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!

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).

Joy comes with the morning

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 54.1-10; Psalm 30.1-5, 11-end; Luke 7.24-30.

The writer of Psalm 30 rejoices because, having been near to death through sickness, he has found healing and new life. Nothing like a crisis to focus one’s mind on God. And nothing like a healing to draw out a promise of everlasting gratitude! I wonder whether the psalmist kept his promise?

Christians sometimes see intimations of resurrection in this psalm:

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee:
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain,
that morn shall tearless be.
George Matheson (1842-1906)

When all within is dark

The Bible readings for today are Zephaniah 3.1-2, 9-13; Psalm 34.1-6, 21-22; Matthew 21.28-32.

On Sunday night I learned of the deaths of two of my friends. Neither of them lived near enough for me to have seen them for some while. Both were members of churches I formerly pastored. One was a little older than me and had Alzheimer’s disease for quite a few years. The other was a lot older than me and was underestimated and overlooked in all kinds of ways throughout his life. They were two of the kindest people and truest followers of Jesus I have ever met. Though I couldn’t really have counted on seeing either of them much if ever again, their passing nevertheless makes me sad. I know they are ‘at home with the Lord’. Even so, their death somehow diminishes the world and my own life within it. (John Donne and all that). The world is a poorer place without them.

Well, that news and these verses about turning (back) to God got me to thinking about this beautiful prayer I came across some time ago and rediscovered on Saturday morning. The implied circumstances behind the prayer are different from my own but the references to darkness, to turning, and to the love of God make it irresistible:

When all within is dark,
and former friends misprise;
from them I turn to You,
and find love in Your eyes.
When all within is dark,
and I my soul despise;
from me I turn to You,
and find love in Your eyes.

When all Your face is dark,
and Your just angers rise;
from You I turn to You,
And find love in Your eyes.

Solomon Ibn Gabriol (c. 1021-58); translated by Israel Abrahams in Festival Studies (London: Macmillan, 1906) 100; altrd. and reprinted in Forms of Prayer (Movement for Reform Judaism, 2008), 18.

Mercy trumps judgement

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 35.1–10; Psalm 146.4-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11.

John began to doubt Jesus because he was not living up to his expectations of a messiah. Matthew leaves us in no doubt about his own perception of Jesus’ identity. He tells us that John sent to check up on Jesus ‘when he saw what the Messiah was doing’.

Jesus was teaching disciples and preaching good news and John was confused. He thought that Jesus would bring retribution on the people and here he was giving them another chance. John had preached as if there would be no tomorrow, but Jesus had the long-term in view. Perhaps John felt a bit like Jonah. Both had preached impending doom only to be confronted by the patience and kindness of God.

This does not allow us to dismiss John. His disturbing word will not be silenced. And yet, for some reason he hadn’t sufficiently counted on the mercy of God. Jesus reminded him that healing and helping were more a part of Messiah’s remit than judging and condemning. We are not told whether John got the message but if he was half the prophet Jesus thought he was, then surely he must have. And it is not that Jesus gives up on judgement. Isn’t it more that the self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus judges (and redeems) us like nothing else ever could?

I shall plump for ‘tin’

I am struggling with my sermon for tomorrow. I wanted to talk about the plumb line of Amos 7. 7–8 (I will be using the lectionary texts Amos 7.7–17 and Luke 10.25–37). The problem is that I have become convinced by the argument that the Hebrew word translated ‘plumb line’ should really be rendered ‘tin’. Of course this cannot be found in any English translation. At DBC we use the NRSV which reads:

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by”.

Douglas Stuart translates the same passage in his commentary on Hosea-Jonah (Word Biblical Commentary 31):

This is what (Yahweh) showed me: He was standing on a tin wall and he had some tin in his hand. Yahweh said to me, “What do you see, Amos?” I said, “Tin.” (Yahweh) said, I am going to put tin [moaning] within my people Israel, I will no longer pass him by.”

Perhaps we should use Stuart’s translation for our Old Testament reading and ditch the NRSV this week? Either way, I am plumping for ‘tin’ and hoping I can make it as memorable an image as the plumb line ever would have been. We will see!

The Word became flesh

Happy Christmas to all our readers!

The Bible readings for Christmas day include: Isaiah 52.7–10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1–4 [5–12]; John 1.1–14.   I love the John reading for Christmas morning. Although our all-age service at Didsbury Baptist Church will be light and fun, I will still take a few minutes to read John 1.1–14. For me, it simply would not be Christmas without it.

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.

I think it was William Temple who said, ‘Christianity is the most materialistic of all religions’. He must have had the Incarnation in mind. Through it we learn that God cares about the whole person.

Through the incarnation we  learn what God is like. If you want to know what God is like, they say, take a look at Jesus.

Out of the depths

The Bible readings for Wed 23 December are: Psalm 130; Malachi 2.17 – 3.12; Luke 1.57–66.

Today’s readings are united in the theme of waiting for God or trusting in God. It is the Lord who will redeem Israel (Ps 130), the Lord who will suddenly visit his temple (Malachi), and the Lord who restores the speech of Zechariah (Luke 1).

It is not immediately clear what is envisioned by ‘The Lord will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (Ps 130.8). Clearly, forgiveness is in view. Yet the Hebrew word for ‘iniquity’ also means ‘guilt’, ‘condemnation’ or ‘punishment’. Redemption then may imply a kind of healing of both sinner and sinned-against. It may imply that a time of distress, brought about as a consequence of wrongdoing, is coming to an end and a new chapter opening, much as for Zechariah in the Gospel reading.

This Advent and Christmas, we might ask whether we have been the cause of our own, or someone else’s, distress. Perhaps, this Christmas we can begin to put that right and help to make this Christmas memorable not for family squabbles but for forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps too, we might pray and work for those in our world who long achingly for justice and peace.

The song of Mary

The Bible readings for today are: Psalm 124; Malachi 2.1–16; Luke 1.46–56.

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
(Luke 1.46–55, the Magnificat)

What more can you say?

Freedom indeed

Today’s lectionary readings are: Psalm 76; Zephaniah 1.1 – 2.3; Matthew 17.22–27.

In Matthew 17 we read of Jesus’ response to the question of paying the temple tax. This was collected once a year from every adult male Jew for the maintenance of the Jerusalem temple and its rituals . It seems to be required by the law of Moses (Exodus 30.13–16) but was controversial at the time of Jesus. Apparently, the Essenes argued, against the Pharisees, that the tax was not required by the law (see Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary, 1995, 508–513). Jesus argues that just as the children of a king would be free from tax, so the children of God (Israelites or Jesus’ followers?) are free from the temple tax.  Even so, he pays the tax for himself and Peter so as not to give offense. True freedom, then, is not  freedom to do what you want but freedom to do what is right. It is freedom to act in loving concern for others. This is the kind of freedom Jesus brings; ‘Please help us, Loving God, to live by it’.

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