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 variously to to Rev. Gavin Williams and to Rev. Alex Aldous. Previous Gospel readings with their commentaries can be found lower down the page.
9 October 2022 – 17th Sunday after Trinity
Luke 17.11-19 – The Grateful Samaritan?
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
The story of the healing of the ten lepers is found only in Luke. It is the only New Testament story in which ten people are healed of the same disease by obedience to the command to go and show themselves to the priests (does this mean a journey to Jerusalem?). Luke could be using it as an example of the miraculous effect of faith which he has just mentioned (17.6: ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.’). Or if not about faith, is Luke stressing the importance of gratitude? Possibly, but what if Luke’s concern is not just with faith and gratitude but with the person who is expressing them?
The word used by Luke that is translated ‘foreigner’ in v18 is the Greek allogenes. It meant a religious alien. It was used in the inscription on the barrier in the Temple in Jerusalem warning non-Israelites not to proceed further than the Court of the Gentiles. But in this healing story, Luke is showing that a religious alien who has had to keep his distance (v12) may now draw near to God (v16) to show his gratitude for all that God has done for him.
Again and again, it seems to be the response of non-Israelites to Jesus which interests Luke. Jesus is sought out by a centurion whose faith he commends, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’ (Lk 7.9). Such is the faith of another centurion, Cornelius, that Peter must baptize him and his household (Acts 10). Another religious alien, a high official at the Ethiopian court of Queen Candace, demonstrates his faith by insisting on being baptized by the apostle Philip (Acts 8.36-38).
The word translated ‘faith’ in v19 is the Greek pistis (Latin, fides). Professor Teresa Morgan argues that we need to reassess our (mis)understanding of faith as propositional, a matter of intellectual assent (and of endless dispute). Instead, she says that those who wrote the books and letters that later became the New Testament, and its early readers, would have understood pistis as ‘relational trust’. This was the case personally, among family members, patrons, clients and friends; and professionally among soldiers, lawyers, diplomats and (even) politicians. This was also the case in relation to gods (the problem for pagans being that the gods were not always trustworthy).
Thus the pistis of the Samaritan leper is his trust in Jesus. Similarly, Christians belong to a community based on and structured by trust. Our pistis (in the sense of trustworthiness as well as trustfulness) should be evident in the way we relate to each other and to God.
And how might we relate better to ‘religious aliens’?
2 October 2022 – Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity
Luke 17.5-10 – Lord, ‘Increase Our Faith!’
5The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.
7‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’
The apostles could be asking for more faith because Jesus has just told them that they must forgive one another seven times a day (v3-4) and they have realised how hard this is. But the solution to the apostles’ request is not great faith, it is faith in a great God. The faith Jesus is talking about using hyperbole (dramatic overstatement) is a combination of expectation and persistence, both of which are rooted in trust in God. The question is often whether we are willing to trust the God revealed to us in and through Jesus.
Jesus could also be using hyperbole in the parable of the master and servant (v7-10) to guard us from misunderstanding God. It is a warning to those tempted to adopt a bookkeeping mentality in their dealings with God. To think like this is to make a serious mistake about the kind of God that God is. Jesus’s disciples cannot run up credit in a ledger that puts God under an obligation. The whole idea of acquiring merit through good works or being able to demand our ‘just desserts’ must be abandoned in all our dealings with God, for God is no man’s debtor. ‘All things come from him and of his own do we give him’. Nevertheless, God loves to give good things to his children when they ask (Luke 11.9-13) for God is generous, merciful and compassionate.
On a recent holiday, surrounded by breath-taking scenery, these words of Isaac Watts’s famous hymn kept repeating themselves to me:
‘Were the whole realm of Nature mine,
That were an offering far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.’
Jesus’s disciples will not want simply to do their ‘Christian duty’ (a slave’s mentality), for they will be moved to act by love. Unlike most superheroes with superpowers, the Christian’s ‘miraculous power’ is love. Without this love, given to us by the God in whom we put our trust, being able to forgive each other ‘from our hearts’ is as likely to happen as a tree being “uprooted and planted in the sea” because we tell it to.
25 September 2022 – Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 16: 19 – 31
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
We continue our journey through Jesus’ teachings on riches in which Luke has a special interest and longs for his readers to sit up and take notice. In our passage here a contrast between rich and poor is starkly drawn. Some versions of this text have traditionally employed the name, Dives, (‘wealthy man’) but the original Greek gives him no name, in contradistinction with the poor man who is given the name Lazarus, ‘God will help.’ Jesus is immediately stressing that the poor have value – they have a name, and with-it significance, and in providing this particular name, Jesus is stating that God is on the side of the poor: there is help at hand. However, Jesus is saying here that this ‘help’ is not necessarily in life on earth but that the tables can be turned in eternity. Indeed, Lazarus languishes as a beggar and he receives no sympathy or relief from the rich man: the odds seem stacked totally against him.
The rich man receives due recompense for his preoccupation with self and money and arrives in Hades, whereas Lazarus is called up to heaven. A picture is painted to us of an archetypal Jewish and later, mediaeval view of the world – a three-tiered universe: heaven ‘up there,’ earth, and then hell ‘down there’: it is there to emphasize a spiritual condition graphically in our minds, not to furnish us with cosmological reference points. In his agony, the rich man calls out to the father of faith – Abraham, whom he would have made nodding assent to during his life. He is reminded, however, that his faith was redundant and had no bearings on his personal life-style. The rich man longs for relief from his hellish torment and recognises Lazarus as the possible source of comfort. Abraham clarifies the situation – there can be no transmigration of souls for the benefit of others – an uncrossable impasse has been created and there is no redemption after death.
As pain and suffering bite, so this fictitious rich man shows some remorse and realizes that his own kin need to be warned. But Abraham states that the opportunity has been given to them – in their faith they were provided with the Law and the Prophets, but it is the testament of the history of Israel that people chose their own way despite the oracles of God.
Finally, there is a twist in the story and one realizes that this parable is not just about the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots, but it is about general human response to Christ. Here Jesus, as it were, prophesies his own death and resurrection and says that even though he will rise from the dead, still men and women will choose to remain dead in their sins, through selfish indulgence, through apathy and self-deification, oft driven by money and power. The story has a poignant ending: humanity can choose to reject or accept God’s means of salvation – no amount of grace on God’s part can twist the hand of free-will, but ‘God will help’ those who call out to him.
After hearing the Dean at St George’s preaching on the Second Coming of Christ one Sunday, Queen Victoria exclaimed: ‘O how I wish I could see him in my life-time…so that I could lay my crown at his feet.’ As we have reflected on our late Queen’s life, she it was who had scant regard for personal wealth and chose to divest herself of the trappings of the self and crowns of materialsm, and instead sought to follow her Master to the last. What a contrast to the Rich man in this story – he held on to all that he counted dear, whereas the Queen sought only others’ interests… people like Lazarus. Thus she leaves a rich legacy in our hearts and the hearts of all. So this challenges each of us: how lightly do we cling to things of this world and hold fast to those things that are unseen and measurable only in the scales of eternity? What is it that we are sowing for the next kingdom and for the kingdom within others’ hearts and lives now?
18 September 2022 – Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 16: 1 – 13
16 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
This portion of scripture is part Jesus’ teaching on money, with a parable concerning a wasteful manager attempting to redeem himself, followed by some comments from Jesus about use of money and concluding with the definitive statement that one cannot serve both God and Mammon. Like the remainder of the passage, the parable is peculiar to this gospel, and to many it has been seen as peculiar in itself, and one of the most difficult to interpret! It begins with judgement: the manager for a rich landlord has squandered his money; he is asked to give account for his misdealings and there is a pronouncement that he cannot continue in employment. But instead of concentrating on a defence by the accused, Jesus’ story focuses on redemption: having been brought up short and confronted with his crime, the manager seeks to make hasty reparations on behalf of his boss for accounts that are due. He realizes his own physical limitations in being able to work himself, cannot face the ignominy of begging, but instead sharpens his own quick wittedness in clawing back payments from clients that might never have been redeemed and everyone seemingly is a winner: bills are slashed, the money is returned to its rightful owner and the dishonest manager is commended on his actions. It is this man’s astuteness that is being commended, not his commercial practice. As TW Manson observes: ‘there is a world of difference between, “I applaud the dishonest steward because he acted cleverly” and “I applaud the clever steward because he acted dishonestly.”
Jesus then makes the observation that people outside the kingdom are more shrewd than those in the kingdom, and Jesus uses a term which seems quite Johanine: ‘people of the light.’ In addressing the disciples he is asking them to take a leaf out of the world’s book in this regard and not to be overly spiritual: business and the wise use of money is not to be shunned – it is only making it a god that is wrong. Where wealth is not a person’s undoing and an Achilles heel, as in the case of the rich young ruler whom Jesus challenges to give up all and follow him, here Jesus is saying that if one has worldly wealth then it can be redeemed by being of influence for good. The essence of wise handling of our resources, though, begins small: as we learn to be wise with little we have the potential to be trusted with much.
As we examine all that the Lord has given us, are we open-handed or do we hold with clenched fist on the pretext that what is mine is deserved and rightly to be enjoyed? Whether we have little or much all of it belongs to our Father in heaven, but how can the small be used for his glory and how can the great glorify God still more? As we realise that we are given all on loan whilst on earth, how may what we possess, where we live, the assets that belong to us bring the most glory to the one who ‘owns the cattle on a thousand hills?’ Do we need to retreat from being overly spiritual about money, and can this be of itself a form of selfishness for the God who longs us to ‘capitalise’ on every moment, with all we meet? I believe our dear late Queen showed us the way in these matters on many an occasion: when she learned once that a reporter’s wife was expecting a child hundreds of miles away, the Queen invited him to join her on the royal plane and share her resources – her deep generosity and kindness more than made friends with that man, that day!
11 September 2022 – Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 15.1-10 – God is a God of Grace
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
8‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Like the parable of the prodigal son, the two parables with which Luke warms up his audience follow the same pattern. There is losing, there is finding and there is joy. All three parables are a justification of the behaviour of Jesus in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees. They are bewildered at Jesus’s flagrant disregard of their ‘spiritual security policy’. They avoided social contact with anyone who might contaminate their ‘holiness’; Jesus runs in the opposite direction. As Luke says, Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19.10). If the Pharisees to do not approve of what Jesus does, heaven does! God rejoices when human beings turn away from all that harms us (this is what repentance means) and find healing, because God loves us!
It is possible to find an echo of Jonah’s attitude to the Ninevites in the attitude of the Pharisees towards ‘sinners’ (and of the elder brother towards his younger brother in the parable of the prodigal son). Jonah would have preferred it if the Ninevites had not repented! Jonah, the Pharisees and the elder brother have to learn that God does not wish those who they would characterize as ‘God’s enemies’ to perish, but longs for his people to welcome them home.
That God is a God of grace is the heart of Luke’s gospel proclamation.
To call someone ‘lost’ is to pay them a high compliment, for it means that person is precious in the sight of God. Is this how we see them and are we part of the search party?
Note the confidence with which Jesus speaks of what happens in heaven. He knows God well enough to know what will make God happy. Rejoice that God is a God of grace.
4 September 2022 – Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 14.25-33 – Counting the Cost
25Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Jesus has already told any would-be follower of his that they must take up their cross daily if they wanted to travel on the same road as him (Luke 9.23). Now, keen to disillusion enthusiastic Galileans who think God’s rule is about to arrive without significant personal sacrifice, Jesus is relentlessly honest about his journey to Jerusalem. He calls his disciples to an undivided loyalty to God’s project. Given the pressures and dangers they will face, disciples cannot afford to be distracted by family entanglements or preoccupied with possessions because this will lead to fatal compromise or half-heartedness.
Any sensible person would think twice before accepting such hard demands. So, Jesus goes on to explain that although following him may be life-threatening, the alternative is also terrible. If his contemporaries reject him, they will face the ruin of the tower (a reference to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem being rebuilt by Herod the Great and his successors) and the devastation of the lost battle (Jewish nationalists seriously underestimated the power of Rome and the appalling consequences of revolt).
William Barclay sees two truths in these verses. First, that it is possible to be a follower of Jesus without being a disciple. We might admire Jesus, listen to his teaching, and yet not be a disciple.
Secondly, it is the Christian’s duty to count the cost of discipleship in every part of their life. We are called to careful and serious-minded consideration. If we feel that too much is being expected of us, it may help to remember that this is not an exercise we have to do on our own. We are called to be part of a body that Jesus has said he will never leave nor forsake. However tough the journey, Jesus will walk beside us every step of the way. He is to be trusted as a guide because he has been this way before us.
28 August 2022 – Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Luke 14.1, 7-14. The Christian life as a party
1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
In this passage, Luke’s gospel does not simply offer a guide to table etiquette for those who belong to the class of people who give dinner parties or attend lavish wedding banquets. Although Jesus does give advice on how to avoid embarrassment when choosing where to sit at a social event, note that Jesus is not among friends. The Pharisees are watching him (v1). So what appears to be wisdom about precedence is actually a parable aimed at them (v8-11).
The parable is about an idea that would have been familiar to the Pharisees from Proverbs 25.6-7 which teaches that if we humble ourselves we will be honoured and vice versa. For Jesus, this is part of an important gospel paradox, ‘the last shall be first and the first last’ (Luke 13.30). It is also part of Luke’s ‘great reversal’. In the kingdom of God, the mighty are put down from their thrones and the powerless are exalted (Luke 1.52). Jesus is rebuking the behaviour of certain Pharisees who he sees choosing ‘the places of honour’ for themselves (v7).
Jesus then turns to his host and calls for him to ignore social convention and invite like God does. The Pharisees restricted their social contacts to those who followed the same religious practices. Whatever satisfaction they got from associating only with those who kept the Jewish law (as they understood it) and who could offer hospitality in return, Jesus says they are missing out. The loving service of the helpless and needy which Jesus exemplifies in his ‘good works’ is the ‘core activity’ of the kingdom of God.
William Barclay discusses disinterested charity. He asks us to consider the question, why would we give to those who cannot give back to us?
- From a sense of duty, because Christians or good people ought to.
- From motives of self-interest, because we fear punishment or hope for reward (v14). But only those who do not hope to gain are rewarded (Luke 6.35).
- From a feeling of superiority, to gratify our own vanity. This is not pretty.
- Because we cannot help it. This is the best way to give. God gave because he loved us, so must we give, expecting nothing in return. See Luke 6.32-36:
32‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
We may feel we lack Christian virtues like love and the generosity that flows from it. Aquinas teaches that we can acquire the virtues through ‘good infection’ (NB the reverse is also true). First, we should choose friends who are more loving and generous than we are and imitate them. Secondly, it helps us to be loving and generous if we are part of a community which practises these virtues. The more we practice them, the more they become ‘settled dispositions of character’ in us.
21 August 2022 – Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 13.10-17 – Law and Mercy
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
Luke continues to develop the theme of judgment and salvation with the story of a sabbath healing found only in his gospel. The story follows a familiar pattern: miracle, conflict and pronouncement. With it he illustrates the truth of Jesus’s recent teaching (Luke 12.49-56), that Jesus has come to bring division and that many in Israel are unable to recognize ‘the signs of the times’.
Jesus’s willingness to heal on the sabbath demonstrates that he is the Lord of the sabbath (6.5) and shows that compassionate action is true religion. The leader of the synagogue had failed to understand the meaning of the sabbath commandment. He should have been able to work out that if it is not just permissible, but is very much God’s will, that we ought to give water to donkeys and oxen on the sabbath, how much more ought we to heal a sick woman (v16)? These are strong oughts!
Note the way in which Jesus uses the language of binding and loosing. The animals are tied and need to be freed. The woman is no less bound and must also be set free. It is Jesus’s mission to set free the oppressed (4.18). The response to the miracle, both of the woman (v15) and of the crowd (v17), is to give praise God. Jesus’s opponents rightly feel ashamed.
How does our own nation refuse to change, insisting on things being done ‘by the book’ or ‘in the approved way’, rather than bring restoration and life to those who are suffering? How might we seek to change this?
How has ‘systems thinking’, which prioritizes the good of the institution over the good of the individual, infected the church? What might we do about this?
How might we make our sabbath a day of mercy?
A final thought: If it is true that Jesus changed the world without taking power, does this mean that anyone can change the world?
14 August 2022 – Ninth Sunday after Trinity
49‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Luke’s theme here is judgment with an echo of John the Baptist’s prophesy of the coming divine judgment (Luke 3.16-18):
‘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. 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.’
John would have been very surprised to learn that Jesus understood his baptism to mean his own death (Mark 10.38). Jesus the Messiah will not inflict God’s judgment on others but will himself undergo the baptism of God’s judgment when he passes through the deep waters of death. This is his mission (and God’s plan) and it is the reason why he is going to Jerusalem. When he gets there, he knows that Israel’s people and its leaders will have to choose between God’s kingdom and their own. Jesus can see what will be recorded by Luke. Offered Jesus, God’s people will demand to be given Barabbas instead (Luke 23.13-18).
From now on, given this inevitable clash of loyalties and the rejection of all he has tried to say and do, Jesus tells his disciples to expect division. (This fulfils Simeon’s prophecy, Luke 2.35).
Finally, Jesus addresses the crowds (v54-56). He warns them to pay as much attention to the times in which they live as they do to the weather. The rejection of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed would have devastating consequences for Israel. At this point it was not too late for repentance and for people to put their trust in God. But the crisis, and with it the moment for decision, is approaching fast.
We live in a time of crisis and are faced by the need to make some difficult choices. We know that ‘scorching heat’ is already causing fire, drought and famine. Extreme rain events this year are also linked to global warming. Our political and economic systems (and the belief systems on which they are based) appear to be a significant part of the problem. Fixing them may be extremely divisive for Jesus’s disciples as well as for society generally.
Pray for God’s people to be able to read the signs of the times so that, trusting God and putting aside our selfish desires and anxieties, we may all play our part in God’s plan.
7 August 2022 – Eighth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 12.32-40 – Enough is Enough
32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
Jesus does not call his followers to poverty but to simplicity. The word ‘simple’ is now used to mean ‘weak-minded’ – and Christians are often accused of this, sometimes with good reason – but the disciples were called to be uncomplicated and single minded in their rejection of the attitudes and actions that cause poverty. Poverty is both degrading and destructive. It has no place in the kingdom that God longs to give his flock. Critics who have not understood this accuse Christians of wanting to make everyone poor. But the enemy Jesus has in mind in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12.16-21) is not possessions but excess in the form of a grain mountain. Disciples are not to cry ‘Nothing!’ but ‘Enough!’ Our enemy is covetousness, stoked by ‘the consumer society’ which teaches our appetite and desire to want more than we need.
What does it mean to be among faithful servants – note we do not wait alone – ready and waiting for the return of the master? In a twenty-first century western context, unless we can discover and put into practice a radically different style of living, we know we face impending crisis in terms of climate breakdown and many people in this country being unable to pay their bills. We are currently a long way from seeing people enjoying the sort of big party at which Jesus promises to serve us. We can start by trying to be generous. Jesus would be pleased to see so many people donating to or helping to run food banks. This follows the OT practice of tithing (giving away a portion of one’s harvest or flock – Deuteronomy 26.12-15) to celebrate God’s generosity to us. Jesus would also be delighted to see people sharing their home with Ukrainian refugees and discovering the joys (and tribulations) this can bring.
What is our treasure? Is it some aspect of ourselves that we treasure, or another person (‘she’s a little treasure’) or some treasured possession? For Jesus, treasure is what we find when we act on the priorities that God has given us.
How could our life be ‘simpler’ in the Christian sense?
31 July 2022 – Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Luke 12: 13 – 21
12 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
This parabolic teaching of Jesus is set between warnings that Jesus issues about those forces from outside and a follow-up on what is contained in the above passage, concerning worry about material provision. Jesus began the chapter by saying ‘Be on guard’: this concerned the hypocrisy and devices of the Pharisees whose show of religion concentrated on the ‘outer.’ Now in this section of text Jesus again issues this warning: ‘Be on guard’ concerning an ‘inner’ enemy, namely that of greed. We may be familiar with Jesus’ teaching in the Parable of the Talents where Jesus actively encourages us to invest wisely and responsibly and make more of what one has been given – surely a template for entrepreneurship if ever there was one? So how is this concept of building bigger barns to house the fruits of one’s labours any different?
It is in the attitude we have towards material gain and money itself that is in question: Jesus is not saying that profit is ‘evil,’ in itself, but it is how we come to rely upon what we acquire as a security – a hedge to surround us and keep us comfortable – that is to be questioned. If it is our belief that life is for our consumption and our benefit then one’s thinking can go awry and one’s heart be corrupted. What leaps from the text is the last phrase: ‘…but is not rich toward God.’ The more that people put their trust and belief in Mammon and material gain, Jesus would argue the more it draws us away from God and we are then not rich toward Him.
Jesus speaks in Matthew 6 of the need for his followers to ‘Seek first the kingdom of God…and then all these things will be added unto you.’ Here in this parable, the opposite is happening: in seeking first the kingdom of self and material gain it leads to spiritual and emotional implosion for it excludes the dimension of God. Being ‘rich toward God’ concerns putting him first, laying up one’s treasure in heaven and investing in His work and people of his choosing.
How much time is spent in the pursuit of happiness through material gain in the course of our allotted years on earth? We are given skills and aptitudes to put our ‘hands to the plough’ and make something of ourselves and reap rewards, but how much do we live by the adage: ‘live simply, that others may simply live,’ and by Jesus’ words: ‘to whom much is given, much is required’? As we seek to cultivate a mindset of thankfulness for that which we have and are given, so may we also earnestly seek to be ‘rich toward God,’ knowing that he is not only the Giver but the one to whom our lives, our motivations and our hearts are answerable. St Paul put it like this: ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’
May we be found to be those who today are ‘rich toward God’, ‘pressing on to toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’
24 July 2022 – Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 11: 1 – 13
11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
We have this timeless, simple, yet all-powerful template for prayer in the Gospels in response to the disciples’ heart-felt desire to know how to communicate with God effectively. It is so easy for us to become blasé about it through over-familiarity, but as we look at its elements afresh, we can behold great truths which can empower our own prayer lives.
It is the beginning of the prayer which puts everything else into context – how we address God: it is simply ‘Father,’ or ‘Our Father.’ The Greek word employed is ‘Pater’ which is used by Jesus on occasions with the accompanying Aramaic term ‘Abba.’ It is a point of intimacy and immediately breaks from the predominantly Old Testament concept of the ‘ineffability’ of God – that which cannot be articulated. It is through the Word being made flesh in Jesus that he himself calls on his followers back into close relationship with God as Father. God can be approached and much more: it is the picture of the child sitting on his knee, the Good Shepherd bearing his lost sheep on his shoulders and the embrace of the son who is lost becoming found. The intimacy carries with it, however, the notion of obedience and submission as indeed all meaningful familial relationships require; as St Paul says, ‘Submit to one another,’ within the family of God. In prayer to God, intimacy with him as Father goes hand in hand with obedience and submission and this naturally is followed by honour – hallowed, respected is his name. This is a name not to be blasphemed or taken lightly, for it is in recognizing his greatness and authority that we can be confident in his kingship being exercised – ‘Lord, let your rule, your divine will, your kingdom be worked out in our lives, our society and our world.’
From recognizing that we are part of God’s kingdom if we have submitted to his kingship in our lives, we can then have confidence to avail him of his providence – to provide us with our basic needs (not wants!). Being in right relationship with God, too, means a receiving and giving of forgiveness: like breathing we inhale it into ourselves for all the things that mar our friendship with God, and then we likewise exhale forgiveness to those who have wronged us: this is not up for debate, but becomes a natural outflowing of God’s love through us as his followers, as we recognize the costliness of his forgiveness on the cross.
Lastly, the prayer ends with a preventative concept: we need forgiveness, but for our future walk with God we need to be protected and kept from temptation’s power: it is a prayer for wisdom and guidance that we would walk aright and not of our own volition walk into the snare of the Enemy.
This whole prayer is then framed in Luke by friendship and the invitation for us to be persistent in asking God for those things that are on His heart. In the same way that when we are in urgent need of bread for a friend who has come to stay, so we need not fear about presuming on God to meet our every need. Because he counts us as friends and we are genuine in our asking, so we can have confidence to ask, seek and knock, with the certainty that we can be given unto, find and have the door opened for us. This passage then concludes with a glimpse into the generosity of God: he is not only willing to give us good gifts as we pray and ask, but he longs to share in the life of God in the Spirit; and it is this Lukan emphasis on the Holy Spirit which introduces us to a life that is directed by him, through his Spirit. Prayer begins with intimacy, and it is sustained and lived out in the power of the Spirit.
How refreshing to remind ourselves once again that prayer is not about a million incantations, reciting a series of mantras or working oneself up into a frenzy in making demands on the Almighty. It begins with intimacy and all else flows from there, in the knowledge that God wants to hear us and to pour out his blessings as we ask him. I wonder whether we are those who are either too ready to come with shopping lists and not spend time on the lap of the Father, or conversely are those who feel it would be too much of an affront to ask things for ourselves in prayer. As we get to know God more deeply and our friendship develops, so it is natural to spend more time with him and feel what is on his heart and from there be bold to make requests that can make substantial changes in our world and allow his ‘kingdom to come.’
How are you, how am I coming to God today? As a divine slot machine who owes us a few favours, as a remote Controller who is not really interested, or as Father who longs to listen to, and delight in, his own children and then to give and give again?
17 July 2022 – Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 10: 38 – 42
8 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
The sisters and brother -Mary, Martha and Lazarus – became close friends of Jesus and feature significantly in the pages of the Gospels. There is evidence to suggest that this Mary was indeed the Magdalene who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7 and John 12 and the Lazarus who was raised from the dead who next spent time with Jesus in Passion week. What we see here is a contrast between these two sisters: between one who epitomized ‘doing’ and ‘action’ and the other embodying ‘reflection’ and ‘being.’ It may seem a little ironic that whilst the emphasis Jesus brings out is ‘being,’ this is a passage which succeeds one which stresses Christian action: ‘Go and do likewise,’ as Jesus exhorts the teacher of the Law in verse 37: Christianity is intensely practical and it has to be shown in goodness to others.
However, when we look at the ‘works of Martha’ they have a different orientation. On the surface, her preoccupation with ‘doing’, in being busy about the house, springs from wishing to care for their Master and show hospitality. In contrast, Mary is not lifting a finger, but simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and engrossing herself in what Jesus had to share with her. This provokes tension and an outburst on the part of Martha which demanded that Mary should come and relieve her of the strain of her work and share it out. To this Jesus responds with a light criticism of Martha: ‘you are worried about many things.’ It was not over the giving of herself in wanting to please Jesus through domestic diligence, but over the issue of how she allowed it to take first place in her outlook, thus giving no time to attend to the person of Jesus in her heart.
It is a fine line, but it is what Mary had chosen to do which received sympathetic approbation from Jesus. There is indeed a time ‘to do’ but this a passage emphasizing how much we need to step back and wait upon the Lord, to ‘be still and know that he is God.’
In our western society it is a perversion of the Protestant work ethic which seems to prevail: even the most zealous of evangelicals who would denounce ‘good works’ as a means to faith can become obsessed with mission sometimes at the expense of reflection and being still. May we allow ourselves the challenge of knowing that as we are loved by God, irrespective of anything we choose to ‘do’ for him, then the wonder and awe of being caressed in the palm of his hand will cause us to bask in his presence and listen to what is on his agenda rather than on ours. It is then that we will know the whisper: ‘Walk this way,’ ‘Be my disciples.’
10 July 2022 – Fourth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 10: 25 – 37
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
There are certain passages in scripture which are so familiar that it is easy to claim certain knowledge and to deny their power, and this text ranks high in those stakes.
As we see on numerous occasions, the scribes and lawyers within the Jewish courts are challenged by Jesus’ presence and attempt to wrong-foot him by their ‘clever’ questioning and here an expert in the law – literally from the Greek – ‘stood up, testing him’ concerning the requirements to gain eternal life. Jesus uses his customary formula of throwing the question back to the inquirer in order that they might reflect on the evidence already present in scripture. The issue of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ (Jesus encourages the man to remind himself) proceed from agape love with every fibre of oneself, for God and for neighbour. Jesus affirms his answer – such living is commensurate with true living. But then the lawyer seeks to clarify the nature of a neighbour. According to Old Testament and Jewish conception, a neighbour is one who is a ‘member of the Hebrew race and commonwealth.’ So Jesus allows him to see for himself in this renowned parable of Jesus…
A Jew was travelling from the nation’s holy capital to Jericho, reckoned by many to be the oldest city in the world, and where as many as 12,000 priests and Levites dwelt, who all attended the service of the temple. He was subject to a vicious attack, robbed of everything he had on him and left severely wounded and helpless. Given the above information, it was no surprise that priests and Levites were found on this main travel route. Both priest and Levite noticed the man – one of their own race – but instead of being moved by love and concern, took the active step of deliberately passing by on the opposite side: their ‘knowledge’ of Leviticus 19: 18 was abstract, with no practical or heart application. By contrast, it was a Samaritan man who came to rescue him. He it was who by the lawyers’ standards and all Jews alike, was apostate and was classed as an outsider, corrupted by their former syncretistic worship under the Assyrian deportation of foreigner settlers in to Samaria during the Exile. It was this outsider who showed love as if it was to himself: tending to his wounds, carrying him to an inn on his donkey and paying for his keep and care beyond what was needed or required, with a promise to return and settle up any outstanding costs. Here Jesus is challenging any kind of thinking that God’s grace can be withheld from a certain race or class and indeed demonstrates that God’s abundant love to us can be shown in and through such a person or category. Here are reflections of Galatians 3:28 – ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek (or Samaritan), slave nor free, male not female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It is as St Paul then develops in the next verse, that such act of loving is Christ-like and that is what makes one of ‘Abraham’s seed.’
The lawyer cannot but agree with Jesus and is told to be that kind of neighbour.
The question of ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is as pertinent today as ever before in our church, our community and in our world. The challenge of being the ‘one who is near’ (neighbour) can speak loud into our hearts in this global village where God has placed us. On the one hand it may be easy to ignore the person on our doorstep and immerse ourselves in good works overseas in showing hospitality to a Ukranian refugee, but on the other hand we can be so caught up with our own type and class that we fail to move out in compassion, both on the streets of Shrewsbury and to places in urgent need abroad.
The challenge is how we respond to the person who crosses our line of vision in person and on our news bulletins. As we lay before God the day before us, do we offer all the possibilities of our meetings with others, praying ‘with the people on our hearts’ as is our priestly call to all believers? As our hearts are moved with compassion and the sacrificial love of Jesus so he will lead us to those people He chooses, which may not be those to whom others are being directed. What is of greatest importance is that our hearts are set on fire with that love, ready to be directed where he will choose.
3 July 2022 – The Feast day of St Thomas
John 20: 24 – 29
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The incident with Thomas and Jesus’ revelation to him, comes at the climax of the gospel as John prepares himself to declare that his written record has been set down so that ‘you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (v 31). This passage is about belief and trust in Christ for who he is, but is an insight into the different layers that it holds. The introduction to this passage is laid out quite starkly, making the contrast between the ten disciples who have witnessed Jesus’ appearance with that of Thomas who has not: for them there is joy and understanding because Christ’s physical appearance brings certainty in their belief in his resurrection whereas Thomas has seen nothing of this and for him there can be no belief. He has earned the nomenclature ‘the Doubter’ although in earlier times, there perhaps was a kinder title in calling it ‘the incredulity of Thomas’ – the subject for the baroque artist Caravaggio’s powerful depiction of Jesus’ meeting with Thomas a week later.
There is reason for John inserting this passage: it is an examination of a person’s mind and attitude, of the longing to grapple with reality and for it to be intensely personal. Thomas sets out his conditions for faith: he wants obvious, rational, proof experienced through his senses. It must have been a long week that ensued, with the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’ living side by side until they were all in the same house once more. The same greeting is used by Jesus as he comes into their midst: ‘Peace (Gk. ‘eirene’) be with you,’ from which our word ‘serenity’ is derived. Although Christ has provoked all manner of reactions through the gospel, it is a deep serenity which he seeks to bring to the lives of his followers.
Jesus comes straight to Thomas, with his knowledge of Thomas’s agonizing, but the transaction that follows transcends all that has gone before. The invitation to extend his hand to satisfy his rational senses could have been met with : ‘I believe – I have seen the proof and it satisfies my inquiry and replaces doubt with certainty.’ What we read in Thomas’ response, however, goes far beyond that: his joyous and unbridled exclamation is ‘My Lord and my God.’ This is not a rational response – it is the cry of revelation, the cry of declaration that this is the Word made flesh who has come from glory and that death cannot hold him, and is worthy of worship, adoration and total commitment. This is the message that St John longs to impress on his readers with this climactic encounter; and with it, Jesus’ postscript across time to all of us that are not blessed with such physical manifestations, that faith is not dependent on proof: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’
At times in our journey of faith, we can all long to see nuggets of proof that indicate the veracity of things in which we place our faith. But that is the nature of faith – faith that God reaches out to us through his word, through those who have trod before, like Thomas the Incredulous. But as we place our faith in something that transcends earthly senses, we can be assured of the serenity of Christ when we least expect it, for he has given us his Spirit to dwell in our hearts and bring that quiet certainty that He is my Lord and my God. But this passage asks of us, in our doubting, to ‘reach out,’ ‘put our hands into his side,’ to know that he promises to walk alongside us in the shadow of death as much as in the light of life, and that he is not just a Lord, a remote omnipotent, but is my Lord: such a knowledge and deep realization brings, and is, serenity.
‘Teach me, my God and King
In all things thee to see;
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.
26 June 2022 – Second Sunday after Trinity
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
The prophet Elijah appeared earlier in this chapter at Jesus’s Transfiguration (Luke 9.30). Now Luke makes two further references to illustrate that Jesus is the greater prophet. First, whereas Elijah was famously ‘taken up’ in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2.11), Jesus will be ‘taken up’ (v51) through rejection, crucifixion resurrection and ascension. Secondly, when wicked king Ahaziah sends soldiers to fetch Elijah, he calls down fire from heaven to consume them (2 Kings 1). When James and John want to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who have rejected Jesus, Jesus rebukes them. The ferocious Old Testament way of dealing with God’s enemies is at an end. In our thinking and our acting, Elijah must give way to Jesus and his new way of loving his enemies and dying for them.
Equally radical are three stories about the cost of discipleship. In normal circumstances it is good that we have somewhere to call home, that we look after our parents and that we show affection to our family and friends. But what if the call of the kingdom is so urgent and imperative that all other loyalties must give way to it? Those who would follow Jesus are warned about the conflicts they will face and the sacrifices that will be required in terms of their security (v58), duty (v59), and affection (v61). The hard choices in life are not between good and evil, but between good and better. For example, when we think about our own journey of faith, we might be tempted to look back instead of looking ahead (v62). Nostalgia for ‘former times that were better than these’ might hinder us from going forwards to discover what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2.9).
How should we respond to evil and to enemies of the good? In Romans 12.9-21, Paul picks up many of the themes found in Jesus’s example and teaching (Matthew 5.38-48). It has extraordinary relevance still. What is God saying to us?
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
What is our direction of travel? What helps us move forwards on our spiritual journey?
First Sunday after Trinity, 19 June 2022
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
The story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac raises a number of difficulties for Christians reading Luke with a twenty-first century worldview. First there are questions about how we are to understand demon possession and exorcism. Secondly, the drowning of the pigs seems problematic from an animal cruelty perspective and there is also the likely economic catastrophe for their owners. Can we put these questions to one side and try to ‘hear’ what Luke, with a first century worldview, is saying? For example, can we see that demons were intensely real to the people of Gerasa and in particular to the man who lived among the tombs?
- Demons obey Jesus’s commands, as do winds and water (Luke put the calming of the storm immediately before this healing miracle). Note the way Luke concludes the story. Jesus tells the man to declare how much God has done for him. Instead, the man proclaims how much Jesus has done for him (v39). Luke’s point is that Jesus is sovereign and rules over all creation, demons as well as wind and waves. His mission is to bring peace to disordered humanity.
- The demon possessed man appears to be a Gentile (non-Jew), the only one Jesus meets in Luke’s gospel. Once cured, he wants to follow Jesus but is told to go and witness to his own people. This foreshadows the disciples’ mission to the Gentile world (Acts 1.8).
- The locals ask Jesus to go away, for they were afraid (v37). Fear is the usual human response to a mighty act of God in Luke’s gospel. The word ‘fear’ appears fourteen times, ‘afraid’ eleven times, and ‘terrified’ six times. Perhaps the locals thought asking Jesus to go away would bring them ‘peace’, meaning that they could go back to living how they wanted.
- In which area of our lives would we like Jesus to demonstrate that he is ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’?
- Jesus tells the man he restores to wholeness/sanity that ‘mission begins at home’. How easy do we find it to witness to our ‘nearest and dearest’, to our neighbours, work colleagues and those we meet each day?
- Which kind of peace would we prefer to have, as the world gives or as God gives? What do we think the cost of each kind is likely to be?
Trinity Sunday, 12 June 2022
12‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Jesus promises the disciples (including us) that there is a lot more truth to come and that he will share it with us. But it cannot be taken in all at once because it only comes with experience, especially experience involving suffering. This is what Jesus says the disciples cannot bear now (v12).
Notwithstanding the limits some traditions try to put on what is and is not ‘the truth’ and who is authorised to decide what it is or is not, John says we are all to seek truth continually, wherever it may be found. This is because ‘All the truth’ (v13) is God and the whole of created reality. There are no limits to ‘all that the Father has’ (v15). We are to listen and read attentively for what is ‘declared to you’ (repeated three times) for Jesus says ‘it is mine’ (repeated three times). We are all to dedicate ourselves to the truth Jesus wants us to have (Jn 17.17-19).
The effect of this can be seen in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was a victim of the Nazis. Growing up, his mother insisted her children were always to tell the truth. In Bonhoeffer’s family, ‘Only lying was a punishable offence, but torn clothes, windows accidentally broken, even trampled rosebushes in the garden were scarcely noticed.’ As an adult, Dietrich’s refusal to compromise on truth meant that he would eventually come to ‘share in Christ’s suffering’ (Romans 8.17; 1 Peter 4.13).
Jesus had called the disciples and they had followed. This is the very beginning of the story. John says that praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit is essential if we are to learn from him how the life we have set out on can be lived. The question we always need to ask ourselves is ‘what is the Spirit teaching us now?’
This leads to questions about living in line with who Jesus is and what Jesus commanded (which brings us back to footwashing and loving to the point of dying for others). Essentially, the question is, ‘what will glorify Jesus?’ (v14). Does the way I treat my friends and family glorify Jesus? Does this way of treating the earth glorify Jesus? Does this way of doing politics glorify Jesus? Does our economic system or our culture glorify Jesus?
Day of Pentecost – 5th June 2022
John 14.8-17 [25-27]
8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. 15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
[25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.]
In verses 8-14 John hammers home the message that Jesus and the Father are one. Philip’s request suggests that the disciples had still not grasped this central truth that Jesus had been trying to communicate through the ‘signs’ he performed, starting with the wedding at Cana. Now, Jesus develops his radical teaching about God still further and explains its practical significance for disciples.
At the Last Supper, Jesus has told his disciples that he is leaving them and tries to address their very natural concern about what would happen after his ‘departure’. In verse 16, Jesus tells them the Father will send another ‘Advocate’ (the Latin word used to translate the Greek word parakletos, meaning either ‘one who stands alongside’ or ‘comforter’ or ‘counsellor’. The ambiguity may be avoided by using the word ‘Paraclete’).
Just as Jesus has been telling the disciples that the Father and Son are one, so now he makes clear that where the Spirit is, the Father and the Son are too. Amazingly, Jesus says that through the Spirit, God will dwell in us. Moreover, the Spirit will be with us for ever, and will lead us into all truth and full understanding (v17, 26).
Note that this abiding with and in us (v17) is on the condition (v23) that disciples should ‘love Jesus’ and ‘keep his commandments’. Interestingly, John does not give any detailed practical moral teaching, he simply insists on the kind of love Jesus has already demonstrated when he washed his disciples’ feet (Chapter 13).
What John is describing in relation to Jesus and the Holy Spirit is similar to the ‘handover’ from Moses to Joshua or from Elijah to Elisha. As Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy 2.2) our job is to pass on to others what we have received. The baton has been passed to us from those who have come before us. Fortunately, the Spirit is going to help us play our part in God’s mission! Part of this mission is to pass on the peace we have received (v27).
Are we any good at loving people? Are we growing in learning? How might we be counsellors and comforters?
29th May 2022 – Sunday after Ascension Day
Luke 24: 44 – 53
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
This passage which surrounds the return of Christ to the Father contains more than simply a physical ascension. It begins with a rising in the hearts of the disciples of a new and fuller understanding of the person and character of Christ and an indication of how his presence on earth was fully predicted across scripture. It had begun with Jesus unveiling the Messianic Secret in Luke 9 when he first unpacked Simon Peter’s declaration about Jesus being the Christ and how he was required to die and be raised again. It was followed by at least two further predictions concerning his death and what followed; Jesus then walks alongside the two to Emmaus after he had risen and points to himself in scripture and is recognized as he breaks bread at the house.
However, it is now in this passage that the disciples’ understanding reaches new heights: on the surface, it would appear that it is old ground being covered – Jesus refers to what was written of himself in the Torah and Psalms; but the key phrase is in verse 45: ‘then he opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures.’ The two walking to Emmaus had confessed: ‘didn’t our hearts burn within us while he talked with us and opened up the scriptures?’ Jesus now goes one step further – his death and resurrection are explained, but in verse 47 that ‘fuller revelation’ connects soteriology with mission: Christ’s offering of himself on the cross and his triumph over death are now translated into the need to preach Christ’s purpose for coming. His death, Jesus implies, cannot remain as a passive observation by believers, for it confronts humanity with the need to change. ‘Metanoia’ (repentance) requires a complete revision of thinking and return to God, whilst knowing at the same time, that the work of propitiation is complete and cannot be added to – the sufficiency of the cross cannot be augmented by any ritual or good work on man’s part. This is the message of Good News which now the disciples have the responsibility and freedom to declare to the world. As v 48 says: ‘You are witnesses of these things.’ This ‘witnessing,’ of course, had consequences for those who spread this vital message, for it’s all in the Greek word ‘martyreo.’ But for now, Jesus’ words were followed by the promise of the Father – the gift of Spirit and the equipping through ‘power from on high’ as they waited in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ words which were a blessing in themselves were finally accompanied by a personal blessing as he ascended. Far from being the frightened, confused followers that they had been, the clarity of vision, the revelation of all that Jesus shared and the promise of what was to come were catalysts to worship and great joy as they awaited a new spiritual era.
Before we can fully function as ‘apostles’ – those who are ‘sent out’- there is always the need firstly to have assurance of the transforming knowledge of repentance and the total cleansing from our sin and to recognize Christ emanating from every pore of scripture. The challenge is to lay ourselves open to God’s word so that we are gripped and captivated by it and then to wait before him to be endued with power from on high.
As we are caught between Ascension and Pentecost, am I awaiting afresh for God’s fresh anointing of the Spirit? Am I longing to be filled and empowered for the work he has given me/ has given us, as a church to do? ‘Unless God builds the church, the labourers work in vain.’ The starting place is to wait, to re-aquaint ourselves with the legacy of Christ in scripture, to worship him in Spirit and in Truth and to be open to all that he has for us. The future with God may not always be certain but it is ‘dynamic’ and life-transforming wherever we may be.
22nd May 2022 – Sixth Sunday after Easter
John 14: 23 – 29
23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.
John chapter 14 begins with Jesus’ words of reassurance: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ and he reiterates this again in verse 27. To the disciples all their security is being thrown to the winds – Judas is exposed as a betrayer, Peter’s denial has been foretold and Jesus has spoken clearly about his imminent death. But amidst this maelstrom, Jesus pours oil on troubled water: he speaks and demonstrates his sacrificial, agape love in becoming a servant to them and washes their feet as servant. Now Jesus continues to explain the ramifications of such loving for his followers.
The natural consequence of loving Christ is obedience to his teaching. But as we uncover the context, it is not ‘didache’ that is spoken of, but ‘logon.’ John, of course, describes in his Prologue that Christ is the ‘Logos’ – the ‘Word made flesh.’ It is not therefore the detached teaching or wisdom emanating from an ordinary Rabbi that we witness here, but something that is the very ‘procession from his divine being.’ His spoken word is an extension of all that he is as God in the flesh. In the same way that God in Creation spoke the words. ‘Let there be’ and the heavens and earth came into being, so Christ’s words to the sick, the dead and to those needing life-giving spiritual input are of the same order. It therefore becomes a natural extension of our loving that we would want to receive of this spoken life-source – whether it appears as commands, exhortations or quiet encouragement. To love Jesus is to receive everything that he has to offer. The consequence of this is a beautiful complement to this initiative on our part: ‘the Father will love (us) and will come to (us) and make our home with (us.)’ This is truly a glorious concept that, as we take on the being of Christ to become our own, so the Godhead comes to inhabit us and dwell the deepest recesses of our being; there is a mutual indwelling – He in us and us in Him where love and obedience flow from one another in perfect harmony.
Jesus then goes on to speak of the Holy Spirit continuing this role of teaching and act a reminder deep within of all that Christ has ‘logged’ with us through his incarnation. What is displayed in this passage is therefore an outworking of Truth and Love and now Jesus speaks of the third member of this spiritual triumvirate, and which is the hallmark of his presence in v 27 – Peace. It is peace that passes all cognitive and ‘taught’ understanding and is a reflection of His love: in this we can have confidence that our fickle hearts and minds need not have to be lambasted with fear, for as John says in his first letter: ‘Perfect Love casts out fear.’ It is in this passage we see the majestic interplay of Truth, Love and Peace which we as believers can claim as our own inheritance through faith; not as abstract, cerebral concepts but as living realities as we seek to be Christ in the world, despite whatever turmoil and disaster there might be.
I wonder how many times we consider Christ’s code of love and life to be a hard process and one that we cannot easily attain to? We can all acknowledge very readily that our hearts can be more than troubled and perplexed by all that is going on in our world. But the challenge of these verses is to recognise what pain Christ underwent in those crisis days prior to his execution and that it was right at the very worst of moments he breaks in to provide us with a life-line.
Do I, do we, deny the very incarnation of Christ to make God real at every level of existence by simply not embracing his Being and consequently his loving and his exhortation to be more fully part of him and his ‘word for us?’
What might be the things that we ‘make home for’ which run counter to Christ’s higher way and exclude the Lord’s loving and being in our lives. What might also be the impact of our church, our community opening wide our hearts so that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit might fully take up residence amongst us. What might that look like? Dare we imagine? It is indeed a glorious thought…and it can become a reality, as we listen to His Word, embrace His Love and welcome His Peace.
15th May 2022 – Fifth Sunday after Easter
John 13: 31-35
31 When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This passage nears the end of a dramatic chapter: it would seem that from reading verse 31 that Jesus reflects an unswerving triumphalism and lofty Christology which is remote from the engagement with the disciples and their lives, but this could not be further from the truth. The beginning of the chapter revealed a Christ who turned the concept of leadership on its head with Jesus washing feet and demonstrating his role as servant – something the disciples found hard to swallow. Then Jesus exposed the fact that one of his own protegees would betray him, sharing bread – but not fellowship – from the same bowl as Christ Jesus. As the Authorized version states, he ‘was troubled in spirit’ as he revealed the hand of Judas, and like something reminiscent later in Macbeth urges: ‘If ‘twere done, do it quickly’: the planned assassination of Jesus was soon to come to pass.
From being a stooping servant to announcing a hurtful rejection with a torment within, as Judas departs, Jesus is then able to step back from the drama and recognize the hand of the Father in leading him forward to Calvary. With the dismissal of Judas, the die was cast. Not that there was any doubting or uncertainty with respect to the divine plan that Jesus was to lay down his life for his people – but now this pivotal moment in history moves ineluctably closer. There is no sense of resignation – no, Jesus knows that the purpose for which he came from glory is ever closer, and all he longs for as part of his submission to the Father is to glorify him.
The words: ‘I will be with you only a little longer’ adds poignancy to the moment, but it’s a phase which is applicable pre-death and pre-ascension, for the revelation of God in Christ cuts through space and time and John conveys the majesty of that, which is not obstructed by human intervention but given for our eternal benefit.
Jesus then returns to where he began, at the start of the chapter, unveiling his sacrificial love for all those who follow him. His disciples had witnessed in no uncertain measure the concept of agape and learned what it was to receive from their Master/Servant and be washed. Now the disciples were to love in just the very same manner: this would of course come in fuller measure after the giving of the Spirit, but this kind of loving of one another would indeed become a hallmark of being a ‘Christ-one,’ and something that would distinguish them from everyone else.
‘All you need is love’, but not the love that depends on circumstance or other’s feelings but the kind of love that kneels at the lowliest bunion-ridden, blister-worn feet – that exchanges comfort for drudgery, and ‘the sweeping of a room, as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine.’
The key to such loving is always to go back to the Saviour and receive – to allow ourselves to gaze into the Master’s eyes as he, on bended knee, tends to the most unlovely parts of us. The more we receive, the more that we will want to give in like fashion and to love without counting the cost.
Lord here are my feet and now I see others’ needy feet. Prepare, equip and envelope me so that I might give my all to them, in your name. Amen.
8th May 2022 – Fourth Sunday after Easter
John 21: 1-19
16 “All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. 3 They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.
16 Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
17 At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 18 They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”
19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’?
This passage is part of a discourse from our Lord which begins in chapter 14. It changes in character from being a word of comfort, to a word of admonition and now to a word of prediction in this chapter. It is fitting that we should reflect on this post Easter, in that it is a preparation for Christ’s final departure from earth and an anticipation of the work of the Spirit, the Advocate. The whole tone of this passage is one of gentle, yet firm, steering of the disciples’ mindset, in order that they make the transition from dependency on Christ as a space-occupying, God-incarnate presence to a reliance on God’s indwelling work to be Christ in and to the world.
Jesus does not want his followers to be taken off-guard by what is to come for he knows what dangers they will face and how what will be done against them will seem to be done in the name of God. His call to them is for them to cherish and be nurtured by all that Christ has shared with them, for his words are their ‘bread’, ‘everlasting water’ and ‘eternal life’ (to draw on metaphors used earlier in the gospel). It is understandable that the disciples’ hearts will be sorrowful at the prospect of His leaving, but verse 7 is a hinge verse for their positive reflection: ‘it is for your good, it is to your advantage, that I leave you’ Why? So that that Spirit can come. We live in this Holy Spirit era where Jesus’ life and work is done through us by the equipping and enabling work of the Paraclete. It is well to be reminded as verse 8 draws our attention that the first role is for that Spirit to convict the world of sin and demonstrate righteousness and judgment.
It is easy to forget that as custodians of the truth, as revealed in Jesus, we are to be those who re-enact and live out that truth by His Spirit: we are to be beacons, the yardstick of how to live in the world and not become part of it, how to be above sin and its deceptions, and as required, to be tools of winsome judgment. As Jesus pointed out (v9) the world may not believe in the presence and work of Christ and know not right from wrong, and this is why we are to be so infused with his Spirit that the world can see our pointing to Him. In the very trinitarian verse 15: our role is made clear: all that the Father has embodied and made lively in the person and work of Christ is now transferred by the work of the Spirit to us. He works through us as channels reflecting God in Christ. We are not alone, but we have a mission, a life-call to represent the living Lord Jesus as he leaves this earth: the batten is now for each one of us to take up.
It is easy to feel, like the disciples, abandoned and alone as we seek to make sense of God in the world and our role to be his ambassadors: the responsibility can feel overbearing, too challenging and daunting, at times. But it comes back to the renewal of our minds through His Spirit, that it’s not about us but ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’ Like light reflected through a prism, we are called to shine out His being, His Spirt, in our own unique way, but based upon our immersion on scripture and the memory of his words and work for us. It is as we look back at the cross and his costly sacrifice that we can look forward with His spirit to be resurrection people and be Christ in the world now, for his glory.
Which might focus
Attention too narrowly,
So, that we miss the coming.
Wait with expectancy, alert,
Hearts, minds, ears
Open to receive the gift.
from ‘Watching for the Kingfisher’ – Ann Lewin
1st May 2022 – Third Sunday in Easter
John 21: 1-19
21 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.[c] 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
After the majestic ending in chapter 20, where the purpose of John’s account is plainly set out – that in ‘believing in Christ we have life in his name,’ we arrive at chapter 21, which to many seems like a mismatched postscript.. Most theologians hold that as a supplement it was almost certainly written by another leader at Ephesus, though endorsed by the Beloved Disciple. Having discovered the reasons for the first 20 chapters, what then is the purpose of chapter 21? Although, somewhat anti-climactic as we begin our reading, it soon becomes clear that some important messages are conveyed, which have an impact on the life of the church and for the individual disciples who will be spearheading the work of mission.
Firstly, we notice that the disciples appear to have regressed in their social and missiological orientation: they return to their former livelihood where they feel most comfortable, given that their Master appears remote from the day-to-day dealings, compared with what they had become accustomed to over the past three years. But into the midst of their own stomping ground comes Jesus, but like Mary Magdalene at the tomb and the men walking to Emmaus in Luke 24, they fail to recognize the risen Christ. There he stood on the shore, but like Mary they are dejected – there’s no hint of any fish – and then comes Jesus’ request to them: ‘Cast your nets on the other side.’ It seems that seasoned fishmen would not normally heed a random recommendation to do something impulsive, but what is conveyed here is that it is a voice of authority to which the disciples submit, and with what consequences!
This passage teaches the value of obedience and heeding the voice of Jesus: there can be no mission if the followers of Christ are not readily available and willing to commit themselves. Jesus communicates his words through the ordinary in an extraordinary way and it jolts them into the recognition that their Lord has greater designs on their lives than just fishing. The number of fish may be seen as allegorical – 153 being the addition of all numbers 1-17 which broken down is 7+10 – both numbers of completion. But whether real or symbolic, or both, the super-abundance of the haul reflects abundant life through serving Christ.
The second purpose for this chapter revolves around Peter, from verse 15. He has seen the risen Lord, but there lingers in the air that matter which has thus far remained unresolved, or that is what this passage hints at. In Peter’s denial of Jesus before Jesus was sentenced to die, love and trust was abrogated, and here Jesus tests his love correspondingly three times. But what is of interest is that Jesus begins by asking Peter whether he agape loves Jesus, and Peter’s response is that he filos loves him – cares for him as a friend. The second time, Jesus frames the question in the same way, and Peter responds in kind. However, the third time Jesus seems to reach down to Peter’s present level of love-communication and asks: ‘do you even care for me as a friend?’ and Peter, agitated, replies that of course he does. Peter appears hurt, but Jesus is wishing to test Peter to the limit, even as Jesus’ love was tested, so that he might be reconciled within himself as well as to Christ. The writer knows that Pentecost is to come, when the spirit takes hold of Peter and emboldens him as God’s mouthpiece and brings him into a true comprehension of agape. Here the reader can see the preparation for that great event as Christ confronts Peter with raw truth. But there is more, for Peter will in the end know what it is to agape love Christ in recognizing that going on mission with Jesus may end up with crucifixion and sacrifice.
There is always a way back for us. However, far we may feel estranged from the love of Christ through circumstance or our own sin, Christ’s love is greater and broader, higher and distinctly knowable. But he starts where we are. I wonder what that starting point is for us? We may not feel that we are ready for Pentecost, to be suffused with all that the Spirit wishes to give us, but Jesus comes quietly, and begins where we are: ‘do you care for me as a friend?’ This passage indicates that being with Christ on mission there is a super-abundance of grace – 153 fish worth – that there is the availability of the wealth of agape, but he does not rush us into force-feeding us. We are called to wait in this intervening period before Pentecost – what does that waiting look like for us? Do we desire for greater and be immersed more fully in his love? It is there to receive when we are ready.
Look, Lord, on an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
In faith I am weak – strengthen me.
In love I am cold – warm me and make me passionate
so that my love may go out to my neighbour.
I doubt and am unable to trust you completely.
Lord, strengthen my faith and trust in you.
You are all the treasure I possess.
I am poor, you are rich,
and you came to have mercy on the poor.
I am a sinner, you are goodness.
From you I can receive goodness,
but I can give you nothing.
Therefore I shall stay with you.
27 April 2022 – Second Sunday of Easter
John 20.19-end – Receiving, Believing, Trusting
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
‘Shalom’, the greeting used by the risen Jesus, is Hebrew for ‘Peace be with you’. Christians who share ‘The Peace’ at a Holy Communion service would do well to note what follows. It means far more than, ‘good morning’, or even the modern, ‘are we good?’ (meaning ‘have we forgiven each other?’). For as soon as Jesus has established his identity by showing the disciples his wounds, he gives them a commission they might have thought was more than a little daunting. The mission God had entrusted to Jesus, Jesus now entrusts to the disciples. They will need to receive the Holy Spirit.
Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them. The imagery of breathing takes us back to the creation story in Genesis and the moment when God breathed life into the nostrils of the creature God had made from earth (Gen 2.7). The breath of the risen Jesus is new life from God, and it is the spirit of Jesus. The disciples are infused with the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so it is natural that they are inspired to continue Jesus’s ministry of ‘making all things new’. Breathed on by Jesus, they themselves become part of God’s new creation!
This explains why John says that those, like Thomas (20.28), who believe in Jesus as Christ and Son of God (20.31) ‘have life in his name’. What does this expression mean? John has already spoken of ‘praying in Jesus’s name’ (John 14.13). This means more than finishing a prayer with the words, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Because the name of a person is that person, it means offering the prayer as if the believer were Jesus and the prayer were that of Jesus. Likewise to ‘have life in his name’ is to have or to share Jesus’s life. John’s astonishing claim is that Christians are partakers in the life of God.
Like any good sceptic, ‘Doubting Thomas’ demands a special experience or physical proof that Jesus is alive. But ‘Trusting Thomas’ denies his scepticism when he expresses his belief that we live in the presence not just of the risen Jesus, but of the living God. Thomas is a witness to the reality of the new creation. Like Thomas, we are invited, by the way we live, to bear witness to the reality of the God who is with us and for us and to share the life of God. Then we will be blessed and be a blessing to others.
The Easter season is a time of thanksgiving and of looking for new beginnings. Death is not the end. The end is life, God’s life in us. So let us ask ourselves:
What have we received?
What have we believed?
What are we trusting God for?
And let us be thankful.
Easter Sunday, 17 April 2022
Luke 24.1-12 – The Empty Tomb
1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Christians reading Luke’s gospel for the first time might be surprised (and frustrated) to find he offers no account of the resurrection itself. Exactly what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a mystery about which Luke has nothing to say. God’s act of raising Jesus could not be told and none of the gospel writers attempt to do so. Luke cuts from Jesus’s burial to the discovery of the empty tomb.
What matters, in Luke’s resurrection narrative, are the women who followed Jesus every step of the way from Galilee and had seen him crucified and buried (23.49). They were named at the start of his ministry (8.1-3) and they are named again here (v10). It is these faithful women who are the first to proclaim the resurrection. They ‘witness’ to the male disciples and they are not believed. It is the women who believe in the resurrection before Peter, the leader of the disciples. Only when Peter goes to the tomb does he accept their report. But even then, it is not clear whether he believes that Jesus is alive. Such belief appears to come only after Jesus has appeared to him (Lk 24.34).
Luke’s target here might be condescending male superiority. We can imagine the disciples mansplaining to the women why they must be mistaken about the empty tomb. Alternatively, or additionally, Luke might be making those who have difficulty believing in the resurrection feel better about it. Sceptics and doubters are in good company. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus (24.25) and the Eleven (24.37-38) did not believe that Jesus had risen until he ate with them.
Luke’s gospel ends where Christian faith has begun. His final chapter tells stories about people who come to confess that ‘Jesus is Lord’, or who believe in ‘Jesus Christ who died, who was raised from the dead’ (Rom 8.34). However, the resurrection remains a stumbling block to faith for many. Rather than thinking about it in terms of life after death, might it be more helpful to talk about the resurrection as leading to a new way of life? Luke 24 shows that, starting with the women, the disciples share their lives with the risen Christ. The risen life is not another life, but the fulness of life starting now:
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another (1 John 3.14).
We will not find Jesus if we look for him among the dead. Jesus is alive, Hallelujah.
Palm Sunday – 10 April 2022
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
‘The Return of the King’ is the last part of Tolkein’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Luke could have given the same title to his account of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. Luke wants his readers to see that Jesus is the King coming to be enthroned. He does this through the story of the borrowed colt and the acclamation of Jesus by the disciples.
In Jesus’s day, it was kings who were able to requisition transport animals. Moreover, the garments spread on the road (v36) could represent the men themselves and their submission to Jesus’s kingly authority (See 2 Kings 9.13). Garments placed on the animal can be interpreted as a symbolic act of enthronement, forming a throne for a king to sit on.
The acclamation of the multitude who are singing Psalm 118 is modified by Luke. He inserts the word ‘King’, hence, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ And what kind of King is Jesus? The answer is, the one who will establish a reign of universal peace. The disciples who have seen the deeds of power done by Jesus cannot stop themselves singing, ‘Glory in the highest heaven!’. Here they echo on earth the song of the heavenly host at Jesus’s birth (Luke 2.11-14).
The Pharisees are right to be worried that the enthusiastic reception of a king would be regarded by the Romans as insurrection (v39). Sure enough, Pilate will ask Jesus, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (Luke 23.3). Like Aragorn, Tolkein’s returning King, Jesus must follow the way of pain and death before he may sit upon his throne.
The multitude praises God for all the mighty works they had seen performed by Jesus in his ministry (v37). In his Gospel and in Acts, Luke says that the Church should continue to offer this praise and worship. What has Jesus done for us or for others for which we might praise God? How regularly do we count our blessings?
What of those who reject God’s joy, peace and reconciliation? Pray for those who are caught up in disastrous wars because some reject God’s offer of salvation (19.41-44). How might we prepare for God’s ‘visitation’ ourselves?
3 April 2022 – Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 12.1-8 – The Anointing at Bethany
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
The story of the anointing at Bethany is found in all four Gospels. John gives it a theological twist. Like Mark (14.3-9), John interprets it as a foretelling of the death of Jesus. But by mentioning Lazarus who has just been raised from the dead by Jesus (John 11.44), he links Jesus’s death with resurrection, and by reporting that Mary anointed Jesus’s feet (not, as in Mark and Matthew, his head) and wiped them with her hair, he links Jesus’s death with the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7.47). John is portraying Jesus as both the triumphant Messiah (literally, ‘the anointed one’, anointed as king) and the one who is about to die for the sins of men (anointed for burial). He also shows that even now, so close to Jesus’s arrest, the disciples do not see this. Only Mary is clear sighted.
As in Mark and Matthew, her extravagant action raises eyebrows, and Judas complains money could have been put to better use. Jesus answers by drawing attention to his imminent death, and by quoting Deuteronomy 15:11. The grumblers have missed the point, indeed, they are suffering from spiritual blindness. ‘You will always have the poor with you, and you can help them any time you want,’ says Jesus. ‘But have you realised who I am, that I am the resurrection and the life’?
The sign performed by Mary enables us to see who Jesus really is. But Judas cannot see, for whilst he complains about how Mary uses her wealth (three hundred denarii was a year’s wages), he abuses his position as ‘treasurer’ to enrich himself.
Tragically, Judas sees the truth when it is too late. Overcome with remorse for having betrayed an innocent man or realizing that he loved Jesus, though he chose a strange way to show it, he takes his own life (Matthew 12.1-10).
John’s portrayal of Judas is an uncomfortable reminder to anyone who has ever adopted a holier-than-thou attitude. Like him, we are more than capable of deluding ourselves and we are certainly adept at misleading other people.
‘All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.’ (Proverbs 16:2)
It is easy to place a convenient explanation on an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction without questioning it properly, especially when the reality may not reflect so well on us. Understanding our own feelings, and those of others, may require self-examination and help from God and from those same others. Our critics may speak a true word.
‘The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.’ (Proverbs 20:5)
Contrast Mary with Judas. Mary is extraordinary. Her extravagant gesture prefigures the foot washing in John 13. It is daring, a sign of her love and devotion, and an expression of her gratitude to Jesus for giving her brother back his life. It also expresses the abundant extravagance and generosity of God.
Try to imagine the ‘scent event’ in the house in Bethany. The only place most Jews could experience a fragrance like this was the Temple in Jerusalem where nard had been the incense used at the altar. As Mary wipes Jesus’s feet, not with a towel but with her hair, she too becomes an anointed one, who shares the fragrance that symbolizes the worship and faith of the whole forgiven, risen, community. This is the Christian church, the community that assembles, not in the Temple in Jerusalem, but around Jesus.
This story is a powerful reminder to us of the roles, ministries and vocations within and beyond the church that women have exercised, and of the opposition they have faced. What might we not learn from it?
27th March 2022 – Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The parable of the Prodigal Son & Elder Brother stands alongside the Good Samaritan as the most familiar and best known of parables. Our parable here speaks of the entry into the kingdom of God, but it can be interpreted on various levels regarding coming back to the fold of the Kingdom.
There is the approach which says: humankind lived with God’s rule and authority but then chose to take its own way – the younger son turned his back on the Father and this indicated the Fall of Man. Humankind generally contents itself with being in a strange land where ego plays pride of place and enjoying the fruits of God’s gifts until such time when people are faced with crisis and come to the end of themselves – materially, emotionally, spiritually. It is then in the pig-pen of life that people may choose to reflect on their circumstance and realise that life with the Father is far more preferable. It is this ‘coming to his senses’ which is the turning point, the ‘metanoia’ – ‘the change of heart and direction.’ It is at the point of the son – humanity – taking responsibility and choosing to come home, that the Father runs to meet his son, who he has been looking out for. Jesus deliberately makes the Father look foolish in the eyes of the pharisees – men were to act with decorum and running did not befit their status and position. Convention is abandoned and it is all for the sake of grace, that continues with the son’s efforts to ‘do penance,’ and instead, he is lavished upon, with the throwing of a party…grace in abundance.
Rather than seeing the parable in terms of the Fall of Man it can be interpreted as the mirror into many of our lives which plays lip-service to God, rejects him and then at a later time longs to come back to the Father whom he/she knows is their sole source of spiritual survival. This then contrasts with the Elder Brother who says and does the right things but his heart is far from him. Jesus longs for integrity and authentic living and he recognises this more in the sinner however low he/she has stooped than in the falsity and hypocrisy of religious play-acting.
It may be that we see ourselves sometimes in a far-off land and running away from God, even though we know what is right but choose to reject it. At other times, we can be guilty of feigning religion and putting on a ‘good front.’ Lent is a time when we can make time to inspect our interior journey – knowing that the Father is always longing to embrace us in his Everlasting Arms when we come to him in penitence and faith and ‘come alive in him and be found.’
20th March 2022 – Third Sunday in Lent
Luke 13: 1 – 9
1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
One of the key issues which the desert experience of Lent throws up is that of suffering, and in the three stories referred to in this passage, they would seem to be riven with the issue of seeking explanations as to why or whether judgement should fall on individuals or part of nature; with a) Galileans being executed b) 18 dying as a result of a tragic tower collapse at Shiloam c) the parable of the possible destruction of an unfruitful fig tree. The theodicy that is postulated by curious inquirers around Jesus was that the evidence of a calamity or accident points to sinful behaviour and is God’s wrath being meted out on its perpetrators.
However, Jesus immediately questions this and by inference suggests that the Galileans and those who suffered at Siloam are not guilty of more sin than anyone else. As Jesus makes this point, he shifts the emphasis from trying to find theological blame, back on to each one of his hearers and to us: each of us needs to be aware of our relationship with God and repent of our sin. If we do not turn away from our wrong, then, as Jesus says: ‘you, too, will all perish.’ The issue of suffering is translated into an issue of personal responsibility: as St Paul echoes in Romans 3:23 ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ whether accidents befall them, whether they go through trials and tribulations, or enjoy what may be considered as a ‘good life.’
The parable of the questionable fig tree and the owner’s desire to cut it down and the gardener’s response, demonstrates that though we need to repent and deserve judgment for our sin, nevertheless, God always seeks to show grace and be merciful: ‘leave it alone for one more year’; in other words our Lord longs for us to produce fruit in our lives and be given maximum opportunity to do this…but beware that ‘no man knoweth the hour.’
We do not have to go far today to encounter suffering, personally or on the world front, and it is easy to agonise over the ‘why, God?’ Our Lord, above all else feels for those who weep and are downcast. But the challenge is this: how does the presence of suffering and evil in the world cause us to reach out for people’s salvation, not only materially, but also spiritually, since ‘the days are evil’ and ‘time is short’? Do we first know the invitation: ‘to come to me all you that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’? The Prodigal Son knew that this involved soul-searching in the desert and making an about-turn to journey back to his Father.
How much has the situation in the Ukraine caused you to rely more heavily on your heavenly Father? What might he be saying to you about journeying with them in heart and mind?
Lord, I don’t understand suffering – sometimes I want to blame you and shout out loud. Other times, when I have quietened my spirit, I just want to nestle in your arms, knowing that they encompass not just me but the whole world. Help me to trust you enough to know that you have the answers, and to be humble enough to admit that I might be part of the solution. Amen.
13th March 2022 – The Second Sunday in Lent
Luke 13: 31 – 35
31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
In our journey through Lent, our Gospel reading now takes us to the trials and testing which anticipate the shadow of the cross outside Jerusalem. From the tribulations of the wilderness where Jesus prepares for his mission and his identity questioned by Satan, we now have other whisperers who attempt to deflect his focus on the endgame, though ‘game’ it is anything but. Instead of Satan directly, it is Herod, John the Baptist’s destroyer, who now uses the Pharisees to announce his intention to be rid of Christ. Jesus stands his ground and treats him with righteous contempt: the tetrarch is devious and twisted – it is no wonder that Jesus later does not play ‘his game’ of performing a miracle at the trial. Instead of running away, Jesus underlines his Father’s work for him: to continue driving out demons and healing people…and then the ‘third day’ to reach his goal. This term can mean ‘in a short time’ but its poignancy is not lost on post resurrection readers: there is triumph ahead from the tomb, but not before his goal is reached in death for humankind.
The focus of the final temptation in Luke 4 is on Jerusalem, with its allure to jump from the temple’s parapet; now Jesus knows that he needs not to ‘jump off’ but identify with the sorrow of God’s capital, Zion. There is an irony that Jesus points to that no prophet can die outside Jerusalem but in being crucified ‘outside the city walls’ Jesus was to suffer even this ignominy. Jesus now utters his lament for this place: he as the greatest prophet who ever has walked this earth now identifies with the brutality shown to other of God’s mouthpieces and whose inhabitants are like sheep without a shepherd, or rather chicks without their mother hen. And Jesus with the deepest of compassion longs to save the innocent from the things that will come – the desolation of that place in future years.
The end of the chapter is left in the balance: is Jesus speaking of his triumph into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hailed as Lord by the people, or is he speaking of the second advent when he would come from glory?
As the shadow of war over the capital of Ukraine grows ever more chilling, it must be the response of all our hearts that we lament and weep for the occupants of that city. The stand against the evil and of devious leadership has chilling parallels with the Kremlin at this time, and maybe we should not be afraid likewise to use words of righteous contempt, whilst feeling for the masses who have been duped by the darker side of a questionable regime.
Let us redouble our efforts to lament, to cry out to God for release for the captives in our fellow European cities and spur one another on to love and good works in the face of the enemy. In the end we long for that ‘third day’ when resurrection can again take place in the hearts and lives of all people as they look to him who sets his face towards Jerusalem.
6th March – the First Sunday of Lent.
Luke 4.1-13: The Temptation of Jesus
4 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit 2 for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” 5 And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”
9 And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it is written,
‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
We may think of temptations as unwelcome – wouldn’t it be nice if we were never tempted? – but today’s Gospel shows us that temptations happen to all of us, even Jesus the Son of God, and that is in a sense quite reassuring. It is not what we are exposed to that defines us: it is how we deal with it. Furthermore, the Gospel helps us to understand how to deal with those temptations, if we can look beyond our desires for things of this world and keep our spiritual eyes fixed on God. Jesus triumphs over temptation because he understands who he is and what he is here for. Let us use this journey of forty days prayerfully to explore inside ourselves and gain God-led self-knowledge, so that temptation may have less pull on us.
27 February 2022 – The Sunday Next Before Lent.
Luke 9.28-36: The Transfiguration
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Luke sees Jesus as a man of prayer, for prayer is the activity which opens the world to new possibilities as God’s purpose and will are discerned. Jesus was praying before his baptism, before choosing the twelve and before Peter says that he is the Messiah. He will pray again in Gethsemane with Peter, John and James. Here, Jesus takes with him the same three disciples to support him in the second crisis in his religious life.
The first crisis had taken place at his baptism when Jesus had understood that he was being commissioned as Messiah and the Servant of the Lord. Now, on the mountain, Jesus understands that his Galilean ministry is coming to an end and that it is time to journey to Jerusalem where, as he has already told the disciples, he will suffer rejection, be killed and on the third day rise again (9.22). The ‘departure’ of Jesus at Jerusalem is part of God’s plan for his Messiah.
The three disciples nearly fall asleep while Jesus is praying. They ‘wake up’ both literally and metaphorically to the presence of God. The presence of Moses and Elijah signify that the long-awaited age of judgment and renewal are at hand. Peter’s suggestion that they build tents is a reference to the Jewish belief that in the last days, God would once again dwell with his people as God had done during the Exodus (Ex 36.8-9). But whereas in the events of the Passover, God had delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, through the death and (more importantly from Luke’s perspective) the resurrection and ascension of the Messiah, God will deliver his people from sin and death to new life, overcoming evil and restoring creation. God’s kingdom of justice and love will come as people recognise who Jesus is and do what he teaches. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
Verse thirty-two can be translated, ‘When they were fully awake they saw his glory.’
Like the apostles, there is often a risk that we might miss what God is doing because we are ‘weighed down with sleep’. We might be set in our ways and unwilling to embrace a ‘new reality’. We might be guilty of confirmation bias, only ‘seeing’ evidence that confirms what we already believe. Or we might suffer from mental lethargy. Who among us would not prefer a life of ease to having to face difficult questions and an uncertain future? Are we fully awake?
Second Sunday before Lent – 20 February 2022
Luke 8.22-25: The Stilling of the Storm
22 One day he [Jesus] got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’
The stories of Noah (Genesis 6-9) and of Jonah help us to understand Luke’s telling of the stilling of the storm. Both the Flood which threatens all creation and the storm which threatens to sink the ship on which Jonah is a passenger, are a reversal of the order God imposed ‘in the beginning’ (Genesis 1.6-10). This is because if Man abandons God, there will be a return to primordial chaos, creation will be unmade and we will be swept away. We can see this abandonment of God in all human wickedness (born of weakness and fear), in our relentless accumulation of wealth, in wars and in environmental disasters, all of which threaten to destroy us. This is a judgment we bring upon ourselves. But it is not the end of the story.
Crucially, God’s gracious and merciful concern for all he has made means that although Man may abandon God, God does not abandon Man. This is the ‘golden thread’ that runs through the stories of Noah, Jonah and the disciples on the lake. So it is that when the disciples cry out in distress, ‘Master, we are perishing’, Jesus puts the wind and waves back in their place with a word of rebuke. The obvious answer to the question that follows, ‘Who then is this…?’, is God, or that Jesus is the one who wields authority in God’s kingdom. The disciples should know that no power, no opposition, is able to withstand Jesus’s word of command.
‘Where is your faith?’ Luke suggests that we can either trust Jesus or we will be left at the mercy of the storm. What kind of storms have we run into in our lives?
Jesus has already questioned his disciples (Luke 6.46) as to why they call him Lord but do not do what he says. For those who hear his words and do not do them, the consequences will be ruinous (Luke 6.49). In what areas have we found it most difficult to trust and obey Jesus?
Third Sunday before Lent – 13 February 2022
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
This is the opening of Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’. Less well known than Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Luke’s theme is radical reversal, introduced in the Magnificat (1.51-53) and continued in the Nazareth Manifesto (4.18-19). The Beatitudes (‘promised blessings’) are for his followers in the new Israel and the woes are for those who ignore the new order.
Unlike those whose poverty is spiritualized in Matthew 5.3 (the poor in spirit), the people Luke addresses in the first three blessings are literally destitute, physically hungry and weeping actual tears. If Jesus’s followers are a mixture of rich and poor then Jesus is demanding that they address the gap between them now (the word now is used twice: 6.21, 25). This division was an issue for believers in the early church (1 Corinthians 11.22) and in a world of stark economic inequality, it remains an ongoing challenge both locally and globally.
Jesus’s reference to the prophets is significant (6.23). Jesus appears to identify himself with that part of the Old Testament prophetic tradition that assumes the rich to be both arrogant – because they think they have no need of God – and oppressors of the poor – because the rich are powerful as landowners, employers, or share-holders. The prophets demanded Israel, ‘do justice… love goodness, and… walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6.8). The tradition that developed in Judaism was that all God’s prophets of old were persecuted and many were killed in Jerusalem (Luke 13.33-34).
And yet, the fourth blessing and woe extend the reversal of values to how we should experience hatred, exclusion, mocking and defamation. We are to rejoice when we face opposition as Paul and others did as they continued Jesus’s work of turning the world upside down (Acts 17.6). Paul and Silas were not downcast in prison in Philippi but sang hymns and songs… at midnight! (Acts 16.25).
Is it true that, more often than not, the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet?
There is a powerful social taboo around the discussion of money. How might we challenge it?
Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England football player, is a Christian who decided to help confront food poverty. The award-winning British rapper Stormzy is a Christian who protested against the government’s mishandling of the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the need to empower black people. How might they inspire those of us who are not quite so rich and famous to ‘do justice’?
NB If we have never seen a performance of Stormzy singing ‘Blinded by your grace’ please follow this link:
I find this version of the song inspiring.
Fourth Sunday before Lent – 6 February 2022
1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5 Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Up to this point in Luke’s account, Jesus has been alone in his public ministry. Now he calls on others to follow him and join in his work. Simon’s response is given as a model for us. He does what Jesus asks, even though he might question the wisdom of Jesus’s command (v4-5). Simon recognizes the presence of God in the extraordinary catch of fish. Here there is a parallel with the call of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah (See Isaiah 6.1-10). Like Isaiah, who says, ‘Woe to me… for I am a man of unclean lips’, Simon is conscious of his own unworthiness. But like Isaiah, Simon is reassured and commissioned to go to others.
Although Jesus’s command to fish for people is addressed to Simon alone, others who ‘sail’ with him, like James and John, also obey. Perhaps Luke is anticipating what he witnessed, the growth of the first-century church through evangelists preaching under the authority of Jesus.
Luke’s final statement that those who followed Jesus left everything (v11), is an example of Luke’s insistence that the attitude of disciples towards possessions is symbolic of their response to God’s call. Simon, James and John seem to have left their share of the enormous catch for others to sell!
Even if we accept that our attitude to possessions is an expression of our faith, please note that Luke does not suggest there is a one size fits all response to these questions. Luke mentions a variety of faithful responses including: paying for care of a stranger (10.33-35); avoiding covetousness (12.13-21, 33-34); relying on God’s strength rather than our wealth (14.28-33); avoiding the idolatry of wealth, perhaps by using what we have for the benefit of the poor (16.1-15, 19-25); sharing what we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ (18.18-30; 19.1-27; Acts 2.42). Barnabas sold a field (which may or may not have been ‘all he had’) and gave the proceeds to the apostles to be distributed to those in need (Acts 4.36-37).
Do we feel unworthy when it comes to ‘fishing for people’? Why is this? How might we become better at ‘giving an account of the hope that is in us’? We are told that we should always be ready to do this when asked (1 Peter 3.15).
What is our attitude to possessions? Is it an expression of our faith?
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.