Luke 4:21-30

Jesus began to speak in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Luke wastes no time in plunging his hero into opposition. The person of Jesus and the nature of his mission are depicted as challenging to his own people. He could, Luke thinks, have chosen to be a local hero, a wonder-working local holy man, but his sources tell him that Jesus refused to play that role.

In this incident it seems, Jesus almost provokes the rage that endangered his life. There is no need for him to meet local enthusiasm with such a brutal rebuttal. First he claims he has no acceptance in his hometown, although Luke records the approving words of the Nazarenes. Then he suggests by examples from the prophets that his true ministry may be to Gentiles.

It’s possible that Luke, knowing that his story of Jesus was going to lead to his rejection by Israel and his acceptance by Gentiles, fashioned this narrative as an indication to the reader that the mission to Gentiles was always the Lord’s intention. The opposition of the Nazarenes is recounted in Mark but without the mention of Gentiles and without the extreme violence depicted by Luke.

Luke, who presents Jesus as a prophet, takes care to link him with Elijah and Elisha. The tradition of Jewish prophecy was that it represented the strange will of God who refused to limit his love to his chosen people, and whose compassion could not be corralled by a religious establishment. Jesus, according to the gospels, did not want to be “the prophet from Galilee.” Just as he had no time for the religious leaders of his people, so neither did he want to be a favourite of the common people. He loved them and worked among them, but he was not their property.

The speed with which neighbours could become a bloodthirsty mob will not surprise anyone who has meditated on the Ruandan or Bosnian genocides, the latter especially showing how religious convictions can lead to murder. This dark note at the outset of the gospel, reminds the reader of the need for radical change in human lives.

Mark 1: 1-11 The Baptism of the Lord

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
who shall prepare thy way;
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight—”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I 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. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; 11 and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

I reserved this passage for this week because we are baptising three baby boys, triplets, at our service on Sunday. In the present crisis of the Church of Scotland local churches are urged to use Baptism as an evangelical sacrament which helps the church to grow through the active discipleship of families, in the upbringing of children. In this regard it is important that Jesus was baptised.

It cannot have been comfortable for the first Christian believers, the memory that Jesus was baptised by John the Dipper, a great prophet of Jewish faith, who was followed even after his death by disciples who did not really know of Jesus, a fact that sheds doubt on the gospel depiction of Jesus as John’s approved successor. It’s entirely possible to see John’s quoted prophecy as applying to the Messiah-to-come rather than Jesus.

But the awkward fact from the viewpoint of Christian belief in Messiah Jesus, is that he was baptised by John, in his ministry directed to sinful Israelites needing baptism, like Gentiles who had to be baptised into Jewish faith. Surely such a ritual was utterly inappropriate for Jesus! The gospel writers deal with this issue in different ways. Mark, the first to tackle it, refuses to explain Jesus’ motivation, but makes it clear that he decided it would be right in humility at the start of his ministry; and that in it God confirmed to him his status as a beloved child. Ironically a Roman soldier repeats this confirmation after Jesus’ execution. Jesus, who for Mark is always the crucified and risen Son of God, identifies himself with sinful and struggling human beings at his baptism and throughout his ministry.

This identification is a theological choice of the author, not a personal historical choice of Jesus who doubtless never thought of himself as other than human. He may have been historically a disciple of. John.

Nevertheless it is the element in Mark’s story which allows the reader to identify with Jesus in receiving God’s acknowledgement, “You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.” In the church’s baptism, the person baptised is identified with Jesus as the beloved child of God, sharing with him the delight of the father. This identification is on the other hand shared with all living beings, from elephant to virus, who are equally God’s children and the subject of his/her delight.

Baptism is not only an evangelical sacrament, but also an ecological one, which celebrates God’s whole creation, rather than merely humanity, making it especially relevant to a time of ecological disaster. Parents are the bearers of this meaning to their baptised children, through the love they show to them and to the creatures of the earth. Part of this love is their raising their children in the faith and friendship of the church, the one body on earth which proclaims this truth. ???

PS That last sentence is a piece of nonsense, given that religious bodies like the Jains, along with some Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists have proclaimed it for a long time, and the bulk of the Christian church is still knee deep in the sort of humanism that pays no attention to animals. My only excuse is that the church is waking up to an ecological gospel, which will transform its thought and action.

I intend to present some thoughts on the Lectionary passage that I am using this week. As I have the sacrament of Baptism on the 23rd I will use the lectionary material for the Baptism of Jesus on that Sunday, and will therefore use the material for the second Sunday after Epiphany this week.

Before I do so, however, it’s fair to note that I wasn’t altogether convinced by my use of the Magi material yesterday. I think my emphasis on the journey of the Magi, that is, on the importance of searching, moving out of one’s comfort zone in matters of faith, was ok in itself, but needed more practical examples, to be convincing to the congregation. That was probably true also of my use of the “true king being found among the common people rather than the rich and powerful.” More time needed, more examples. It’s easier to explain a text than to “execute” it, as the German scholar Ebeling has put it.

The Cana wedding story, John 2:1-11, is a complex mix of a village wedding tale, a Jewish belief about the Messiah, and the lesson the gospel-writer wants to give.

1. The source is a tale passed down about Jesus saving a family from disgrace at their daughter’s wedding by supplying excellent extra wine when their own supply was running out. Where did he get it? Well, he may have known the local supplier and persuaded him or paid him to send over some of the best. Or he might have had some he’d bought as gifts for his best carpentry customers. Yes, the story we have says it was a miracle, but we don’t need to take that too seriously.

2. Jewish people talked about their Messiah as the bridegroom of Israel, and believed that his victorious rule would be celebrated in a great feast. At some stage the village story has been mingled with this belief in Jesus Messiah. The writer takes it for granted that Jesus has power to do something miraculous.

3 John the gospel writer adds the bit about the stone vessels used for Jewish rites of purification. He wants to tell us that the water of Jewish religion is turned into the wine of Jesus- faith: the ordinary becomes pleasurable, the routine becomes marvellous. God could have given the best religion first to Abraham and Moses, but he has kept it for now, to be offered through Jesus

The question is: what can this story mean for people now??

Well, the contrast between water and wine is still comprehensible. If people thought the church was offering wine, they might be more interested in it. So, can we say that what Jesus was offering was like wine rather than water? In fact the story of Jesus involves not only plenty water, but also another liquid, blood. He not only lived through ordinary tasks and events, but also through rejection and suffering. George Herbert a poet of the 17th century reflects on this in a couplet:

“Love is that liquor sweet and most divine

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.”

But actually anyone who loves knows that it’s not all wine : readiness to suffer with the loved one is a mark of true love. So,perhaps we should say that the water into wine story points to true love as the wine of life, which nevertheless includes suffering (blood) at times. The love does not reduce the suffering and the suffering does not destroy the love. In the Christian communion service the wine has the double meaning of love and suffering.

In the Cana wedding story the emphasis is on the wine: Love is the best wine. If wine is on offer who is going to want a watery religion? The vital thing is to link the love Jesus stands for with actual human love, the red-blooded relationship that is the wine of life.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus describes his ministry as new wine which requires new wineskins, meaning new ways of thinking and acting. Here he is contrasting new, fizzy wine with older, smoother stuff. There is a dangerous edge to his ministry.

The image of wine is used by the gospel writers to suggest a celebratory and unruly aspect to Jesus’ life which was a challenge to his contemporaries, and should be to his followers today.

 

He was digging the sand on the beach where I like to run

And I paused to watch his blade flash in the winter sun-

Shine. “Fine morning,” he greeted me, delivering a spadeful

Into his yellow plastic bucket. “I know I’m being stupid, you’ll

Forgive me, but what exactly are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m getting worms for bait,” he said, “but they don’t bask

In the sun, unfortunately, so I have to come and dig them out.”

Now I could see his bucket filled not just with sand but with stout,

Red, hairy, wriggling worms.”These,” he told me proudly,”are King

Rag-worms, the best, which can grow to maybe fifty inches, feeding

Under the surface of the sand. They eat plankton and detritus

But have jaws to seize soft-bodied creatures. They don’t fight us

But they can give you a wee nip you can feel.” He demonstrated

By lifting one which clung to his finger. “When used as bait, it

Still wriggles, making a tasty live attraction for a fish.” He

Delicately put it back. “I’m wasting your time with all this,” I

Said, “But are they good for many fish or one fish only?” “Wrasse,”

He answered,”Pollack, Whiting, Saithe, and Cod and Sea Bass,

These are my favourites anyway. I have a boat across the water.”

He had a kind of easy competence about him. “I really ought to

Stop, but maybe a last question, how do you use the worms?”

“You stick the hook right through its head or feed it by turns

From its other end onto a spike that lets you slip its body

Over the hook. It can end up looking rather bloody

But as long as it wriggles it’s irresistible to fish.” When he was done

I thanked and left him with his worms , glad I was not one.

On a bright cold lovely winter day in Monifieth, which has ended in a splendid sunset, I look at a luminous orange sky, and decide to begin a new series of blogs based on the Gospel passages in the revised lectionary. My focus will be whatever benefit may be found in living with a particular gospel passage for a week. On the Sunday of the week I will preach on the passage, but that is not the end of the study, for often the real meaning of a passage comes to me only after I’ve preached. So, I will note three stages of study: firstly, my initial survey of the passage; then the message prepared for the sermon; and finally my reconsideration after the Sunday.

MATTHEW 2: 1+12. THE FESTIVAL OF EPIPHANY A

Matthew wrote this Gospel around 85 CE, some 50 years after the ministry of Jesus. He used a number of written sources, namely the Gospel of Mark and a collection of Jesus’ Teaching also used by Luke. He also had some other sources, either written or oral, to do with Jesus’ birth and early years, and his resurrection. We can see from the way he handled Mark, that he used these sources with some freedom. I assume he had a source or sources for his story of the Magi, although it’s possible he built the story on the prophecy in Isaiah 60, “Gentiles shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising”

I think it is clear from the text that Matthew was not writing factual history, but rather a presentation of Jesus as Jewish Messiah and Son of God. There are factual elements in this presentation, along with poetry, imagination, theological narrative and prophecy. This passage is not factual, but rather imaginative theology designed to connect with spread of Christian faith amongst non-Jews of the time. By the time of the Gospel, the Jewish war with the Romans had ended, the population dispersed, the temple destroyed, and Christianity had become a gentile religion.

This passage is concerned to show that the spread of Jesus’ faith to Gentiles was not a kind of divine Plan B, but part of God’s intention for his Messiah from the start.

1. The Magi expect to find a, doubtless special, royal child, a political ruler to be. The prophecies in Jewish scripture were of a divinely appointed and inspired King. The Magi are not kings as subsequent tradition has it, but astrologers with scientific knowledge wedded to less scientific skills of prognostication. In pursuit of more direct knowledge, they make a serious journey to a foreign country. Matthew does not give reasons for this huge commitment, other than that they are guided by God. What they are seeking cannot be found by sitting still.

2. They naturally go to the capital city, asking their troublesome question, which gets them an interview in the place of power with the King, Herod. He was the puppet of the Roman Empire, but a considerable figure in his own right. The arrival of the visitors allowed him to discover the birth -place of the Messiah, and to seek co-operation with the Magi. This throws their expectation into confusion: there is no future king in the place of corrupt power and wealth.

3. They are guided on the pilgrimage by the star, that is by God, to find the child in an ordinary house in a poor village. (Matthew has nothing about a stable, shepherds, angels) The mother’s name is Mary which means “rebel”. Here is divine presence without power, wealth or religious prestige. Has their journey ended in failure or in the discovery of a profound mystery? They decide the latter, offer their gifts and depart, taking a shrewd political decision not to betray the child to Herod: they have taken sides. They are the ancestors of those gentiles who will “make their journey” to Jesus the Jewish Messiah rejected by his own people but received by ordinary people across the world.

MATTHEW 2:1-12 THE FESTIVAL OF EPIPHANY B

Assuming for the moment that my first look at the passage is right, the next issue is to ask how it connects with life in Scotland today or as traditional language would put it, with the souls of the congregation.

1,. For a start it may be good to remember the fact that we are the inheritors of a initially Jewish faith. There were a few gentiles reported in the gospels but the most significant were those who killed him. The first disciples, believers and missionaries were all Jewish. So it’s only due to the courage of Paul and Barnabas, the first to take the gospel of Jesus to Gentiles, that Christianity became a world faith, and we North Britons became Christian. The determination of people to share the joyful news beyond racial and cultural boundaries is of the essence of our faith. At times in the past we may have shared it arrogantly, for which we should be sorry, but a happy and humble sharing remains important.

2. The passage is about how God is to be found and where: not amongst the political or religious elite, but amongst ordinary poor vulnerable people anywhere, and only by those who make a journey to find the True Ruler.

3. There is an interesting parallel between Scotland and the Israel of Jesus’ time: both have their own government under the permission of a larger state, and both, perhaps, long for independence. Will the True Ruler be found amongst our Scottish political elite? Of course the future prime minister of the nation may be found there, but the one who demonstrates what true care and justice look like, the one who rules our souls and helps us hold our politicians to account, will not be amongst the elite. Jesus as always will be amongst the common people. If we seek him there, we will find him in them, as Martin Luther King did, as Desmond Tutu did, a great and effective mystery.

4. But we have to search. Just waiting in pious patience will not cut the mustard. We need not all make physical journeys, but even just sometimes being in places very near that we do not know well, may be what is asked of us. In any case the passage suggests that we need to move from our own comfort zone into new experiences as the small groups of Gentiles did in the first Christian assemblies. That does not mean that all churches should be centres of social activism. We are called to rediscover Jesus amongst ordinary people and to stand with him and them. The beginning of this wisdom is the desire for truth.

 

ODE TO THE MONIFIETH WHALE

 

From somewhere off the northern coast of Norway where

The sea is deep enough for giant squid, his favourite fare,

He, a thirty five foot adolescent male, thrashed south

Towards the breeding grounds off Africa, his scented spout

Marking his direction. His satnav should have directed him

To make a right- turn west, say between Shetland and the dim

Silhouette of Orkney, to gain the depths of the Atlantic;

But he continued into the shallow North Sea. Now frantic

For food, and sensing his true direction, he bore west when

He saw a gap in the Scottish coast, and found himself penned

In the Firth of Tay. Exhausted, foodless, and without a map

He did not trust the water but made a lumbering last lap

East and beached himself near Barry Buddon, where he died.

Videos show the array of industrial machinery that plied

The sands to bury him, underestimating perhaps the pull

Of winds and tides.Now notices warn you and the full

Guff of his remains drives dogs daft and offends genteel

Nostrils, but it is a smell of energy, firstly of the gross meal

Made of him by thousands of tiny creatures, but more

Of the huge flesh now exanimate: the world’s largest

Brain, four stomachs, spermaceti, ambergris, the zest

That powered his half-mile dives into the briny ooze

Of the ocean bed. The stink of death here brings me news

Of life, its process terrible, its scaled invention never shoddy.

I’d like to see the resurrection of this body.

 

 

 

ODE TO CRIMBO

 

It’s a cliché often used by churches who don’t like Christmas that

“Jesus is the reason for the season” which is of course a flat

Rejection of the history that at least in the northern hemisphere

The church inserted its nativity into the food and wine and beer

And fire and fun festivity of the winter solstice. Pagans have priority

In devising the symbols and the stories of midwinter jollity.

Maybe piety has a bad conscience and so fails to seize us

With any sense of the real presence of Jesus.

 

 

 Priest for the people I therefore encourage them to gather

On Christmas Eve to worship although maybe they’d rather

Watch a good film; and faithfully they come, sing carols, and listen

To the gospel. They see the (pagan) Christmas tree glisten

With lights and baubles happy that it’s here beside our crib.

They are kindly men and women, content enough that a seasonal fib

Has taken the place of a Palestinian birth; but there’s nothing here that frees us

From consumer capitalism or helps us meet with Jesus.

 

So I go back to the Bible and read Luke’s great fantasy

Of Messiah’s birth: bright angel multitudes who chant and say,

“To you is born in Bethlehem a saviour who is Christ the Lord!”

“And there were in the same country shepherds “ If a word

Could do the job these would, but although I’m charmed I ask after fact

And wonder if this beautiful play is more than just an act.

All the inspired myth-making may simply freeze us

Stopping our intelligence from reaching towards Jesus.

 

Flicking through Rembrandt’s Etchings, a Christmas gift,

I come across his Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, she in a shift,

Pulled up, revealing her lower torso and strong legs, twisting

In desire towards the fleeing, terrified Joseph insisting

On his virtue. A clear line marks her vulva. Her white belly

Shines. This is the flesh the Word became to tell me

Love takes on the whole humanity that pleases

It, including mine, which brings me close at last to Jesus.

 

                                                                   

 

 

 

 

D

Literally the Latin and Greek originals use words meaning “of an age, of the ages etc” both of which have some reference to quality of life as well as mere length. The English picks up the length without the quality. That’s a problem since only the best and the worst of humanity desire simply more time in which to love or hate. Most of us are less passionate about more time and get tired of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and are happy enough to arrive at the last syllable of recorded time.

Everlasting life is only a gift if it is creative and fulfilling life, which as it happens is what we are promised: the life of God, whether this is depicted as the life of the holy city, or with the words, ‘we shall be as he is.’ ‘Set free from captivity to decay’, ‘ they shall be my people and I will be their God.’

It does not say in the Bible that only Christian believers will have this state, but rather that it is limited to those whose names are written in the “lamb’s book of life“, which means those rescued by the compassionate and crucified one. The Bible also states that there are those who rejected the compassionate and crucified one in life and still do so. Their lives will not be everlasting.

To regard oneself and others as eternal beings is a profound and difficult revelation, since we are so deeply marked by time. How can we not anticipate or dread tomorrow? We are promised a transformation in which this (sweet) mortal being will be swallowed up by immortality, so will just have to meet the challenges of eternity. Perhaps, as a late friend of mine once said, it may not be too bad.

The Creed is not a summary of the life of faith but rather a list of what were considered to be FACTS of faith, namely things or events that believers considered to be so. As can be seen from these blogs, I also accept most of them to be so, although I may understand them in unorthodox ways. My main criticism of this summary is its neglect of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Popular belief, even amongst people who identify as non-religious, inclines towards some kind of hope in the survival of the soul or spirit. Today I’m conducting a funeral service for a man described as non-religious, whose family are also without religion, yet they want me to read the words of Jesus about preparing a place for those who trust in him. But equally, for this family, the idea of the resurrection of the body would seem daft.

Paul, who may not have heard of an empty tomb, experienced the presence of the risen Jesus, and seems to have assumed that the risen Lord was some kind of body. He defined resurrection life as bodily, not thinking of a reanimated corpse, but rather of a spiritual body whose relationship to the mortal corpse was that of plant to seed- a certain identity but a clear distinction between them. As ‘spirit’ is one of Paul’s words for God, we can deduce he saw the resurrection body as godlike, but as fulfilling rather than annulling human being.

He considered that this liberation would happen at the eschaton, the completion of God’s perfect creation, which means that he removed human resurrection from ordinary time: we cannot say when it happens, but we can be sure it does.

The body is the human being as articulated in the material universe, and as marked by its experiences and relationships within that universe. Death may be “swallowed up in victory” but material being is transformed rather than discarded. Life on earth contributes to life in heaven; human experience contributes to the experience of God.

That last statement is heretical. But surely we want to think that the experience of Jesus contributes to God’s experience? Ultimately we are part of what A N Whitehead calls the “consequent nature of God.”

For me, this clause is critical: I cannot believe in a God who permits so many lives to be so miserable, or so many others to be so wicked, without redress. If there is no resurrection, there is no God. Some, including my late daughter, have argued that this belief dispenses with the urgency to establish justice and peace upon this planet, by providing an other-worldly cop-out. As a life-long socialist I disagree. The urgency for this-worldly justice come from a) disgust at injustice b) love of neighbour and c) knowledge of how we and our society will be judged by Messiah Jesus.

My daughter’s other objection to traditional doctrine on this matter, was that it excluded animals. Her views on this influenced mine, so that now I cannot imagine resurrection life without animals. They are included in the resurrection of the body.

Of course this clause is at the heart of Christian faith, but we should look carefully at the original Latin and Greek. Latin has the word, remissio, which comes from the verb to send back, and means release, cancellation, forgiveness; while the Greek has ,Ephesus, meaning liberation, release, letting go, forgiveness. There is certainly good reason to think that the image of the release or liberation of a slave may lie behind the biblical teaching . This is a little different from the usual meaning of the English ‘ forgiveness‘ in that it envisages freedom, not only from guilt or punishment, but from the power of sin, which would reflect the teaching of St Paul, and the actions of Jesus.

It seems good, nevertheless, to retain the usual translation which does point to the one who liberates believers from the power of sin, as well as from any punishment for it. Jesus announced forgiveness from sin as an evangelical promise made without confession of sin or request for pardon, as a means of transformation of the sinner’s life. The sometimes dreary concentration of the church on sin and on its management of forgiveness is not evangelical, nor is the sumptuous celebration of forgiveness without transformation of life, in some evangelical assemblies. In Jesus’ sober prayer, the request for forgiveness of sins matched by a promise to forgive others in turn, points to ‘living in a climate of forgiveness’ as the true meaning of this clause

Thomas Merton has many good thoughts on forgiveness, for example:

“God has left sin in the world in order that there may be forgiveness: not only the secret forgiveness by which He Himself cleanses our souls, but the manifest forgiveness by which we have mercy on one another and so give expression to the fact that He is living, by His mercy, in our own hearts.”

I believe in the forgiveness of sins; but when I go to forgive my enemies I realise how few there are, because I have already overcome them with lies, evasion and charm.