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Readings for the 4th week of Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul develops his case through three phases:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

Readings for the 3rd week of Epiphany

Readings for Epiphany 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Readings for the 2nd Week after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Monday.

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Thursday.

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

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

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

For the Psalm see Thursday.

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

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

Daily Readings for Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January – a month for Lectio Divina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings for the Fourth Week of Advent

Readings for the Fourth Week of Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings for the Third Week of Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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