Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Revelation 12:1-6

Revelation 12:1-6
The Woman and the Dragon

1A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

My text this morning is written in Revelation 12:6:

6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

I am reminded that John was writing in code; he and other Christians were being persecuted for their faith and so he needed to write to the Churches in such a way so as not to cause offence and heighten the already horrible time they were having. For the casual reader, it seemed like a colourful fantasy, an ancient equivalent of a science-fiction drama, escapist and harmless. But for the initiated, it is a tale of wonderful encouragement and blessing; a source of inspiration for those struggling with the travail of life and torment.

One the surface, one can take it that references to ‘Babylon’ were references to Rome and most (almost all) the other images come from the Old Testament. The average Christian leader of the day would have been steeped in the Scriptures and so would have known exactly what the images meant. On a few occasions (and this is one of them) they would have required a little more thought. The case in point is the identity of the woman: because the reference to the Son is obviously the Messiah – Jesus - some have thought that the woman was a reference to Mary.

One of my favourite New Testament scholars, Bruce M Metzger is full of insight. He has an excellent little book on Revelation entitled Breaking the Code. On this section he explains that, periodically, John gives us a brief history lesson – a ‘flashback’ to the past as a preface to his future vision. And this is one of those occasions. As James Efird in his Revelation for Today adds, ‘… the author describes the flow of history from an earlier time to the current period of persecution. This serves to show how the present evil time has evolved.’ (page 86) Metzger’s ‘flashback,’ at one level, is telling of the birth of Jesus and the attempt of King Herod to kill Jesus soon after. Instead of just giving a straight historical narrative as Matthew and Luke do, ‘… John presents a heavenly tableau of characters that are portrayed with sensational Near Eastern imagery …’ (page 72) But, as always, John writes a message that has more than one level of meaning.

So, who is the woman referred to in this passage? On closer reflection, Mary does not seem to be the obvious choice. Others have suggested that it could refer to the Christian Church or even to the Jewish people. Most scholars eventually agree that it is probably a reference to a ‘… personification of the ideal community of God’s people, first in its Jewish form, in which Mary gave birth to Jesus the Messiah, and then in its Christian form, in which it was persecuted by a political power as evil as the dragon …’ (Metzger, p. 74).

It was out of the community of God’s original people – the Jews – that Jesus came in history the first time. It is out of the Christian community today that Christ must come, i.e. we must be Christ, for those who have never known him. Today the Church is the Mother. There are going to be challenges and there will be opposition, just as we saw was the case for Jeremiah and Paul and as we know it is a reality for many people still today. But no matter how strong the opposition and how we might struggle as we go through life – both as a community of faith and as individuals seeking to be obedient in what God has called us to do - we are ‘… under the protection of God and, therefore can never be ultimately destroyed.’ (Barclay, p. 76)

Richard Bewes reminds us that this passage enables us to look at a parallel view of the entire era spanned by our Lord’s first and second comings, and we are introduced  ‘… to the unseen spiritual conflict that lies behind our world’s struggles …’ (page 63) John reminded his first readers that the persecution they were facing was more than a mere religious community standing against and imperial power – the Romans – it was also part of the ‘… ongoing conflict between the divine and the demonic, between the higher and the fallen power, between light and darkness …’ (ibid.)

True, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of finding a devil under every bush and blaming all our evils on Satan. But at the same time, I believe that the greatest victory that the Devil or Satan ever achieved was to convince the world that he does not exist, because then he can go about his ways without any opposition. It does not take a huge leap into absurdity to recognize the very real nature of evil in our world. We see it manifest in parents hiding their children to gain reward money; we see it in dictators allowing their people to starve, die of curable diseases and live in dire circumstances, while they live in the lap of luxury. It was manifest in Apartheid South Africa, Hitler’s Germany, Polpot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia – the list sadly continues. But could it also be closer to our back garden. Does it include selfish bankers whose irresponsible dealings have forced thousands to lose their jobs and their homes and security and all the misery that has resulted? Could it also be manifest in the selfish business people who exploit their staff for the sake of their own profit? Could it also be in the selfishness of shareholders putting profit above principle?

Earlier I concluded that the mother / woman in the text could be a reference to the people of God throughout the ages. To refer back to history this could have been a reference to the people of Israel and their bondage in Egypt, their wandering in exile and their travail and persecution - these being the birth pangs - but resulting in the delivery of the Messiah from within their midst. We have already seen that some take it more literally and even see Herod the dragon and Jesus being rushed to Egypt to escape the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. There is some logic in this, because it is obvious to me that Herod was an instrument of Satan. But I believe there is more. True, Satan was especially active during the time of Jesus ministry, culminating on the death of our Lord. It might have appeared to him that he had won – but he had not! By far the majority of scholars see verse 5 and the reference to the child being ‘…snatched away and taken to God and to his throne …’ as referring to our Lord’s Ascension. Bewes comments: “Jesus’ saving work was completed, at the Cross. The resurrection established it. The Ascension celebrated it!” (page 64)

As always, John’s message also has a timeless element. What was true for Israel is true for today’s community of God’s people. We continue as the woman, and we experience birth pangs. We are out in the ‘wilderness’, as was the Apostle Paul for much of his ministry and as was Jeremiah and others before him. Many Christians and especially those of us who are ordained ministers will all be able to identify with the solitude of our Christian position, the pressure to compromise and sometimes even the adversity we have to endure for our faith, often in subtle almost impossible to identify ways; for this is the red dragon at his most powerful, when his presence is not obvious.

And this is where this passage is such a wonderful comfort and blessing; the woman fled into the desert where she found a ‘… place prepared by God so that she could be nourished …’

In this passage, the reference to the child being taken up can be a reference to Christ’s Ascension: but why no reference to anything in between? Barclay comments:

“It is due to the fact that all through the revelation, John’s interest is not in the human Jesus but in the exalted Christ, who is able to rescue his people in the time of their distress.” (Page 78)

Even in the midst of our travail, we Christians often find a sense of real peace and tranquility. I remember well the four times when I was dying because of the (at the time) undiagnosed pancreatic tumour, but throughout, I knew more than at any other time in my life, a real sense of the closeness of God and I experienced, in a deep and beautiful way, the “… peace of God, that which passes all understanding …” This is because the victory is ours; the red dragon has been defeated. We, the Church might flee into the desert, but it is to a place created there for us by God, and there we are nourished. John was probably inspired by the time when Elijah was fed by the ravens in the desert (1 Kings 17:1-7) and again by the angelic messenger (1 Kings 19:1-8). John had also lived through a time when people had to flee into the wilderness for safety. We all know that being a Christian can be a lonely thing, especially when we are called upon to witness to the truth of the Gospel – but, as Barclay adds: “ … even in human loneliness there is divine companionship …” (page 80). We all need to find places of quiet and safety to regain our strength and be filled afresh with God’s love.

6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. Amen.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Mark 1:14-20 (NRSV)

Mark 1:14-20 (NRSV)

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

I am indebted to William Barclay and his wisdom – and blessing – as we reflect on the Gospel and his insights.

In verses 14 and 15 we encounter three great themes of the Christian faith.
Firstly, there is good news: The essence of the message of Jesus is good news for humankind. If we follow the word εὐαγγέλιον.

Throughout the New Testament we discover more of what it means:

(a)  It is good news because it is truth (Galatians 2:5; Colossians 1:5). As Barclay comments: “Until Jesus came, men could only grope after God. ‘O that I knew where I might find him,’ cried Job (Job 23:3).” With the coming of Jesus we can now see clearly what God is like – guess work has come to an end.

(b)  It is good news of hope (Colossians 1:23). The ancient world was full of pessimism; in their struggle for goodness, people felt defeated – but the coming of Jesus brings hope to the hopeless heart.

(c)  It is good news of peace (Ephesians 6:15). It is our lot that we struggle with sin and goodness – but in Christ we can find peace as his grace works out his purposes for our lives.

(d)  It is good news of promise (Ephesians 3:6). Jesus reveals that God is not full of threats but love and forgiveness and so is full of promise.

(e)  It is good news of immortality (2 Timothy 1:10). Life is not a one way road to death and the end. In Jesus we are on a road to life and not death.

(f)   It is good news of salvation (Ephesians 1:13). This is not just a liberation from penalty and escape from past sin; ‘… it is the power to live life victoriously and to conquer sin …’
Secondly, there is the word repent: Barclay points out that this is a more complex word than we sometimes think. The Greek word metanoia literally means to change our mind. We sometimes confuse two things: sorrow for the consequences of sin and sorrow for sin. Too many of us would continue to do things if we were confident that we could escape the consequences. Barclay writes: “Repentance means that the person who was in love with sin comes to hate sin because of its exceeding sinfulness.”

Thirdly, there is the word believe: Barclay suggests that ‘believe’ here means to ‘… take Jesus at his word, to believe that God is the kind of God that Jesus told us about, to believe that God so loves the world that he will make any sacrifice to bring us back to himself, to believe that what sounds too good to be true is really true.’

Barclay writes:

A leader must begin somewhere. He must get himself a little band of kindred souls to whom he can unburden his own heart and on whose hearts he may write his message.

Who did Jesus look for:

(i)            They were simple folk – not from the great halls of learning or religious authority so they were neither learned nor wealthy. Jesus opted for ordinary people. Lincoln once said: “God must love the common people – He made so many of them.” Jesus was of the view that, even ordinary people, if they are willing to give themselves to Him, could change the world – and they did. Barclay concludes: “A person should never think so much of what they think other people think of them as of what Jesus thinks of them.”

(ii)           Notice what they were doing when Jesus called them – just their ordinary day’s work. It was the same with some of the great prophets. Amos was a herdsman and gatherer of sycamore fruit. The call of God can come to a person especially in the midst of the ordinary.

It is also interesting to note that Jesus called them to ‘Follow me’. He did not say: “I have a theological system which I would like you to investigate; I have certain theories that I would like you to think over; I have an ethical system that I would like to discuss with you. He said ‘Follow me’.” It is all about relationships – it is about falling in love – it is not necessarily rational. So Barclay concludes: “In the greatest number of cases a man follows Jesus Christ, not because of anything that Jesus said, but because of everything that Jesus is.”
This is why it is who we are more than what we say that has the greatest impact on our ministry. Lovely thoughts; but also a deep challenge.

Jesus offered his first disciples and us – a task! He called them not to ease, but to service. Someone once said that “every person needs something in which they can invest their lives.” So Jesus called his disciples not to a comfortable lifestyle, not to a passive inactivity; he gave them a task in which they would have to spend themselves up, and in the end die for His sake and for the sake of others.

All Christians – not just those of us who are ordained - have a vocation - and that is to live for others. I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reference to Christ as ‘… a man for others …’ – and we are called to be imitators of Christ. It is here that we find fulfilment, as we spend ourselves up in our service of others.

There is a sense that we need to leave our different ‘nets’ behind us as we daily take up the mantle of service and follow in our Lord’s footsteps.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Revelation 5.1-10 (NRSV)

The Scroll and the Lamb

1Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
   and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
   saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
   and they will reign on earth.’

John 1.43-end (NRSV)

Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

My text is written in John 1.46 b: where Philip says to Nathaniel: ‘Come and see.’

I remember well, when I read this passage from Revelation for the first time in preparation for a sermon (as distinct from mere reading it for pleasure). I was gripped by the imagery of the whole scene. Many scholars link chapter 5 with chapter 4: the vivid colours, the crystal sea and the drama of the occasion. How wonderful would it be if someone like George Lukas, the producer of the Star Wars series, were to make a film of this book using all the fantastic special effects technology available to capture the wonderful imagery?

When I was reading it back in 1994 in preparation for my expository series, I felt gripped in the vision.  I felt the sense of anticipation: all was about to be revealed – the secret of life. I could feel John’s sense of excitement and then his disappointment – there was no one worthy to open the scroll and for the truth to be revealed – and he wept! As Richard Bewes puts it: “It is a terrible thing to be unable to solve the mystery of life.”

What could be more pertinent in today’s world? All the gods of the 20th century have been proven worthless. I feel deeply for the many that have lost so much financially and the struggle that lies ahead for them. I also know that for those who are in Christ, the struggle can also be tough, but it will be borne with a deep sense of hope and even joy in the midst of it all because they will know some sense of meaning and purpose. But for others it is going to be especially difficult because there is, for them, no meaning at all. Bewes makes an interesting comment:

At various times in history the despair of thinking people has reached a time of crisis. This happened in the first century AD, with the mounting phobia of death. It was no coincidence that, simultaneously, the resurrection of Christ began to be heralded by the Church, gossiped on the highways of the Roman Empire, and scrawled upon the walls of the catacombs. There was an answer!

Crises will happen – it is part of the mystery of life – and the Church has the answer. Rowan Williams claims that it is Jesus that fills in the missing pieces in the puzzle of the meaning of life (my paraphrase). But has it – or has the Church forgotten it? Are we singing the new song or have we found other songs that have distorted the music? I have found, recently, local churches that are singing the new song loud and clear, and it is my privilege to be part of them. But is there not a challenge in this passage for the Church as a whole? Why are we still divided? Should our focus be on things like sexuality? I am sure you can think of more issues that take us away from the Gospel.

By the time of the Middle Ages the Church was no longer proclaiming the Gospel and so the world was plunged into a crisis of guilt – and the Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic) - needed to rediscover it again and set the people free. The people of our world are steeped in a morass of meaninglessness. Are we doing what is needed to give them a new song to sing?

The world keeps on being told that the Cross of Christ is meaningless. We still have so-called theologians going on TV programmes stating that the Bible is completely discredited, or that at the heart of Christianity is hatred and violence against others. I am not saying that the Church in the past has not been guilty of atrocities or that dreadful things have not been performed by those claiming to be Christians. But this does not mean that the finger can be pointed at Jesus. I am with Bonhoeffer who called for a ‘religionless’ Christianity – getting rid of all the trimmings that are in the way of things and returning to the essence – the risen, living Christ.

Each day as I watch and listen to the news, I see a world that is weeping – and we have a message: Do not weep! There is an answer. But it does not seem obvious to the world. They expect the answer to come from someone strong and powerful (a lion), but it comes from one who is the epitome of love (the Lamb).

In our Gospel reading, Philip could not keep the good news that he had discovered to himself and rushed to find Nathaniel. Notice that he did not argue – for I believe that no one is ever argued into the Kingdom of God and arguments do more harm than good. Philip had something much more powerful to offer: ‘Come and see’. The best evangelist is the person who had actually encountered the risen Christ.

Nathaniel had been thinking deeply about Christ. We know from contemporary sources that vines and fig trees were symbols of places of peace and meditation for their owners. We also know that the author of the Fourth Gospel always uses the richest of symbols in all his writing in order to try to tease out the depth of meaning. When Nathaniel met Jesus, he experienced the deepest sense of self understanding: here was someone who understood his dreams, who knew his prayers, who had seen into his intimate and secret longings – things he had never even out into words – the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending. This reminds us of the lovely image of the ladder between earth and heaven, referred to in Genesis, and Jacob’s experience at Bethel. But now Jacob’s ladder is replaced by Jesus and that, when we come to God in prayer and worship, the avenue of angels and all the company of heaven join the earthly and the heavenly together. In John’s vision, praise breaks out as the Lamb opens the scroll and they all sing out a new song.

Have you seen the wonderful film Educating Rita? We watched it as a family over the Christmas period. In the midst of trying to educate herself and finding hostility from her husband and family, Susan (her real name – she calls herself Rita as part of a game she plays with her tutor) finds herself in a pub singing along with husband and family, some popular song in time to the jute box. Her family are delighted that they have taken her away from her studies – but she finds the whole process empty and unsatisfying and replies to her mother: “Surely there must be a better song to sing!” (One of the privileges of being in education is that we give people choices of songs to sing … In the Church we can offer the song …)

We have the song – but we need to make sure that we singing it? Let us ‘…Sing unto the Lord a new song …’

I also  found myself also looking at the Old Testament lesson for Sunday (1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]) where I found another lovely image – in verse 11: ‘The Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” In the context of this passage, the ears of Eli and his sons would tingle, because they were about to hear the words of God’s judgement. But our ears tingle, because we hear the words of God’s love for us, our families and friends and all who would come to be embraced by this love.

As we renew our Covenant with God, let us all be reminded of his great love for us, for the new song we have been given to sing, and of the joy that is ours, that we too can say with great conviction, because we have experienced the presence of Christ in our prayers in the sacraments and as we love others, ‘Come and see …’


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Mark 1.4-11

Mark 1.4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

The Baptism of Jesus

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Part 1: Verses 4-8: The Baptism of John

Samuel Massey writes:

The message of Christ has raised up nations and brought them low, launched and defeated armies, started large social movements and destroyed others. Think of all that has been done in the name of Jesus Christ and how inconspicuously the Gospel begins according to Mark. Here we find none of the thunderous poetry used by John to describe the pre-existent Christ. We dream no dreams and no angels visit with us. Caesar Augustus and Herod seem pretty far away. No excuse here for Christmas trees or mob-ridden malls or long hours putting together services of lessons and carols--thank God! All Mark offers to us is John the Baptist, many people’s worst nightmare, smelling like a camel and calling people to change their ways.

The people heard the integrity of John’s announcement and his message that ‘... nothing less than a national repentance would constitute the expected Messianic preparation.’ (Nineham)

It is not impossible that John had been a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls community in Qumran; those dedicated people who spent time studying the scriptures and preparing themselves by austere and disciplined living. This community had used baptism as a rite of passage for those who wished to join the Jewish faith. Bathing or sprinkling with water was a widespread religious symbol for purification. Ezekiel had used sprinkling as a figurative expression for the moral cleaning of the nation by God.

John’s message included baptism. Mark also points out that when John explained his baptism he made it clear that it was a preparation, not to be compared with the action of the one who was coming – the ‘mightier one’. This was the one important thing that John did that was not part of Old Testament prophecy – he baptised – or so it would seem; but the way Mark presents this important historic episode, brings John’s baptism in line with the prophecies in the way he makes John baptising become part of his proclamation. The prophecies spoke of a messenger or ‘proclaimer’ – ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’.

John’s baptism was of significance and baptism with the Holy Spirit is of special significance. Moule explains that ‘... the Holy Spirit is God himself at work among his people, and it is possible for a person literally to have the Holy Spirit poured over him like water ... like a deluge, purifying, judging presence of God himself.’

In Acts 1.5 Jesus also refers to baptism with the Holy Spirit and in Romans 8.9 Paul claims that unless one has the Holy Spirit, they are not Christian. In Acts 2, the beginning of the Church is marked by the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel 2.28 ff.

John was dramatically portraying the great significance of his call to repentance. Those who responded to his call to moral reform submitted themselves to being dipped in the river as a sign of their response and commitment. But John called for much more than mere moral reform; he was preparing for something much greater.

This passage stands apart from the rest of the Gospel as a sort of curtain raiser in which the reader is introduced to the context, so that when the curtain goes up in verse 14, they will already know who the lead character is and can understand the significance of the message they are about to receive.

This makes clear that Mark wrote his Gospel from a particular standpoint, i.e. that he accepted the traditional Jewish position of a Messianic hope; so he wrote about Jesus not from biographical or psychological interest, because he believed rather, that in the life of Jesus, the Jewish hope had found fulfilment. He believed that, in Jesus, God had begun his ‘... final intervention in history, the first, but decisive stage in the overthrow of the powers of evil and the establishment of God’s Sovran rule.’ (Nineham)

And because of the fact that the central fact of this history of humankind was to be explained and it could transform people’s lives.

Part 2: Verses 9-11: The Baptism of Jesus:

Barclay points out that, to any thinking person, the Baptism of Jesus presents a problem: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance; it was meant for those who were sorry for their sins and who wanted to stop sinning. Surely Jesus did not need this! Jesus was without sin and so surely this baptism was unnecessary. Barclay offers the following thoughts:

Firstly, for Jesus, this baptism was a moment of decision: For 30 years he had remained in Nazareth and lived an ordinary life and did an ordinary job. For some time he must have been wandering when his ministry ought to begin. He probably looked for a sign. For him, the emergence of John the Baptist could have been the sign. Barclay comments:

‘In every life there are moments of decision, which can be accepted or rejected. To accept them is to succeed in life; to reject them, or to shirk from them, is to fail. ... The wasted life, the frustrated life, the discontented life, and often the tragic life is the undecided life. The drifting life can never be the happy life.’

Secondly, it was also a moment of identification: Jesus did not need to repent, but there had been a moment of decision also for the people who responded to John’s message and Jesus wanted to identify with them, not for his own sake, but for the sake of others.

Thirdly, it was a moment of approval: It is not an easy thing to leave the security of a job and family, so when one does this, one needs to be sure that it is the right thing to do. There are rare times when God speaks directly to people, but for most of us, God’s voice is a ‘far away echo’. In his Baptism, God spoke directly to Jesus in a personal experience – not as a demonstration to the crowd. Barclay writes: ‘At his baptism Jesus submitted his decision to God and that decision was unmistakably approved.

Fourthly, it was a moment of equipment: the Holy Spirit descended upon him. There is lovely symbolism here: the Spirit descended as a dove, with a lovely image of gentleness. In contrast to John’s brash message and behaviour – which was appropriate and necessary at the time, from the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, Jesus was gentle in his manner. This is not always true of his message which struck at the core of everything. Barclay concludes: ‘He will conquer, but the conquest will be the conquest of love.’

Saturday, 3 January 2015

John 1.10-18

John 1:10-18 (NRSV)

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 

Apologies for the lateness of this entry. Herewith some notes as we prepare for our sermons tomorrow using Tom Wright and William Barclay as well as for inspiration.

Dr Tom Wright reminds us that Jesus is identical with the Word who was there from the very beginning of everything – through whom all things were made – the one who contained and contains life and light. But when God sent the Word into the world, specifically to Israel, the chosen people do not recognise him. This is the central problem that seems to dominate the whole story: Jesus comes to God’s people, and God’s people do what the rest of the world do – they prefer darkness to light. This is the reason why we all need grace.

Wright suggests (and I agree) that what makes this passage really exciting is that it addresses us as well because in verse 12 we read: “12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God ...” This means that anyone – in history, now and in the future – all are invited to become children of God, born into a new family which Jesus began and which has, since then, spread throughout the world.

All human life is special in God’s sight, but something can happen in this life that adds to its dignity and worth, when we become part of God’s special family. Wright continues: “.... this great drama is a play in search of actors, and there are parts for everyone, you and me included.”

Even today, as we journey through our lives, we can see that they are part of God’s play, revealing truth and beauty to the world.

William Barclay makes the point that for the author of this Gospel it was important that John the Baptist did not occupy an exaggerated position in our thoughts and so quotes the Baptist in verse 15 as saying: “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” The Baptist was older than Jesus but this is not what he is saying; he is speaking in the light of eternity and so identifies Jesus as God – the one who existed before the universe came into existence and ‘... beside whom any human figure has no standing at all.’

Verse 16 begins with an interesting phrase: “From his fullness ...” This implies that the sum total of all that is God, is Jesus. Paul uses the same word in Colossians when he says that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ. He is implying that the totality of God’s wisdom, power and love is in Jesus, the Christ.

Barclay writes:

A person can go to Jesus with any need and find that need supplied. A person can go to Jesus with any ideal and find that ideal realised. In Jesus, a person in love with beauty will find the supreme beauty. In Jesus, the person to whom life is the search for knowledge will find the supreme revelation ...

From Jesus we have also received grace upon grace (verse 16b). In Christ we find one wonder leading to another. Sometimes as we travel a very lovely road we are overtaken by one beautiful sight being followed closely by countless others; at every view we think nothing could be lovelier, only to find there is always more. When a person begins a study of some great subject, they never get to the end of it. Always there are fresh expressions of beauty waiting for them. Barclay continues: “It is so with Christ. The more we know of him, the more wonderful he becomes. The longer we live with him, the more loveliness we discover. ...”

There is another dimension: the grace of God is never static, but always dynamic. Barclay explains: “One need invades life and one grace comes with it. That need passes and another need assaults us and with it another grace comes.” We are taken to greater experiences of grace as our relationship with Christ grows and develops and we receive grace to meet every challenge ... “16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ. In the old way, life is governed by law: people needed to do things whether they wanted to or not, whether they knew the reason or not – because it was required or even demanded by the Law. But with the coming of Jesus, the Christ, we no longer need to seek to keep the law like slaves, we seek to live as sons and daughters who are inspired to keep the law, not because we have to, but because we want to. Barclay writes: “It is through Jesus Christ that God the law-giver became God the Father that God the judge has become God the lover of the souls of people.”

Verse 18 is wonderful: no person has ever seen God, in fact no person can ever fully comprehend God, because God is greater than anything we can ever conceive of. What we can know and understand and experience of God is made possible through Jesus Christ. “If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus.”

Jesus is God: an important tenet of Christian faith, but Barclay explains that this does not mean that Jesus is identical with God, it does mean that ‘... in mind and character and being he is one with God. ... To see him is to see what God is ...’ Jesus is ‘...close to the Father’s heart ...’ This is, in Hebrew cultures, an expression of the deepest intimacy possible in human life: it is used for the experience of mother and child, husband and wife, it is used of two friends who are in complete communion with each other. Barclay adds: “When John uses this phrase about Jesus, he means that between Jesus and God there is complete and uninterrupted intimacy. It is because Jesus is so intimate with God, that he is one with God and can reveal him to men.’

In Jesus, the previously distant, unknowable, unreachable God has come to reach all people who would receive him and so God can be known, deeply and intimately by all people.

This is explained in illustrations recorded in an edition of

Kierkegaard has a fable of a king who fell in love with a maid. When asked, "How shall I declare my love?" his counsellors answered, "Your majesty has only to appear in all the glory of your royal glory before the maid's humble dwelling and she will instantly fall at your feet and be yours."

But it was precisely that which troubled the king. He wanted her glorification, not his. In return for his love he wanted hers, freely given. Finally, the king realized love's truth, that freedom for the beloved demanded equality with the beloved. So late one night, after all the counsellors of the palace had retired, he slipped out a side door and appeared before the maid's cottage dressed as a servant.

Clearly, the fable is a Christmas story. We are called to obey not God's power, but God's love. God wants not submission to his power, but in return for his love, our own.

God moved in. He pitches his fleshly tent in silence on straw, in a stable, under a star. The cry from that infant's throat pierced the silence of centuries. God's voice could actually be heard coming from human vocal cords.

That's the joy of it. God has come to be with us!

James T. Garrett, God’s Gift, CSS Publishing Company

Living without Christ

Fred Craddock once told a parable about a man who moved into a cottage equipped with a stove and simple furnishings. As the sharp edge of winter cut across the landscape, the cottage grew cold as did its occupant. He went out back and pulled a few boards off the house to kindle the fire. The fire was warm, but the house seemed as cold as before. More boards came off for a larger fire to warm the now even colder house, which in return required an even larger fire, demanding more boards. In a few days the man cursed the weather, cursed the house, cursed the stove, and moved away. 

The futility that man felt is the futility of those who try to live the Christian life without Christ. He is the Word that was in the beginning with God and was God. And he is alive today. To those of us who are drowning he is someone we can hold on to. He is someone who can set our feet on dry ground again in this New Year.

King Duncan, Collected Sermons,

God Became Human!

Many years ago now, someone gave me a little book by J. B. Phillips entitled, When God Was Man, for a Christmas present. This was written back in the 1950's. I am sure if he were writing it today, he would give it the title, When God Was a Human Being. At any rate, I was reading the book in the days that followed the holiday, and happened to leave it open on a chair in our den. We went out that evening. A lady in the community who had baby-sat for us was there with our little boy. When we came home about 11:00 o'clock, I could tell as soon as I entered the house that the baby sitter was very excited. She picked up my book, which she had found on the den chair, and began to wave it around, and said, "Is this true? When did it happen? What was He like?" 

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Luke 2.15-21
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Jesus Is Named
21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Firstly, notice where Jesus was born. The prophet Micah had prophesied that the event would take place in Bethlehem[1] - and sure enough, it took place in Bethlehem. This reminds us of the wonderful truth that God is in control. He controlled the secular ruler Augustus and directed him through thoughts, events and ideas, to decree that all people needed to be registered. As a result, he, Augustus decreed that Mary and Joseph should travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The Roman emperor did not know that he was a pawn in God's hands and that he was only doing what God was allowing him to do.[2]

God is in control. As God intervened and changed the course of history using Caesar Augustus as a pawn to do what he willed, so can he intervene and use earthly rulers and others as pawns to bring about his purposes on this earth. But people need to respond in obedience.

Secondly, notice who the first people were who received the wonderful news of Christ's birth - simple ordinary shepherds, not priests, rulers, theologians, scribes or pharisees. This is not meant to imply that people who are learned or who have position were excluded. The visit of the Magi - the wise men who followed the shepherds - bears testimony of this. But all too often, simple people, poor people feel that they do not know enough to be able to draw close to God. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is important is not wealth, position or knowledge - but faith.

God offers to all people faith as a free gift.[3] All people have to do is respond by accepting it. Whether you are a university professor, a mechanic, housewife, millionaire, street-sweeper, unemployed - no matter what one's station in life is - all people are afforded the opportunity to draw close to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, notice the message the angels brought with them. They said:

... I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy.[4]

The spiritual darkness that had covered the world for thousands of years was about to be rolled away and God was to be revealed in all his fullness through Christ; the way in which sin could be forgiven was to be made available for all people; people can defeat the power of Satan, temptation and sin in their lives and so be enabled to experience wholeness and restoration while living on this earth; people were about to be enabled to experience peace with themselves, peace with others and peace with God. Indeed, the birth of Jesus is 'good news' and should make 'everyone happy'. Because of Jesus there is hope, because of Jesus there is power, because of Jesus people can be restored to God.

Fourthly, notice how prompt the shepherds were in responding in obedience to what they were told. We read in verse 16:

They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying in the manger.

They responded immediately. They never debated, questioned, doubted or even hesitated - they did something - they hurried off to find Jesus.

May our spirit be like the shepherd's. May we believe implicitly, act promptly and wait for nothing - let us all come to Christ so that like the shepherds, the journey we begin in faith may end with praise.

Lastly verse 21 deals with the time when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to present him to the Lord. Mary was also required by the Law of Moses to go through a purification rite as all woman, after childbirth, were considered ritually unclean. While at the Temple, they met an old man called Simeon, who had some interesting things to say about their child Jesus.

Verse 21 tells us of how Jesus was circumcised. Every Jewish boy was required by the Law of Moses, to be circumcised eight days after his birth. This ceremony was considered so important that it was even permissible to perform this rite on the Sabbath, if that turned out to be the eighth day.[5] In order for our salvation to be achieved it was necessary that the saviour obey every single aspect of the law in its entirety. We read in Galatians 4:4:

... when the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him. His Son obeyed the Law so he could set us free from the law, and we could become God's children.

It is encouraging to be reminded that, even in the smallest detail, Jesus fulfilled every aspect of the Law and so won our salvation for us.[6] We do not need to practice circumcision today, nor do we need to become slaves to the thousands of other laws of the Old Testament because Jesus has set us free from the Law and all its requirements. Rather, instead of being circumcised in the flesh, Christians should live showing that they are continually cutting sin out of their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul explains this in Colossians 2:11:

Christ has also taken away your selfish desires, just as circumcision removes flesh from the body.

Again in Romans 2:29 Paul explains:

True circumcision is something that happens deep down in your heart, not something done to your body.

Because Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, we are not bound by its requirements. Jesus did everything that no human could achieve and so liberated us from all the requirements of the Law. How wonderful this is. Because of Christ we have been set free. Paul explains in Galatians 5:1:

Christ has set us free! This means we are really free. Now hold on to your freedom and don't ever become slaves to the Law again.

There was nothing that the law demanded that Jesus did not fulfill, not even the smallest detail. Jesus fulfilled everything and so earned salvation for all people who accept it. And so it was appropriate that he was given the name 'Jesus' which simply means 'Saviour'.

[1] Micah 5:2.
[2] Ryle, Expository Thoughts, pp. 50-51.
[3] Ephesians 2:8.
[4] Luke 2:10.
[5] Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke, (Edinburgh, The Saint Andrews Press, 1981), p. 24.
[6] Ryle, Expository Thoughts, pp. 61-62.