The Gospel weekly.
On this page the Gospel for the coming Sunday is displayed, along with a commentary.
With the Gospel we are encouraged to:
* Open our minds and hearts to God in prayer
* Read the passage once – or better, twice – and think on it.
* Read the commentary, and prayerfully reflect on the impact of the Gospel.
* Do the same again another day, for several days; that is, to meditate on the passage.
Our thanks go to Rev. Gavin Williams for the Advent and Christmas ones, and to Rev. Alex Aldous for Epiphany. Previous Gospel readings with their commentaries can be found lower down the page.
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany: 30th January 2022
Luke 2: 22-40. Alex explains in his commentary why this text is repeated here (see also 2nd Jan.) Let us use it to deepen our understanding of this passage.
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Having already, mistakenly, put before you this as an Epiphany text at the beginning of the month, let us now pick up some threads as a Candlemas text with its focus upon Christ as Light of the World being presented in the temple.
In olden times, Christmas was not simply a two-day wonder or even a twelve-day celebration but a period of forty days which would bring it to the approximate half- way point to the beginning of Lent.
It is interesting to note that candles in earlier times were sometimes seen as a means of protection against plague, illness and famine. For Christians, despite how we may regard our present pandemic, this passage speaks of light, where Christ’s coming shines through the darkness and offers real hope, not just as sign of God’s glory for the Jews who were looking for their Messiah, but as a revelation to the Gentiles. As Simeon takes the child Jesus into his arms, he declares that Jesus’ appearing is light and salvation, prepared in the sight of all humanity.
As Simeon speaks prophetically over God’s own Son, such light, he explains, is not a passive luxuriating in a beam that is sweet, but a piercing ray that searches the darkened corners of human existence, causing the falling and rising of many in Israel and a sign which will be spoken against. Jesus comes, as he said himself, not to bring unity but division for the sake of His kingdom. The elderly woman of God, Anna, who joins Simeon with a pean of praise for the child Jesus, augments the prophecy concerning revelation, light and salvation, by speaking of redemption of the holy city of Jerusalem. This was the great anointed citadel of King David, but one which has been corrupted over previous centuries with religious and moral abuse. Once more, Zion would become the place of worship in spirit and in truth, where heaven and earth would meet at the foot of a cross and begin a revolution of heart and soul.
As we light our candles this Candlemas, may we ask ourselves for what purpose we are doing this? Is Christ the Light of the World one who stands at the forefront of our hearts and minds as the means of hope and channel of glory?
Like Simeon we are called to proclaim the salvation of this Light of the World and at the same time being aware that there is a sword that may pierce the hearts of many, too. Our candles can be torches of hope and markers for pain as we look around us.
Like Anna, we can give thanks to God for all that he has done through the light of Christ and pray for the completion of his redemption in Zion: in Christ all can be redeemed as we offer them into his tender loving hands.
Third Sunday of Epiphany: 23rd January 2022
Luke 4: 14 – 21
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus returned from forty harrowing days in the desert, being tempted by the devil, but scripture does not record our Lord as being crushed or defeated but one who returns ‘in the power of the Spirit.’ He was tried and tested but came through the fire, ready to demonstrate his mission and unravel his identity to his people, beginning in his home town of Nazareth. After already being received with great acclaim as he preaches and teaches, the focus is upon his place of worship – the synagogue – ‘as was his custom.’ This passage heralds a new era where he declares himself to be the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
In what is regarded by theologians as ‘heilsgeschichte’ – salvation history – here we see in this chapter a divine moment of revelation: in God’s perfect timing the elected reading for that Sabbath day is from Isaiah 61 and it is Jesus who has been asked to read it. The identity of the Servant in the prophet’s declarations becomes the living Word in Christ. Jesus’ mission and job description is set forth. It is through the promises foretold that Jesus would bring salvation through this jubilee time of history to unleash the Sprit in healing and deliverance, and liberation of the poor and oppressed through good news preaching. Jesus has already been baptised and received his anointing directly from the Spirit, and now scripture affirms it.
The passage ends again with a sense of expectancy: ‘all eyes were fastened on him,’ as he announces that this is the appointed moment for God’s kingdom to be inaugurated.
As each of us continue to inhabit the era of the Spirit before Christ comes again, how are we ‘fastening our eyes on him’ and looking to him as the author and finisher of our faith (as the writer of Hebrews chapter 12 describes the journey with our Saviour)? He whose mission is to heal, restore, effect recovery and preach boldly, is now our mission to a needy world and each of us, empowered by that same Spirit, have the gifts and resources to continue that mission.
It is so easy for us to be caught up with the ‘bad news’ of things that press in upon us in our present situation, but as Christians are we prepared to be counter-intuitive and counter-cultural in our approach to the world? If we are, then let us know that Christ plus any one of us, however small we may feel, is always a majority, and today is the ‘acceptable time, today is the day of salvation.’
Second Sunday of Epiphany: 16th January 2022
John 2, 1-11
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Cana is traditionally regarded as being 4.5 miles north-east of Nazareth, not far from Capernaum with a 100metre elevation: it would have been a place very familiar to Jesus’ family. There is something quite intimate about this recorded event, for it is rare that we see any normal familial activities recorded in the gospels. However, as the story unfolds, the normal gives way to the supernatural and this becomes the first of seven Jesus’ signs in John to reveal his identity as the Son of God.
The gospel story seems to suggest that Jesus’ mother had faith in him from the first to rescue the bridegroom’s family and the master of ceremonies from utter embarrassment: to run out of wine was indeed a social faux pas of the highest order. We see a typically Johanine potency coming through the text: Jesus is seen as the one who is in control and his timing for the revelation of his glory belongs to the Father.
The context for the ‘sign’ is important: the stone water jars used for ceremonial washing come to represent the old order belonging to the Law. They are filled as they would have been filled countless times before, with ordinary water. But as the master of the banquet ladles out the contents, the new wine of the spirit is lavished upon the groom and then the guests. The sign that Jesus has wrought is one that demonstrates that a new order, a new kingdom has been inaugurated, and it is one which is full of God’s greatest creativity – ‘Chateau de Cana’ is new, yet vintage and of the most exquisite quality. Such is God’s kingdom that Jesus is ushering in, where grace and freedom in God’s spirit can flow.
Mary’s instruction was: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Are we prepared this year to learn obedience to our Saviour, to listen, to wait and then to act, and in so doing to discover that ‘service is perfect freedom’?
May we learn, too, what it is to break out of traditions which could potentially bind us; and in listening to the Spirit, discover that the life in the Spirit is one of richness and abundance. As we learn under his instruction what it is to be co-workers with Him, we can bring glory to Him through the gifts that the Spirt he liberally showers upon us as we receive them in faith.
First Sunday of Epiphany: 9th January 2022
Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21, 22
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
The passage opens with expectancy and longing. Although prophets had been few and far between, there had been one or two people who had claimed Messiahship and seemed outwardly to have been a saviour to the nation of Israel. Such had been the experience 150 years before with the Maccabean revolt against the Hellenic oppression of the Jews, and then Simon of Peraea in 4BC and Judas the Galilean in 6AD had both led separate uprisings against the Herodians and the Romans and declared themselves divinely appointed kings.
The Grecian oppression had now morphed itself into its Roman successor and the people longed to see deliverance. Could this man John the Baptist then be the Messiah? Unlike many power-driven leaders who sought to inflate their own egos and make divine claims, John the Baptist pointed to Another: to Jesus. With John’s preaching of repentance and readiness to meet this Messiah, came his practice of baptism: a rite of purifications and general cleansing now became a purifying of heart as well as mind and body. But this act prefigured what he said the Christ would bring: a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His would be not just a purifying but a filling and equipping for people to serve and become like Jesus himself.
Jesus enters the mission field, but surprises even John himself, and sets a model for what service would look like as an anointed leader. He had already been circumcised and cut himself off from sin, though his purity didn’t demand it, and now he wishes to be baptised, though he never sinned, and what is more he submits himself to John to conduct such a ritual. In his submission, Jesus then receives affirmation form the Father: like none other, the Father speaks of his beloved Son, and the Spirit whom John has talked about is conferred upon him. His anointing as Messiah comes from God himself and the Spirit is outpoured like a dove.
The people were expectant but did not know whom to look to. We know whom we should look to as we come to this New Year and can be assured of a continuing filling and baptism of the Holy Spirit as our hearts are open to Him. We need not look to another leader but can expect in faith that our Lord and Master should lead and guide us into a greater experience of him as we step into the unknown in these omicron-studded months.
May we like John the Baptist, having been equipped with the Holy Spirit learn more and more what it is to point others to Jesus Christ and his saving power, so that we are not defined by plagues, pestilence or people in leadership around us, but by the power that is vested within us to be different and prepared to make a mark for Him. May we this year, as the Westminster catechism adjures as the chief aim of man: ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’
Epiphany: 2nd January 2022
Luke 2: 22-40
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph
and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the
Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord” [b] ), 24 and to
offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves
or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and
devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on
him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he
had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the
Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause
the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken
against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will
pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She
was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and
then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped
night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she
gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the
redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they
returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became
strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Strictly speaking, the celebration of the Epiphany refers to the Matthean revelation
of God to the Magi in guiding them by natal star to Bethlehem. But in our study of
Luke, the passage today can be construed very much as an ‘epiphany,’ or
revelation, in the temple, to those who arrived to behold their Saviour. Firstly,
however, Luke prefaces this epiphanic episode with mention of Jesus’ circumcision
on the eighth day with the name that had been revealed even prior to his conception.
Then after the 40-day ritual of purification that followed any birth, Mary went with
Joseph to Jerusalem, to consecrate their son to God and what is revealed to us is that
the Saviour’s lowly birth is echoed in the humble sacrifice of a pair of doves –
not a lamb, as would befit someone of a wealthier background.
Moving from a Lukan identification with the poor, we now see another Lukan
characteristic at play – namely, that of the work of the Holy Spirit: Simeon, a
devout Jew, in the tradition of the prophets of old encountered and lived by the
power of the Holy Spirit. Eschewing the prophetic silence of God for the past 400
years, Simeon was one who eagerly looked forward to the Messiah’s coming, and
he received an epiphany that the chosen One of Israel was to come before his
death. The Messiah’s appearance is described by Luke as the ‘consolation of Israel,’
fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic words: ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem that her hard service has been completed, that her sin
has been paid for.’ (Is.40:1-2). The sorrow of the nation, caused by sin was to be
removed by this coming Saviour.
As the Spirt moves Simeon to come to the temple, there the full ‘epiphany’ takes
place: the child Saviour is presented to Simeon and in the words which form the
Nunc Dimittis: ‘my eyes have seen your salvation.’ The Christ-child is to be the
means of salvation, not only to the Jews but to all men and women, but as Simeon
reveals to Mary: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ As Simeon is mindful of
other words of Isaiah in chapter 53, he knew that Israel’s consolation and the
Gentiles’ light would come at great cost – the death of the Messiah for the
expiation of the sin that had been the curse upon God’s people, and indeed, the
sins of the whole world. The sorrow of sin now will translate to become the
sorrow of the Saviour who will bear that sin.
Luke’s third characteristic, already endorsed by his focus on Mary and Elizabeth, is
that of the work and ministry of women, and here in this passage we see the
prophetess, Anna, endorsing just what Simeon had said and breaking out in a pean
of praise for this child who would become ‘the redemption of Jerusalem.’ Mary
and Joseph now return to Nazareth with their eyes and hearts open, spurred on by
all that has been revealed to them: an epiphany for them in every sense.
At this moment in the Christian year, may we come with hearts and eyes open to
all that God is wanting to reveal to us in the person of Jesus, through the power of
his Spirit, to be an expectant people of God’s power and grace.
May we follow in the footsteps of Simeon, diligently searching scripture and asking
God to reveal more of himself to us, and like Anna come to our place of worship
in a spirit of prayer and fasting, knowing that our Lord inhabits the praises of his
Let us give thanks for the ministry of faithful people in our midst who persevere
and do not give up, and for the ministry of women who reflect the heart of God
for others. Enable us, O God, to be encouragers and those who are faithful for his
sake in this coming year, and believing that in Christ, there is salvation for us as
individuals and as a congregation.
Christmas Day 2021
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
It is no surprise that the message of the angels is given to shepherds. Like Mary, shepherds were socially insignificant, and Luke’s story has already told us that God is exalting ‘those of low degree’ (1.52). So, the shepherds get to hear the good news before anyone else. Moreover, the message concerns a Saviour born in the city of David and David was a shepherd anointed king by the prophet Samuel. Likewise, Jesus will be a shepherd King. Luke’s readers can contrast Jesus with Augustus, who established the ‘Pax Romana’. This ‘peace’ meant Roman citizens having the freedom to go on doing what they liked without interference, lording it over everyone else who experienced the downsides of Empire – taxation, compulsory military service, enslavement, and summary justice.
A not uncommon way we misunderstand the peace announced by the angels is as a private interior feeling of tranquillity or freedom from anxiety – inner peace. Again, this is not what the angels are talking about. Like love, peace only makes sense when it exists between two or more persons. It is relational, a gift from God to us as a community.
It is this relational peace about which the angels are singing, and it is the kind Judean peasants really want. Luke is going to say time and time again that a pretty considerable change in the way the world is organised will be required, especially between the haves and the have-nots. For God’s peace or ‘shalom’ is the prosperous and harmonious community life of the kingdom of God. Luke says it is God’s eternal purpose to establish this peace. God has promised to do so. And the evidence that God can be relied on to keep his promise is the babe in a manger. That is what the shepherds are told to look for, and that is what they find when they go to the stable in Bethlehem. Hallelujah! (2.20).
Like the shepherds, let us hasten to the manger and recognize God’s amazing goodwill and kindness towards us.
Like Mary, however much or little we understand about what God is doing in our lives, may we continue to look for signs of the coming of the kingdom and the fulfilment of God’s promises in our lives.
Luke’s gospel does not say whether there was a midwife for Mary when her time came to give birth. But there is a sixth century Celtic tradition that St Brigit was a serving maid at the inn and did what she could for the travelling strangers. Let us remember in our prayers both those who are soon to give birth and all those who will care for them.
Fourth Sunday of Advent 2021
Luke 1.39-45 (46-55)
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Luke’s story about Elizabeth and Mary is like an overture. It contains important themes that will be developed by Luke as he writes about the ministries of John and Jesus. The first theme concerns the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth and John are each filled with the Spirit. This means that their words, inspired by God, are true. Secondly, Both Elizabeth and John are important in the purposes of God, but both are quick to recognize the greater importance of her or his younger counterpart in God’s unfolding drama. Thirdly, Luke is keen to point out the continuity between the story he will relate, and God’s purposes as stated in the Jewish scriptures. The hymn that Mary sings, is modelled on Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2). On Mary’s lips we hear the prophetic message of the radical and revolutionary nature of the rule of the God whose son she carries. What the church calls the Magnificat, offers comfort for all who are lowly, humiliated, poor and dependent on God and not proud of their own resources and independence. It promises that God will continue to act as God acted in the past, in practical and material ways. Fourthly, the Magnificat is a hymn of praise with a hard edge. It gives warning to the wealthy and powerful, for the way in which individuals and communities use and share their material resources is a sign of a deeper truth. This is a recurring theme in Luke and in the early part of Acts. See the disturbing cautionary tale of Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Acts 5.1-11) which Luke contrasts with what the rest of ‘those who believed’, including Barnabas, did with their possessions (Acts 4.32-37).
Mary is blessed because she responds enthusiastically to the idea of cooperating actively with God’s plan of salvation. Her blessedness consists in this, that having been chosen for special service and having received an amazing promise, she believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord and she acted accordingly. Do we know where we fit into God’s salvation drama and have we found happiness and contentment, as Mary did, in performing the part that we have been given to play?
Third Sunday of Advent 2021
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who
warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin
to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from
these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the
trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11 In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever
has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do
likewise.’ 12 Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what
should we do?’ 13 He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for
you.’ 14 Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not
extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts
concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I
baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to
untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His
winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his
granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
How can John the Baptist’s announcement of God’s judgment be good news?
Luke is convinced that God intends to save everyone, starting with the crowds and
including unlikely figures like tax-collectors and Roman soldiers. What will not
save anyone is belonging to a particular nation or religion. Only if we repent can
we be saved; only then will God be able to bring new life where there was none
Repentance is seen in practical action. Like Jesus, John demands that people
should share with one another. They should not be content with more than
enough when others have less than they need. Whereas Jesus called his disciples to
leave everything to follow him, John orders people not to leave their jobs, but to
do them as they should be done. Wherever God has put us, we can serve God by
doing a good day’s work.
Finally, Luke leaves us with a picture of judgment. The King is on his way. He will
baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Spirit is the long-awaited presence
of God, dynamic and creative, poured out at Pentecost and thereafter. Fire is more
ambiguous, both light and destruction. There is both threat and promise here. It
could mean there are two baptisms, one of blessing and one of judgment. John the
Baptist has started the winnowing process, separating those who repent from those
who do not. The coming King will assign them their respective places. As Jesus
says when he speaks of fire and baptism (12.49,50), the gospel is divisive. What
John does not see is that Jesus will not be inflicting fiery judgment on others. He
will be undergoing it himself to bring about God’s salvation.
George Herbert’s hymn is a good reminder that all of us have a part to play in the
‘Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for thee!’
We do not know whether Herbert’s servants felt they were making “drudgery
divine” when they swept his house. But we can pray that whatever we have to do
on any given day, we would seek, with God’s help, to do it as well as we can.
Second Sunday of Advent 2021, December 5th.
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
This week, our focus is on John the Baptist. His role was to prepare a people for the coming of the Messiah. In chapter 3, Luke’s story begins to pass from the private sphere (the story of the births of John and Jesus), to the public or political realm. Luke gives details of the history and government of the world God intends to save.
The Romans and the three sons of Herod the Great (Herod Antipas, Philip and Lysanias), who ruled using fear and oppression, appear to be in charge. But change is coming: ‘the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah’. John is called to be a prophet. He proclaims a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
Note that John is in the wilderness and in the region around the Jordan. These places had religious significance because of Israel’s time in the wilderness during the Exodus. At that time, God was especially present with his people, guiding and testing them and the Jordan was crossed on the way to the promised land. Luke is preparing his readers to expect a new closeness to God and a new rescue plan. The rescue plan is going to be for everyone, not just for Israel. God is going to keep the promise he made through the prophet Isaiah: ‘All flesh shall see the salvation of God’. (See also Simeon’s song or the Nunc Dimittis, 2.29-32).
Perhaps we feel our lives – personal or political – cannot go on as they are and that something has to change. But what? And how? What kind of ‘road-mending’ might we do during Advent to prepare for the coming of the King of Kings?
Advent Sunday 2021, November 28
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
What are we waiting for?
On Advent Sunday, Christians may well ask, ‘What are we waiting for?’ Luke’s gospel offers
guidance to all who live between what has already happened (the first coming of the Son of Man
and the inauguration of the kingdom of God) and what is still to come (the parousia and the final
consummation of all that God has promised).
For Luke’s original audience, much of what Jesus prophesies in chapter 21 has already taken
place. Jerusalem has fallen (to the Romans in 70AD), and the church has been persecuted (see
the martyrdom of Stephen and Paul’s hardships in the Acts of the Apostles). Most importantly,
Jesus has already revealed himself as the Son of Man. He forgives sins (Luke 5.24). He is lord of
the sabbath (6.5). He has come eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (7.34). He has
already endured suffering and death.
The kingdom of God is also a present reality. That is why Luke’s account of the Passion places a
heavy emphasis on the kingship of Jesus (22.3). The kingdom has been revealed in Jesus’s work,
in casting out demons (11.20) and in healing (9.11; 7.22). But Jesus also taught his followers to
pray for the kingdom to come in all its fulness (11.2; 22.29-30). And it is prayer which Luke the
doctor prescribes for us, Jesus’s disciples, living as we do between the now and the not yet.
Luke says we should be alert and pray. Pray for strength. Pray that we do not lose heart when
many turn their back on God. Pray when our hearts are troubled. Pray that we may seek relief
from trouble and anxiety in ways that do not harm ourselves or others. Pray that we do not allow
ourselves to be distracted by ‘the worries of this life’. Pray that we may find ways to help others
we know who are in difficulty. In prayer, let us honestly put before Jesus the struggle, weariness,
or fatigue that we are feeling in seeking to follow him in our day to day lives. And let us pray for
the fruits of the Spirit, particularly patience and faithfulness.