Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Author: Steven Secker

Epiphany 7 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 5:38-48

38‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

So, we continue with the “Don’t Attitudes” and encounter a couple more challenging ones.

Exodus 21 tells us that if someone is injured by another then the person who has caused the injury should have the same injury caused to him/her. When we take that out of the context of the legal system, with guidance to those sentencing offenders, then we turn a tool of guidance into an opportunity for personal vengeance. Deuteronomy 32 tells us “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord”. That is echoed by the comments of Jesus in this Sermon on the Mount. As followers of the intent of the law, rather than the letter of the law, we should not take upon ourselves any actions, or words, which can be construed as taking the law into our own hands. However bad, inefficient or biassed we may feel the legal system is, we should separate dealing with offenders from dealing with the failures of the legal system. Mahatma Ghandi was, potentially incorrectly, reported to have said that if we follow the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth then we would quickly have a blind and toothless society. Given that a very similar statement was made by a member of the government of Canada in 1914 about his fellow members I have to wonder if the same might not be said following the shenanigans in the Australian Parliament.

Verse 42 reminds me of a story about a woman who wasn’t sure where her next meal would come from because she was so poor. She had attended a meeting on a cold winter evening and was walking home when she came across a old man shivering in the cold for lack of a coat. She gave him hers, thinking that she would soon be home and out of the cold, though still hungry. When she got inside she discovered the table laid out and a nutritious meal ready to serve, with a “Thank you” note. You might have heard variations on this story, but it just shows that when we offer help to those who are begging we might just be offering help to Christ Himself.

That leads nicely into the real challenge for all of us: love your enemy. It comes back to the idea of separating the sinner from the sin. If we separate our “enemies” from what we perceive as things they shouldn’t have done, whether that perception is correct or not, then we can love the person despite the sin. In fact, it’s more important that we love that person if we believe he/she has been misled and fallen into bad ways, because that love may just help to restore a great relationship with God. Unconditional love is hard: I would never claim that it isn’t, but isn’t God unconditionally loving of us – just like a devoted parent loving an errant son or daughter despite the frustration of seeing someone close go ‘off the rails’, and aren’t we all called to do His will? When we say the Lord’s Prayer, do we really mean “Your will be done” even when it conflicts with ours?

Epiphany 6 A

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Matthew 5:21-37

21‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement,” 22but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last cent.

27‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery,” 28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell, 30and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,” 32but I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord”, 34but I say to you, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”, 36and do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Most churches, for Epiphany 4, would have had the “Be Attitudes”. Here we have the “Don’t Attitudes”. If we take this part of the Sermon on the Mount too literally we will never be able to get to the Kingdom of Heaven, so I think a little realism is in order.

Since Jesus told us that He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, what can we glean from these “You have heard it said … but I say” statements?

I take the definition of “murder” as the deliberate taking of another human life. In that context the use of capital punishment for crimes allegedly committed, and there are plenty of cases of people being put to death for crimes they haven’t committed, is also murder, and not only is the one who actually takes a person’s life as a death sentence guilty of murder, those who conspire to put the person to death are accessories to such a crime. Many years ago it was suggested to me that sentencing someone to life in prison without chance of parole was virtually taking that person’s life too. The simple message from Christ is to do good for everyone, not to seek to do harm. He summed that up with His second commandment: “love your neighbour as yourself”. We can love the sinner but hate the sin. When Christ said if you call someone “Fool” you will be liable to hell fire, what would He have thought of His cousin John’s comment “You brood of vipers”? A casual “fool” for missing the obvious is nowhere near as bad as calling people “vipers”. To me it’s clear that Christ is not condemning us for making unpleasant comments to others, but for not trying to reconcile our differences, and for not loving our neighbours, whoever they might be. Sometimes it’s not possible to be reconciled, not because of our own lack of attempts, but because the other person doesn’t want reconciliation, and I know that from personal experience, but trying is essential. Love conquers all, and if we love everyone as we love ourselves then love will eventually win.

Is Christ really telling us that we should pluck out an eye or cut off a hand because we have done something wrong? It doesn’t seem to me to be consistent with the loving Christ I know. Wholesale disfigurement of the body which houses us is unlikely to be what He was seeking from those around Him at the time. What I believe is far more likely is that Jesus was telling us to get rid of the cause of our problems. If men show lust for women (or women for men, if we take out the patriarchal language of the time) then we should address the urge to be intimate and seek to respect the other person. Taking that line makes the following verses far more in line with Christ’s own teaching elsewhere, and thus far more tolerable. Again the message is “love your neighbour as yourself”. Separate the sin from the sinner, and love the latter but not the former. In the time that this passage was written the increase in severity of punishments for the various offences would have been seen as an indication of the damage caused not by being angry, but by harbouring that anger and allowing it to fester.

The old traditional vows used at a marriage ceremony in the Anglican Church included the words “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; till death us do part.” It’s not hard to see marriages around us that have lasted only a short time because of a lack of commitment to one or more of those ideals. Is Jesus actually telling us to honour the commitment to a marriage, rather than make it a convenience measure by which we can get other benefits, and then discard the arrangement? By no stretch of the imagination do I want anyone reading this reflection to think I don’t respect those who have been put through a living hell in a marriage which hasn’t worked, or isn’t working. I don’t think Christ would have condemned anyone in that sort of arrangement, but this statement from Jesus is directed at those who were using divorce as a means of avoiding responsibility.

As to the last of the instructions in this portion of Matthew’s gospel, how many of us have sworn an oath, be that of allegiance, or honesty in a court, or anywhere else? Sometimes we are required to swear an oath. Is the instruction based on an overabundance of oaths being sworn unnecessarily? When I think of all the times I’ve heard people swearing oaths – “cross my heart and hope to die” or any one of many others – often with a sense of “I hope my promise isn’t called into action” – I can see what Jesus was attacking. Make your “yes” actually mean “yes” and make your “no” actually mean “no” without resorting to oaths. That doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds. When we can see that we were wrong in the first place it’s far easier to say “sorry” and change our minds if we haven’t declared our position unmovable by using an oath, and actually accepting that we have been wrong can be quite rewarding.

Epiphany 5 A

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Isaiah 58:1-12

1Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
and to the house of Jacob their sins.

2Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.

3‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.

4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

5Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

11The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

How do we react to this passage from Isaiah? It opens with God giving a response to the people of Israel who have been seeking divine intervention, but the response is far from what the people expect, or want. Ouch! God tells Isaiah to shout out aloud what it is that is keeping the people from God. Isaiah is to make sure the people understand how they have rebelled against God by indulging in practices which they don’t want applied to them. Judah is to be told all about its sins. Lay them bare! Don’t hold back! Scream it from the highest buildings, making the sound of trumpets and reminding everyone of what happened at Jericho – and that’s just the start of this passage.

God is not happy. Day after day the people have been seeking God’s work, but God can see the hypocrisy of their cries. He ridicules their professed righteousness and their claim that they are following His words when the reality is far from that. They seek God’s righteous judgements but probably wouldn’t recognise one if it hit them in the face, such is their obsession with anything else.

It’s all too easy to despatch this to the chronicals of history and the misdemeanours of the Israelite people to whom Isaiah is writing, but this should sound alarm bells for us in the 21st century. How often do our church practices go through the motions of being worship of God when all we want to do is be seen, recite a few words without thinking about them, have communion, then leave? How often do our personal practices put us front and centre and ignore those who are worse off than us?

Emphasising the point, God repeats back to the people some of their complaints, then, as with a judge talking to a persistent complainer, says “Listen here. Shut up. Pay attention to where you have gone wrong, instead of complaining.” It may not be fasting. It could be unwarranted criticisms, or an unwillingness to listen to another person’s opinions. The efforts, claimed to be part of their worship of God, are for their own benefit only. Is that God’s way. Paul would say “me geneto” (God forbid, not on my watch or over my dead body). We need to look at our practices and see if they really are focussed on worshipping God. Is what we are doing, as a church, really acceptable to God?

As if that emphasis isn’t enough, God tells us what He really wants us to do, and everything in that list – which, of course, is nothing like exhaustive but a good start – is a challenge to us. How can we “loose the bonds of injustice”; how can we “undo the thongs of the yoke”; how can we “let the oppressed go free”; and how can we “break ANY yoke”? I invite you to reread verse 7 and ask yourself “Do I?”

Only when we do what God is calling on us to do will the path to reconcilliation with Him begin to be visible. THEN shall your light break forth, and your healing spring up. THEN we shall call and the Lord will answer. This isn’t Deuteronomistic writing: it’s not do good and be blessed but do poorly and be punished. This is all about our focus on God’s kingdom, not on our own. If we stop finger-pointing and condemning people with our words, and start looking after every other child of God, then our needs, note needs not wants, will be satisfied, and our ruins – consider how well attended churches were 50 years ago as an example – will be restored.

If we remember that the worship of money is the root of much evil, then should we not be pushing for more action to reduce the human contribution to climate change, and to look at better ways of protecting those most likely to be affected, such as people in coutries which will literally disappear under water if we don’t make every effort to reverse our pollution of the atmosphere?

We can all contribute, even as individuals, in bringing the people of God back to God. I invite you to ask yourself: what am I going to do?; when am I going to do it?; and what help do I need to achieve that aim?

Epiphany 4 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Micah 6:1-8
1Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with His people,
and He will contend with Israel.
3‘O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’

6‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

My first thought, when reading this passage from Micah for today’s reflection, was that God is angry with the church of today for losing sight of what He had done for it over thousands of years. We only have to think of the public scandals, such as sexual misconduct, failure to protect children, and taking scripture out of context for our own benefit, to see that much is not right with our institutional response to God.

The first five verses are a display of God’s righteous anger towards His chosen flock, for all too easily following ways which have taken them from Him. Here is an appeal to the Hebrew people to remember what happened in the past when they strayed, and what happened when they returned their focus to God. Putting that in the context of today’s world, are we paying attention to the lessons which should have been learned from the Royal Commission into Institutional Respose to Child Sexual Abuse? Are we looking at other situations in which we might find ourselves complicit in activity which goes against God’s teaching. I am reminded of Matthew 28:19, which is often quoted to those who have offered themselves for ordination and been rejected. What is too frequently used to imply that people feel called but God, in the guise of the church, has not chosen them, but what if we read this quip from Jesus as many are called by God, but few are chosen by the humans who run the institution, with their own prerequisites in mind?

When we shift to verses 5-7 we get a bemused response from those who have been listening to God’s complaint. In the time of this writing it was common to build an altar and offer an animal as a sacrifice to God, but here the response is ‘it appears we have stuffed more significantly than before, so let’s increase the number of animals we might offer.’ The response even goes so far as to offer offspring from the offender, as if that will cure the problem. Jesus would later tell us that there is no need for burnt offerings, just a commitment to living with God instead of trying to live without Him.

I hear the cry “not again. Why do I have to tell them this so many times?” in the reply given in verse 8. “He has told you, mortal …” and yet they have not been listening, or have forgotten their commitment. Yet again we have the instruction which will bring us closer to God, if we are willing to listen and act. We, yes we in the 21st century, are to act with justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. What does that really mean for us, today?

If we act with justice we will see that rules at all levels are applied the same for everyone, not a privileged few or those in power; we will see that genuine refugees are not kept in detention centres for no more of a crime than fleeing repressive régimes; we will see that people in need are helped, rather than blame them for their predicament; we will respect the wisdom and experience of everyone, especially those who don’t have political status; and we will stand up for justice everywhere. That’s a tough call.

If we love kindness we will follow its example, and will do what we can to make life better for those around us. Do we give enough of our excesses to the poor and needy? Do we offer people transport when we can easily do so (or do we commute into the city one person to a car)? Do we consider suggestions from people outside our group, or reject them because we know better? When we invaded the Great South Land in 1788 did we treat the long-term residents of the land as intelligent people who could teach us things, or do we treat them as unintelligent savages because they didn’t understand our language and had no guns to kill each other? Kindness goes hand in hand with respect. That’s tough too!

If we want to walk humbly with God we need to remember what it means to be humble. It’s not about being compliant; it’s not about being submissive; it’s about letting God have responsibility for what He has done, instead of trying to take credit for things ourelves. It’s also about letting others work with God and not claiming it’s our role to do everything. Many are called, by God, but few are chosen my mortals because they have their own agendas to consider. I suspect we all fall into that trap on a frequent basis, but how often do we reflect on our failings?

Of course, being a Christian does not mean being perfect. The only perfect human who walked this earth lived for less than 40 years nearly 2000 years ago. Jesus told us that the first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength, and a second is like it: we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. A group which meets regularly in the parish I attend has some cups with the motto: “Try. Fail, Learn. Repeat” I recommend it to everyone.

If you are interested in the reflection on the gospel passage for Epiphany 4 (The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12) see

Epiphany 3 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 27

1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

4One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

5For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

6Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

8‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek.

9Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

10If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

11Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

12Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

13I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

14Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Depending on the denomination you associate with, there are various selections of verses from this psalm, so I have chosen to take the whole of it, which is actually according to the Roman Catholic lectionary. I think the reasons will become obvious.

This psalm appears to be two separate songs put together, with verses 1-6 being a celebration of the relationship between the writer and God, and verses 7-14 being an appeal to God for intervention, but I think these are deliberately together, either put there by the writer or by the editors of the texts when they were finally put in written form.

As a Christian I’m quite happy to declare that “The Lord is my light and my salvation” because my trust in the Lord has allowed me to see many things that I wouldn’t have seen, and be saved from situations in which I would descend into depression or self-pity, or allow my life to be dictated by bad things that have happened. Instead, I quite often see, in my own life and in those of others, that God can take something bad and turn it into something good. In that context what, and who, do I have to fear? There is nothing that should cause me to be disheartened for more than a short time.

As the psalmist puts it “when evil doers assail me … they shall stumble and fall.” So, even if the evil which I encounter is perpetrated on a continuing basis, I can be confident that God will win in the end, and the strength that I gain from my relationship with Him will keep me going in the meantime. The concept of an army encamping around me shouldn’t be taken as a military force, armed with weapons of mass destruction, but any group of people who don’t agree with me, or don’t like my presence. As a meteorologist with many years’ experience, I get frustrated by people dclaring that human influence on our climate is too insignificant to have any serious impact, when I see the reality as a straw that breaks a camel’s back, or a snowflake that breaks a limb of a tree. Even then, I am confident that God will save us from the self-destruction which awaits us if we try to save the economy at the expense of the environment in which we live.

How often do we Christians speak words such as “I will seek to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” and then do plenty of things which take us away from the Lord? God isn’t asking us to give up our work and spend every moment of the day in church, but to use our time in the outside world to take ‘the house of the Lord’ to other people. We should live as if God matters to us, not as those who turn up to church on a Sunday and leave as soon as they’ve been seen to be attending. With our heads lifted high with confidence in our relationship with God we can sing praises and make melody (and preferably harmony) to the Lord.

Having sung of our love of God, the importance of that relationship, and the strength we gain from it, we turn to the reality of the world around us. It’s very easy to despair when things appear not to be going well, and not seeing any action on God’s part. It’s also very easy for us to think a particular approach is the best solution, when God thinks otherwise and so does not support it.

On the cross, Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Christ’s humanity reduced him to a cry of being forsaken, how much easier is it for us, without the knowledge of what is to happen, to feel abandoned in a time of need? This is why what appears to be two songs are together. We have declared our allegiance to God, and our confidence that we will be protected, so we can face those daunting times knowing that God is still looking after us. We have to tackle the problems which are put before us, confident that good will prevail in the face of evil, and accepting that God’s timing is not ours.

Let us, then, “wait for the Lord” and let our hearts take courage that the Lord will prevail. That, however, doesn’t mean we should be sitting idle as we wait. There is work to be done, and God is calling us to do that work as part of providing salvation.

Epiphany 2 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

John 1:29-42

29One day John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I, myself, did not know him; but I came baptising with water for this reason, that He might be revealed to Israel.’ 32John testified: ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.” 34I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, He said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where He was staying, and they remained with Him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

The fourth gospel doesn’t pretend to be a historical document, setting out the events of Christ’s life for us to follow. For that we must be eternally thankful as there are numerous contradictions and inconsistencies with other passages of scripture. It has often been said that The Bible is “The Word of God.” I would add “as perceived (mostly) by men, and written for men, in a patriarchal society”. History is nearly always written by the victors in battles, not the losers, so we should not be surprised by, or put off by, errors of fact and distortions or interpretations in writings of fallible human beings.

John was a cousin of Jesus, and would have grown up knowing him and interacting with him. I know my cousins to a certain extent but might be surprised by an approach from any one of them. To me, that is what is meant when John declares that he did not know Jesus. What we have here is a declaration of what John (the Baptist, not the gospel writer) saw at Jesus’ baptism, and there is no statement from God. Does it matter? No! Again, it’s not a historical document, but a theological one. It’s far more important that we recognise Jesus for who He is, and for what He does. Jesus is Son of God, human and divine.

It may sound like semantics, but when we declare, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus became “truly human” we are only getting part of the point here. As a man, Jesus was truly human in every aspect, but when we look more closely at His actions and His way of thinking we must surely recognise that there was more to His humanity than Him being male. Considering Him ‘truly human’ because He was male denies the humanity of women. Time and again through scripture we have feminine images associated with God. If we say “fully human” we encompass those aspects of humanity which we normally link to women, without implying that Christ was a woman. Let’s not forget, too, that men and women were both made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27 – “God created mankind in His own image … male and female He created them”) so every aspect of being feminine is also an aspect of being human.

Translation is important when we want to convey an image. Tell the highlanders of Papua New Guinea that Jesus is “the Lamb of God” and you would get a blank stare because sheep are unknown in the area, so the image immediately fails. Talking of “the Pig of God” might work for them but not for us. To the disciples of John, “Lamb of God” would have been significant enough for them to want to follow Jesus, and that is what both Johns are seeking here.

Matthew 4:18, which we will read on 26th January, says that Jesus found Simon and Andrew casting their nets together, rather than Andrew being a disciple of John and then finding his brother Simon. It also jars a bit, here, that we are told Andrew’s brother was Simon Peter before Christ named Simon ‘Cephas’ – pronounced Kee-fass, but it’s not important. What is important is that they both left what they were doing to follow Christ. How often are we willing to do that?

Are we prepared to drop everything and follow in the footsteps of Christ? Are we so pre-occupied with doing things, like Martha, that we aren’t prepared to sit and listen to God speaking to us, like Mary? Are we prepared to do the hard things God wants us to do, or do we find reasons to refuse – like those who declined invitations to a wedding banquet? The Lamb of God was sacrificed for us so let us give thanks to God, and listen to Him.

If you are interested in the reflection on the passage from Isaiah set for Epiphany 2, see

Baptism of Christ (Year A)

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Matthew 3:13-17

13Jesus came from Galilee to John, at the Jordan, to be baptised by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘You come to me even though it is I who need to be baptised by you?’ 15but Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented. 16When Jesus had been baptised, just as He came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him, 17and a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

One day, when I was walking between lectures associated with my theology degree, and talking to three of the college lecturers, I mentioned something which they hadn’t really considered seriously. Scholars are almost unanimous in claiming that Mark’s gospel was written first, and that Matthew and Luke had a copy of it when they were writing their own. Mark’s gospel is generally dated around AD65, more than 30 years after Christ’s crucifixion. The details of what happened after Christ was baptised, as given to us in Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17, and Luke 3:21-22 are too close to not have been copied. The “aha” moment was when I commented that acceptance of the pre-eminence of Mark really means we have only one story of the baptism of Christ, repeated by Matthew and Luke.

John was a cousin of Jesus, born of Mary’s sister Elizabeth, and would have grown up knowing Jesus quite well, so he would have known that his own role in life was to point to Christ as the Messiah, one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. My adjustment to the text of the NSRV makes the point clearer: John didn’t think he was worthy of being the one to baptise Christ and wanted the roles reversed, but that wouldn’t have fulfilled the scriptures which have often been quoted. Some translations render the end of verse 15 as “then he consented”. Given that Jesus was the last person mentioned, that implies that Jesus consented, whereas the Greek is quite clear that the meaning of the verse is that John consented. The grammar is critical. We should be very careful about quoting any translation from the original language as if it were totally correct. The situation is complicated by having a number of old manuscripts with differences, but not having the originals available to us.

The image of the heavens opening, and a dove, a common symbol of peace – though doves together are far from peaceful – coming down from heaven and landing on Christ, is common to all three synoptic gospels. Whether we render the Greek as “with whom I am well pleased”, “in whom I take delight” or something similar, the question arises: to whom is the comment directed? There were many people gathered round, and waiting for an opportunity to confess their sins, and be baptised, and there were those whom John had called a “brood of vipers”. Yes, this message from God was intended for those who were present, either as encouragement for believers or warning for the authorities, but if we remember that the story was written well after the event the irony of such a statement being made to both groups of people should not be lost on us. Jesus is well known for attacking the status quo, and showing up the religious authorities for their misguided actions and teachings, often designed to elevate their own status, rather than focus on God. Are we – that’s ALL of us – listening?

We might well ask why a divine and sinless Christ needed to be baptised at all. I have already mentioned fulfillment of scriptures, but there is another, significant, aspect to the story. Christ’s early life has shown his status as one sent by God, whose mission is attested by the Wise Men – taking Matthew’s gospel story as is – supported by scripture and proclaimed by John. The baptism is the start of His earthly ministry, now that He is beyond childhood and its distractions, and is an opportunity for God to affirm, for everyone, who Christ is.

Epiphany (Year A)

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Ephesians 3:1-12

1I, Paul, who, for the sake of you Gentiles am now a prisoner of Christ Jesus, pray for you, 2for surely you have heard how God’s gift of grace to me was for your benefit, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation. I have already written you a brief account of this, 4and by reading it you can see that I understand the mystery of Christ. 5In former generations that mystery was not disclosed to mankind, but now, by inspiration, it has been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets 6that, through the gospel, the Gentiles are joint heirs with the Jews, part of the same body, and sharers together in the promise made in Christ Jesus.
7This is the gospel of which I was made a minister by God’s unmerited gift, so powerfully at work within me. 8I am less than the least of all God’s people, but to me He has granted the privilege of proclaiming to the Gentiles the good news of the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9and bringing to light how this hidden purpose was to be put into effect. It lay concealed for long ages with God the creator of the universe 10in order that now, through the church, the wisdom of God, in its infinite variety, might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. 11This accords with His age-long purpose, which is accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we all have freedom of access to God, with the confidence born of trust in him.

Text ©The Revised English Bible, alt, published by Oxford and Cambridge University Press and used with permission.

The Greek word “Epiphany” could be translated as “manifestation”, or, better for us in considering this passage, “a sudden and great revelation.” Though this contribution from Paul is used every year when we celebrate the epiphany of Christ, with the arrival of the wise men in Matthew’s gospel, we might remember Paul’s own epiphany on the road to Damascus. I can’t imagine what happened that day, for Saul/Paul, but it must have been far more than an imagined encounter. Saul, the persecutor of Christians, became Paul, the bringer of the good news of Jesus Christ, and particularly including the gentiles in the collection of people who could be called to be ‘the church.’

For me, Paul is so transformed by his experience on that road that he is willing to do anything to spread the word and show that everyone is welcome in the House of God, not just the Jews. Throughout the centuries of Jewish worship there was a sense that the Jews were the chosen people, and that no-one else had any claim to be part of God’s kingdom. From the time of his conversion, in stark contrast to before it, Paul always was the humble man, and always made it clear that he was the messenger carrying the good news from God to anyone who would listen. How could anyone not listen to this man who had been so transformed and energised? Unfortunately, though many people heard Paul speak, or heard his letters being read, many of them refused to listen to Paul – note the difference between hearing and listening; many have refused over the following centuries to listen; and many still refuse to listen to him today.

As a grammar adviser, when I considered this passage in the New Revised Standard Version my blood began to boil as I read about the mystery not being disclosed to ‘humankind.’ The English word ‘mankind’ has never had a meaning other than generic, so there is no reason for us to add ‘hu’ to it.

As the least of all God’s people – his claim, not mine – and the perpetrator of much trauma in the early Christian community, it could only be by the grace of God that Paul received his commission to spread his new-found understanding of what God had been about for a long time, and what the Jews had been ignoring for far too long.

Paul’s stress on the infinite variety of those who are part of God’s kingdom has hardly ever been recognised as requiring significant change to the way we treat each other. People who are different are still part of the kingdom; people who speak, dress, or think differently are welcomed by God; but do we welcome them? Following an incident in an Australian parish some years ago, one astute young person noted that “the church will never grow while they keep kicking people out.” Grammatically, the ‘they’ has to refer to people controlling aspects of the church, or the comment would have been “… it keeps kicking people out.” Paul’s description of rulers and authorities can include anyone who has power or authority to discharge their responsibilities, whether in the church or outside of it, and it effectively extends to all of us who have any contact with people making early enquiries about the nature of our faith, visitors to our parishes, or those seeking a new spiritual home. Many parishes I know have mission statements which say they are inclusive and non-discriminatory, but would a new person with some form of difference agree with us? The answer might hurt, but the truth will set us free.

Christmas 1 (Year A)

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Psalm 148

1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
2Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
4Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
5Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
6He established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
8fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
10Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
12Young men and women alike, old and young together!
13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
14He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord!

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

I was talking to my son, recently, about words we have adopted straight into English, from other languages, and here we have one of many. The Hebrew words pronounced something like Hallelu Yah are translated here is “Praise the Lord.” Next time you hear someone exclaim “Hallelujah” (in any of its written or spoken variants) it might be good to ask yourself if that person actually knows that he or she is declaring praise to God. In Australian society it is common to be thankful for the Christmas holiday period, whether or not someone is an active Christian. Why are we so afraid to say “Happy Christmas” (or “Merry Christmas”) when so many of us a thankful for the time of year – even if it is because we get days off work or extra pay? We don’t have a problem saying “Happy New Year”, and Christmas, to non-Christians, should be no worse than acknowledging that the holidays are a result of Christian worship. There is no call to member of other faiths to attend Christian services – though we’d be happy for them to do so if they so choose.

Only a few days ago I had the pleasure of attending a Christmas Carol service with the Tamil community which worships every week in our church hall. There were two things it was virtually impossible to miss: the celebration, and the desire to make a joyful noise for the Lord. That event was the epitome of taking to heart the words of Psalm 148. Every sentence in this Hebrew hymn is steeped in praise. It calls on us to celebrate, to have fun, to make a joyful noise, to let our hair down, just like the little boy, at that Tamil service, who was so young he had to be held up by his father as he sang praises to God.

When we sing “Hallelujah”, in the Anglican church at least, there is some sense of enjoyment, and worship of God, but when we sing, or worse, say, “Praise the Lord” it is often hard to get any sense of people doing more than reading words. That can, of course, be amplified when our songs of praise are taken too slowly, as I have heard many times over the 50 years I’ve been involved in church music.

I’m reminded of a story told by one of my theology lecturers when he visited Scotland. He noted that there were no musical instruments in a particular church, and was told “it’s OK for the Church of England, and the Church of Rome, but not in The House of God”. To be fair, though, that church had a fine reputation for unaccompanied singing. They didn’t need trumpets, lutes, harps, timbrels, strings, pipes, or cymbals (Ps 150), just the voices of the people as they sang (hopefully) joyfully to the Lord.

Psalm 148 makes it abundantly clear that God created everything, and everything should be praising God. Just as we find it hard to be thankful and offer praise when we are abused, how does the earth respond to God with praise when we plunder it for our own short-term gains, and don’t act as good stewards? Jesus came into the world, not to condemn the world, but that we might have fullness of life. He came to encourage us to focus again on worshipping God, not money or power, and His life was an example of His praise for God.

When we read scriptures in church, and when we sing songs and hymns in celebration of Christ’s coming do we “put our whole selves in and shake them all about” as if we really mean what we are saying, listening to, or singing, or are the words far too familiar and so we just rattle them off as we make moves to mark yet another all-too-commercialised Christmas season?

Our Jewish friends participate in the celebration of the Passover as if the event were happening there and then, in their own lives. It is a living experience. What would it be like for us Christians if we considered Christ’s birth as a living experience and really let go of our inhibitions as we “Praise the Lord”?

Advent 4 (Year A)

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Psalm 80

1Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth 2before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! 3Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 4O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? 5You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. 6You make us the scorn of our neighbours; our enemies laugh among themselves.

7Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 17But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. 18Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. 19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

Many have said that the mainstream churches are in crisis. Declining attendances and an unwillingness to stand up against moves in society to devalue Christianity and expect people not to attend any church would seem to support that idea. There is a sense, in the Anglican, Roman and Uniting Churches, that we don’t know what to do to stem the tide. We look at some of the mega-churches, seeing the numbers of new people going to them (and ignoring, or not being aware of, the numbers leaving at the same time) and wonder what we can do.

Psalm 80 is one of a number of corporate lament psalms – and the psalms were, for the people of the day, their hymn book – looking at how the community was suffering, wondering why it was suffering, and seeking God’s help to stop that suffering. Though we only see part of this psalm we get the refrain in verses 3, 7 and 19, appealing to God for restoration of the good relationship they used to have with Him.

We are reminded about God’s influence, in Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and how that divine influence brought about good fortune for Joseph’s family, and eventually the return of the Hebrew people from Egypt. The call goes out for God’s power to be used to save the people.

Is the problem in the mainstream churches today because we have forgotten to focus on God, and what we are expected to do when we give ourselves in worship? We are about to celebrate the birthday of Our Lord. Forget the undeniable fact that the 25th of December isn’t the actual birthdate of Christ: that’s not important. What is important is that when we go to a birthday party we expect to take gifts for the person whose birthday it is, not for others. Over our lives have we gone to this birthday party and held a significant part of us back from God? Have we grown up with a mentality that this is a commemoration of an event in the distant past and not the opportunity to give ourselves to God afresh, as if Christ were born into a stable physically near us, and we visit Him in 2019?

Are we actually prepared for God to answer our petition to restore us, to let His face shine upon us, and save us? What if that petition is answered with “you need to change this part of you” or “what about dealing with this situation?” Far too often we pray for something to happen and fail to observe that God has done something different, for the same benefit.

How easy is it for us to put the blame on God for being angry about the content of our prayers instead of looking at what we are demanding from God? Is it God who feeds us tears, or are we inflicting that on ourselves because we don’t want to listen to the message?

One of the things I love about scripture is that God can intend a message to be received by a people who had not yet been born, as well as by the people for whom it was originally written – and that message can be different! Christians might think of “the one at your right hand” as Christ, and that may be a valid interpretation for us, but it certainly wasn’t the intended meaning for the people of the day. In that case it was the whole community, wanting to be restored to a good relationship with the divine entity. We have to laugh at the claim that “we will never turn back from you” given the evidence of frequent excursions from the way God has given us – and we still do the same today.

The cry of the refrain gets louder as it gets repeated: “O God”, “O God of hosts”, “O Lord God of hosts”. The cry is sincere, but were the people listening?

Are we prepared for what God wants us to do to restore our relationship with Him?

Advent 3 (Year A)

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Isaiah 35:1-10

1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart: ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’ 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

Just as hope is the recurrent theme of readings leading up to Christmas, Isaiah gives us a sense of hope for an exiled community. When we take a simple reading from scripture, and read it in isolation in our churches, we miss the connection, or disconnection in this case, with the surrounding text. This message of hope comes amid others of despair. Why? I think it’s important that even in our darkest hours we can hear the hope of a future which will restore us to a good relationship with God. Give thanks to God in all circumstances. If you break a leg, give thanks to God; if someone close to you dies, give thanks to God; if you’ve just won a major lottery, give thanks to God; if you have a child with disabilities, give thanks to God; if you lose your job, give thanks to God. Why? Because God doesn’t give us a challenge we cannot meet when we put our minds to it and trust Him to help us, and what you will receive can be a far greater reward than you might expect – just don’t expect to see the reward in a time-frame set by you. In this instant-gratification era that’s hard, I know, but it’s what God calls us to do.

Some commentators believe this passage appears too early in Isaiah for it to be in its original position. This is a passage which appears before people would expect to hear it. Absolutely fantastic! Of course it’s earlier than people would expect. That’s precisely what God has intended. Isaiah is showing us that we need to speak up against what is wrong in this world, and speak with hope for a future where we can live peacefully with others. This passage tells us that we should not wait for ’the right time’ because the right time might never come.

The message in this passage is not directed at anyone in particular, and there is no time reference which would allow us to stick it at some point in history and forget the implications of the message. No, the message applies to everyone, everywhere, in every age, including Australians in 2019! We should help the weak, those who are downhearted and fearful of the consequences of their actions because God will deal with the oppressors. We don’t have to be concerned about them. Let go and let God!

Whenever I read the next few verses I can’t help but start to sing from Handel’s Messiah. Remember the quote from last week’s reflection: ‘there are none so blind as those who will not see’? Does it matter, in terms of the message from Isaiah, if those who are literally blind do not see, when the message which Christ brought as well was that we need to be willing to open our eyes to what is happening around us, and to act. The lame can leap, the dumb can ‘sing’ and the deaf can hear when God’s message is shown in our lives. We will find what we haven’t been able to see, even though it has always been there, new life will spring forth because we are charged by the power of God – as Christians we would say by the Holy Spirit – and we will live protected from the evil ways of oppressors.

Trust God unconditionally. Do not wait for the right time to pass on messages of hope and an opportunity to redirect our ways so that we listen to God, rather than human ways of thinking, which are all-too-often self-centred, power greedy, worshipping money, and trying to stop people spreading the Good News.

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, so let’s prepare the way for the Lord, let’s make a straight path through the wilderness around us for the Son of God, and let’s challenge ourselves with the question “What would Christ do in my circumstances?”

Advent 2 (Year A)

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Romans 15:4-13

4Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name’;
10and again he says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
11and again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him’;
12and again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

©Mission Venture Ministries

Earlier in Romans, Paul had been trying to get together those who were adamant that scriptural teaching had to be adhered to for all time, and those who had a more liberal approach, that it was guidance, and circumstances could change. Even though Paul has been, for many centuries, held in high regard as a teacher of the gospel and an apostle for Christ, we still have the same problem today. We listen to such readings, but do we hear the message? Evidence suggests we don’t! What was written was for our instruction. Jews and Christians in the first century AD essentially had only the Hebrew Scriptures as their guide. Those scriptures were passed on orally for centuries before being committed to writing, and the context was changed to fit the circumstances in which the story was being told. There was no intent for the scriptures to be a rule book by which life must be directed and constrained, but they were to be used to guide people in the way God wanted them to go at the time. Certain foods, if not prepared or stored properly, caused illnesses and death, but as we learned how to protect ourselves from the reasons for those illnesses we found the constraint no longer had any relevance. For those whose lives were not the best, being forced to keep to a regimen that was oppressive or dangerous would certainly not have given any sense of hope, which is what Paul wants us to get from his writings.

If the message of Christ’s Good News was recognised then the Romans would be able to live in harmony with each other despite their differences. It was not important whether a house church adhered to a liberal or a conservative approach provided the focus was on the gospel, on the hope that the gospel brings, and on bringing others to Christ. Reading this passage as guidance for us in the 21st century, we are to worship in whatever ways we find acceptable when we proclaim the gospel, as if we are all together. Some people like traditional services and will be turned off, or will leave the church if required to have contemporary prayers and songs; others prefer the contemporary and are turned off by the traditional, but we can all live as Christians and praise God both together and in our own ways.

How often do we welcome others as we might expect Jesus to welcome us? Is that false smile a give-away that we really don’t want our established way of being challenged? Is the group discussion with friends going to encourage new people to stay? Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees, who had persecuted Christians before his conversion, is determined to get across his message that Christ’s message is for everyone, not just for the Jews. Yes, He came as a Jew, but that doesn’t limit who is called into eternal life by welcoming Christ into their lives.

There is hope in this world if those with blinkered views can accept the challenge of opening their eyes – remember the saying ‘there are none so blind as those who WILL not see’ – and accepting everyone without judgement and without negativity.Earlier in Romans, Paul had been trying to get together those who were adamant that scriptural teaching had to be adhered to for all time, and those who had a more liberal approach, that it was guidance, and circumstances could change. Even though Paul has been, for many centuries, held in high regard as a teacher of the gospel and an apostle for Christ, we still have the same problem today. We listen to such readings, but do we hear the message? Evidence suggests we don’t! What was written was for our instruction. Jews and Christians in the first century AD essentially had only the Hebrew Scriptures as their guide. Those scriptures were passed on orally for centuries before being committed to writing, and the context was changed to fit the circumstances in which the story was being told. There was no intent for the scriptures to be a rule book by which life must be directed and constrained, but they were to be used to guide people in the way God wanted them to go at the time. Certain foods, if not prepared or stored properly, caused illnesses and death, but as we learned how to protect ourselves from the reasons for those illnesses we found the constraint no longer had any relevance. For those whose lives were not the best, being forced to keep to a regimen that was oppressive or dangerous would certainly not have given any sense of hope, which is what Paul wants us to get from his writings.

If the message of Christ’s Good News was recognised then the Romans would be able to live in harmony with each other despite their differences. It was not important whether a house church adhered to a liberal or a conservative approach provided the focus was on the gospel, on the hope that the gospel brings, and on bringing others to Christ. Reading this passage as guidance for us in the 21st century, we are to worship in whatever ways we find acceptable when we proclaim the gospel, as if we are all together. Some people like traditional services and will be turned off, or will leave the church if required to have contemporary prayers and songs; others prefer the contemporary and are turned off by the traditional, but we can all live as Christians and praise God both together and in our own ways.

How often do we welcome others as we might expect Jesus to welcome us? Is that false smile a give-away that we really don’t want our established way of being challenged? Is the group discussion with friends going to encourage new people to stay? Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees, who had persecuted Christians before his conversion, is determined to get across his message that Christ’s message is for everyone, not just for the Jews. Yes, He came as a Jew, but that doesn’t limit who is called into eternal life by welcoming Christ into their lives.

There is hope in this world if those with blinkered views can accept the challenge of opening their eyes – remember the saying ‘there are none so blind as those who WILL not see’ – and accepting everyone without judgement and without negativity.

Advent 1 (Year A)

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Isaiah 2:1‑5

1The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning‑hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

I don’t think it does justice to the text to limit the meaning of this passage to Judah and Jerusalem on the basis that they are mentioned, and nowhere else is, because scripture talks to us wherever we are, and in our own time. Isaiah was writing for people to whom, for many, Judah and Jerusalem meant the known world. As with much of the world in that era, the people were obsessed with hatred, fear, and the threat of wars. That should ring alarm bells for those of us in Australia, where violence and intolerance, based on religion and cultural differences, are well attested, and where the national government is determined to become a leading arms exporter. Recent censuses in Australia have shown a declining number of people who openly claim to be religious, so is there an underlying unwillingness to turn to God – by whatever name the deity is known – to find a resolution which is good for everyone? We have become a self-centred society in which God is often thought of as meaningless. If in doubt, just look at the number of pedestrians who can’t get their eyes off smart-phones connected to the internet, or look at those whose driving shows contempt for other road users. Thoughts and prayers for those whose lives have been thrown into turmoil because of early-season bush fires influenced by a drying and warming climate have been seen as tokenism when real action has been demanded. The problem with rich man stories in scripture isn’t the actual wealth but the focus on making money for self-interest. Those of us who long for a return to worshipping God can be encouraged by this word from Isaiah, suggesting that the house of the Lord will be established as the place to go, even if we feel it doesn’t stand a chance right now. Let us remember that ANYTHING is possible with God.

At some time in the (hopefully) not-too-distant-future people will begin to realise that what we have been fed for many years, and what we have been denied the chance to investigate, is what we really need to bring true peace to the world. If we sing “I was overjoyed, when they said ‘Come with us to the House of the Lord'” we need to be prepared to be challenged in the way we address people who are different from us in some way. One quote I often use is that if the governments of the world spent half of their defence budgets on cultural exchange programmes then there would be no more wars. The way to be a civilised society is not to engage in war, or provide others with the tools of war, but to work together, and to let God be the arbiter in any disputes. Our ‘tools of war’ need not be the usual weapons of guns and bombs, because our words are often ‘tools of war’. How often do we try to undermine someone else because “I’m right and you’re wrong”?

What does it mean, for us, if we are to let God teach us His ways, that we may walk in His paths, not ours? I have no doubt that we will all be faced with accepting that our behaviour in some circumstances is far from responsible, and that we have to look at issues as if through the eyes of someone with whom we vehemently disagree, but that it precisely what God wants us to do. When we accept the challenge we will walk in the light of the Lord.

6th August 2017 (Transfiguration)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

We often think of the transfiguration as a one-off historical event, but by doing that do we exclude the chance that others have been transfigured as they follow in the footsteps of Christ?

Mark 9:2‑10

2Jesus took Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. He was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4There appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, He ordered them to tell no-one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, 10so they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

It doesn’t make sense for this story to be anywhere other than in the second half of Christ’s ministry on earth, and certainly not before the temptations, which marked the beginning of His ministry, and which were the subject of the gospel reading on the first Sunday in Lent. Jesus chose three of the disciples in whom He felt He could trust, so, given His humanity, it could not have been at the beginning of the ministry, and there were too many other things happening close to the end of His earthly life. Why did he choose three? Why these three?

Playing favourites is always likely to result in human dissatisfaction and ill-feeling, so I find it hard to accept that Christ would engage in such activity, but the way Peter is often portrayed in the gospels and Christ’s comment that he would be the rock on which the church would be built do suggest that He had big things in mind for Peter, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be one of the chosen ones. In Mark’s gospel we aren’t told which James and which John were with Him on that mountain. Were these James and John sons of Zebedee, whose mother asked for them to be seated at Christ’s right and left? Matthew’s rendition of the story does say that they were brothers, but that could well have been a Matthean addition to the Marcan text he had available to him. Was John “the beloved disciple” who inspired the fourth gospel? Possibly. I don’t know the answer, and I haven’t come across any commentaries which have considered that part of the story effectively. With an event such as the transfiguration about to occur Jesus would have taken enough witnesses to make description of the hard-to-explain occurrence a little more believable. Normally two witnesses would be considered sufficient in the context, but this calls for more.

For those of us used to thinking of mountains and mountaineers, going up a high mountain would be like climbing Everest, or Mont Blanc, or Kosciuszko, but to those in biblical times climbing a high mountain represented getting closer to God, and the higher the mountain the closer you would be to God. Here we have Jesus and three disciples close to God in more ways than Peter, James and John imagined.

Matthew and Luke both describe the transfiguration as Christ’s face changing, in Matthew shining like the sun, and his clothes becoming a brilliant white. We would do well to see that transformation as an indication that Christ was doing God’s work, and we should try to emulate Jesus in that regard. Let’s not believe that such a transformation only occurred once, on that mountain: I have heard, from devout Christians in 20th and 21st century Australia, reports of similar experiences, and I’m sure they are not the only ones.

Peter, however, was blinded by the light of this vision, became fearful, and wanted to build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – representatives of the law and the prophets, rather than seeing the world around him lit up by the heavenly presence. If we were in Peter’s shoes and see someone transfigured, would we be scared and want to put away that experience rather than embracing it? In Anglican communion services in Australia the Two Great Commandments statement used to end with “on these two laws hang all the law and the prophets”, but it seems Moses and Elijah have lost their importance.

Jesus didn’t have to answer Peter’s request to build tents because the cloud of unknowing enveloped all of them, and God spoke the same words as were reported at His baptism – they are identical in the Greek, but translated differently – and adds that we should listen to Him. Elijah had already come and the people had rejected his message. Now it was time for the message to be heard, to be inwardly digested, and to become part of our lives. In the comfort of a relatively safe society, with freedom to practise whatever religion we desire, do we actually hear God’s word, or do we just listen to the sounds and not let them transform our comfort?

Having given these three disciples an experience of a life-time Jesus ordered them to keep quiet about what they saw and experienced until after His resurrection, though the disciples were yet to understand what that would be like. We have no such requirement. Indeed, we should be proclaiming the risen Christ as Lord for the benefit of all people. Of course, that’s not going to be easy in a community which is focussed so much on the mistreatment of young people by a very small minority of church leaders across the board. We have allowed the bad apples in the barrel to condemn all the good ones because we have failed to denounce the actions of those who undermine the Good News – some would call them false prophets – and to highlight the good work of the vast majority.

Let us all have an experience where we see the transfigured Lord, or someone in His stead, and may that drive us to spread the Good News and overcome the bad.

30th July 2017 (Trinity 8)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

When we say “nothing can separate us from the love of God” are we prepared for the implications?

Romans 8:26‑39

26The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not even know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans that very Spirit is pleading for us; 27and God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people according to His will.

28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29for those whom God knew before ever they were He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn within a large family; 30and those whom He predestined He also called; and those whom He called He also justified; and those whom He justified He also glorified.

31With all this in mind what are we to say? If God is on our side, who is against us? 32He did not withhold His own Son, but gave him up for all of us. How then can He fail to lavish every other gift on us? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? Not God, who acquits! 34Who is to condemn? Not Christ, who died and rose again; not Christ who is at God’s right hand and pleads our cause! 35Then what can separate us from the love of Christ? Can hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
     ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
     we have been treated like sheep to be slaughtered.’
37Yet, through it all, overwhelming victory is ours through him who loved us. 38I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Text © Steven Secker.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus answers a question I think we’ve all asked at some time: how do I pray? Hence we have The Lord’s Prayer [Matt 6:9-13]. I’ve been asked several times what prayer really is. To me, the answer is a conversation with God. If we’re having a conversation of any value, rather than a monologue, then it must be a two-way street: we need to ‘speak’ and we need to ‘listen.’ In this encouraging passage from Paul, writing to the Christian community in Rome, we are reminded that, when we are lost for words in our efforts to pray the Holy Spirit will do the praying for us. Our inarticulate groans are, in fact, the Spirit talking to God on our behalf. One pitfall which Jesus highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount was that we shouldn’t think the more we say in prayer the better. Indeed, when we talk we don’t listen anywhere near as effectively as when we are quiet. There is a saying that we were given one tongue and two ears in order that we might speak less and listen more. It is better to let the inarticulate groans of the Spirit speak on our behalf than for us to babble on meaninglessly, or with a focus anywhere other than on God’s work. What’s more, we might think we know what we want but we often do not know what we need. However, the Spirit, working in us, does know what we need and is prepared to ask on our behalf if we are willing to let it do so.

When we truly love someone we will do something for that person without being phased by any potential negative consequences for ourselves. If the object of our true and unconditional love is God then the good of all comes before our own benefit, but God does not leave us out of those benefits. Sometimes what is good for us in the long term is something we desire to avoid because we don’t see the good that might come. Being diagnosed as diabetic, and having to make lifestyle and food changes might be undesirable, but the benefit of being healthier, which comes later, can be very rewarding. In my social justice rôle there can be hours of hard slog trying to defend one person and no sign of progress, then a breakthrough which helps everyone.

Are those of us who constantly ask what Jesus would have done in the same situation as we find ourselves in showing signs of being “conformed to the image of His Son”? There are many who are called by God to be conformed in that way, and they are all “justified” – let’s say “brought closer to being at one with Christ” and will, in time, according to Paul, be glorified by God.

The saying “if you are not for me then you are against me” has often been used to rail against those who have a different opinion on how to tackle an issue and bully them into agreement. That isn’t what Paul is thinking here. When God is on our side He doesn’t dictate to us that we must like silverbeet or mushrooms, or peanuts; He doesn’t dictate that we should like a particular political party. No, when God is on our side we have encouragement, loving guidance – even if we don’t want to listen to it – and help to overcome our weaknesses and our mistakes. Anyone who is against us is trying to separate us from God. When our focus is on doing the work which God has set for us then anyone trying to undermine that effort will find an immoveable opposition there to acquit us of things we have been accused of doing wrongly. Christ also pleads for us in the heavenly court so that we might be free to continue our work. The love of God, as shown to us in the love of Christ, is totally unconditional – and a challenge for us to emulate, but that love will be there through thick and thin. Our problem is that we focus so much on the hardship, the distress, the persecution, the famine, the nakedness, the peril, and anything else that’s negative and comes our way, that we don’t see the love of Christ which is there and surrounding us. For our sake, the prophets of yesteryear and the prophets of this year are treated like lambs to be taken for slaughter because, as a community, we don’t stand up for the Christian faith. When we realise that we have let political correctness stop us from giving Christmas cards, or teaching non-Christian children the reasons for our religious holidays then we might need to call on the greatest legal mind available to us, God, to acquit us when we ignore the instruction to stop.

There is more to Paul’s summary statement than many people find comfortable. To Paul’s list of things which he doesn’t see as separating us from the love of Christ, we might specifically add colour, race, sexual orientation, choice of clothing, language, education, homelessness, criminal activity and drugs, to name a few. Nothing, not even those issues which might send shivers down our spines, can separate us from the love of Christ. Do we respond to that love in a positive or a negative way, or do we just ignore it and hope that it will go away because it calls on us to change our thinking or our actions.

For those who have a Facebook account, you may care to look at this presentation by Paul Murray

23rd July 2017 (Trinity 7)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Those who read last week’s gospel, would have heard about wheat being sown in different soil conditions. This time Jesus looks at the seed, not the ground, and lays more challenges for us.

©Angus Day

Matthew 13:24‑30, 36‑43

24Jesus put before the crowd another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26When the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well, 27so the slaves of the farmer came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29but he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

36Then He left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seeds are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil-doers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

If you started reading this passage and thought it was the parable of the sower sowing seed in good soil, rocky soil, and elsewhere, then you would not be alone, but in this part of the parable Jesus looks not at the soil into which the seeds are planted, but at the very seeds themselves. I truly wonder, at times, whether any of His audience understood what He was saying.

Jesus had a bad habit of telling stories that revealed much for those with some inside knowledge, but even the disciples had to keep asking Him for explanations. Wearing my teaching hat I would say, based on stories like this one, that Jesus failed miserably to communicate with His students. However, He kept getting large crowds, and people coming to Him for healing, so He must have been better at getting across His message than seems from parables such as these.

The farmer has spent time and money getting his good seed into what he hopes is fertile ground so that he can get a decent crop, feed his family and slaves, and make a living out of the rest. Along comes the trouble maker and plants weeds in amongst the real crop to reduce the value of it. Something else which has the same effect is the absence of vital rain. I think of all those farmers in the Central West and Great Southern who took advantage of really good summer and early autumn rain this year to plant seed for what looked like it would be a bumper harvest, only for the normal winter rain to miss them completely.

This story, though, is not about a lack of rain, but the actions of someone with evil intent trying to contaminate the crop (the Good News) so that those supplied with the fruit of the crop (the readers and listeners) get an unpleasant taste (the wrong message). If we repeatedly get an unpleasant taste when eating something we will be turned off, and, in the case of the Good News, losing interest in even listening. That’s Bad News. Are those occasions when I have opted to worship in another church examples of me avoiding the unpleasant taste caused by someone contaminating the Word? Should I stick with the group I know, and let God do the sifting? What would Jesus do? He certainly didn’t back off when the temple authorities were contaminating the Word. All we need to do is remember the story of the money changers, or the widow who put her last coins into the treasury.

What we can do is be on guard in case the thief should come when we are least expecting it, or come bearing what look to be attractive gifts to entice us away from the real message. If we are alert then we will check to see if those unpleasant tastes are genuine, or the result of contamination, and we will avoid listening to those who persist in the contamination. The wheat can grow up next to the weed but we know that the farmer will have the weeds removed first when it comes time to gather the crops. If we have been listening to the Good News we will be part of the harvest, and we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.

Have we listened, or have we just heard, the message from this parable? Are we like the wheat that has been sown, being abundant as fruit of the Good News, and therefore bringing others to God, or are we like the weeds, trying to distract people from listening to that message, and taking them away from God? I pray that the strength of the good seed will endure over the weakness of the weeds.

23rd July 2017 (James, for 25th)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

When I first read Psalm 126 in preparation for this reflection I was reminded of Brahms’ “Requiem” with a beautiful chorus picking up on this psalm.

Psalm 126
1When the Lord turned again the fortunes of Zion,
     Then we were like those who restored to life.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
     and our tongue with singing.
3Then said they among the heathen,
     ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
4Truly the Lord has done great things for us,
     and therefore we rejoiced.

5Turn again our fortunes, O Lord,
     as the streams return to the dry south.
6Those who sow in tears
     shall reap with songs of joy.
7Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed,
     shall come again in gladness,
     bringing their sheaves with them.

Text © A Prayer Book for Australia, alt, used with permission.

There are fifteen “Psalms of Ascent”, of which this is one. The Jewish traditional interpretation is that they represent the fifteen steps on the way up to the temple entrance, but taken on their own they speak of other aspects of our religious upbringing.

At various times in their history the Hebrew/Jewish/Israelite people were forced into exile by some dominating power which overtook their land. Some would even say that the Palestinian occupation of “The Holy Land” and the forcing of Jews into many other countries around the world, was another example of being forced into exile, with the 1948 formation of Israel as an indication of the restoration of the Holy Land to the Jews. Whenever this religious population has been forced out of what the Hebrew Scriptures call the Promised Land there have been attempts to maintain the faith in the face of their exile, waiting for the tribes to be returned. In every case there have been groups of Jews who have settled in the new land and, for one reason or another, have not returned to the Middle East when the opportunity has arisen. Thus we have Jewish communities in most countries. Though these people might have some religious pull back to Israel, for the vast majority their real home is somewhere else.

For those who have formed the initial flow back to Israel after a period of exile there is a sense of homecoming. The call of the land is strong, just as it is for Australian aboriginal people, and when they can return there is an abundance of joy. When people are full of joy they will sing, and the greater the joy the more enthusiastic the singing. Sometimes, of course, the joy is artificial or created by imbibing in too much alcohol, but the music can be uplifting, as with the rousing chorus which ends the first part of Haydn’s “Creation” oratorio: “All Hail to the Wine!”

Psalm 126 tells us that when God determines that it’s time to restore His people to their homes there will be laughter and singing, and the people living in surrounding parts of the world will recognise that God has done something wonderful.

For those of us who like to look at events of the past as just history, this psalm shows us how grateful the people were for their restoration, but if we look at scripture as a spiritual journey, reflecting our own journey, then we might want to take note of verse 5 in the breakdown of the psalm as in APBA. With the decline in the number of people openly claiming some religious association, as shown in the latest Australian census, are we not suffering from an invasion of non-Judeao-Christian thinking? Census reports show strong evidence of other spiritual interests, so are we living in a form of exile where our sacred places are being made less attractive because of worship of other forms of god, such as sport and Sunday trading? “Turn again our fortunes, O Lord” is a rewording of the cry for greater participation in churches. We have long complained about the lack of new people in parishes, the ageing nature of our congregations, and the lack of interest in attending services as little as once a week. Our fortunes need to be turned around. Is God telling us that He wants them turned too, but we are getting in the way? Do we need help putting into practice what God has called us to do, on may occasions?

I thought it appropriate that the second half of verse 5 speaks of streams returning to “the deep south” given that rainfall in the south-west of Western Australia has declined markedly since the early 1970s and many of our streams and rivers struggle to flow at all in the heat of summer. Will we sing for joy if God helps us reignite our passion for the Good News, bringing people back to the fold – and will God then return the streams to the dry south?

Many of us, over many decades, have sown the seeds of our faith with tears because of the frustration we feel as churches lose their way, people turn away from organised religion, and our own faith is challenged in this exile in our own land. There are times when we feel like a gardener, having planted good seed (of faith), seeing the lack of water (flowing from teaching in the churches), having to do more to sustain that new life, and only being able to offer our tears. In God’s own time, however frustrating that is for us, there will be a restoration, and those who have sown the seeds of faith with tears will be able to reap the rewards, singing songs of joy, and bringing home the harvest.

I believe that if we want this exile to end soon, and we want to be singing songs of joy with enthusiasm, passion and vigour, then we must make a greater effort to listen to what scripture calls on us to do. Participants in Education for Ministry groups share personal spiritual journeys, and I’ve often described them as a parallel to the spiritual journey of the Hebrew people of the Old Testament and the Christian people of the New. When we look at our scriptures from that aspect we are called to live in the scriptures, not just read them as history books with no connection to our lives. Can we take on Psalm 126 and live the dream of restoration which God offers us? If we do, then what does our faith challenge us to do to achieve that restoration?

16th July 2017 (Trinity 6)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

The dysfunctionality of the Abraham dynasty serves to show us that God can take something riddled with problems and produce something which is good. Abraham’s role as a forefather of the Jews and Christians comes from God’s grace, not his righteousness.

Esau sells his inheritance for a bowl of red bean soup Genesis 25:30

Genesis 25:19‑34

19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan‑aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord, 23and the Lord said to her,
     ‘Two nations are in your womb,
     and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
     one shall be stronger than the other,
     the elder shall serve the younger.’

24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ 32Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ 33Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

At a time when real life expectancy would have been under 60 years, we’ve had Abraham and Sarah having a child in their extreme old age, and Isaac being married when he was 40, not long after his mother, who was in her 90s when she conceived him, had died. According to the stories, Abraham was still alive when Isaac married Rebekah. The line of descent was very important to the people, so the one chosen to be Isaac’s wife had to come from a particular group. Thus Abraham had prayed for God’s guidance for his servant who had been sent to find a suitable young woman.

Possibly in the belief that Isaac was the son promised to Abraham to be make him a father of many nations, based on the miracle of Sarah conceiving in her 90s, Isaac was the only son – he had Ishmael before Isaac and six more after Sarah’s death – whom Abraham did not send away and disinherit. So much for valuing family life!

If we look at verses 20 and 26 we notice that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah and 60 when she conceived. Were his prayers to God to open Rebekah’s womb entreaties over all of that 20 year period? We hear only that Isaac prayed, and that his prayer was answered, but how often did he pray and feel that he wasn’t getting the response he sought? Is that like us? Would we keep going with a prayer like that when we saw no change in circumstances?

However long Isaac had been praying for Rebekah’s barrenness to be overcome it finally was, and she conceived not a single child, but twins, who fought for much of the pregnancy, draining her to a point of despair. Even then God knew that the two children would fight each other, dividing the family, with the younger one ruling over the older one – a far cry from the standard of the oldest male child being in charge. The image of Jacob hanging onto a foot of Esau as they were born suggests that Jacob was trying to pull Esau back so that he could be born first. Names were always important in those days, and were chosen with much thought. “Esau” relates to both Edom, the land over which Esau had dominion, and “red”, which was his colour when he was born; “Jacob” relates to Israel, the land over which Jacob would have dominion, and the heel which he grasped as the boys were born. Whereas Abraham considered Isaac his favourite son, and left his whole estate to him, Isaac favoured Esau over Jacob, and Rebekah favoured Jacob over Esau. We hear nothing of their growing up in a family with divided favourites except that Esau became a skilled hunter-gatherer, and Jacob, the one chosen by God, became skilled in cooking. Though these are complementary roles, Jacob’s time in the kitchen and looking after the home would have been seen as crossing the unmarked divide between the separate roles of men and women.

Like all of the early parts of our scriptures, this story would have been told many times around camp-fires in communities which had grown from the Abraham/Isaac/Jacob dynasty so it’s hardly surprising to see disparaging comments such as Esau asking for “red stuff” instead of the stew that Jacob had made. Quite likely that would have brought a hearty laugh. If we were party to similar stories in camps descended from Esau we would probably find comments denouncing Jacob’s “sissy” status, and bringing further laughter. Is that what we do? When someone shows characteristics we don’t have do we mock them and try to bring them back into the fold? You bet we do! The reference to Edom looks to be associated with Esau being famished, but it really relates to the food with the Hebrew repeating “red” at the end of Esau’s request for some of the stew. Our English translations could easily portray that better.

Esau may have declared that he was dying, because he was famished, but I think that was more in line with our claims that we are starving when, in reality, we are just hungry – and we wouldn’t use the phrase if we had seen and worked with people who really are starving. If Esau had really been dying Jacob would have known that the birthright would have been his without asking, but Esau was speaking out of hunger and the appetising smell of good food. Thus Jacob sought to gain Esau’s inheritance rights – a double portion of the estate on Isaac’s death – in addition to his own, through refusing to feed him until he committed himself. It is astounding, though a welcome reflection of how God works with sinners, that Jacob should cheat his brother out of something for which Esau cared little at the time, and clearly didn’t think through the consequences of his acceptance. Let us beware of the times we quite happily give up things of value when we want something else. I can think of politicians buying votes at elections, banks removing security when offering us convenience, our desire to interact on social networks taking away our skills associated with looking around us and relating to those with whom we share space, and critical thinking being pushed from schools to make way for all the information we don’t really need but someone convinces us we do. Feel free to add as many more examples as you like.

This time Jacob cheated his brother; later he would cheat others, including his father, too. He was a serial offender of great magnitude, yet God took Jacob and made his descendants into a nation – not one big enough and dominant enough to rule the world, but one built on faith, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Scripture tells us how the people of the day explained why things were the way they were in theological terms – and it wasn’t always pretty. If we all got along perfectly well with each other, respected each other, celebrated our differences, and worked for a common good then life might be quite boring, but throw in some competitive aspect, some different thinking and some self-centredness, and we have an image which not only looks like the world around us today, but also like the world in which Jacob was living. If there’s so much of a parallel between now and then, what can we learn from the Jacob and Esau story? Maybe we could start with accepting that even dysfunctional families can be called by God to do great things. When we put our heads together and focus on our faith, rather than self-interest, we can do great things, with God’s help.

9th July 2017 (Trinity 5)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

“Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest”

Matt 11:15‑30 (15-19 and 25-30)

15If you have ears, then listen!

16‘To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market‑places and calling to one another,
17“We played the pipes for you, and you did not dance;
we lamented, and you did not mourn.”
18John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He is possessed”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax‑collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

20Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his miracles had been done, because they did not repent. 21‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades, for if the miracles performed in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’

25At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learnèd, and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your will. 27Everything is entrusted to me by my Father; and no-one knows the Son except the Father, and no-one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.
28‘Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Text © Steven Secker.

The Greek verb used in verse 15 literally means “to hear”, but the meaning is clearly far more than that, so I have translated it as “to listen”. We often hear without listening, but Jesus is telling us things to which we need to listen, and not just to hear the words. We sit in our churches and ask ourselves why people are not coming to church as they used to; we have talk-fest after talk-fest trying to fathom why our numbers are in decline, and people still don’t come. Are we listening, or just hearing?

John the Baptist came from the wilderness to preach repentance and to baptise people, and he was described by some as “possessed”, because he challenged the status quo, and he didn’t eat “normal” foods, or drink in “moderation”, whatever that might mean. The text doesn’t say ‘in moderation’ but, given that almost everyone drank wine, the context surely means that. Jesus came, eating and drinking – because He knew that the way to a man’s heart (and presumably to a woman’s also) was through the stomach, and was duly labelled a glutton and a drinker. If someone comes into our lives and challenges the status quo, or wants to fraternise, to get to know us through meeting over a meal (at which wine is also served, as per the custom of the day), how do we react to that person? Do we label them “possessed” and so unworthy of our attention, or do we listen, rather than just hear, take note, and contemplate our response to the challenges which each brings? Is the man or woman who ministers to murderers, thieves, or child molesters cast out for daring to follow in Christ’s footsteps because such action requires us to associate with sinners? All too often we support human “wisdom” instead of that of God, which we will ultimately acknowledge is far better than ours.

Skipping over verses 20-24, as listed in the Revised Common Lectionary, we find that Jesus thanks God for hiding the truth from those who are wise, and those who consider themselves to be learnèd. We could read into that those who have focussed so much on higher education degrees that they have lost contact with what their studies can do to benefit everyone. I used to provide recordings of conference talks, and at one session someone with a Ph.D. asked how to fill in the very simple order form, such was the focus on one area of learning. Surely, you would think, those who are wise and learnèd would be the best to understand what Jesus had been saying; but that’s not the case, because there are so many closed minds, so many blinkered views, and so little understanding of how others learn that these are often among the worst people to bring the Good News. God chose those who were not wise, not learnèd, and simple in approach, to spread the word; Jesus chose fishermen and a tax collector among His inner group, and He chose not to reveal the Father to the religious establishment. Let those who have ears, listen.

The last two verses of this passage will be familiar to anyone who has listened to, or performed Handel’s “Messiah”. We are encouraged to turn to Christ particularly when we have strayed from His presence and find ourselves tired and over-burdened. If we turn to the gentle and humble-hearted Christ then the stresses and concerns that we carry are made easy, and the burden of them is made light. That may have been written nearly 2000 years ago, and made famous in the 18th century, but it is as relevant today, and to us, as it was across the millennia. Isn’t it interesting that when we move our focus from God we get tired and over-burdened, but when we return to the fold our yoke is easy and our burden is light?

Yes, I did miss verses 20-24. As we read the passage in church we will see many good messages for us. When we miss parts of a passage I always ask if those verses have a message which some of us don’t want to hear. In this case I believe that is true.

Christ wasn’t complaining about the “wise and learnèd” people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, for not listening and acting on what they had learned, but the less educated people, who, having seen miracles performed, and listened to Christ’s teachings, still didn’t do anything to amend their ways. One way of looking at that is to say that if you do something wrong out of ignorance there is no sin, but if you do wrong knowing that it is wrong then there is sin, and sin requires confession and a commitment to avoid the sin in the future if at all possible – allowing for human weaknesses – for it to be forgiven. A contemporary scenario to fit that issue is the institutional response to child sexual abuse and the willingness to cover up misdemeanours when they have been exposed, rather than address the issue and repent, which, you may remember, involves a turning around. In our human weakness, and in the absence of God’s direction, we might be tempted to go overboard, and create more openings for sin by removing the opportunity for church leaders to relate to children at all. After all, there can’t be sexual abuse of children if there are no children present to sexually abuse. Naturally, that is only one form of abuse which occurs in organisations, so we need to be vigilant in other areas, to listen to those who feel they are abused, and to address those concerns without sweeping them under the carpet. These verses from Matthew’s gospel warn us to do what God wants, or we will be condemned to Hades even if we nominally declare our allegiance to Christ. No wonder they are excised from the reading in church. Can we learn from our mistakes? Of course we can, if we trust God, truly repent, and use our ears to listen.

2nd July 2017 (Thomas)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

“Doubting Thomas” tends to get a bad rap, but is that fair?

“Doubting Thomas” by Giovanni Serodine (1600-1630)

John 20:24‑29a

24Thomas (who was called The Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the others when Jesus came, 25so the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord,’ but he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26A week later His disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

On the day of His resurrection, Jesus came to visit the gathered disciples in a locked room in Jerusalem, but, for some reason, Thomas wasn’t with them. This one disciple had not returned to the room but might well have been planning for his return to his former life, now that his leader had been killed and buried, or been out getting some food for the gathered group. After all, a dead leader can’t lead, can he? Someone has to provide food and drink. When Thomas rejoined the group he was enthusiastically told that Jesus had been present in that room while he was absent. For Thomas, however, the reality was that Jesus had died on the Friday afternoon, and it was now Sunday evening.

Thomas’ absence was no accident. The lack of personal encounter with the risen Christ is something with which we are all too familiar. Like so many millions of people since, Thomas couldn’t come to grips with the idea that a man who had been killed on a Friday could walk into a room full of his followers on the following Sunday. He had one factor in his experience that we haven’t had: he had seen and heard the very human being who had been crucified, so to accept that his Lord and Master had appeared in real flesh and blood afterwards was something for which he needed more proof than the word of his friends.

Was there an expectation, among the disciples, that Jesus would make another appearance in that upper room the following Sunday, and so Thomas was determined not to miss out on meeting his Lord and Saviour if that were to happen? There is no parallel for this story, in the other gospels, so it is likely that John, writing more than a generation later, created this double encounter to help us with our belief struggles.

As soon as Jesus had greeted the other disciples once more He turned to Thomas, not in a highly critical way to chastise the errant one, but in love. “Come, Thomas, feel the wounds in my body; put your hand in my side, and believe.” Unlike when we encounter someone who will not believe what we have been saying, there is no judgement against Thomas. He needed a bit more help to come to a realisation that something which was hard to believe had happened had actually happened.

What this passage screams, for me at least, is Christ’s acceptance that some of us need to ask questions, and to get answers to those questions, in order that our experience of reality might be enhanced to include what happened at that time. If we have never seen someone who has risen from the dead, and our experience is that everyone dies, and that’s the end of that person’s life, how can we take on board not only that it is possible, but also that it happened to Jesus, whom we have never seen – or have we? I maintain that Christ couldn’t come, as He did 2000 years ago, in our time, because there would have been blanket media coverage and every word He said, and every deed He hid would have been recorded as set in concrete, giving us no space for our faith to grow, and the medical fraternity would have insisted on investigating how he managed to come back to life. Without questions our faith cannot grow, so it’s important that we ask questions and not just accept what has been offered by others. False prophets get into our minds by positing information which is wrong, but believable. Asking questions helps us separate the false from the true.

Faith isn’t about having evidence of something; it’s not even about believing in something; it’s about trusting and knowing that something exists or happened. We don’t learn to trust our senses without asking questions of them. In the same way, Jesus gave us permission to ask questions about Him and His earthly ministry in order that we might believe in Him, and spread the Good News. Thanks to the work of the disciples, who expressed their belief in the risen Lord, with whom they had walked and worked, the early church grew rapidly. Because of the belief of those close to Christ many who had not seen Him, or had a personal experience of His risen self, came to believe also. With attendances at churches in decline it’s worth asking ourselves if we have stopped believing as the original disciples believed, and thus our expressions of our faith are having less of an impact on the people around us? What can I do to help you believe as they did?

aAccoding to the lectionary published for Australian Anglicans the feast of Thomas can be celebrated on 4th July instead of 21st December. Some churches bring that forward to the Sunday in order to not miss the opportunity.