verse describes an even if.. scenario of possible barrenness caused by either drought or the destruction brought by conquest. Even if this is so –
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
Vs 19 ends with an affirmation of the strength and trust of the prophet with a final technical note to the performers of this rich and dramatic poem (chapter 3).
Matthew 21.28-32 ends the week on a sombre note. The context for this dialogue is the Temple on the day after Jesus has disrupted and ‘cleansed’ it. The people addressed (the They of vs 31) are the chief priests and the elders of the people (Mt 21.23) who have just challenged the authority of Jesus (Mt 21.23-27).
Having successfully deflected their attack on his authority, Jesus goes after them in this passage. He lays to their charge a double failure : that they did not repent and believe John the Baptist, and secondly, that they did not repent when they saw the tax collectors and sinners repenting (vs 32).
The parable that opens the passage is an interesting one: it is not what we confess or what we say that matters to God, but what we actually do, regardless of our protestations (vss 28-30). That They ‘get it’ is clear from vs 31. Do we who claim to follow Jesus really understand and live in accordance with this parable?