St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

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!



Saturday, 19 November 2011

November 20 NOTES FOR REFLECTION The Feast of Christ the King

November 20                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION        The Feast of Christ the King

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Theme:  Final Answer?  [Think Chris Tarrant on Who wants to be a Millionaire (U.K.).  Is that your final answer?  Today, the last Sunday of our present Liturgical Year, we come to give our final answer to the question that confronts us over and over again: who is Jesus?

Introduction.  Our answer, of course, is that he is Christ the King; but what exactly do we mean by that?  Part of the problem is that we have a rather different view of kings and queens than in former times.  We are used to "constitutional monarchs", whose powers are carefully circumscribed by law.  Whatever else we mean when he acknowledge the kingship of Christ, we surely do not mean that he is a constitutional figurehead!  What we do mean is not easy to put into a word or phrase.  Perhaps the best we can do is draw a composite picture based on today's readings.  Like David before him, Christ is in one sense a Shepherd-King, the image underlying both our first lesson and the gospel (in part).  Something far more all-encompassing is envisaged by our lesson from Ephesians: words like "sovereign", "universal" and "victorious" come to mind (as does the U.K. National Anthem – Send him victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us...  The gospel adds a further facet to our composite image, that of the head of the judicial system – or president of the International Court of Justice, perhaps, as he will exercise judgment over all nations, while simultaneously acting like a shepherd at the drafting gate.

Background.  The question of Jesus' real identity features in almost every episode in the gospel narrative up to and including the Transfiguration.  Then it fades from sight until the Passion story begins with Christ's arrest and trial.

Using Luke's gospel as an illustration, we might begin with the Annunciation.  Because of Mary's response we tend to focus on the biological question; and on Mary's acceptance of God's will.  But the angel gives us some very important information besides.  The child's name is to be Jesus; and he will be called Son of the Most High.  Even before his conception, there is the angelic clue to the dual nature of Christ.  The baby is to be both human (named Jesus) and divine (the Son of the Most High).  He is also to ascend the throne of David, but his reign will last for ever.  When he is born he is acclaimed by the angel as "Saviour" and "Christ the Lord", but when the shepherds go to the stable what they see is Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.

The Presentation in the Temple continues the dual theme, as Mary and Joseph fulfil the requirements of the law in respect of the new-born baby, while Simeon the prophet and Anna the prophetess see the divine significance of this baby. Thirty years later Jesus of Nazareth presents himself as one of a large crowd for baptism in the Jordan; but a voice from heaven proclaims "you are my Son, whom I love; in you I am well pleased."  St Luke follows with Jesus' genealogy: "he was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph...".

And so to the wilderness where the devil homed in on this very question of identity: "if you are the Son of God..." and we will hear echoes of this in the Passion Narrative: "if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself..."

When he preaches in his hometown the crowds ask themselves, "isn't this the carpenter's son?" before taking offence and trying to throw him over a bluff.  When he exorcises demons and evil spirits they know exactly who he is; but everyone else struggles with his identity.  His disciples and the admiring crowds are constantly bewildered by the quality of his teaching, his healing gifts and his power over the natural elements.  "Who is this man that even the winds and the sea obey him?"  His opponents are outraged by his assurance that sinners are forgiven: "who is he to forgive sins; only God may do that!

Along the way Jesus gives himself a variety of titles, the Son of Man being the most common; but he also refers to himself as "the lord of the Sabbath" and the bridegroom, and acknowledge that he has a reputation for being "a drunkard and a glutton" because he doesn't follow the extreme asceticism of John the Baptist.  Others call him Rabbi (Teacher) or hail him as a great prophet.

In the Herod's dungeon, beset by doubt, John the Baptist sends emissaries to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else"; while upstairs in the palace Herod himself is going slowly mad struggling with the same question: Some were saying John has been raised from the dead, others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets from long ago had come back to life.  The disciples had heard the same rumours; but then Jesus asked them, "Who do you say I am?"  and Peter spoke for all of them, "You are the Christ."

And so to the Transfiguration where the voice from heaven was heard again: "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him."  And that seemed to have finally settled the issue, until it arises again in the Sanhedrin, and the interrogation before Pilate.  As mentioned above, the mockers took their cue from the devil's approach in the wilderness:  "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One."   "If you are the king of the Jews save yourself."  "Aren't you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!"  Pilate made his view clear:  The notice read 'This is the King of the Jews'; and the centurion at the foot of the cross made up his mind.

Finally, we might note one common theme in all the resurrection appearances: his nearest and dearest had great difficulty recognising him.  Is he the gardener?  Is he a ghost?  Is he really the Lord?   Questions of identity surround him still.

Ezekiel.  The classic picture of God's pastoral care for his people no doubt inspired Jesus' parable of the Lost Sheep, and, perhaps, today's gospel story.  An emphasis is placed on searching out the strays and returning them to the flock.  But there is one element in God's approach to animal husbandry that would strike the Kiwi farmer as strange.  God will cull, not the weaklings and poor feeders of the flock, but the sleek and the strong.  Social justice is a central concern for our Shepherd-God (v.16).  Notice, too, the strong strain of separatism and isolationism that runs through this passage, especially verse 13.  The universal vision of multiculturalism that we find in Isaiah is not evident here.

Taking It Personally.

·       Take some time to ponder this image of pastoral care.  Do you find it comforting or overbearing?  Is there something of the 'Nanny State syndrome' here?  Read Psalm 139 and ponder the same issues.

·       Have you had a period in life when you strayed from the flock?  Did you have a feeling that someone was searching for you to bring you back?  How would you have reacted if someone from the local church had come looking for you?

·       How did you get back?  Was it your own initiative or was someone else involved?  What sort of reception did you get from the rest of the flock? 

·       Looking back now, do you believe that God was concerned and caring for you while you were straying?  Is there any particular experience you can recall that would suggest God was looking after you then?

·       Are you concerned for those who have strayed from the flock?  What can you do about it?

·       Take all these things into prayer.

Ephesians.  This is surely one of the most wonderful passages in the whole of Scripture!  [In fact, the whole epistle is pretty wonderful!]  But also pretty challenging!  It is intended to awaken us to the reality of the present, whereas we seem to suppose that much of our relationship with God is on hold until after we have died.  As St Paul gives thanks for the believers in Ephesus we learn two great things about them: their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all the saints.  That's a pretty good start!  And yet St Paul seeks more for them.  He asks for the spirit of wisdom and revelation for them so that they may know God better.  [Notice, he does not pray for an increase in intellectual capacity so that they may know more about God.]  Then he prays that "the eyes of your heart may be enlightened" – again, a spiritual rather than a physical faculty – so that they may know the hope to which they have been called and the resurrection power that is available to them.  And all this is overseen by the ascension and glorification of Christ in whom all things are brought together, as manifested in the Church.  Wow!  And wow again!



Taking It Personally.

·       This is definitely a passage for lectio divina.  Read it through every day this week slowly, word by word, phrase by phrase, as you take it in.  Make a note of any particular bit that really strikes you.

·       Put yourself in the place of an Ephesian believer hearing this prayer for you.  How do you feel about that?

·       Reflect on your faith in the Lord Jesus, and your love for all the saints.  How do they measure up?

·       Pray for yourself what St Paul has prayed for the Ephesians.  Ask God for the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better.

·       How would you describe the hope that you have from your faith.?   Read 1 Peter 3:15, and imagine that someone has sincerely asked you to explain why you hope in Christ.  How would you respond?

Matthew.  There are many puzzles with this story.  It probably started life as a straightforward parable, but has somehow become a little more autobiographical as it developed.  Track the language as it changes back and forth.  For instance, the first three verses, 31-33 are talking about the Son of Man; but verse 34 starts with the king.  The people respond by calling him Lord, and that continues with the two exchanges.  Meanwhile, the imagery is once again pastoral – the Son of Man/King/Shepherd is standing at the drafting gate, it appears, separating the sheep from the goats – but finishes in classic form with eternal judgment.  And at first glance, we are confronted with judgment based on good works – long condemned by the Church as the Pelagian heresy!  The key is to be found in Christ's complete identification with the poor and needy.  He does not say, "it is as if you did it for me", but "you did it for me".

Taking It Personally.

·       Ponder the thought that you, and every other person, is a unique manifestation of Christ.  Try this week to remind yourself that when you speak to someone, or have any other interaction with someone, you are speaking to, or interacting with, Christ.  Reflect later what difference that made in your attitude with those other people.

·       Notice that both groups were surprised.  Neither had seen Christ in the people they served or ignored.  What can you learn from that?

·       Can you still see Christ in someone who reacts ungratefully or rudely towards you?  [Not all the poor and needy are also polite and loving!]

·       Looking back over the last month, have you been more a sheep or a goat?


Friday, 11 November 2011


November 13                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Remembrance Sunday

Texts: Micah 4:1-5; Romans 8:31-39; John 15:12-17

Theme:  A number of possibilities this week.  For those with a love of irony, what about The Church Militant (if not Triumphant)?  Or if ambiguity is more our thing, we might be tempted to go for The Cost of Obedience.  [Think Conscientious Objectors here.]  On balance, my pick would be, The Church in Conflict.

Introduction.  We have only to glance at the suggested Sentence of Scripture for today to see that my comments on the theme above are hinting at.  The Church does not know where to take its stand on issues like this.  The 'prescribed' sentence for today is John 15:9: 'As the father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Now remain in my love.'  What has that to do with Remembrance Sunday?  Why not a verse from the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God?"  Or "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?"

Equally we might query the choice of readings.  While the wonderful vision of Micah is appropriate, the choice of the other lesson, and of the gospel passage, is less obvious.  If we should have something from Romans, why not 12:17-21?  As for a gospel passage, what about Luke 6:27-36?

Yet there is enough in these readings to ponder if we will but scratch the surface.  First Micah gives us a vision of universal peace almost in spite of himself, as the verses seem to alternate between universalism and narrow nationalism.  St Paul writes in the plural "us" and "us all".  But who does he have in mind?  Only the believing community, or all humanity?  For whom did Jesus give his life – only those who believe in him, or all humanity?  And our gospel passage also takes this bob-each-way approach.  The time-honoured 'Anzac Day' verse about laying down our lives for our friends is nicely balanced by Jesus' advice that to remain his friends we must obey his commands, which include, of course, the commandment to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, etc.

Background.  It is undeniable that the Early Church was pacifist in its teaching and practice, even during periods of horrendous persecution.  Men and women of faith accepted martyrdom, rather than resort to violence in self-defence; and there are documents from the very early days of Christianity making it clear that Christians could not be soldiers, and vice versa.  While it is unlikely this 'purist stance' remained unsullied right through the first three centuries, the adoption of Christianity as the official faith of the Roman Empire in the fourth century brought a complete change of attitude into the Church.  Suddenly the Church found itself in a favoured position, protected, and given great privileges, by the Imperial Authorities, which could only be due to the grace of God.  From there it was a small step to recognising the Empire as the Kingdom of God on Earth, surrounded by the forces of darkness outside the borders of the Empire.  Therefore, it was now God's work to serve in the Imperial Army to defend the empire against its pagan enemies.  From forbidding its members to take up arms, the Church began its centuries-long role as the State's chief recruiting agency whenever the nation declared it was at war.  In 1940 a Methodist Minister, the Reverend Ormond Burton, was arrested at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, for standing on a wooden box and saying, "Our Lord Jesus Christ said, 'Love your enemies'.  On a charge carrying a maximum sentence of 3 months' imprisonment (disturbing the peace!), he was sentenced to nine months and refused a right of appeal.  Far from defending its minister, the Church threw him out, and he wasn't allowed back in until the 1950's.

Are there signs of hope today?  For me, there is one great sign coming out of Europe.  Less than 100 years after the start of the First World War the countries of Europe are once again in economic turmoil.  Yet not one of them has suggested that the only way to defend its national interest is to resort to war.  War on a massive scale has become literally unthinkable in Europe.  In its absence, despite all the nationalistic instincts in each country, there is a general acceptance that co-operation is the only hope of coming out of this situation in reasonable shape.  Britain, Germany, and France are leading the charge to protect their own interests by promoting the interests of the others.  There's a very long way to go, but we can take heart:  Europe has moved a big step forward towards realising Micah's vision in the last 100 years.

Micah.  The tension that in some ways is at the heart of our humanity runs through this short passage.  It seems to be innate in our human nature to think in terms of "us and them", "friends and enemies".  We might (somewhat reluctantly) accept in our heads that there is only one human race, one human family, that we are all children of the one God; yet that is denied by just about every belief system we hold, including our religious, political and economic ones.  In the same way, while Micah's vision is universal in scope, it is still clouded by narrow, nationalistic spectacles.  Verse 1 lays claim on God's behalf to universal sovereignty; but in verse 2, Jewish hubris takes over.  The Lord becomes "the God of Jacob"; the law emanates from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  In verse 3 the wonderful vision of universal peace and the cessation of warfare is spelt out in glorious detail.  In verse 4, the vision includes peace within the nation, as each citizen is assured of the means of economic security.  But in verse 5 the idea of one world under the sovereignty of the one and only God, gives way to a sickeningly modern liberal outburst of politically correct religious pluralism.  What evidence is there that peace will ever come about in that way?

Taking It Personally.

·        What is your most fundamental identity?  Are you a human being, who happens to be a particular gender, born in a particular country, speaking a particular language?

·        Is your first loyalty to "your country" or to the world? 

·        Do you agree that Europe is showing some signs of moving beyond war as a means of resolving disputes?  Does that argue in favour of globalisation or against it?

·        Is patriotism a virtue or a vice?

·        Are such institutions as the U.N. and the International Courts of Justice in accordance with Micah's vision or not?

·        Is Micah's vision an Old Testament version of the Kingdom of God, which we pray for every time we pray the Lord's Prayer?

·        Would you like to end today's session by praying, 'Our Father in heaven...Micah's vision come to be, on earth as in heaven...?


Romans.  We must remember that this is an extract from a letter written by St Paul to his fellow Christians – that is, it is intended for in-house dissemination only.  Any lapse from the purity of universalism may be attributed to this.  St Paul says that God is "for us".  We are used to the Christmas proclamation that God is with us – Emmanuel – but what does it mean to claim that God is for us?  If we understand it to mean that God is for all humanity – that God loves all humanity and seeks what is best for us all, then we can say a grateful Amen to St Paul's teaching.  But the danger of this phrase becomes all too apparent in times of war.  A God who is for us becomes a God who is on our side and against our enemies.  Verse 32 should act as a counter-balance.  Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and not just for the sins of those who believe in him: 1 John 2:2.  Yet St Paul in the very next verse talks of "those whom God has chosen", implying that some are "in" and others are "out".   We can forgive him this lapse in the light of the magnificent verses 37-39!


Taking It Personally.

·        Do you believe that God is for you?  What experience can you recall on which to base this belief?

·        Has someone brought an accusation against you – a word of criticism of some sort?  How did you react?  How do you feel now as you recall the occasion?  Does this passage help you to deal with that episode?

·        Remind yourself that right now Christ is interceding for you with the Father?  What would you like him to ask for on your behalf?  Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for Christ's prayers for you.

·        Ponder verses 37-39 over and over again.  Come back to them many times during the week – perhaps even memorise them.  Repeat them to yourself whenever you need some "divine therapy".


John.  Presumably this passage has been chosen for verse 13: Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  This and the even stronger passage in John 10:17-18 are often dragged out for "war service" despite the fact that they were never intended to be used for such a purpose.  While there have been individual cases of extreme heroism involving the sacrifice of one's own life to save the lives of others, the vast majority of deaths in wartime are "accidental" – a case of sheer bad luck.  Far from wishing to lay down their lives for their friends, real servicemen (and women) have the usual desire to live and to get home in one piece as soon as possible.  Moreover, the stumbling-block for those who wish to misuse this passage in this way remains huge.  Jesus says that the way to remain friends with him is to obey his commands.  These commands, of course, have a very "pacifist" tone: they include loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.  And we have the example of his own behaviour when the armed Temple guards came to arrest him.  He refused to put up any resistance, and ordered Peter to put away his sword.  Everything he taught and did can be summed up in that one command with which this passage ends: Love each other.  War is the ultimate negation of love.


Taking It Personally.


·        How do you feel about the pacifist tone of these notes?  Does it annoy you?  Do you agree or disagree that Jesus was a pacifist?

·        Do you consider yourself a peacemaker?  In times of personal conflict are you the first to seek a peaceful resolution?

·        If Jesus means that we should lay down our lives in service to others, how do you measure up?

·        Would you describe yourself as a friend of Jesus?  Would you describe Jesus as a friend of yours?  Reflect on verse 15.  How do you feel about your "change in status".  Use this verse as the basis of your prayer today as you talk with Jesus as one friend to another.



Friday, 4 November 2011


November 6                           NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Pentecost 21

Texts: Amos 5:18-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:13

Theme:  Not easy to put into words today.  Perhaps "For Your Urgent Attention", except that it sounds like the heading to a scam email!  What we are dealing with is "the end of the age" in one form or another.  Perhaps "The Last of Many Comings" might suggest the approach I'm intending to take.  Rather than preparing for the "Final Examination" (actually, given the time of the year, that wouldn't be a bad choice of theme!), I want to stress that God in Christ is continually coming to us, if only we are prepared and ready to encounter him.

Introduction.  In Old Testament times there had developed an idea of a time of final accountability to God, usually described by the phrase "The Day of the Lord".  It took various forms; sometimes it seems that Israel as the chosen people of God would escape judgment, and the foreign nations would cop the lot.  At other times it seems that Israel was to be especially judged because, being the people of God, she was accountable to God in a unique way.  With the coming of the Christian era, the "Day of the Lord metamorphosed" into Christ's return (popularly but incorrectly called "the Second Coming").  With that change we move from judgment to salvation.

Background.  Metropolitan Anthony, one of my favourite spiritual writers, favours the word "encounter" to describe those tantalisingly brief moments when we sense the presence of God or Christ with us; and he says that every such encounter carries with it an element of judgment.  The classic text that perfectly illustrates the point is Luke 5:8, where Peter suddenly realises who Jesus is and falls at his feet saying, "Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man."  Metropolitan Anthony believes that God will not reveal himself to us until we are ready to receive that revelation: "it is an act of his infinite mercy to me not to be present to me while I am yet not capable of sustaining his coming".  Meditation on a Theme, p.38.

In the following passage (ibid, p.47), Metropolitan Anthony extends this concept of encounter to the meeting of others:

An encounter is rarely experienced, if you give it its full meaning.  People's paths cross, they come up against each other – how many pass us by in the course of a single day without seeing us?  And how many are those at whom we look with unseeing eyes, to whom we address neither a look, nor word, nor smile?  And yet, everyone of those people was a Presence, an image of the living God, whom God may have sent to us with a message or to receive a message from God through us, a word, a gesture, a look of acknowledgment, of compassion, of understanding.  To be carried past one another in the street or in life, by the crowd or by chance, is not yet an encounter.  We must learn to look and see – to look attentively, thoughtfully, taking in the features of a face, its expression, the message of a countenance and of the eyes.  We must learn, each of see one another in depth, looking patiently, as long as necessary, in order to see who it is who stands before us.

Amos.  In one of the most scathing attacks in the prophetic books Amos excoriates the complacency of the self-righteous.  They are looking forward to the Day of the Lord (the Day of Judgment) because they are sure that their religious practices will have won enough Brownie points with God to ensure a favourable outcome.  But God abhors all their empty religious ceremonies and rituals because they are not offered from the heart.  What God wants of his people is true righteousness, manifested as justice.

Taking It Personally.

·        Do you look forward to the Day of the Lord with excitement, hope, fear, curiosity,

disbelief, or none of the above?

·        How might God view the worship we offer in our churches?  Do you enter into it wholeheartedly, or somewhat mechanically?

·        What do you understand by God's call for "justice"?  Do you consider yourself a just person?

·        How do you feel about the "Occupy Wall Street" movement?  Does the term "Equity for Humanity" sound like something God might be calling for in this passage?

·        What can you offer back to God in response to this challenging passage?

Thessalonians.  Here is another take on this whole issue.  It is very clear from the Scriptures that the infant Church expected Christ's return at any moment.  As months and then years passed with no such return questions started to arise, along with a great concern about those who die before Christ comes back.  Will they miss out on the salvation Christ will bring with him?  St Paul assures them that this will not be so.  Indeed, "the dead in Christ will rise first".  [v. 16]  I don't think we are expected to pay too much attention to the precise imagery Paul uses here.  [This is, perhaps, the very first letter he wrote, and there is a certain primitiveness about his style and theology.  Contrast this with his more mature thought in 1 Corinthians 15.]

Taking It Personally.

·        Is this aspect of our Christian faith of burning interest to you, or do you give it little or any thought?

·        How would you answer the question put to St Paul if a child asked you "what has happened to Granny?"

·        Do you find this passage encouraging?  Who might you encourage with these words?  [v.18]

Matthew.  Matthew starts this new section of his gospel with a thematic statement at 24:36:  No one knows about that day or hour [of Jesus' return], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Then he records a group of 5 related parables, all dealing in different ways with the sudden return of someone and the need to be alert and ready for this unexpected return.  Today's parable is one of that group.  By today's wedding practices, the story strikes us as odd in detail.  And many of us get upset about the unwillingness of the wise ones to share their oil with their less prudent counterparts.  But, of course, this parable is not about the need to be generous givers to those in need; it is about the requirement to be alert and ready to meet Christ whenever he is ready to come to us.  It is a warning against spiritual procrastination – the idea that we will give some thought to spiritual well-being later – when we've got more time, when we're less busy with more important matters, etc.

The reference to the oil may be related to the (rather surprising need) for wedding garments in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:12).  We have to be ready, prepared, and not just in the right place at the right time.  Some commentators suggest that the supply of oil represents our accumulation of good works, but that can't be right.  That would be a gospel of good works.  It's more likely to refer to our preparation by prayer and practice, making us able to see God when he comes to us.  That cannot be acquired from others: spiritual practice is something we have to do for ourselves.

Taking It Personally.

·        Read the passage from Metropolitan Anthony above.  Do you really encounter those you meet – or are you more like ships passing in the night?

·        Imagine you are sitting in a waiting room outside a closed door marked "God".  How long are you willing to sit and wait?

·        What are your feelings as you wait?

·        When the door opens how do you feel?

·        Do you feel sorry for the "foolish" ones?  If not, what do you feel towards them?

·        Are you ever guilty of spiritual procrastination?  Next time you catch yourself at it, take a moment to construct "an apology for absence" and present it in prayer to God.