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.

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).


The Bible readings for today are 1 Samuel 1.24-28; Psalm 113; Luke 1.46-56.

I have long been intrigued by the fact that the revolutionary words of the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55) have been set to such beautiful music. Oh I know, the words are beautiful too but they surely pose a challenge to the very classes that might be most expected to enjoy the music. Then again, I suppose terms like ‘the rich’ are always relative. When we sing ‘the rich he has sent empty away’ we can assume it refers to people other than ourselves. Of course, it always helps if the most threatening lyrics remain in Latin.

Well, the Magnificat, in any language, is a marvellous ancient hymn, steeped in the language of the Old Testament and taken up so powerfully on the lips of Mary. Despite what I say above, I am a fan of many of its choral arrangements. I like Monteverdi’s setting, and, of course, Bach’s and I am keen on Arvo Part’s (though I am not quite sure what it has to do with 1950s Philadelphia in this video).

In church we have been singing David Mowbray’s, ‘With Mary let my soul rejoice’ to North Bailey by Peter Morger (No 197 in Sing Praise). This is a great hymn but I cannot find a recording of it anywhere. Is anybody else singing it?

Why not click on the links and enjoy some music, but, please, think about those words too!

God will rejoice over you!

The Bible readings for today are Zephaniah 3.14-18; Psalm 33.1-4, 11-12, 20-22; Luke 1.39-45.

Joy is one of the great themes of Advent. Many of our Advent-candle liturgies include a week given over to the theme. All of today’s readings fairly ring out with celebratory joy. The one that gets to me most is Zephaniah 3.17:
‘He (God!) will rejoice over you and be glad,
He will shout over you with jubilation.
He will soothe with His love
those long disconsolate.’
The God of the Bible is a passionate God who rejoices over God’s people. The Incarnation brings God’s joy to the world!

Exploring the Story at DBC

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).

Readings for Sat 18 Dec 2010

The Bible readings for today are Jeremiah 23.5-8; Psalm 72.1-2, 12-13, 18-20; Matthew 1.18-24.

Messianic credentials

The Bible readings for today are Genesis 49.2, 8-10; Psalm 72.1-5, 18-19; Matthew 1.1-17.

I know it is tempting to skip biblical genealogies as the unimportant preliminaries before the action gets going but Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus repays careful scrutiny. Matthew uses it to make a number of powerful statements about Jesus. It tells us that Jesus is the ‘Son of David’. This status is conferred upon Jesus by adoption. For, according to Matthew, Jesus is actually ‘Son of God’ (Mat. 4.3,6; 8.29; 14.33; 26.63; 27.40) but adopted into the family of Joseph (a descendant of David) as his son. Jesus is then Son of God, Son of David and Messiah.

The identification with David is further established by use of the three sets of fourteen generations by which the genealogy is divided. This corresponds to the name David which in Hebrew has three letters (דוד) the numerical value of which, when added together, gives the number fourteen. For those with eyes to see Jesus is Son of David and thus Messiah.

The title Messiah accorded not only with Jewish expectation but also with Roman practice. Emperors were sometimes referred to by this term. Additionally, in the Roman world, the very act of providing a genealogy would be read as a claim to status. But if Matthew confers special status upon Jesus, he does so while subverting the notion of status itself. For while Jesus is born of the royal line of David there are a number of distinctly dodgy characters in his ancestry, at least as Matthew constructs it. Jesus is clearly Jewish but there are those in his ancestry who started out as Gentiles. I am thinking particularly of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (‘the wife of Uriah’). These women (like Mary) turn out, despite suspicion to the contrary, to be virtuous. Jesus is born then to, through and for all people: the righteous and the unrighteous, Jew and Gentile, high-born and low-born. His ‘kingship’ will not be about trampling the poor underfoot but delivering the oppressed and raising the fallen. The God of surprises is at work in the birth of this Jewish Messiah who will question the assumptions of us all, challenge our preconceived ideas and turn our world upside down.

This is Kingship (and Messiah-ship), Jim, but not as we know it!

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!

%d bloggers like this: