St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Notes for Reflection Christmas

December 24/25                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Christmas Eve/Day

Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

Theme:  Pretty obvious, really, however we choose to express it.  I'm going with "The Gift of a Child."  It may be worth pausing at that point and pondering that simple phrase.  Of course, in this context it refers to the infant Christ; but it also applies to all new-born infants.  And who is the gift from in those cases?

Introduction.  The pattern we have become used to through the Season of Advent continues here.  An amazing and mystifying prophecy from centuries ago is fulfilled in an equally amazing and mystifying way.  Somewhere around 700 years before that first Christmas, Isaiah proclaims a message of hope to the people devastated by defeat, capture and exile.  A child is to be born!  And centuries later that child is born in Bethlehem, exactly as Isaiah had foretold.  And that has made all the difference, as St Paul writes in his letter to Titus.

Background.  During the Advent Season I have been trying to flesh out the idea of the progressive stages of the spiritual development of humanity, at least that part of humanity that has been influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Taking a cue from the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, I have suggested that, for a long period of time, humanity in general did not have the spiritual "equipment" to encounter God directly.  Just as we have evolved physically and mentally over millennia, so we have needed to evolve spiritually.  As always, evolutionary progress does not happen in all creatures of a particular species at once.  One or two "get there" first.  So it was that God first revealed himself to exceptional individuals – particularly gifted or "anointed" to receive from God and share with everyone else. 

While such an evolutionary process is gradual, there comes an occasional leap forward.  Some years ago a popular book advanced the theory of the "Hundredth Monkey".  This idea came from observing a troupe of monkeys in a fairly limited environment – I think they were confined on a particular island.  One monkey discovered a new technique for doing something – sifting grain from earth by dropping it in the water; the grain floated and could be scooped off.  Another monkey saw this and copied it.  Then another, and so on.  So far, so understandable.  But the observers discovered that when the number of monkeys in this confined habitat that knew this trick reached a certain number (think, tipping point or critical mass), other monkeys of the same species in entirely separate environments suddenly "acquired" this same technique!  How to explain that?  Jung might say it points to the collective unconscious.  Whatever the explanation, it suggests that at a certain point the whole species is somehow gifted with a new ability.

It's something like this I have in mind as I try to understand something of the mystery of the incarnation – and later, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.  In some way we cannot explain rationally, this new life that is born is Bethlehem has entered, not just Mary, but all humanity:  our human nature has been forever changed by the birth of this child that Isaiah talked about all those centuries before the event.  That's why both Isaiah and the angel that frightened the wits out of the shepherds broadcast a rather strange birth notice.  Not to Mary (and Joseph) a boy...  But UNTO US.  There in those little explosive words is the great miracle and the great mystery of Christmas.   Even FOR US might have sounded right; but unto us?

Perhaps one way into this is to think about the way in which a baby can be said to be born unto (or at least into) a whole family.  The child belongs to the parents as child, to the grandparents as grandchild, to the parents' other children as sibling, and to the parents' siblings as nephew/niece.  (And so on through cousins, etc.)  So a child can be said to be born unto his/her family; and if we accept that all humanity is one family (God is the Father of us all) then here is part of the mystery we are grappling with.

But only a part.  As St John grasped perhaps more than any other biblical writer, this particular birth is about the incarnation of the Divine in the flesh of all humanity.  From then on we could no longer insist that we are "only human".  We are (at least potentially) both human and divine, and that potentiality is realised in general at Pentecost and in the particular case through baptism.

We make a great mistake if we allow ourselves to be drawn into debate about the details of immaculate conception or virgin birth.  The joy of Christmas is part of the joy of the whole Christ-event, which is the process by which we become children of God through the Spirit as well as children of our parents through the flesh.  More about that next year.

Isaiah.  This is one of those passages that makes marvellous sense to us, but must have made absolutely no sense to the people of Isaiah's time, and probably to Isaiah himself.  The people have been decimated by the Assyrians; their land has been pillaged, their leaders killed or taken hostage, their men slaughtered, and their women and children enslaved.  It doesn't get much worse than that.  And what is God's solution to all that?  Another great military leader, an alliance with a stronger nation, or at least some sort of credible rescue plan?  No, God's answer is embodied in a baby!  Think about that for a minute – actually several minutes!  Take any more manageable calamity you can think of – the earthquakes in Christchurch, for example.  Imagine Gerry Brownlee standing up in the middle of the devastated CBD and announcing that he brings good news for them.  The Government is to be placed on the shoulders of a new-born baby!  And yet at a literal level that's basically the message from Isaiah.

We need to dig down to a lower level.  The child is surely about starting all over again.  About new life in the midst of death.  About God once again doing an entirely new thing – when the time is right – when enough people are ready.

Finally, as we ponder this whole idea of the birth being "unto us", have a look at the beautiful little liturgy called "Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child", which begins on page 754 of the Prayer Book.  Read through it slowly and prayerfully.  Thinking of the baby Jesus, pray the prayers in that service, and be thankful.

Taking It Personally.

·         Focus on verse 2(a).  Can you recall a time when you suddenly had a bright light shone at you in the midst of darkness (perhaps the headlight of an approaching car while driving at night)?  Remember how your eyes take a moment or two to react, during which you cannot see properly.  (Think Paul on the road to Damascus, temporarily blinded by a bright light.)  Perhaps our spiritual blindness results from the Divine light being too strong for us?

·         Now verse 2(b).  Birth in a world where death is part of our reality.  The wording reminds us of psalm 23.  Read that psalm through.  How does it relate to Christmas?  (A clue, Emmanuel – God with us!)

·         Read verse 3-5, and think of the destruction of war: Hiroshima, Afghanistan, Iraq – pick any of them.  Focus on the sheer bloody horror of it all.  Then read verses 6 and 7.

·         Finish with a period of quiet meditation on Isaiah 55:8.

Titus.  A little Christmas stocking filler!  Christ is the embodiment of the grace of God.  Because of the appearance of that grace among us all thing have been changed, including our human nature so that we can now lead godly lives.  Time itself has changed; we are now in an age that will end with the return of Christ.

Taking It Personally.

·         We feel different at Christmas, don't we?  Do you?  Do you feel more tolerant, more kindly disposed towards others, even ""difficult" others?  How do you explain that?

·         We anticipate Christmas, look forward to it, and become more hopeful.  What are you most hoping for at this time?  What are you most looking forward to?  How do your hopes relate to your faith?

Luke.  The birth takes place in a real, historical world, as Luke is at pains to record.  Quite possibly he is guided in part by his great love of irony here.  Caesar wants to puff himself up by recording how many subjects he has.  But for Luke only one new-born baby really counts.  Notice that there is no reference to an innkeeper in this story, despite countless nativity plays involving such a character (often with comic-tragic results!).  Come to that, Luke does not specifically mention a stable (or an accompanying cast of animals): all that comes from his reference to a manger.

Above all for Luke this birth is a reunion of heaven and earth.  Heaven takes the initiative.  The angel (messenger) appears, accompanied by a blinding light (the glory of God).  As usual, the humans involved are terrified, and so the angel has to begin where they all do: "do not be afraid".  Then comes the birth announcement, and that same little phrase: the baby has been born "to (or unto) you", followed by the full angelic choir.  And all this for a bunch of shepherds, universally looked down on at the time as the lowest of the low.  When they had recovered their wits, they set off for Bethlehem to see for themselves.  What they found was a man, a woman and a baby – nothing out of the ordinary.  But they told people about the angel's message and we are assured that all who heard their testimony were amazed.  Mary, however, stored these things up in her heart and pondered them, while the shepherds went on their way praising God.

And then...not much happened for 30 years!  Things were still not quite ready.

Taking It Personally.

·         Read the passage slowly, noticing the details that are there and those that aren't.  Place yourself in the encounter between the shepherd and the angel.  How do you feel?  What can you see?  Can you look or is the light too bright?  What are the sheep doing?  Have they seen what's going on or are they just continuing to chew or sleep?

·         Go with the shepherds to Bethlehem.  What do you see when you get there?  How do you feel?  Contrast the vision with the pictures of the Nativity Scene you may have seen over the years.  Does Mary look like a woman who has just been through the trauma of labour and childbirth, or is she all serene and beautiful?  What's Joseph doing?

·         Look at the infant.  Does he look as though he has just been born?  What can you smell?  Are there animals around, or evidence that they have been around?  What are the shepherds doing?  Do Mary and Joseph seem welcoming or do you feel intrusive?  Are you in a hurry to leave, or would you like to stay?  Do you say anything to Mary or Joseph?  Do they speak to you?

·         What are your thoughts as you leave?  What does that birth mean to you?  Do you feel in any way that this baby has been born to you?

Saturday, 17 December 2011

December 18 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Advent 4

December 18                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Advent 4

Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Theme:  Do not be Afraid.  [This is the almost invariable opening line when an angel visits a human being.]  As we continue to explore the idea of developing our spiritual faculties, perhaps we need to hear those words addressed to us: do not be afraid.

Introduction.  During this Season of Advent I have been trying to explore the theme of the spiritual journey, corporate and individual, as being a process of stages by which we learn to hear God directly, rather than through a mediator.  Thus, we can say with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, that in olden times God spoke to us through specially anointed individuals, such as the patriarchs, Moses, Samuel, the Judges and Kings, and, of course, the prophets.  Then came the incarnation when God in Christ came among us in Jesus Christ and spoke directly, but usually without being understood.  Finally, at Pentecost God made his Holy Spirit available to all.  We are now equipped to "receive" God directly: what we need to do is to learn how to tune in.  This pattern of growth is well illustrated by today's readings.

King David is glowing with success.  He is in a wonderful palace, his enemies have been defeated and all is well with his world.  His thoughts turn to God.  Is it right that he should have a splendid palace while God (represented by the Ark of the Covenant) is in a tent somewhere?  He tells his friend, the prophet Nathan, of his concern, and Nathan tells him to do whatever he has in mind.  It quickly turns out that God has something very different in his mind.  Both David and Nathan were operating in the worldly mode.  Nathan should have known better: as a prophet he should have listened to God, not to the king and not to his own sense of what is right.  St Paul ends his magnificent Letter to the Romans with a final outburst of praise, emphasising the importance of divine revelation through the "prophetic writings".  And Mary has an extraordinary encounter with an angel and moves from bewilderment to acceptance as she opens herself to the will of God.

Samuel.  It's hard not to feel some sympathy for King David.  Successful men don't always give credit for their success to God, or even give God a first (let alone a second) thought.  The author, of course, is clear that the happy circumstances in which David finds himself are a gift from God.  Where it seems David goes wrong is in the apparent belief that one good turn deserves another; God having been good to him, he will now return the favour.  In other words, he is, perhaps unconsciously, claiming equality with God.  He is overlooking the fact that God sets the agenda – God always takes the initiative – and so his own proposal to build a fine temple is presumptuous, to say the least.

Nathan the prophet forgets his prophetic role.  He responds to David as a man – he operates in the worldly mode.  He is so sure that God is with David that he assumes that whatever David had in mind will be just fine with God.  He does not deem it necessary to check with God first before encouraging David in his plans.  So God speaks firmly to Nathan.  Notice that God does not speak directly to David.  The message is for David but God gives it to Nathan to pass on.  Nathan has switched into the spiritual mode: he can now hear what God is saying: David still needs an intermediary.  Notice that the promise of an eternal kingdom in verse 16 is the one that the Archangel Gabriel gives to Mary in this morning's gospel passage.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you more likely to "remember" God in your times of difficulty or in your joyous times?  When you feel thankful about something do you usually take time to express your thanks in prayer?

·        What do you think of David's attitude?  How would you characterise it?  Have you ever felt that you were doing a good turn for God?

·        Do you sympathise with Nathan?  Are you inclined to encourage people to "go for it" without taking time to ponder whether the "it" they are going for is the right thing to do?

·        Given the subsequent history of the kingdom of Israel, what do you make of the promise in verse 16?  Should modern Israel determine its policies in accordance with such promises?


Romans.  One of St Paul's favourite themes is the revelation of "the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known".  This adds weight to the idea that God's self-revelation has been gradual – stage by stage – as humanity's spiritual evolution has progressed.  Only when there were sufficient spiritually open people did God reveal "the secret", of salvation for all through Jesus Christ.  The reference to the "prophetic writings" is a little obscure, as it seems to suggest writings contemporary with St Paul.  But perhaps it means that with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost we are now able to understand the prophetic writings of old in a new way.  [See Luke 24:45]  The universal quality of salvation is emphasised in verse26 – a fitting climax to this full statement of Paul's theology.


Taking It Personally.


·        Notice how Paul's thinking and theology lead him into praise and worship.  Make praise for the wonder of God's self-revelation the centre of your prayer this week in the lead-up to Christmas.

·        Reflect on how your own understanding of God's purpose has grown over the years.  Do you sometimes find that things you didn't understand once suddenly become clearer to you? 


Luke.  Today's passage is about what we now call the Annunciation.  Notice first that it is unique to Luke's gospel.  [Matthew's account is far more terse, and is focused on Joseph rather than Mary; and Mark and John omit it altogether.]  The Church tends to emphasise only one half of the extraordinary promises the angel makes to Mary, perhaps because she seems not to notice the other half.  We can understand her reaction to the news that she, still a virgin, is to give birth.  But the angel also tells her that the son to be born to her will ascend David's throne and will reign for ever.  What on earth could that mean in the worldly sense?  Mary's immediate response shows her operating in the worldly mode.    Of course it makes no sense in that mode to say that she will be pregnant even though she is a virgin.  "How can that be?" she asks.  But she is talking to an angel!  Angels do not operate in the worldly mode.  His answer makes no sense in that mode: it can only be understood in the spiritual mode.  Mary now moves from one mode to the other by faith.  One thing she does know is that she is a servant of the Lord God.  That is enough for her to leave things in God's hands – including her own life.


Taking It Personally.


·       Read through this passage slowly, several times.  Try to enter into the story as an interested observer.  What are your feelings?

·       Does the idea of the "virgin birth" bother or embarrass you?  Is that a part of the Creed you feel uneasy about?  Think about the "mode" in which you are operating: could that be the problem?

·       Notice how Mary starts off being logical, even though she is talking to an angel!  Do you find your logical mind gets in the way of your faith sometimes?

·       Angels invariably tell their human audiences not to be afraid; but there is something scary about opening ourselves to the spiritual reality.  Do you recall an occasion when you felt nervous or plain scared in this way?

·       Pray this simple (but frightening!) prayer each day this week: "Lord God, send your Holy Spirit upon me, overshadow me with your procreative power, that Christ may be born anew in me.  Amen."


Thursday, 15 December 2011

Parish of East Otago Christmas Services

St Barnabas, Coast Road, Warrington.
Christmas Eve: 9.00pm Carols; 9.45pm Eucharist Service
Christmas Day: 9.30am Eucharist Service.
St John's, Beach Street, Waikouaiti.
December 23: 7.00pm Carol Service
Christmas Day:  9.30am Eucharist Service.
Hui te Rangiora, Puketeraki, Coast Road, Karitane
Christmas Day: 11.00am  Eucharist Service
St Mary's, Stourness Street, Palmerston.
Christmas Day: 10.00am  Eucharist Service.
Kotahitanga, Haven Street, Moeraki
Christmas Eve: 4.00pm  Eucharist Service.
Boxing Day:  9.00am  175th Anniversary Community Service.
There are no Christmas services at St Stephen's.

Friday, 9 December 2011

December 11 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Advent 3

December 11                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION                                Advent 3

Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Theme: As usual there are a number of possibilities.  I rather like "John on John", as the author of the Gospel reflects on the role or ministry of John the Baptist.  That offers an opportunity to look at the question I raised last week, "Why do we need John the Baptist?"  And just as that question led into a quick overview of St Mark's gospel, so this same question invites a similar overview of St John's gospel this week.

Introduction.  The link between our first lesson and our gospel passage is a little more obscure than usual, but it is there in the person of John the Baptist.  We recall again that when John was held in captivity and doubt set in, he sent emissaries to check with Jesus, in effect, that Jesus really was the Messiah as John had originally thought.  By way of response Jesus pointed to what was going on all around him – the blind were given back their sight, the deaf could hear again, the lame could walk, and the dead were being raised.  In other words, the very things that Isaiah had predicted would happen on when the Anointed One came in passages such as today's first lesson were coming to pass.  There is, of course, a great irony here.  John has identified himself by quoting from Isaiah, yet he has apparently failed to recognise the Messianic signs that are accompanying Jesus' ministry, as predicted by that very same prophet.  That could well have been the point of Jesus' answering John's question in the way that he did.  Meanwhile, St Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians is again used to remind us that, for us, the focus has shifted from Jesus' first coming to his return at the end of the age.

Background.  All the gospels at least hint at some ongoing difficulty within the early Church over the exact relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus – or, more accurately, between their respective followers.  St John is perhaps the most explicit on this matter: see 3:25-26.  He is also very clear about John's mission.  In today's extracts from the wonderful prologue to his gospel, St John spells out his understanding.  John the Baptist is NOT the Light (the Christ), but a witness to the light.  And as soon as he has finished the prologue he begins the main body of the gospel by bringing John onto centre stage to make the same point even more emphatically.  Moreover, in the prologue he explains why a witness was necessary: He (Christ) was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him.  There is the point I made last week.  For whatever reason people were incapable of recognising Christ: they needed to have him pointed out to them.

So the first thing we could say in an overview of St John's gospel is that the act of witnessing is crucial to the development of the Christian faith.  It is John who points two of his own disciples towards Jesus: 1:35-37.  One of those is Andrew who goes and finds Peter: 1:40-42.  Later the Samaritan woman will return to her village and testify to Jesus with such good effect that many of the villagers come out to meet Jesus and are themselves convinced: 4:39-42.

Even more explicit in this gospel is the other main theme I raised last week.  The reason why John was necessary was that most people lacked the spiritual faculties necessary to discern Jesus' true identity.  At that time the people still needed a prophet (one who is spiritually advanced) to lead them into spiritual truths.  Take a quick run through this gospel and we will find episode after episode of almost comic misunderstanding between those who are operating in the worldly mode and Jesus trying to speak spiritual truths to them.  Here are just a few examples:

·        2:19-22, where Jesus is talking about his body (death and resurrection), whereas his protagonists think he is talking about the temple.

·        3:1-21, the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, where Jesus tells the old man he must be born again – born from above – born of water and the Spirit.

·        4:7-26, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and they talk past each other about "water".

·        4:27-34, where the disciples urge Jesus to eat something, only to be told he has food they know nothing about.

·        6:25-65, where just about everybody is baffled by Jesus' identifying himself as the bread of heaven.

·        8:23, where Jesus tells his critics, "You are from below; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world."  And 8:47 is in similar vein: "Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

That this idea of worldly/spiritual divide is at the heart of St John's presentation is spelled out most clearly in 7:39, where he interrupts his own narrative to explain what Jesus means by "living water": By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.  Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

To recap and summarise: in the past God had spoken to his people through the prophets.  With the coming of Jesus God spoke directly through his Son, but most of the people lacked the spiritual capacity to see, hear and understand.  So they needed people like John the Baptist to spell it out for them.  Then at Pentecost the Spirit came to lead the people into all truth: 16:13.  Next time you hear the reader say, "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church", understand that it is something different from, and deeper than, "hear what Mary has just read out in the church".

Isaiah.  This is the great messianic prophecy that Jesus took as his kaupapa when he began his teaching in his hometown synagogue: Luke 4:18-19.  The Anointed One (the One on whom the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord has come) inaugurates a time of renewal and transformation for the people, and of restoration and re-building for their towns and cities.  In short, the coming of the Anointed One (the Christ) makes a difference!  As mentioned above, these are the signs to which Jesus drew John's attention: hence the gospel writers' emphasis on the healing work that Jesus carried out during his earthly ministry.  Notice that this passage in Isaiah is in the first person.  Isaiah the prophet usually acts as a mouthpiece for God, or for himself.  Here he is the mouthpiece for the Christ who is to come.  Also noteworthy is the priority given to preaching good news to the poor.  It comes before the various acts of mercy mentioned in the passage.  But it's not all good news: in this passage the coming of the Anointed One also includes judgment: the year of the Lord's favour is intertwined with the day of vengeance of our Lord.  [When Jesus reads from the scroll in the synagogue he breaks off before this day is mentioned; perhaps to make the point that his first coming is about the offer of salvation – judgment is delayed until his return.]

Taking It Personally.

·        Read the passage slowly and prayerfully several times.  Which phrase strikes you in particular?  As we approach the end of this year and the beginning of the next, how does this prophecy of better things to come make you feel?

·        In what way is this good news for the poor?

·        Are you aware of someone who is broken-hearted at this time?  How might you bind up that person's wounds?

·        Who among those known to you might be held captive – to addiction, for example, or by an unhealthy relationship?  Is there some way in which you might be able to help set that person free?

·        Spend some time in intercessory prayer, drawing on this passage.

Thessalonians.  It is thought that this Letter was written as early as 50-51 A.D.  The belief in Christ's imminent return was still very strong and had led to a somewhat laid-back attitude.  What's the point in working hard if everything is about to end?  So St Paul urges discipline, both in the practical everyday sense and in the spiritual sense.  Above all he urges them to keep a Christian attitude, one of joy and thanksgiving whatever their personal circumstances.  Verses 19-23 are of particular importance.  They are to be open to the Spirit, listening to the word of God, and bringing commonsense to bear.  Not everybody who claims to be speaking for God really is!  Paul's final remarks are both words of instruction and of prayer for them

Taking It Personally.

·        Examine your attitude in the light of this passage.  Are you generally a thankful and joyous person, or is your mood dictated by your particular circumstances?

·        What about your attitude towards other people?  Ponder verse 14.  Which of those things do you find most difficult to do?  Why?  As you reflect on this verse do particular people come into your mind?  Do you need to change your attitude to them?

·        And then there's verse 15!  Clearly St Paul has in mind a community of faith prepared to take responsibility for one another as well as for their own attitude and behaviour.  Is that how things are in your local church?

·        Are you open to the leading of the Spirit?  Make that a focus of your prayer, drawing on verse 23.

John.  The first point St John makes about John the Baptist is that he is a man: not an angel, nor some divine spirit, or a voice, but a man.  Secondly, he was "sent by God".  He was a man on a divine mission.  His mission was to be the witness to Christ; and notice the importance attached to him by St John.  It is "through him all might believe".  John the Baptist is the primal witness to Christ, the pattern for all other witnesses to come.  Clearly, he caused a great stir, so much so that the Temple equivalent of ERO was sent to audit his teaching, since he did not have the appropriate credentials of a rabbi.  His interview is recorded by St John in fairly neutral terms: it seems his interrogators wanted to hear his explanation of what he was up to.  In answer he identifies himself as the one calling in the wilderness.  He is then asked to explain why he baptises people, and it's in answering this question that he gives us a further clue about the need for his ministry: "among you stands one you do not know" (v.26).  Then in the next verse comes his famous remark about untying the sandals.  This was one thing that no disciple could be obliged to do for his master: such work was reserved for slaves.  It is, of course, a preview of Jesus' actions in washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper.  It is also an amazing illustration of John's humility: he considered himself unworthy even to be Christ's slave!

Taking It Personally.

·        There's no avoiding this question!  How do you witness to Jesus?

·        If you were asked who you are, how would you answer?  With just your name, or with some reference to your family of origin or your place of birth?  Or would you describe yourself in terms of your faith – "I am a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ", or even "I am a unique manifestation of the creative love of God"?

·        At Christmas we will sing of Emmanuel, God with us (or God among us).  How aware are you of God's presence with you?  Take some time in silent prayer today: be conscious of spending the time in God's presence.  This week pause frequently and say to yourself "I am in God's presence".  At the end of the week reflect on this practice: has it made any difference to you or for you?


Sunday, 4 December 2011

Advent 2

December 4                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION                               Advent 2

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Theme:  Again, a rich field of contenders; but I'm going for "Same Voice, New Creation".  Today we are starting on Mark's gospel, the gospel for Year B of our three-year cycle.  Mark (like John) clearly has in mind the opening verses of Genesis.  The old and the new creations are "spoken" into existence.

Introduction.  Today is a good day to take an overview of the gospel, and to emphasise its role as a map of the journey of faith.  That journey has three major stages for most of us.  First, we hear about God: because of our undeveloped spiritual faculties we cannot see or hear God directly, so we need intermediaries (prophets, teachers, etc) to tell us about the reality of God.  Then we become interested in, and begin to develop a relationship with, Jesus Christ, primarily as a teacher and exemplar; and our spiritual faculties begin to develop.  The third stage is one of opening ourselves to the interior witness of the Holy Spirit, when our spiritual faculties continue to develop to the point where we can encounter God directly. 

These stages overlap.  In fact, each successive stage does not replace the earlier ones, but is a further development of them.  Hence the gospel story begins with the prophet, John, who points us to Jesus, who teaches us about the coming of the Spirit.  Against that background we can see each of the four gospels progressing in a similar way.  Mark ends (in his original version) with an open tomb and the only witnesses too terrified to speak.  Matthew introduces the resurrected Christ and takes the story almost to the Ascension; but the Spirit has not yet come.  Luke's gospel then goes a step further with the Ascension, but does not include the coming of the Spirit.  John then includes Jesus' teaching about the coming of the Spirit and the breathing of the Spirit by Jesus onto the disciples.  [Even then, we need to turn to the Book of Acts for a full account of the coming of the Spirit.]

So Mark's gospel begins with John the Baptist, a prophet calling our attention to the one who is to come.  He does so by recalling the earlier prophecies – a prophecy of the coming of a prophet to prepare the way of the Lord.  Only then does Jesus enter upon the stage.  Our first lesson contains the major part of the prophecy quoted by Mark.  Then our second lesson reminds us, as it were, that we are not focused on Jesus' first coming: we are awaiting his return.

Background.  To track this journey of faith through the Scriptures a key term is prophecy.  This should be understood, not so much as a prediction of some future event, but as hearing the word of God directly.  It is God's desire that we all become capable of that, but to do so we need to develop our spiritual faculties: Jesus frequently referred to "those who have ears to hear" or "eyes to see".  Here are a few key passages to help get some idea of all this:

·         Numbers 11:24-30 – the anointing of the elders of Israel.  Notice especially verse 29(b), where Moses says, "I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!"

·         Jeremiah 31:31-34 – a new covenant.  Verse 34 says, "No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," says the Lord.

·         Joel 2:28 – "I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions."

·         John – many passages from the Farewell discourses (chapters 13-17), such as 16:12-15; and see also 7:39.

·         1 Corinthians 14:1-5, especially verse 1 where St Paul writes, "Follow the way of love and eagerly desire the spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy."   See also verses 22 and 29-33.

·         Hebrews 1:1-4: "in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son...".

And here is a useful passage from Thomas Keating in his book, Manifesting God:

"How are we to reach what Paul calls 'the deep knowledge of God' (Colossians 1:9, 2:3, 3:4-11), by which he means the experiential knowledge of God, or what the Christian tradition calls 'contemplation?  It is the latter that makes us sensitive to the divine mysteries.  Though we cannot explain them with our conceptual apparatus, they are just as real as anything that we can see, feel, think or imagine."  [His answer to his own question is prayer.]

Isaiah.  Last week's lesson started with the agonising cry from the prophet in prayer," Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!"  This week he is back to his role as God's prophet, and the tone is completely different.  "Comfort, comfort my people".  The hard times are over: the people have done their time and are due to be released.  They are no longer to be frightened of their enemies: even the mighty invaders (in this case, the Assyrians) are mere mortals: they will wither and die just like the grass.  But the God of Israel will never die.  So it is time to go up on the highest mountain and proclaim the good news "here is your God'.  But first must come one calling in the desert – a herald to proclaim that the Lord is coming and so his way must be prepared for him.  Why is all this good news?  Because God has a shepherd's heart: he will tend and care for his flock.

Taking It Personally.

  • Can you recall a time when you experienced God's comfort?  Are you in need of that comfort now?
  • How might you prepare the way for the Lord to come afresh into your heart and soul and life at this time?  What rough places, mountains or other obstacles might you need to deal with first?
  • To whom have you brought the good tidings of Advent?
  • With what confidence could you point to your local church and say, 'Here is your God?'
  • To what or whom are you most looking forward to this Advent Season?

Peter.  It is thought that this letter was written in the second century A.D., perhaps around the year 120.  Clearly, people are beginning to question the reality of the promised return of Jesus as the years go by without any sign of him.  The author responds to these concerns with two arguments.  First, God's notion of time is quite different from ours: indeed, being eternal (outside of time) it might be more accurate to say that God has no idea of time.  Secondly, the author says that the delay in Christ's return can be put down to God's forbearance and patience: God wishes everyone to come to repentance before the end comes.  In the meantime, Christ's followers are called to live lives of faithful discipleship.

Taking It Personally.

  • Another "holiness code" checklist.  How have you measured up this last week?
  • Reflect on the phrase "and speed its coming" in verse 12.  Do you want to "speed" the coming of the end of the world?  Honestly?  Why might you be reluctant?  Why might you feel guilty about being reluctant?
  • Turn to verse 13 and ponder the petition in the Lord's Prayer: "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven".  When you pray that, are you not "speeding" the coming of the "new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness?"  Why would you be reluctant to do that?

Mark.  The first thing to notice about this gospel is what is missing:  there is no birth narrative and no genealogy.  For Mark Jesus' human origins are of no concern.  His opening line is almost a complete summary of the story he is about to tell.  Notice the word "beginning".  He doesn't mean the beginning of his story, the text: he means he is writing about the beginning of the good news of Jesus.  The "gospel" is not the book he is writing, but the message that Jesus has brought to us – the good news of salvation.  To be correct, "Jesus Christ" should read "Jesus the Christ".  Mark is very clear: Jesus IS the Christ and the Son of God.

He is also very clear that in Jesus God has initiated a new creation.  The first creation came about by God calling in the void: the second creation begins with a voice calling in the wilderness.  The living dead, people dead in their sins, respond in huge numbers, and accept baptism from John.  Baptism was usually reserved for non-Jewish converts; but now the Jewish people are accepting the need for a washing away of sin and a new beginning.  That is the way in which they are preparing the way of the Lord: by rejecting all that is in them that obstructs the flow of God's grace, and opening themselves up so that God may truly be incarnated in them.  Advent is the time of preparation for Christmas: repentance is a time of preparation for the birth of Christ in our hearts.

Taking It Personally

  • Flick to the original end of St Mark's gospel (16:8).  Does this help you to grasp what Mark means by the "beginning" of the gospel?  It has started but it hasn't finished yet.  That means that you are part of the ongoing gospel.  How do you feel about that?
  • What do you need to do to prepare for a fresh birth of Jesus in your heart and life?  Are there any obstacles in your life that may block the flow of God's grace into you and through you?
  • To whom have you acted as John the Baptist calling his or her attention to Jesus?
  • Try to visualize the scene at the River Jordan as crowds come to John for baptism.  Place yourself in that crowd – or are you more comfortable on the edge?  Do you want what they want?  Do you experience a deep spiritual hunger for more, or are you merely an interested bystander?


Sunday, 27 November 2011

November 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Advent Sunday

November 27                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                                Advent Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Theme:  We're spoilt for choice on this wonderful Sunday.  "Here we go Again!"  "Starting Over"?  But I'm going with "Yes, John, He is the One who is to Come".  [Answering the question from John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2.]

Introduction.  Advent Sunday is one of the great Sundays of the year, and it's important to make the most of it.  We start with that blood-curdling cry from Isaiah to a silent and apparently absent God: "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down"!  It has the same heartfelt anguish that we hear in Christ's awful cry from the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Both capture perfectly the sense of divine absence or indifference when we are stuck, when prayer doesn't come at all or remains unanswered.  Our next reading, of course, knows that Isaiah's prayer has been spectacularly answered (if a tad delayed!) in the Advent of Jesus.  The mood is now completely different; it is one of joyful expectation.  But even while Jesus was on earth it was not always obvious, even to spiritual giants like John the Baptist, that God really had come amongst us.  Hence John's question from the dungeons of Herod's palace.  And now in Mark's gospel the question turns to Christ's return.  When will it be?  What will it be like?  What signs should we look out for to warn us that he's on his way?  How should we live our lives in the meantime?

Background.  I'm writing these notes the day before our General Election, so I am having to rely on the Opinion Polls to tell me what is likely to happen tomorrow.  If they're right, about half of our people are satisfied enough with the present state of our country to re-elect our present Government, and the other half are not so sure.  Who's right and who's wrong?  Are these dark times and getting darker, or are we indeed on the pathway to a brighter future? 

How do we read the signs of our times?  How much attention should we give to financial indices and how much to social ones?  Are the latest GDP figures a better guide to the state of our nation than those relating to hospital admissions of children?  Is the promised payout to farmers by Fonterra more important or less important than the average price of milk in our supermarkets?  Is it more important to increase the production and export of our large coal deposits or protect the atmosphere from further harm caused by the burning of fossil fuels?  What are we to make of the increasing numbers of people on anti-depressants?  Do we have a sense of God here with us, or are we with Isaiah desperately calling for divine intervention?  And we can take that question at various levels, from our nation down to our families and even our own lives.

Isaiah.  It is difficult to remain dry-eyed when you really hear the pathos in this cry, which is, of course, a prayer.  As suggested above, the opening verse is the cry of a man who feels that God is, at the very least, far away, concealed in the heavenly realms, and refusing to "come down" to earth.  He recalls occasions in the past when God did deign to come down: the imagery in verse 3 suggests Mount Sinai.  In better times God had shown himself uniquely among the gods as one who cares enough to help those who wait for him.  Notice how Isaiah does not accuse God of acting unjustly or capriciously: he acknowledges the fault is all on the peoples' side.  They have turned away from God; indeed, they have given up on God (verse 7).  It all sounds pretty desperate.  Yet the fact that he is crying out to God shows that he has not given up hope; and that hope is ultimately based on their relationship with God.  He is their Father (verse 8), and they are his people (verse 9).

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on this passage as a format of prayer.  Notice the key characteristics.  Authenticity, for one: this is real stuff!  How does your own prayer life match up to this?

·        Have you had times when you felt that God was just not interested in you, not listening to you, or even absent from you?  Did you call out all the more (Bartimaeus comes to mind), or did you give up on prayer?  What got you started again?

·        Ponder the phrase "those who wait for him [God]".  Do you wait for God, or are you more inclined to expect instant answers?

·        Do you call on his name and strive to lay hold of him (verse 7)?  Ponder this verse and reflect on your own prayer in the light of it.

·        This week address your prayer to "Father" [or better still, "Abba"] and add, "I come to you as one of your own children".  Then pray within that relationship.

Corinthians.  A classic prayer of thanksgiving from St Paul.  As you read it, remind yourself that this is addressed to one of the most dysfunctional churches in Paul's collection!  [Look what he says next in verses 10-17.]  Yet, despite all their only-too-human failings, Paul is able to assure them that, through God's grace in Jesus Christ, they "have been enriched in every way", and that they "do not lack any spiritual gift".  They are still awaiting Christ's imminent return; but God has already called them into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is one of those wonderful passages that need to be taken twice a day for at least a week – sentence by sentence.  Read it out loud, addressed to yourself.  Start with verse 3.  It is all too familiar as a quick phrase in our liturgy.  Now take it in slowly: God and Christ are sending YOU grace and peace.  How wonderful is that!

·        Now take in verse 5.  You "have been enriched in every way", even though you may not know it, so that you do not lack for spiritual gifts.  Ask God to lead you into the truth of that – to show you the gifts he has already given you.

·        How important is Christ's return to you?  Are you eagerly awaiting it, dreading it, or not really interested or convinced that it will never happen

·        What does it mean to you to be called by God "into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ"?

·        Finish with prayers of thanksgiving.

Mark.  The first point to note is the change in time-span as we compare this passage with our second lesson.  The Corinthians were still [c.48-50 A.D.] eagerly awaiting Christ's imminent return:  by the time Mark's gospel is being written [c.65-70 A.D.] the focus is on the Son of Man coming in glory at the end of the age.  There is considerable support among scholars for the idea that what Mark has in mind is the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple, which took place in 70 A.D.  If the gospel was written shortly before that, then the author has read the signs of the times and seen the inevitability of a rebellion resulting in a Roman onslaught.  If it was written after the event (as some scholars believe), then the author was writing with the benefit of hindsight.  There are two key points for us to note.  First, verse 32 should be memorise and recalled every time some self-styled prophet tells us that he (and come to think of it, it always is a man!) has cracked the code and knows when the end will come.  Secondly, Jesus' teaching in this passage is about how we are to live our lives in the meantime.  We are to live our lives awake!  Alert to see God coming to us in every moment.  At the very least, we are to accept our own physical mortality and be constantly prepared for it.

Taking It Personally.

·        This passage is essentially about living with uncertainty at a very basic level.  It could all end tomorrow – for you, for your city, or for everything.  Reflect on the uncertainty of life.  What lessons might there be for your life of faith?

·        Are you inclined to procrastinate – to tell yourself there's plenty of time for that later on?  What does this passage say to that attitude?

·        Is there something specific that you having been putting off doing – visiting a friend, seeking reconciliation with someone, committing more time to prayer?  Perhaps this passage is God's way of prompting you into action?

·        This week practise being watchful and alert to see any sign of God's presence in your presence.  Make a note of it, and give thanks for it.  Pray a prayer of welcome whenever you feel God has come to you.  After all, this is the Season of Advent!