St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Presentation in the Temple

February 2                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION             The Presentation in the Temple

Texts:  Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Theme:  The safe option may be to stick with the official title of the feast, and perhaps even throw in “commonly known as Candlemas”, or words to that effect, just to show the older members of the congregation that you’re sensitive to their concerns.  I’ve recently discovered that this feast is known in the Eastern Churches as “The Meeting”, and that rather appeals to me.  Apparently they have in mind the meeting between Jesus and Simeon, but it’s surely much wider than this.  For all sorts of reasons I’m leaning towards “The Meeting of the Old and the New”.

Introduction.  This week we have a break from Isaiah, St Paul and Matthew.  In their place we have, first, Malachi with his prophecy of the Lord coming to the Temple and what that might mean for the people of God.  Then we have a rather over-used passage from the Book of Hebrews stressing that Jesus, being flesh and blood, had to undergo everything that every other human being undergoes, although this ritual was more about the mother than the child so the choice of this reading today may be a bit of a stretch.  The gospel passage, however, is the only possible choice.

Background.  Well, it’s been quite a week in New Zealand, with two Grammy awards and a series win on the cricket field.  Try as I might I haven’t been able to find a connection with those happy events and this week’s readings, so I will have to draw your attention (in a strictly non-partisan way) to the proposed “baby bonus”, as a rather feeble way into today’s gospel story.  For we are well and truly back to the infant Jesus with Luke’s exclusive scoop on this episode in Christ’s life.

And that might be a good place to start: at first sight this would seem to be the sort of story that Matthew would be more likely to get his teeth into, with his concern to show that everything about Jesus was kosher.  But it reminds us that Luke has a particular concern with the relationship between the whole new drama of Christ and the Temple.  He alone has the story of the annunciation to Zechariah, and, of course, that takes place in the Holy Place in the Temple, where Zechariah is performing a priestly role.  This week we have Jesus, aged 40 days, coming to the Temple, and, if we had stayed with Luke’s gospel, we would have come to another of Luke’s exclusive scoops, with the twelve-year-old Jesus back in the Temple.  So we need to think about today’s passage in that larger context.  Luke, the evangelist of and to the Gentiles, is very concerned about Jesus’ relationship with and to the Temple.

Like the others, he is also very concerned about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and that, too, may well be a part of what he is up to in this week’s story.  Luke records the naming and circumcision of John and Jesus (1:59ff, and 2:21), but there the similarity ceases (although 1:80 and 2:40 are parallel).  Elizabeth would no doubt have been to the Temple on the fortieth day and John would have been consecrated to the Lord as her firstborn son, but Luke leaves all that out.  In his narrative the focus is on the infant Jesus and his parents, and he stage-manages the whole thing to perfection.

Again, look at his careful editing of the relevant Scriptures.  Nowhere is this more apparent than his treatment of Leviticus 12:8, which reads: “if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering, and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.”  Luke was pleased to borrow from this verse to show that Mary and Joseph offered at the poor rate (even though, as a carpenter, Joseph would have been “middle-class” and able to pay the top rate) to identify Jesus with the poor; but that’s all he was prepared to take from that verse.  He has air-brushed out the priest, and with him any idea that Mary needed a priest to make atonement for her.

In place of the priest we have two prophets, Simeon and Anna; so perhaps it’s not too fanciful to see this “meeting” as prefiguring that which took place on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Here the Temple (the seat of Mosaic Law) and these prophets foreshadow the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountain.  We usually picture Simeon as an old man, but notice that Luke doesn’t say that.  His important characteristics are that he is full of and directed by the Holy Spirit, and he has been awaiting the “consolation of Israel”.  He sees in the infant Jesus the promised salvation, not only for the Jews but also the Gentiles.

Anna “seconds the motion”.  She is indeed full of years and wisdom.  So between them they represent all humanity, men and women, and spiritual wisdom, maturity and faithfulness.  And there, perhaps, is the cue to go deeper into this story.  Over the last few weeks there have been many hints to us that the gospel narrative is also about the birth and growth of faith in us.  Christ himself is the new birth born in each new believer.  Like Mary and Joseph it is our responsibility to nurture and protect this new-born faith; and we do this, not by hiding it and keeping it to ourselves, but recognising it as a gift from God, and offering it back to God for his purposes – consecrating it to the Lord, as the Scriptures put it.  Christian families grow best in the family of Christ: our individual faith will grow and become strong, become filled with wisdom, and enjoy the favour of God, within the household of God.

And now for my annual rave in favour of using our wonderful pastoral liturgy, “Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child”, beginning on page 754 of the Prayer Book.  If I had my way (the pathetic wail of an old retired priest!) no infant would be baptised until his or her parents had taken part in this beautiful ceremony which has evolved over the centuries from the ceremony we have in this week’s gospel, through the somewhat alarming service (The Churching of Women) in the Book of Common Prayer, into this little gem of today.  Just read through it slowly, but have some tissues handy – the prayers are so beautiful.  More importantly, this liturgy is far more appropriate for parents who just want some connection with the church, but frankly have no real intention of fulfilling the commitments expected of them in baptism.  Here endeth the rave – but I’m right, aren’t I?

Malachi.  This is one of the many Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Lord, with a reality warning attached.  Any idea that the coming of God – the birth of faith within us – is all about warm fuzzies and feeling good is quickly dispelled.  There is a thin line between “God loves me as I am”, which is true, and “God wants me to stay the way I am”, which is not true.  [See John 8:1-12, if you need a refresher course on this distinction.]  True faith is always transformational: we know the new life born within us is truly alive when we feel it kicking!  Malachi re-affirms the truth that God comes to his people (symbolised here by the Temple) but that coming requires a complete make-over.

Taking It Personally.

  • Start with a spiritual stock-take.  Can you feel the new life growing within you?   Is it, as we say, alive and kicking?
  • Notice that the Lord comes to the Temple, and the refining process starts with the Levites.  It is not those who never darken the doors of the church who are in the line of fire here, but those who are in the service of the Lord.  How acceptable are your offerings to the Lord?  How might your local church stand up to such scrutiny?
  • The test is surely one of sincerity and authenticity, an absence of “rote worship”.  What might you need to change in your own religious observances?  What might your local church need to change?
  • We are in the season of Parish AGM’s.  Do you have any ideas to offer?


Hebrews.  I have perhaps been a little too disparaging about the choice of this lesson this week.  It is a very important passage; but it seems to have become something of a “go-to” passage when we can’t think of anything else to choose.  I guess it supports the idea that Jesus was treated and brought up just like any other child, but is that really the point Luke is trying to make in the gospel passage, and the Church is trying to make in this Feast?  At best we can say that it reminds us that Jesus, the Saviour of the World, is fully human and fully Jewish: it is within the Jewish tradition that God has chosen to reveal himself in his Son.  But then, that’s not the point being made in this passage, is it?  Maybe we need to emphasise the reference to “descendants of Abraham” in verse 16?


Taking It Personally.


  • As we come to the end of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany period, reflect on your own image of Christ.  Has he become more human in your eyes, more like one of us?  Can you see him as a real baby, heir to all the growing pains that babies have to pass through?  Or is your image of the infant Christ still shaped more by icons and stained glass windows?
  • Has the flagrantly un-chronological approach helped or hindered your understanding of the coming of Christ among us?


Luke.  I have already said much of what I wanted to say about this passage, but here are a few more random thoughts.  First, notice the emphasis on the Law and the Spirit, both of which themes seem to interweave throughout the passage.  The Law comes first (verses 22-24), as Joseph and Mary are shown doing what the Law requires.  Then, with the entrance onto the stage of Simeon, the Spirit takes over (verses 25-27).  But this is not about the Spirit replacing the Law, for in verse 27 the two are seen working together, as it were – the Spirit guides Simeon into the Temple as the Law guides Mary and Joseph.  I’m struck, too, by verse 33, where Mary and Joseph are said to be amazed at what is being said about Jesus: any idea that Mary has been “in on the divine plan all along” is somewhat undermined by this reaction.  Rather the unfolding revelation of Christ is unfolded to her as to the rest of us over time.  And the third thought I have to toss before you is the possibility that we are to contrast and compare the ways in which Simeon and Anna received the revelation of Christ.  With Simeon the emphasis is on the direct inspiration of the Spirit; in Anna’s case the route to enlightenment seems to have been through rigorous asceticism and prayer.  I’ll leave that with you.


Taking It Personally.


·        This is another passage that is ideal for the prayer of imagination.  Put yourself in the Temple.  Take your time.  Take in your surroundings.  What can you see?  What can you smell?  What can you hear?  Is it hot and stuffy, or cold and damp?  Are there flies buzzing around...?    Can you see Simeon and Anna?  What are they doing?  What about the Holy Family – have they arrived yet?  When you do see them what is your reaction?  Are you awe-struck – or curious?  Can you say anything to them?  What about the baby?  Does he look just like any other baby?  Does he have a halo?

·        What importance if any do you attach to religious practice, traditions and ritual?  Do you subscribe to the view that spirituality is best cut free from all those sorts of things?  How might Mary and Joseph respond to such an argument?

·        As you come away from the Temple, what one aspect of the birth, baptism or consecration of Jesus is uppermost in your mind?

·        What might the new-born Christ in you need most from you at this time?  Are you willing to give him whatever he needs?

·        When a new idea, thought or insight first comes to us, it may seem like an intruder, a challenge to everything that represents security for us, and so we resist or reject it.  What lessons might there be for us in the open-minded and open-hearted response to the new (in Jesus) by Simeon and Anna (representing the already known)?  

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Notes for Reflection

January 26                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Theme: "And So to Work" springs to mind this week; or perhaps something along the lines of "Purpose, Staff, Action".  The sense of launching the mission that Jesus has come to carry out: the purpose is to call people to a new way of life, summed up in that rather treacherous word "Repent"; the staff being the disciples through whom that message is to be spread initially; and of course the action being Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing (in that order!) that he is about to undertake.  As most people are still in the process of getting back to action after the holiday break, either of these approaches may provide a point of contact.

Introduction.  Again we start with Isaiah.  The obvious reason for choosing this short passage is to provide the background for yet another of Matthew's scholarly attempts to show how Jesus has fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament; but for us it provides a useful reminder that Jesus is not Plan B; God has been working his purposes out (according to his Plan A) from the beginning of time, and the Advent of Jesus is simply another stage in the implementation of that Plan.  St Paul's contribution today is to keep us grounded: even in the Church, conversion is patchy at best!

Background.  For reasons that I hope I will have thought of by next week, next week we are going to "regress" to Jesus the very young infant, as his parents bring him to the Temple, marking the end of the liturgical period of "Epiphanytide".  Those of us who prefer a linear or chronological approach to history and biography may be tempted to think this order of liturgical observances shows a crankiness that, even by ecclesiastical standards, goes too far, but that's next week's worry.  Today we have a picture of Jesus in the prime of his life: he has been baptised and experienced the love and affirmation of God, and the empowerment of God through his Holy Spirit to "fulfil his potential"; and he has come through an intense period of challenge in the wilderness unshaken by the satanic effort to undermine everything he experienced in his baptism by sowing self-doubt.  He is ready for action!

Or is he?  That's not quite the picture Matthew paints for us this morning, is it?  Far from charging into battle, Matthew says Jesus starts his campaign with a strategic retreat.  On hearing what's happened to John, Jesus heads for safer country.  Yet again we see Matthew struggling with a difficult question, either one that has occurred to him or one that has been put to him.  If Jesus is the Son of God, affirmed, anointed and empowered to save the world – and if he has already "faced-down" the devil in spiritual combat – how come he didn't just go to Herod's palace and demand John's immediate release from imprisonment?  Or, at the very least, stand his ground and get on with his ministry right where he was?  How come he took off for Galilee?

And as always Matthew finds the answer to his puzzle in Scripture:  Jesus' departure was to fulfil a prophecy, and, in doing that, to give a further sign of who and what he was.  The tribe of Napthtali's land was the northernmost area of Israel, and had been the first to suffer from the Assyrian incursions and eventual invasion.  Now God is "righting the wrongs" suffered by his people at the hands of his enemies; and it is only right that those who suffered first should be the first to experience such divine vindication.  Jesus the Redeemer and Saviour of the World starts that universal mission in the region of Napthtali because it is (and always has been) God's intention that he should do so. 

At least, that's Matthew's take on it; and having answered (to his own satisfaction) the question he was struggling with, he has also set the scene for the start of Jesus' ministry; and so, for the first time in this gospel Jesus speaks to his fellow human beings.  (If I remember when we get to Lent, I shall say something about the significance of the fact that in this gospel Jesus' first words are addressed to the devil.)  This week I shall merely draw attention to the fact that the first words Jesus speaks to a human audience is a briefer and less colourful version of John's message at the Jordan: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  If we do nothing else this week it would do us a lot of good to spend some quality time with that apparently simple sentence, and to un-learn what we probably think it means.

It does not mean, "Confess your sins, because God is just about here and you'll be in dead trouble if you don't clean up your act in time."  Frankly, I suspect that's what John thought it meant:  his image of an axe lying at the root of the trees does not seem compatible with a warm invitation from God to a new way of life – quite apart from the offence it causes to our eco-friendly souls today.  The problem is that for centuries the Church has somehow given us to understand that "repentance" is just another word for "confession", which it isn't.  The call is to repentance is a call to change direction – to turn away from one way of life and adopt another.  To confess my sins is simply to acknowledge that, while my life in general is going along the right track, there have been some specific instances where I have screwed up in some way.  To repent is to acknowledge that I am on the wrong track.

So Jesus calls people on to a new track – one that leads us into a new way of life that he calls the Kingdom of God.  It is a way of life that he makes possible for us – hence, in his advent, the kingdom has drawn near.  In and through him we now have an opportunity that wasn't available before his coming.  So far from his first words being a demand backed by a threat, they are an invitation accompanied by an assurance.  But like all invitations this one only has effect if it is accepted; and so, in Matthew's account, we find Jesus issuing the invitation to specific people – he doesn't just call for volunteers.  And we find those specific invitees responding in full and dramatic ways: they abandon their present way of life and their present loyalties and embrace the new way, which, however imperfectly at this stage, they somehow recognise embodied in Jesus.  And all this happened, of course, not in The Temple, or while these men were deep in prayer somewhere: it happened at their places of work, while they were about their daily tasks.  As we "get back to it" after the Christmas-New Year break, that might be the first important lesson for us to learn.  With God, no one and nowhere are off-limits!

Isaiah. Just as Matthew calls on the teaching of Isaiah to present his message to the people of his time, so Isaiah reached back into history to illustrate his point.  Not only does he recall the trials and sufferings of the people of Naphtali, but he also draws attention to the fate of the Midianites.  It is worth reading chapter 7 of the Book of Judges to get what all this is about.  It's about God working with and through Gideon to rescue his people in battle against their enemies.  That, of course, would have been known to Matthew, so that in reminding us of this passage from Isaiah Matthew is also reminding us of this lower level in the faith history we have inherited through Jesus: God was with his people in Gideon's time: he was speaking to the people in Isaiah's time; and now he is with us through his Son – and always for the same reason – to call us back to himself, to abandon the track we have chosen for ourselves and to get onto the track that leads to him.  Notice, too, how the "epiphany themes" are picked up this passage: the reference to "Galilee of the Gentiles"; the "great light" seen by those who had been living in "a land of deep darkness"; and to the joy and exultation of the people.  [We should try not to be too distressed by Isaiah's image of people sharing the plunder: if need be, we could substitute "winning Lotto" as a modern equivalent.]

Taking It Personally.

·        Continue to reflect on your experience of the Christmas-Epiphany celebration.  Was it "enlightening" in some new way?  Were you particularly aware of God's presence with you – of Emmanuel?

·        How does it compare with previous years?  Was there any particular moment when you were reminded of some previous Christmas – or when you drew on some such experience to help you understand or cope with some challenge?

·        When did you feel most joyful or exultant?  Did you feel particularly liberated by this holiday period?

·        Is there any sense in which "dividing plunder" comes uncomfortably close to "opening the presents" in your mind?


Corinthians.  I did warn you last week!  St Paul has finished the positive stuff and is now telling them what is really on his mind.  It has been reported to him (and he names his sources) that there are factions in the local church at Corinth.  [Always a good passage to quote when someone expresses the wish that we could be more like the early church.]  It seems that people are forming "teams" around the person who first brought them to Christ, or who baptised them.  St Paul will have none of this, even though some are pledging allegiance to him.  This is yet another illustration of our inability to grasp the fundamental truth at the heart of our Christian faith – we are all one in Christ!  Remember how St Peter put it recently – "I now understand that God has no favourites".  We shouldn't either – whether we're talking about vicars, preachers, wardens, organists or whatever.  (That's the old way of life – the one we have been called to leave behind us.  We are already being shown that "repentance" is so much harder than "confession"!)  St Paul puts it all in perspective in verses 17 and 18: the only thing that really matters is the saving power of God released for us through the cross of Christ.


Taking It Personally.


·        Reflect on your local church.  Are you aware of any factions among its members – cliques or in-groups, "gate-keepers", "power couples"?  Have you ever felt excluded from anything going on in the church – left in the dark?   Could anyone else get the impression that you're one of the in-group and they're not?

·        What do you think of "Chloe's people"?  Are they whistle-blowers or gossip-mongers?  How would you feel if you discovered that somebody from within your local church had raised a concern of this kind with the Bishop?

·        In what circumstances, if any, have you ever raised any such concerns with the Bishop or some other person "in authority?  If someone raised such an issue with you what, if anything, would you do about it?


Matthew.  When the action starts (verse 18) it could hardly be more dramatic.  The fishermen abandon their means of livelihood and their families – everything and everyone they have ever known – to follow Christ.  Where is he going?  What does he want of them?  What's the plan, man?  If those sorts of questions occurred to any of those guys he kept is to himself.  At the literal level, of course, this story doesn't make a lot of sense: according to Luke, Jesus expressly warns people to think about the cost of discipleship before signing up: Luke 14:25-33.  But that's not the point of this story here.  Matthew and the others are talking about a change of fundamental direction - of mindset and of values.  We can't just add on our Christian faith to everything else we do.  Christ must be central in our lives: out of our love for him comes everything else in our lives including our commitment to our families and to our work.  We cannot put Christ on hold until our families are off our hands, or our careers are well-established.


Taking It Personally.


·        It's really quite simple this week, isn't it?  It's time for a thorough spiritual stock-take.  Is Christ the central reality of your life or not?

Notes for Reflection

January 19                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Theme:  Hmm, I'm not sure we have any obvious candidates this week.    There is a sense in which this week provides the finale to the whole Advent-Christmas-Epiphany revelation – a sort of summary and conclusion, so that we can then get down to business with the "launch" of Jesus' mission.  So perhaps something like "And So, To Recap"; or, for the thespians among us, "Act II, Scene 1".  A more theologically correct choice might be "The Lamb of God"; or what about "Evangelism 101"?

Introduction.  Once again the menu has a familiar look about it – a taster from Isaiah, a consomm√© from St Paul, and a main cour featuring John the Baptist.  About 700 years before St Paul revealed God's secret hidden until his time, Isaiah published his scoop: salvation is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.  Meanwhile St Paul shows us how to write a letter giving the recipients a right shellacking – begin on a positive note!  And then our gospel passage gives us another opportunity to reflect on the life, meaning, and mission of Christ through the witness of John the Baptist.

Background.  Once again we are shown the importance of reading our Sunday readings as small extracts from one large and complex story – rather than separate items as they so often seem during a service.  For weeks now the Church has encouraged us to reflect on the Incarnation and all it means for us.  In Advent we started that process, as we heard and pondered four variations on the theme of God's coming among us in Christ – a continuing "process of coming", first made manifest to us through birth in Bethlehem, continuing through his ministry and death, continuing again in his Spirit, and finally coming to fulfilment at the end of the age.  Advent, as it were, gave us the big picture.  At Christmas we zoomed in on one particular aspect of that coming, both in physical terms (Matthew/Luke) and in spiritual terms (John).  With the Magi we saw the first signs of the drawing power of Christ as these representative Gentiles journeyed from their distant homes to pay homage to the new-born Christ.  Then last week we saw the mature Jesus entering upon his new life in baptism, receiving affirmation of God's love for him and empowerment through the Holy Spirit for his work and mission.  Add all this up and we find that the Church in its wisdom invites us to spend a period of 8 weeks reflecting on the Incarnation, roughly the same period we spend from Holy Week to Pentecost reflecting on Christ's death and resurrection.

So let's not be in too much of a hurry to "get back to work": Christ's ministry and mission – and therefore our ministry and mission – arise from, and can only be understood as, the fruit of the Incarnation.  Take that away, and Christ becomes what Geering, Ian Harris & Co portray him to be: a good, wise, loving man who has not been well served by his spin doctors (a.k.a. the Church) who have turned him into some sort of highly-skilled magician by attaching to his name spectacular miracle stories.  Take that away, and our ministry is reduced to random acts of kindness.

All that said, there is an important element that needs to be drawn out from today's gospel passage, and that is the importance of testimony or witness.  It is not new, of course - it is one of the themes that have been running through our readings throughout the last eight weeks; but now, to lead us into the calling of the fishermen to be his disciples next week,  the whole idea of John as a witness to Christ takes centre stage.

Notice first how the author of this text avoids any simple statement that John baptised Jesus, as we get from the other three gospels.  Today's passage follows the interrogation of John by officials sent from Jerusalem to check him out: who was he and by what authority was he teaching and baptising?  That passage ends with John telling them that "among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me".  Today's passage starts with the words "The next day", and then describes John pointing to Jesus and saying, "This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'"  Whatever this means, it was considered so important by the author that he quoted it verbatim in the Prologue (1:15).

And then we get John's testimony that I quoted last week; and notice two things.  First, John does not say that what he saw happened when he was baptising Jesus, although that may have been the case.  Secondly, it has already happened: verse 32 is in the past tense.  The important point in this gospel is not whether or not John baptised Jesus, but that John had been alerted by God to watch for this particular identifying sign and he had seen it in relation to Jesus.  At that point John the prophet becomes John the witness: "I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."  Last week, the message to us was to reflect on our own baptism in the light of the baptism of our Lord.  This week, having realised what we ourselves have received in baptism, our challenge is to follow John's example and testify to others.

The second half of today's passage starts with the same phrase "the next day", so here's a wild thought to chew over.  Has the author deliberately framed the "testimony of John the Baptist" as a three-day event?  Day One (verses 19-28) – who is John the Baptist in relation to Christ?  Day Two (verses 29-34) – who is Jesus in relation to God?  Day Three (verses 35-42 – now evangelise!

In John's gospel things happen on the third day (the wedding at Cana, for example: see 2:1).  Talking of which, what are we to make of his expression "the Lamb of God" in verses 29 and 36; and what on earth would those disciples have made of it if John the Baptist really had used it that day?  For me it makes much better sense to assume that the term was put in John the Baptist's mouth by the author of the gospel to reflect the understanding of Christ's sacrificial death that had arisen by the time the gospel was being written.  Doubtless the expression has the Passover as part of its genetic heritage – and the ram given in "substitution" for Isaac – and perhaps "the lamb to the slaughter imagery of Isaiah's fourth Servant Song – and quite possibly a whole lot more – but it is surely no coincidence that this expression appears in this gospel (and nowhere else in the whole of Scripture) where the Passion timetable has been "adjusted" to make clear that Jesus is the Paschal Lamb.

Isaiah.  Last week we had the first of the four Servant Songs in which this mysterious servant of the Lord was introduced to us.  This week we have the second song, outlining the Servant's mission; and here we have, at the heart of Isaiah's prophetic revelation, the great proclamation that the Messiah will bring salvation to all peoples, Gentiles as well as Jews.  That this astonishing truth is so hard to grasp was shown in Jesus' time by the constant criticism that he kept the wrong company, and, of course, by Peter's struggle to believe the vision he was shown one day at noon-time prayers on the roof.  God really does not show favouritism – but...

Taking It Personally.

  • In verses 1 and 5 the servant is said to have been called by God before he was born.  Reflect on that idea.  Do you believe that God has had a purpose for your life since before you were born?  How would you describe that purpose?
  • Ponder verse 6.  Remember that from Jerusalem we could be at "the ends of the earth" mentioned in this prophecy.  How do you feel about that?  You are one embodiment of the fulfilment of that prophecy, aren't you?  YES YOU ARE!
  • Finish with verse 6.  Repeat after Isaiah, "I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength."  Repeat, until you are sure you believe it.


Corinthians.  Not the greatest passage ever to come from the pen of St Paul; and not likely to hold our attention for any length of time (unless you are into genealogical research in which case you might want to Google "Sosthenes" and see where that leads you.)  But look ahead at the next passage and see what St Paul is up to.  The Corinthians are a smug and boastful lot: in fairness, they are very new Christians with all the self-belief that can sometimes go with that.  They have been blessed in the Spirit and some of the more "spectacular gifts of the Spirit have been manifested among them. Instead of receiving such gifts in awe and humility they have used them for self-glorification and boasting, which, inevitably has led to rivalry and contention.  St Paul is going to give them a well-earned blast for that; but notice how he starts off.  He does not deny the reality of what they have been given: indeed he paints a very positive picture of the blessings they have clearly received from God.  He does not dismiss them as over-excited neurotics (modern translation, "weirdos").  God is with them alright; now they need to respond more appropriately.


Taking It Personally.


·        What lesson is there for you in St Paul's approach?  Are you inclined to be dismissive of people manifesting spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues?  Why?

·        What spiritual gifts have you received?  Are you more likely to deny their reality or boast about them?  Are you thankful for them or embarrassed by them?

·        Focus on verse 5 and 6.  Have you been "enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind"?  Are you lacking in any spiritual gift?

·        Remembering that this letter is addressed to the community of faith rather than to one individual, reflect on this passage as it applies to your local community of faith.


John.  I have already said all I need to about the first part of this passage; but there is more  in this second part that is worth noting.  First, John points to Jesus and the disciples immediately start following (literally) Jesus.  They move from interested observers to searching participants.  They want to know more, but what about?  Jesus comes out with one of those great questions he so often asks: "what are you looking for?"  (Remember when he asked the people a similar question about going to see John in the wilderness.) They respond in a way that sounds a little strange to me.  Perhaps, rather like Peter at the Transfiguration, they didn't know quite what to say.  Or perhaps they were really expressing an interest in becoming live-in disciples.  And Jesus again gives the classic response: not his address, but the words "come and see (for yourselves)", classic spiritual teaching.  Follow your questions until you see the answer.  And then, go find your brother, sister, neighbour or friend, and bring him/her along for the journey with you.  But notice the reference to the time of day.  This is a real event in real time.  (Incarnation, again!]


Taking It Personally.


·        The second part is a classic passage for prayer with your imagination.  Put yourself in the scene.  (Be the other disciple with Andrew.)    Hear John say "Look, here is the Lamb of God."  Look around you.  What do you expect to see?  Are you puzzled by what he says?  Now look at Jesus walking away.  See yourself walk after him – following him.  Now he turns around and asks you:  "What are YOU looking for right now?"  Take as long as you need to answer him.  What is your answer?  Jesus invites you to "Come and see."  As you hear those words, what are you feeling?

·        Take your time.  Ponder deeply.  Then watch Andrew recover his senses and set off in search of his brother.  Who are you going to fetch and bring to Jesus this year?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Baptism of the Lord

January 12                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION             The Baptism of the Lord

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

Theme:  The title of the Feast is the obvious choice.  This is a very important celebration, and we certainly should not come up with anything irreverent or flippant.  [This comment is addressed primarily to myself.]  To stress the continuity with the Epiphany we might go with "Revelation in Baptism".  I'm rather leaning towards ""Affirmed, Confirmed and Empowered", which seems to me to provide both a short summary of Jesus' own experience, and a guide to understanding our own baptism.  Another possibility might be "The Sacrament of Baptism", as the biblical accounts illustrate very well both the outward sign and the inner grace of baptism.

Introduction.  I have a feeling I may have said this before (more than once) but this week we have three wonderful readings – a perfect tonic to shake us out of the post-Christmas slump and into the excitement of another year of the faith journey.  We begin as so often with Isaiah at his very best – prophetically and poetically – a draught finer than any wine (or even cider) to lift our spirits.  This is the first of the so-called "Servant Songs" as he introduces the mysterious Lord's Servant, which played such an important role in our Lord's understanding of his true identify and mission.  Our lesson from Acts continues the idea from last week that the Good News is for the Gentiles as wells as the Jews, and also shows the importance of theology being based on and arising out of spiritual experience.  Then Matthew gives us his account of the Lord's baptism in the Jordan and, in typical Matthew-fashion, attempts a theological pre-emptive strike against any critics who might wonder why one who was said to be sinless should require baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Background.  This is one of those instances where it really is important to read our gospel account alongside the accounts of the same matter in the other three gospels.  Mark (in 1:9-11) as always gets straight to the point.  Having opened his book with a brief and business-like account of the appearance in the wilderness of John the Baptist, he proceeds to an even shorter but equally direct account of Jesus' arrival on the scene from Nazareth.  In previous Notes I have already drawn attention to the fact that for Mark, this is "the beginning of Jesus" as we know him and need to know him.  The crucial verses are 10 and 11.  The former is clearly subjective:  "Jesus saw..."  There is no suggestion that John or anyone else present saw anything like that.  But the latter verse is more ambiguous: we aren't told directly who heard the voice, but it is addressed to Jesus – "You are my Son..."

Matthew follows Mark very closely, but with one important difference.  As mentioned above, Matthew sees the theological issue here; and he may also be dealing with the vexed issue of the relationship between John and Jesus, so clearly a source of strain between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus in the infant Church.  The meaning of Jesus' response to John's objection is, perhaps, open to some debate, but the important point is clear: John saw himself as needing baptism from Jesus and only "presumed" to baptise Jesus when ordered to do so by Jesus.

Luke (3:21-22), also characteristically, cannot be fussed with such legalistic hair-splitting: he reverts to Mark's simple approach, but again with one difference.  Notice that his account of the opening of heaven and the descent of the Spirit is re-cast in objective terms: it happened, whoever did or did not see it.

And lastly we have the wonderfully subtle and elusive "account" in the Fourth Gospel.  There is no direct account of John baptising Jesus in this gospel: the nearest we have is the hearsay evidence of John in 1:29-34.  John says he saw "the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and remaining on [Jesus]".  Then he tells us that he had been previously told "by the one who sent me to baptize with water" that "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit".  Notice that John does not tell us when or where he saw this happen: we need to supply that information ourselves by drawing on the other accounts.

So much for the biblical accounts themselves, but what are we to make of them?  First, they are essentially in agreement that something happened to and for Jesus in his adult years – about the age of 30, according to Luke (in 3:23).  Whatever we may know or believe about his conception or birth, his presentation or his escapade in the Temple as a twelve-year-old – all accounts seem to agree that Jesus the healer, teacher and holy man of the gospel accounts emerged from obscurity (rather like John himself) as a "fully-fledged" adult.  At his baptism he had a profound religious experience – a direct experience of God expressed in terms that shaped the rest of his life and provided the core of his teaching.  It would be going too far to describe it as "life-changing" for Jesus – a bolt-from-the-blue, so to speak.  More calmly, it was not a "conversion experience" comparable to St Paul's; yet it was surely every bit as formative.  If we ponder those wonderful words he heard from God, we can see that Jesus was affirmed, confirmed and empowered by his experience.  He was affirmed in his belief that he was loved by God; he was confirmed in his belief that he was the Son of God; and that he was empowered by this experience to carry out his mission as the Messiah is shown by all that he did after his baptism.  From then on his life course was set, and there was no turning back; and that perhaps is underlined for us today by Peter in verse 38 of our reading from Acts.

One final point about our Lord's baptism is this.  It is NOT treated by the Scriptures as unique; indeed it could be argued that Jesus is shown as one of the vast crowd of "people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem" who Mark says (1:5) were going out to John to make that very point that Jesus was baptised as a human being, and not because he is (uniquely, of course) the only-begotten Son of God.  His baptism was paradigmatic of all baptisms: in our own baptism each of us was affirmed, confirmed and empowered as a son or daughter of God with a mission to fulfil.

Isaiah.  And just look at this introduction of the One who was to come!  Notice the word "Servant": not "King" or "Ruler"; not "Son of David" or "Messiah"; but SERVANT!  What a break-through that was and is!  God's Chosen One comes as "Servant", as Jesus exemplified and taught seven centuries later.  The Servant is one whom God upholds – indeed, he is one in whom the very "soul of God" (marvellous thought!) delights.  And he is one with a mission to all the nations, a mission to bring all peoples justice.  How is that to be achieved in a world where so often it seems that "might is right"?  Through quietness (verse 3), gentleness (verse 4), and steadfastness (verse 5).  In other words, this is no philosophical ideal we have here: this is a man who will change the world, not through power but through service.  Where there is darkness he will bring light; where there is blindness he will bring sight; where there is illness, he will bring health; where there is slavery (imprisonment) he will bring release and freedom.  And so it has been for the last 2,000 years and so it will continue to be until the end of the age.

Taking It Personally.

  • Read through this passage slowly AND JOYFULLY!  Read it out loud – sing it out loud – if you can do so without causing too much alarm.  Don't rush it – sip it, savour it, it's the only intoxicant that is good for your health.
  • Notice any particular word or phrase that attracts your attention.  Focus on it and wait for the Spirit to teach you more about it.
  • Reflect on your own relationship with God in the light of verse 1.  Do you feel "upheld" by God?  Do the bit with your bathroom mirror: look yourself in the eye and say, "I am chosen by God, and his soul delights in me!"  [Caution: Once the truth of that really sinks in you may need to jump around shouting.]
  • Reflect on verses 3-5: are you generally quiet, gentle and steadfast (when you're not jumping around shouting)?
  • In what way are you a light to others?  What might you do this year to shine a little brighter?  What might your local church do to become a brighter light in your community?


Acts. Peter has had an extraordinary spiritual experience, in which his whole understanding as a faithful man of God has been shattered.  Being Peter, of course, he put up stern resistance; but with him everything went in threes, and so on the third showing he was convinced.  (Incidentally, I've just noticed the "baptismal" imagery in verses 9-16: in verse 11 he saw the heaven opened...; and the idea of something being lowered/ dipped three times.  Just a thought.)  As mentioned above, Peter "dates" the ministry of Jesus from John's call to repentance and baptism.  He stresses that he and the others have been witness to all that Jesus did in his lifetime, and, even more importantly, to his resurrection.  So here we have the basic elements of personal experience, reflection, and growing understanding leading to better theology: he NOW understands that God has no favourites.


Taking It Personally.


  • Reflect on the past year.  What have you witnessed that has increased your faith over the last few months?
  • To whom have you testified about your faith during this period?
  • If God has no favourites, does that mean that everyone is his favourite?  How do you feel about that?  No, really!
  • Can you recall a time when you suddenly found your own understanding turned on its head?  Are you open to new insights?
  • Place yourself in Cornelius' house on this occasion.  Suppose Peter has finished his "talk", and has invited questions.  What question might you have for him in response to what he has said?


Matthew.  It seems that for Matthew there is no difficulty for John in recognising Jesus even amongst the crowds: John reports that John did not recognise him until he saw the Spirit descend on him.  But Matthew sees a theological problem here and has to address it.  We can get a glimpse of the issue when we look at various examples throughout the Book of Acts where it appears that some forms of baptism were considered inferior to others.  A case in point is at Ephesus: see 19:1-7: the believers there had not even heard there is a Holy Spirit – they had "only" been baptised "into John's baptism".  According to Paul, John's baptism was one for repentance (the forgiveness of sins), not for the transmission of the Holy Spirit.  Hence the "theological problem" for Matthew – why did Jesus undergo "John's baptism"?  Frankly, I do not understand Jesus' response to John's objection, but I have just noticed a very interesting variation in this passage (and in Luke's version), compared to the parallel passage in Mark.  Mark says the descent of the Spirit came as Jesus was rising from the water; both Mathew and Luke make it clear that the Spirit came after Jesus had been baptised, perhaps to separate that event from "John's baptism".


Taking It Personally.


  • The essential point is not what happened or didn't happen at Jesus' baptism but what happened at yours.  If you have access to a Prayer Book have another look at the baptismal liturgy.  It's all there, isn't it?
  • Look particularly at the commitments you made, or were made by others on your behalf.  How well have they been kept?
  • Make it your practice this year to thank God for your baptism regularly – if you know the date of your baptism celebrate the anniversary as you do your birthday.  If you are a parent or godparent of someone who has been baptised, make a point of remembering and celebrating his or her baptism on the anniversary.
  • Give thanks, then give more thanks, and more thanks, to God for your baptism!

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Epiphany

January 5                                NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         The Epiphany

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12*

[*Technically we're on the Eve of the Epiphany, but come on!  Who celebrates the Eve of the Epiphany?  And just look at these readings!]

Theme:  We could just go with "The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ".  I'm tempted to go with "Seek and You Shall Find", to continue the idea of Christmas-Epiphany as the archetypal start of the faith journey.  Perhaps something about light – "Seeing the Light"; or something about dawning – "And the Truth Dawned on Them".  But please, if you are tempted to go with "A Star is Born", pray urgently for the grace to resist that temptation!

Introduction.  What wonderful readings with which to start the New Year!  First, Isaiah on peak form and in joyous mode, as he looks ahead to the great in-gathering of the Gentiles at the end of the age.  Then St Paul still bubbling over with excitement at the discovery of the real purpose of God, kept hidden for so long, that salvation is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.  And to cap it all, this beautifully constructed story from Matthew, so subtle and subversive when liberated from Christmas cards and excruciating carols and allowed to speak its real message direct to our hearts.  The ham and cake may have run out, but the real feast is only just beginning!

Background.  On the Third Sunday of Advent (December 15) I preached at St Peter's, Caversham on the two questions that were asked in the gospel passage set for that day (Matthew 11:2-11): the one asked of Jesus by emissaries from the imprisoned John ("Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?"); and the one asked by Jesus ("What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?").  And I said this:

Two seemingly short and clear questions given to us today as early Christmas presents.  For we all have highs and lows on our faith journeys.  We all have times when it all seems so obvious – and we all have times when we are tempted to dismiss it all as wishful thinking.  Particularly at this time of the year – at Christmas.  When we see the decorated tree, when we hear our beloved carols, when we and others try our hardest to be nice to one another – when we see the baby in the manger – when all this surrounds us perhaps we can believe again in the goodness of ourselves and others – perhaps our hope is reignited like our Advent Candles.

But oh how early in the New Year all that can wear off!  That, perhaps, is when we need to unwrap these two questions and see what they hold for us.  Is he the one who is to come into my life, or am I waiting for someone else?  What drew me to this place this Christmas?  What did I come to see?  A fine church looking especially lovely at the midnight mass?  What did I come to hear?  Beautiful carols that feed my hunger for nostalgia?

Or did I come to hear again a message – a call – an invitation...

So here we now are – early in the New Year.  With the benefit of hindsight (and "hindhearing") are we any more able to answer those questions?  As I reflect on Christmas 2013, what did I see and hear – underneath all the surface tinsel and make-believe?  That seems to me to be the reason why we have this important Day today.  Have we seen – have we heard – have we experienced a new epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ?

And what better story to help us face this question squarely could there be than this much-loved (and much-misunderstood) story of the Magi or Wise men?  Matthew wastes not a moment nor a word in telling his story.  It is set "in the time of King Herod"; but this time is now interrupted, for the time of Jesus the Christ is beginning.  What is the sign of that?  The arrival of "Wise Men from the East" – or Gentiles, as he could equally well have indentified them: the great "in-gathering", so long forecast by the prophets as the major event of the coming of the Messiah.  Who are they?  We might call them seekers, for they have come to Jerusalem asking for directions to the new-born Messiah.  Notice the wonderful irony that begins here and runs through this whole story.  Gentiles, by definition, non-Jews, non-believers, are the ones seeking God, and they have come to the Jewish holy city to be enlightened.  Why?  Because they have recognised a sign in the heavens – a sign pointing their way to the glory of God.  If they were astrologists (as is often surmised) how wonderful that they have seen in the stars a sign of the one through whom the stars and everything else are created!

And just look at the picture we are given of Herod.  A bunch of strangers in fancy dress have turned up in the city in search of some baby or other and the King is "frightened" – this brutal, murdering King on his home turf is spooked by the arrival of these guys!  Stranger still, Matthew records that "all Jerusalem" shares the King's fears.  Notice the echoes here: Matthew, of course, is writing very much with the benefit of hindsight.  He knows about the later Herod being cajoled and tricked into the murder of John the Baptist; he knows about the fickle crowds at the so-called Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem who so quickly became the mob calling for crucifixion; and he knows about the vacillating Pilate who asked Jesus if he was or was not "the King of the Jews".  Those themes are all there in this "early" episode in the gospel narrative.

Matthew heaps it on.  Herod summons the religious leaders for their advice on this important theological question: where was the Messiah to be born?  The religious leaders know their Scriptures: they answer the question correctly, but it is the Wise Men, the outsiders, the seekers, who continue on their way and find the one who is to come.  The religious ones remain in Jerusalem, blinded by their intellectual knowledge from seeing the great light that is trying to penetrate even their darkness.

And notice what happens when the Wise Men arrive at their goal.  They don't ooh-and-aaah, go weak at the knees, and start babbling in baby-talk: they don't congratulate Mary and Joseph or tell them that the baby has his mother's eyes or his father's chin.  They kneel down before the baby and worship him: and then out of their treasure chests they offer gifts that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are "seeing" with spiritual eyes who this child really is.  They are experiencing an epiphany.

So as we come to the end of the Christmas Season, what did we see?  What did we hear?  What did we experience?  What one thing spoke to us of the Ultimate Reality whom we call God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Isaiah.  The image is one of universal redemption, joy, abundance and celebration.  And it is surely no accident that it comes in the closing chapters of this great prophetic work.  This vision is not one of a sudden all-encompassing event that "magically" transforms the world by divine fiat.  It is a vision of the end to which God has been working his purposes out from the beginning of time.  It is the universal Kingdom of God in its completion.  It does not replace what has gone before – it is all that has gone before gathered up and transformed into a new and glorious divine reality.  All Israel's failings, infidelities and sheer bloody-mindedness over the centuries will one day be seen as part of this extraordinary process of creation and redemption that God started in the beginning and will bring to completion in the end.  (And the same is true of our own failings, infidelities, and bloody-mindedness!)

Taking It Personally.

·        Read through this passage slowly, preferably aloud, several times.  Let the sheer poetry of it seep into you and lift you up.  Charge your batteries ready for all that this year may bring your way.

·        Notice the emphasis on "gathering" in verse 4.  Reflect on any gathering you have been part of over the Christmas period.  Did you enjoy the experience?   Are you more or less aware of the presence of God when part of a gathering?

·        Were you aware of any tensions within the gathering?  Were you able to ease any such tensions in any way?  Were there any lessons for you: might you do something differently in the future?

·        Could you describe any such gathering as a "foretaste" of the great In-gathering to come?


Ephesians.  A very different passage, yet no less inspiring and uplifting. Paul repeats much of what he said in chapter 1, as if the truth he is expounding is so overwhelming that he can't help but say it all over again.  God really does have the same good news for the Gentiles as for the Jews!  Moreover, this isn't some sort of Divine Plan B, hastily put in place because Plan A (the obedience of the Jews) hadn't worked out too well.  Universal salvation had been God's plan from the very beginning.  Which means that all of us have "access to God in boldness and confidence".





Taking It Personally.


  • A good passage for lectio divina.  Read through it slowly: what word or phrase strikes you in particular?
  • What do you make of verse 10?  Use it as a template to critique your own local faith community.  Is it manifesting the wisdom of God to the people in your own neighbourhood (let alone to the "rulers and authorities in the heavenly places"!)?  Are you?
  • Think about the people flocking to the Holy Land on pilgrimage at Christmas.  Is this part of what Isaiah and Paul were talking about in today's passages?  There were about 120 believers on the Day of Pentecost.  Today there are about two billion.  What do you make of that?


Matthew.  Here is another story unique to Matthew.  Notice how he simply asserts that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea".  As we saw last week, he went to some extraordinary lengths in the next passage to explain how this could be so, given that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth.  The Wise Men "saw" something they found irresistible; like the disciples they left everything to follow wherever they might be led.  (How did their families and associates feel about that?)  Why were they interested in a baby who was born to be king of the Jews – what was that to them?  Nothing much makes sense from a rational, intellectual point of view – yet from a spiritual point of view, it all makes perfect sense.  They were attracted, they responded wholeheartedly, despite whatever cost and hardship was incurred, they kept on to the end of the journey, they responded in worship and offering, and after that they returned home "by a different road".  Their life journey was now following a different course.


Taking It Personally.


  • Review your own faith journey in the light of this passage.  What started you on your way?  How committed are you to the journey?  What obstacles and difficulties have you encountered?  From whom have you sought directions?  Is your life following a different course because you have encountered the Christ Child?  In what respect?
  • Review last year's part of the journey.  Are you closer to Christ now than you were at the start of 2013?
  • What are your hopes for the journey this year?  What gifts are you taking with you?  How committed are you?  Where do you hope to be in 12 months time?
  • What might you need to discard to facilitate your progress on the journey this year?
  • Talk to God about all this in prayer "in boldness and confidence".