Streams in the desert

2014 lb cover 400

On Wednesday 5 March, the season of Lent begins. Churches working together in Didsbury have again published a booklet of Bible reading notes for the season. Copies are available from Christ Church West Didsbury, Didsbury Community Church, Didsbury Methodist Church, Didsbury United Reformed Church, East Didsbury Methodist Church, St Christopher’s Withington, St James and Emmanuel, the Welsh Presbyterian Church and, of course, from us at Didsbury Baptist Church. Help yourself to a copy and read the Bible with us through Lent.

Mark’s Holy Week

We are reading the Gospel of Mark together at DBC this year. It tells a strange and wonderful story of the life of Jesus and devotes a full 6 of its 16 chapters to the final week of Jesus’ life. It presents the events of the passion of Jesus as occurring over specific days of the week. This, of course, provides a useful plan of readings for Holy Week. I know, if you start now you have a bit of catching up to do (and today’s reading is the really long one). Still, you might be interested in reading with us through the rest of the week so here are the readings: Sunday: Mark 11.1-11; Monday: Mark 11.12-19; Tuesday: Mark 11.20 – 13.37; Wednesday: Mark 14.1-11; Thursday: Mark 14.12-72; Friday: Mark 15.1-47; Sunday: Mark 16.1-8a. If you click on the reference you will be able to read the passage online. Some of the passages are quite long but you get Saturday off (and the final chapter is tiny) so why not give it a try?

Bible-Reading in Lent

Churches Working Together in Didsbury have produced a new booklet of Lenten devotional readings for 2011. People from Didsbury Baptist Church, Christ Church and St Christopher, Didsbury Community Church, Didsbury United Reformed Church, Didsbury and East Didsbury Methodist Churches, and Didsbury Welsh Chapel have provided articles. You can download your own copy by clicking here.

The individual reflections will be posted daily on the web at least for the first few days of Lent. Check them out from Ash Wednesday (9 March) at the Churches Working Together in Didsbury website.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!

The Bible readings for Christmas Day are Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-4. John 1.1-14.

There is surely no better thing to do on Christmas morning than to gather with followers of Jesus and hear John 1.1-14 read. Happy Christmas everybody!

One greater than the temple is here

The Bible readings for today are 2 Sam 7.1-5, 8-11, 16; Psalm 85; Luke 1.67-79.

Actually, these are the readings for the morning. Tonight, in our carol service, we will hear the traditional Christmas Eve readings. There we will concentrate on Matthew’s version of the nativity story (Matthew 1) which seems to me to be darker than Luke’s. No Magnificat, no songs of praise, fewer angels but a mixed-up world into which Jesus is born, ‘God with us’. Matthew clearly presents Jesus as Messiah and ‘Son of David’ but also, perhaps, as the embodiment of the temple David had wished to build. The baby born in Bethlehem would represent God to people and would draw both Jews and Gentiles (starting with the magi from the east) to worship the living God. And if he would be a kind of walking temple, he would also represent the sacrifices offered in the temple. Jesus would save the people from their sins. This, Jesus continues to do for all who will seek and follow him.

Fearful wonder

Today’s Bible readings are Malachi 3.1-4; 4.1-6; Psalm 25.3-9; Luke 1.57-66.

I am interested in the relationship of fear and joy. There is a kind of fear, it seems to me, that has nothing at all to do with joy; this is the fear associated with terror. It is the sort we experience when we are in peril. Such fear robs its victims of joy and ruins lives. Its only positive aspect is that it might spark a ‘fight or flight’ response by which a person may escape the clutches of one who intended their harm.

The fear of the Lord is an altogether different thing. This is the fear we associate with reverence and awe. It is the kind we experience when we are confronted by something (or someone) completely beyond our control or comprehension. This is humility before God; it is wonder, amazement or astonishment and it issues in joy, sheer joy. Notice the connection in Malachi 4.2: ‘But for you who revere [fear] my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.’ It is there too in the Gospel reading at the naming of John the Baptist and the restoration of Zechariah’s speech: ‘And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him (Luke 1.63b-66)’. The fear that came upon the neighbours did not silence them, it did not terrorize them but rather provoked them to talk excitedly about what was happening and to reflect on its significance.

We need more of this kind of fear, the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. If our eyes are open we might experience it as we approach Christmas and reflect again on the mystery of the Incarnation.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Mary Oliver, ‘Mysteries, Yes’ in Evidence, (2009, Bloodaxe Books).

Promised beforehand?

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 7.10–16; Psalm 80.1-8, 18-20; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25.

Some of my Jewish friends object to the way that Christian interpretation seems to play fast-and-loose with the promises of the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament seems willing to take any verse as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7 is a case in point. Isaiah was certainly not anticipating a virgin birth (the Hebrew can mean simply ‘young woman’, as the NRSV makes plain) nor was he thinking of events that would occur many years into the future. I take him to mean that by the time a pregnant woman gives birth and begins to teach her child, the national powers that threatened Israel would themselves be facing defeat. Whatever it is he anticipates, Isaiah thinks it will happen soon, within a few years at most. Still, Matthew feels free to adopt these verses and apply them to the birth of Jesus. In so doing, he demonstrates a kind of playfulness in his use of Scripture.

Matthew is not alone in taking up fragments of Scripture and using them for his own ends. In fact, much of Scripture, both Jewish and Christian, does the same thing. It constantly interprets and reinterprets what was written earlier, incorporating its understanding of the old into its own unfolding vision. What is objectionable though is when Christians refuse to accept that a passage like Isaiah 7 can refer to something other than the birth of Jesus. For me, it is not a case of either/or but of both/and.

If there is playfulness in Scripture’s interpretation of Scripture, there seems to be some too in relation to its presentation of obedience to prophetic commands. According to Matthew, an angel of the Lord told Joseph that Mary will ‘bear a son and they will call him Emmanuel’ (God with us), so Joseph ‘named him Jesus’! Whether or not we like the way Scripture interprets and reinterprets Scripture, the fact is that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, fulfilled the dreams and expectations of generations. Ultimately, it is the resurrection that proclaims Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom 1.4).

God, weal and woe

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 45.6b-8, 18, 21b-end; Psalm 85.7-end; Luke 7.18b-23.

Isaiah 45.7 is, for me, particularly difficult:

‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things’ (NRSV). It is all the more stark in the AV, ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil’. The difficulty, of course, lies in the attribution to God of the creation of evil (and darkness). The Hebrew word is ra’ and it certainly can mean ‘evil’ (Psalm 23.4, ‘lo’ ‘ira’ ra’ — I will fear no evil’) but also ‘calamity’ or ‘disaster’. Such a distinction might help to absolve God of the responsibility for human moral evil but it does not appear particularly helpful in the immediate aftermath of a terrible natural disaster.

At any rate, Isaiah is not alone in his assertion. Similar ideas are found in Amos 3.6 and 4.13, and in Lamentations 3.38. It does help, I think, to remember that, for Isaiah, particular circumstances are in view. He is responding to the rise of Cyrus the Persian king who, though pagan, will engineer the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. Isaiah sees Cyrus as an instrument of God. Opposing the dualism of the religion of Persia, Isaiah asserts that all things remain under the purview of the One God. Isaiah, like the psalmist, looks not to the heavens and the earth, but to the creator of the heavens and the earth.

In the words of Karl Barth, it is not ‘that God positively willed, created and posited darkness in the same positive way as light or evil as peace, as an independent goal and event of His plan. . . [but that] . . . they are not what they are without Him, but only in opposition and therefore relation to Him.’ (Church Dogmatics III, 1:106)

Far better to believe that God is present in the darkness than to think God is confounded by it. As Nebuchadnezzar had been God’s instrument of Judgement, now Cyrus would be God’s instrument of mercy. God had not forsaken God’s people and this was good news indeed!

Not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 96.1, 10-13; Matthew 18.12-14.

I cannot say that I had ever really noticed the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this parable of Jesus. Perhaps Luke’s version (15.3-7) is the more popular, beginning as it does that wonderful string of parables that culminates in that of the Prodigal Son. Anyway, Matthew tells and uses the parable differently than does Luke; and Matthew’s perspective deserves more attention than it seems to get.

In Luke, the parable concerns itself with lost sinners who repent; in Matthew, straying disciples are in view. At least that is what I think Matthew’s Jesus means when he speaks of ‘these little ones’. Of course, the expression might be applied to any who are vulnerable but Jesus has already narrowed his reference to ‘these little ones who believe in me(18.6). In fact, most of Matthew 18 deals with the way that the way that disciples of Jesus are supposed to treat each other. The parable (along with the sayings that introduce and conclude it) provides a theological rationale for mutual kindness and respect among Christ’s followers. It is a pity that the lection begins with verse 12 and not, as it should, with verse 10. (Perhaps the editors worried about what we would make of the angels of these little ones beholding the face of God in heaven.)

Verse 10 sets the scene with the words, ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones’, or as Donald A. Hagner translates it, ‘See that you do not treat one of these little ones with contempt’ (Hagner, Matthew 14-28 [Word Biblical Commentary 33b], 524). The rest of the chapter deals with relationships among the followers of Jesus, what to do when a fellow disciples sins against you, and how many times you should you forgive your ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Relationships are to be characterized by understanding, forbearance and forgiveness. For if Jesus is the one of whom the prophets foretold, he brings with him peace and reconciliation for all peoples. His followers are therefore called to embody peace; they are to forgive each other from the heart. There is something here about the inestimable worth of humans beings in the sight of God. Even those who stray away from Jesus and his teaching, those who struggle to keep the faith, remain the objects of God’s love and concern. God seeks them out and restores them lovingly to the fold.

The way Matthew uses this parable suggests to me that the church to which he was writing was struggling with what attitude to adopt to those who, perhaps under the threat of persecution, seemed to fall away. Matthew, employing the words of Jesus, enjoins the church to welcome back all who stray.

Jesus calls us to each other:
found in him are no divides.
Race and class and sex and language:
such are barriers he derides.
Jon the hands of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth.
(Iona Community – ‘Jesus calls us here to meet him’,
Baptist Praise and Worship, 12)

Severity and Kindness

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 11.1–10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12.

What great readings! Still, I can’t avoid their dark side. Did you notice it? ‘With the breath of his mouth he will kill the wicked’ and ‘every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’. Too much killing, fire and brimstone for me to be entirely comfortable with these texts. But they are not written to make me comfortable; quite the reverse. Sure, they are about peace and harmony but the peace they envisage is built on truth and justice. A judgement in favour of the poor and the meek has implications for their oppressors. The severity of the warnings points up the absolute horror of human ruthlessness and the seriousness with which God responds to it. What is more, the passages are after something and it is not so much punishment as sincere repentance; pretended repentance will not do.

The problem with all this, however, is that warnings and threats of punishment do not seem to bring about repentance in the hard-hearted. Perhaps that is why, instead of killing, the tender shoot of the stump of Jesse would offer his own life to woo humanity to return to its maker. ‘Let all the peoples praise him’!

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