22Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee while He dismissed the crowds. 23After He had dismissed the crowds, He went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25Early in the morning He came walking towards them on the lake. 26When the disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ They cried out in fear, 27but immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is me; do not be afraid.’
28Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus, 30but when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased, 33and those in the boat worshipped Him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
34When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35After the people of that place recognised Him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to Him, 3636and begged Him that they might touch even the fringe of His cloak; and all who touched it were healed.How long, O Lord?
Last week’s gospel told us the story of the feeding of the 5000, which was reportedly only the count of men, not of the women and children who made up the rest of the crowd. The disciples, having cleaned up twelve baskets full of remnants – but not having done anything with them – are told to get into a boat and head for the distant shore while Jesus makes sure the crowd dissipates. Having accomplished all He needed to do in that place Jesus makes time to be alone with God, and, like any introvert, to recharge His battery. Crowds can be tiring, and can make too much noise for God to be heard. Extroverts, please note! This was one of many occasions on which Jesus disappeared from view so He could spend time with God. Those who want to follow in Christ’s footsteps, as any good Christian should, need to take time out for God.
It was dark; it was windy; the waves were creating quite a spray; yet Jesus came walking on the water, in the middle of the lake, or Sea of Galilee. No wonder the disciples were terrified. I think I’d need some clean underwear too! Despite them having spent time with Jesus, learning His ways and His teachings, and getting a sense of who He really was, to see a human figure walking across the water would have appeared very much like seeing a ghost. I don’t know how effective it would have been, but Jesus continues towards them and tells them not to be afraid. They were already afraid before He spoke. Surely speaking to them would make them more afraid, not less. Most English translations take the Greek εγω ειμι (ego aimee) and give us “it is I” when good English grammar, as distinct from the Greek grammar, needs “it is me.”
εγω ειμι is The Great “I AM”, not only of the Hebrew Scriptures but also of Christ’s own discourse with the disciples, in which He said “I AM the bread of life”, “I AM the way”, “I AM the truth”, and more.
Peter was still unsure of what he was seeing, so blurted out for Jesus to call him across the water. With eyes firmly focussed on Christ, and having accepted the invitation to come to Him, Peter sets out to meet up with Jesus. While his focus is on Christ he succeeds in his efforts, but as soon as his concentration is taken up by what he is doing he begins to sink. Anything is possible with God, even walking on water, but once we lose sight of Him we fall for everything that can go wrong. What does that say to us when we don’t follow the teachings of Christ, or the example He set with the foot-washing, and the establishment of the Eucharist?
Peter, the one held up as a founding father of the Church, failed to keep his focus on God, and had to be rescued, again, and again. How many times was Peter rescued by Christ? Let’s just say “a lot”. In Matthew 8 Jesus was asleep in the stern of a boat when a storm raged, and after He was woken He rebuked the wind, and it stopped, so why did He not rebuke the wind this time, before He got to the boat? Doing so would have been just as effective for the disciples as calming the storm when He had reached them. Was their declaration that Jesus is the Son of God truly a revelation for them, or a response to seeing someone calm a storm as quickly and easily as Christ did for them? We may never know until we get a chance to ask in the next life.
I was trying to locate Gennesaret on a map of the region in the time of Christ, and to work out where the earlier gathering might have been, but there are different renditions of where the town might have been. That, of course, is the analyst in me wanting to get an accurate picture of where things happened, but what happened is far more important than where it happened. Jesus was recognised – despite His habit of disappearing His fame went before Him and He couldn’t escape being known. Not only that, but also people were so sure of His power to heal them that they only needed to touch the hem of His dress (robe) to be healed. Does that remind us of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Matthew 9:20)? Even just her touch of His robe was picked up by Christ, who felt the healing power go from Him. Those who succeeded in touching Him or His robe were healed, such was their faith. We don’t have the luxury of having Christ visiting us in the same way, or do we? Those who walk as Christ can often heal just by their presence and people listening, and we won’t know if Christ is in the person next to us in the street, or in the supermarket, or at a sporting event – where they can be held – unless we are open to that possibility, and thinking of others rather than ourselves.
The set reading for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary time, also known as the 9th after Pentecost or Trinity 9, only includes verses 1-7 and the last (15 or 16 depending on your version of the psalm), but I have chosen to include the whole psalm as it speaks loudly against injustice and abuse.
Jesus warned us not to think we will be exempt from persecution. We’ve heard and read much about persecutions over the centuries, be they Romans attacking Christians in the first century, Christians attacking non-believers during the Crusades, Hitler attacking the Jews in the lead up to and during the second world war, and we expect to hear about those and many other movements in a troubled world. However, when the persecutions come from those much closer to home they can be unexpected and devastating.
How do we respond when someone in our own church community takes offence because of something we might have said or done, and wants us to take no further part in that community? How do we respond when members of our own family go on the attack because we might not have lived up to their expectations? How do we respond when those in authoritative positions, be that in work places, churches, social groups or wherever, refuse to have open discussions about problems, and try to address them?
Leonard Sweet, in his book The Bad Habits of Jesus talks about duologues, where what comes out of mouths “is a projectile, laser guided to its target by unabashed political and moral correctitude aimed to shut down, not open up, conversations.”
When we are confronted by duologues we might well resort to Psalm 17 to find some respite from the disrespectful onslaughts we have to endure. It doesn’t matter where we are, whether the group is secular, religious or neither, we can hardly avoid cases in our lives. If I started listing examples from my own life I’d still be going at Christmas. So what do we do?
The Psalmist’s plea is to a God with whom he – given the era I presume it was a ‘he’ – has a personal and effective relationship. Clearly the writer believed he had a good relationship in which he did the right thing by God as much as he was able, because he invites God to search him even at times when he is most vulnerable. “My cause is just and comes from lips that don’t lie, so please come and tell us what is right”. Do we have such confidence in our talking to God? Are we willing to expose the innermost secrets where we might not be as truthful to our fellow humans as we know we must be with a God who knows those secrets before we admit to them?
When it comes to claims like “My mouth does not transgress, like the mouth of others” I can hear many people suggesting otherwise, especially those whom the psalmist considers “others.” However, it is not for us to condemn, only for us to ask God to act in a way which brings about reconciliation with the divine will, and if we think those “others” have transgressed we have a responsibility to ask God to intervene.
There is confidence, here, the God will respond, and there will be action to bring an end to the persecution. How many times have we heard comments such as “God doesn’t answer prayers”, with the additional rider from atheists “because God doesn’t exist”? Do we give in to such comments? I hope not.
When we feel that we are being persecuted, especially by those closest to us, we need to ask God to protect us as He would the apple of His eye, and we need to express the feelings of being surrounded by those have no pity, and want us to stop drawing attention to their failings. If we have confidence in our relationship with God we can surely ask for divine intervention, though we, in civilised countries which respect the sanctity of life, might ask for the “others” to have a “Road to Damascus” conversion instead of being killed.
If we have confidence that our cause is just then we will have no problem seeing God face to face, and feeling a sense of satisfaction. Is my cause just? I’ll let God be the judge of that, but when I see abuse, torture, murder, irresponsible behaviour in a Covid-19 setting, and others, I believe I will be with the vast majority which thinks those actions to be unacceptable to our Creator.
15Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ 16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. 18Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ 19Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ 20So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
21Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast; 23but in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25When morning came, Jacob realised it was Leah, and he said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.
Last week the revised common lectionary gave us the story of Rebekah having the twins Esau and Jacob. Being the first-born Esau had a “birth-right” which allowed him the lion’s share of his father’s estate when Isaac died, and the right for a special blessing as responsibility for the household was handed to the elder son. “Jacob” is the Hebrew equivalent of “taker” or “supplanter”; and “Isaac” is Hebrew for laughter. When Esau came home at the end of a day’s work so hungry that he thought he was dying, an astute Jacob used his culinary skills, and Esau’s hunger, to get his older brother to pass on the birth-right, much to Esau’s displeasure when he had recovered. Furthermore, some years later, Jacob had connived with his mother to deceive a by then blind Isaac into believing that he was giving his elder son the special blessing before he died. That’s one theory. Another is that Isaac knew that Esau didn’t deserve the blessing he would receive, but without being ‘tricked’ custom wouldn’t allow him to give the blessing to Jacob, so he went along with the ruse as that let him do what he wanted without being seen as a rule breaker.
With the birth-right and the blessing now his Jacob absconds and goes to Haram, which was where Abraham had left, hoping to meet up with Rebekah’s brother, Laban (“white”). In the lead up to today’s reading Jacob shows his willingness to break the rules yet again, so that, when Laban’s daughter, Rachel, appears the well is already accessible for her to get water, though it is Jacob, showing his prowess, who actually waters the flock, and ahead of the customary opening of the well when all have arrived. Jacob is already smitten by his love for Rachel, and goes with her to meet her father, his uncle, and to work for him so he can be close to Rachel. Ahh! Play some nice romantic music.
The custom in Haram is that the oldest daughter must marry first, but Laban isn’t going to let Jacob know that. He agrees that Jacob can work seven years for him in order that he might marry the love of his life. One common custom in my upbringing was that a man would ask his potential father-in-law for the hand of the appropriate daughter in marriage. Indeed, my son-in-law-to-be did exactly that some months ago, but would any of us, these days, be willing to wait seven years?
So Jacob toils for seven years in the expectation of getting to marry Rachel, after which Jacob, justifiably in our eyes, asked for Rachel to be his wife. The trickster is about to be tricked. Laban’s elder daughter, Leah, still isn’t married, and custom requires that she marries first.
Weddings, at the time, weren’t the half-hour ceremony followed by photos and a celebration meal before the bridal couple go off to start their honeymoon, like they tend to be today. These were major celebrations, lasting a week, and with people coming from afar to participate at some time during the festival. On the first night of festivities Jacob is presented with Leah, not Rachel. She is heavily disguised with a veil, but you would think that, unless the sisters were very much alike, spoke alike, and smelled the same, Jacob would have realised before going to bed with her. Alas, he might have been under the influence of too much alcohol and food, and didn’t realise he had been conned until the next morning. Got him!
As if he were the totally innocent party, Jacob complains to Laban about being deceived. Only now does Laban tell Jacob the custom of having the first-born daughter marry before a younger daughter. A deal is done between the two tricksters: after making it look, during the time of the festivities, as if nothing was wrong, Laban allows Jacob to take Rachel as a second wife on condition that he works for him another seven years. No, there was nothing “wrong” at the time about polygamy: indeed, it was common. It wasn’t until the Greeks and Romans began dominating the Ancient Near East that monogamy became the norm.
All this, so far, has to do with misbehaving men who should have known better, but what of the women in the story? Rachel and Leah were ‘bought’ by Jacob working for Laban, and verse 24 mentions the maid Zilpah being given to Leah. Even Jacob’s request to Laban: “Give me my wife …” shows that Laban owned Rachel (and Leah). Such treatment of women was common in that era. Hopefully we have a more respectful approach and consider the woman’s choice and desires, not just those of the men, or am I too much of an optimist?
We can read much into the story. Jacob, as the deceitful one early in his life tries to run away but his sins catch up with him. Laban outfoxes Jacob by getting him to marry Leah before Rachel, and, later in this story Jacob outfoxes Laban to take daughters, maids, children, herds and money, only to be outfoxed again by his own children who sell Joseph into slavery. Some call it karma. The treatment of women says a lot about how their roles have changed over the centuries since this story was written, but have we really made any progress?
12Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body and you will live. 14All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? 25If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Through his promotion of, and respect for, women in the churches he formed, Paul was clearly as inclusive of women as he could be in the very patriarchal society of the first century. It is thus appropriate, given that political correctness and the feminist movement now deny us the long-established use, in English, of male pronouns in a generic sense, that the Greek word αδελφοι (adelphoi) is translated in the NSRV as “brothers and sisters”. I have no doubt that Paul would have been including the women as well as the men.
Paul declares that we are debtors; but despite telling us what we are not debtors to, never tells us what he considers we are debtors to. Just like a good educator, leading people towards an answer but never giving it to them, he leaves it to those in the audience to ponder over, and to work out for themselves, where that debt lies.
We are made of body and spirit. The body, the flesh and blood of our mortal appearances, can lead us astray. We are tempted to seek and acquire things which are transient and please us, without consideration for others, and too often we succumb to those temptations, in the process separating ourselves from God. Paul’s reference to dying has nothing to do with the cessation of the processes which keep our bodies functioning, but to the death which comes from being separated from God. On the other hand, if we allow God’s Spirit, working within us, to direct us, then we will nurture that relationship with God who continues to feed and nourish us. Those who had become Christians in the early churches, and even some of us in 21st century churches, might feel as if we have bonded ourselves in slavery because of the rules and regulations which being part of a particular church might impose on us – you must dress like this; you must speak like this; you must address the priest like this; you must like music like this; children should be seen and not heard. The list goes on, but that is not what Paul wants his audience to think. Far from being forced into a restrictive relationship with “the owner”, becoming a Christian is like being adopted into an unconditionally loving family, with God as the head. Many of us have never experienced unconditional love; some even deny it is possible for humans because their own experiences are far from the love which God quite willingly gives us, but God is love, and loves all of us unconditionally.
Being adopted into God’s family allows us to call Him “Father”, and to share with Christ in the abundances which are offered, but it doesn’t give us the right to avoid temptation, or hurt, because of the evil which abounds where God’s love isn’t allowed to enter. Yes, we will suffer for the sake of the Good News, but not in the same way as Christ Himself suffered. Commenting on the restrictions which Covid-19 has required of us, a young male from Broadmeadows (in the north of Melbourne) revealed an appalling lack of appreciation and care for older people, as if they were dispensable because they were passed their “use by” date. People continue to suffer and to die because of the lack of concern for others displayed in such a comment. I’m sure that God is crying because this suffering and these deaths would, to a large extent, be avoided if people around the world stopped thinking of themselves more than others. Let’s turn that around and tell Satan to leave everyone alone.
Throughout our lives we strive to do ‘better’ and we tolerate suffering and pain when we can see the ‘better’ future. That is precisely what Paul is picking up on when he says that the sufferings of the present time pale into insignificance when compared with the glory in the life hereafter. Just as growing up from being a newborn baby through the toddler stage and on into spiritual adulthood our eyes are opened to the wonders of this world, what the Spirit foresees is our discovery of what it is like to be ‘children of God.’ Several respected commentators note Paul’s reference to labour pains. Why is that surprising? Not only are there many references in scripture to feminine images of God, but also Paul’s churches had a significant number of female leaders.
Have you ever yearned so much for something you expect to occur that you groan, outwardly or inwardly, in anticipation? That is what it was like for the early Christians, looking forward to the second coming of Christ, which they expected in the their own lifetimes. Just as last week’s reflection on the Parable of the Sower made a distinction between hearing and listening, so, here, Paul makes a distinction between hoping for something and anticipating it. Let us be patient in our hoping that we might return to a society where we are all concerned for each other.
1Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3He told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4As he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil, 6but when the sun rose, they were scorched and withered away because they had no root. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Yet other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’ 18‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart. This is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
Jesus goes out of the house, presumably where He was staying, and walks to the side of an unnamed lake, but crowds of people gather round Him to hear His words, so He gets into a boat, leaving everyone on the beach, and starts to talk to them. I know how to project my voice quite some distance, without shouting, and I would be reluctant to try to talk to a large group of people in the open air, with natural sounds abounding, but to dwell on the impracticality of this situation would be to detract from the meaning of the story about to unfold.
This passage is commonly known as the Parable of the Sower, and most will think the title refers to the person mentioned in the story sowing seed, but if we focus on that aspect of the story we might as well call it a parable of the soils. Jesus knew full well that any competent person charged with sowing seed to grow a crop would make sure all the seed landed in good soil with a good chance of not only surviving but also generating a worthwhile crop. Despite that, He starts with the sower being careless enough to throw some seed on the path, where it would be trodden on and eaten by birds. Some of this sower’s seeds fell on rocky ground – not too unreasonable when you’re trying to push the boundaries to get more crop, but still a little irresponsible. Next we have seeds which fall among thorns. Were they visible when the seeds were being thrown, or did they grow up at the same time, and take over control. Only then do we hear about seeds which land in good soil, with an abundance of produce, rather than the mediocre results common in the era.
Many of those who would have heard this story would have cringed at the idea that the sower was being irresponsible, or wasteful, or didn’t care for the value of the resources he was using. However, and this is consistent with the explanation Jesus gave to His disciples, if the sower is God, and the seed He sows is love, then the extraordinary generosity associated with expressing His love for the down-and-outs, for those whose faith has little foundation, and for those who are caught up by the evil around them, can be seen with the scattering of seeds. We might be reluctant to make an effort to reach out to those whose circumstances are less fortunate than ours, but God isn’t, and we are called to follow His example.
As with all the parables, there is a surface story which people will hear, understand, and even note. Here there is the responsibility to ensure that the best crop is generated from the seed available. Farmers in the Western Australian wheat-belt wouldn’t be counting each grain as they plant thousands of hectares of wheat, but they still follow the practice of trying to ensure each one has good enough soil around it to produce a good crop. The wise sower of fields in the first century would want to avoid the pitfalls in that level of the parable. However, Jesus wasn’t on about good farming practices. Spreading the Good News to people who have no comprehension of the message is like throwing seed on a path. First you have to prepare the way. We all know people who live on rocky ground, where Good News can be cast off because something more interesting is available, and you don’t have to be an avid reader of news stories to hear about people who have been led astray by those who have no regard for others. What we may miss is that the abundance of the crop for seed planted in good soil is at least a magnitude greater than what would have been expected at the time this story was written. God’s love abounds. The NRSV ends this part of the parable with “Let anyone with ears listen.” The Greek verb ακουετω (akoo-eto) can mean let (the one) hear, but can also mean “let (the one) listen to understand.” We can hear without listening, but we can’t listen without hearing. Listening requires that we pay attention and take on board what we have heard. If we don’t understand we might ask questions, but that won’t happen if we only hear.
Let us then listen to the parable of the sower, for we are all sowers. If the Good News we have falls on the pathways and the receiver doesn’t understand any of it then it’s too easy for the message to be corrupted and lead the person astray. If our sowing is on rocky ground then without tilling the soil to ensure good food for the seed it will wither as soon as it gets challenged in life. If we choose our scripture passages to serve our own purposes, biases and prejudices then the receiver will be led astray, but if we plant our Good News seeds in fertile ground, and tend to it, then we could have churches bursting at the seams with new converts and people enthusiastically sharing their experiences of God’s extravagant love. Which church do we attend? Notwithstanding the problems of Covid-19 restrictions, poor sermons, poor music, poor liturgy, a welcome mat but no genuine welcome, and no social life in a parish will turn away any enquirer looking for the Good News, but good sermons, good music, good liturgy, genuine welcoming and a vibrant social life will attract others. Which church do you want to attend?
34Abraham’s servant said to Laban: 35“The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys; 36and Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’”
42“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ 44and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’ — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”
45“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. 47Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. 48Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”
58They called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ 59So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men, 60and they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’ 61Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
62Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. 64Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. 66The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
When I train readers for their important role in the service I use the story of Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, change one name to a pronoun, and ask the students to listen as if they had never heard the story before and raise a hand when they can identify the participants. No-one has yet raised a hand before I have finished. Here we have a classic example of where continuity is absolutely essential. The NRSV starts “So he said”; The New English Bible puts it “He answered”; the Good News has “he began”. That’s great if we’ve read previous verses, but not when starting at verse 34. Who is this person who is a servant to Abraham, and to whom is he talking? I appreciate that to get answers to those questions requires us to go back to the beginning of the chapter where we learn that the servant was Abraham’s oldest servant, though not named, and he is talking to Laban, brother of Rebekah, who will become Isaac’s wife, and who is part of Abraham’s extended family where he was born. This whole story is far too long to read in an Anglican Eucharist service, and there is plenty of repetition to exclude, so let’s look at what the story entails.
In ancient biblical times the man was accepted as the head of the household. Abraham was old when he fathered Isaac. Two weeks ago the reading from Genesis told us of his other son, Ishmael, born of Abraham’s servant Hagar, being sent away so that he was no longer part of the family, effectively leaving Isaac as the only son to inherit a vast fortune. Today’s reading tells of the search for a kindred woman to become Isaac’s wife. Arranged marriages still occur today in many parts of the world. In biblical times it was such a common event, and a girl grew up expecting someone to take her to be his wife even though they might never have met. Abraham’s oldest servant might well have been Eliezer of Damascus, who would inherit everything if Isaac died without children, so it is remarkable that the person seeking a bride might be the very person who would lose everything if he succeeded, yet he honoured his commitment to Abraham. Would we?
In the verses leading up to this extract the servant had been practising his lines ready for an encounter with the one whom he trusted God had chosen to be a wife for Isaac. He had travelled some distance with camels and gifts, though we aren’t told how far, and had a firm belief that God would provide, so when Rebekah turns up at the well and provides water for him and for his camels, he is overjoyed. These days, if a loving parent sought out a bride for a son I could imagine the reaction would be quite different, but we have made huge steps towards recognising women as equal to men, and true love as being more important than where the wife originated.
As would be expected in that time, Laban and his wife Bethuel, were happy to have Rebekah leave the household and travel back to where the party would find Isaac. The shift in location and the separation from kinsfolk would be somewhat like it was for “Our Mary” when she crossed the world to marry Prince Fredrick of Denmark, though, in that case, it was love which brought them together and they are frequent visitors to Australia.
On the group’s arrival where Isaac was living there was joy at a wife being found for him, and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” This is one of very few references in the Hebrew Scriptures to the relationship between husband and wife being one of love. Rebekah is installed as the new matriarch of the family. Isaac was reportedly a sworn bachelor and 40 years old when he found love with Rebekah, a remarkable fact for the age.
The stories in Genesis were originally passed on orally, and had variations within the different groups which followed. There is conjecture that, because we Westerners cannot pin down archeological data to correlate with the stories, that they are fictional. If the same thought process were applied to the histories of Aboriginal people in Australia we would be denying them their very real history and existence. Whereas there are many examples of conflicting information, especially in the early scriptures, they do not detract from the very real presence of these people through centuries.
Can we step back from our insistence of having everything spelled out ‘historically’ and accept the theological messages which come from passages such as these? Too often we reject the message because of some inconsequential “error”.
1How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy triumph over me?
3Consider me and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken,
5but I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
There is an Easter hymn which used to go “Jesus lives! No longer now can thy terror, death, appal us” but, because of the music, often came out as “Jesus lives no longer now.” Pauses, indicated by punctuation, have a profound impact on the meaning of a sequence of words. Here the psalmist is lamenting an apparent lack of response from God. “How long, O Lord? How long will you forget me? Will it be for ever? I’ve been waiting; I’ve been asking; I’ve been pleading; I’ve been crying out to you, but it seems you do not want to respond.”
Clearly the psalmist has a sense of alienation from God, but not, to his reckoning at least, of his own making. Those who wish he would give up his dedication to God are circling in anticipation of being able to be declared winners. The vultures are flying around, just waiting for the moment to strike with glee. The APBA version of the psalm ends verse 4 with “lest my foes exult at my overthrow”, which, though it is closer to the Hebrew than this translation in the NRSV, suggests that the writer has already succumbed to the attack. The tone of the psalm shows that is not true.
During a secret meeting – for which there will never be an accurate record of what was discussed – I was taken off an ordination programme just as all around me were asking if my ordination date had been set. I was shifted to another parish, and the priest there was told that I could take no leadership role for at least six months. No-one suggested I had done, or might do, anything wrong, so why six months out of leadership roles I had occupied for many years? Was an “enemy” testing my faith and hoping that I would fail? “How long, O God, must I bear the pain in my soul?” Over the years I have helped many people, in several dioceses, who have offered themselves for ordination in the Anglican Church only to be knocked back with explanations which aren’t consistent with evidence or logic. Is discernment of God’s will subordinate to that of those who might not realise they are being controlled by the devil? The enemies might claim that they have prevailed – and, unfortunately, in some cases that has clearly happened, but there is an increasing minority who are still asking God for a response.
On the cross, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ, himself, had fought the devil controlling the religious establishment of the day, and even He turned his cry of frustration to His Heavenly Father. Martin Luther, among many others, raised issues with the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church, believing he had enough evidence to show that people were being controlled for the benefit of the Church, not for the benefit of the Good News. The examples of people resorting to this psalm go on through every generation. Whistle-blowers are persecuted for disturbing the peace, and threatened with lengthy gaol terms. Others are repeatedly ignored until they submit, or die.
For those who continue to trust in God’s steadfast love, there is hope of being able to rejoice in the salvation He offers. Can we sing to the Lord because He has dealt bountifully with them? Maybe, as true followers of Christ, we may be able to do that in the life hereafter, though it would be good to be able to do it here and now.
24‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master. 25It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26‘Have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30Even the hairs of your head are all counted, 31so do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32‘Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword, 35for I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
In the context of the opening verse of chapter 10, in which Jesus empowers the disciples to cure the sick and to drive out unclean spirits, the opening of this scriptural passage brings us into the reality that, though we have been given powers which we would otherwise not have, we are only as capable as Christ Himself. Furthermore, we are likely to be subject to the same rejection as He was, from the same sorts of people. Let’s not forget that Jesus was unable to heal in His home town, and He was rejected by members of His own family because He kept challenging them to accept a new way of life. Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to think that they will be better than Him. What horrors befall Christ will be unavoidable for a true follower. There is no escaping that truth, and it extends to today’s world, though, depending on where we are in the world, we might face other forms of horror. To the people of the time, “Beelzebul” (or Beelzebub) meant “prince of demons”, so being associated with, and following, Beelzebul wasn’t the best place for followers of Christ. The religious authorities of the time made every effort to label Christ as Beelzebul, but thankfully others sawy through their efforts. As Christians we are to reject evil and constantly ask ourselves “what would Christ do in this situation?”
There are many ways in which we might encounter evil behaviour in our lives, and the churches are not exempt. The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in Institutions showed how bad an example of following Christ was set by many who should have known better, and whose very authority should reflect a different approach. Verses 26-28 tell us to not be afraid of speaking up. Those who have been part of a Rostrum group will know the promise that is made to “not be silent when I ought to speak”. All too often we act out of fear, but “the truth will set us free”. God knows everything, and would like us to spread the word about things which ought not to be, so that they can be addressed properly. Sometimes that requires us to work “behind the scenes” so that issues can be addressed before they get out of hand. We have a copy of “Blood on the Rosary” at home at the moment. It tells of the harrowing story of twins, one who became a nun, the other a priest, and the sexual abuse of children which was swept under the carpet for far too long, partly from loyalty to family and partly to avoid scandal in the church. It’s hard to stand up against family. Speaking up made a difference, despite the fact that it took a long time, and a lot of effort, to be heard. Will we learn lessons from such experiences? I doubt it. In no way do I wish to reduce the significance of any sexual abuse, but it’s not the only way in which we are mistreated by those who have some authority. I have just been told about someone who has been threatened with a loss of work for refusing to do something which would put lives at risk. Last year I dealt with a case of a casual worker who was dropped from an overworked, understaffed, situation for no apparent reason other than management wouldn’t talk. Proclaiming such issues from the rooftops may not get desirable results because it’s an all-too-familiar story, but failing to speak up wouldn’t get any improvement.
Scripture tells us that we are ALL children of God. The devoted Father loves all His children unconditionally, but He doesn’t love the sins we commit. Unlike us, He has no problem separating the two. It doesn’t matter how many birds of whatever species we count, we are still more valuable to God than they are.
In verse 32 Jesus tells us to acknowledge Him, not only in church, but in our daily lives. Let it be known – proclaim it from the rooftops – that we are dedicated to Christ, and He will be a witness of our dedication with God, but if we deny Him the respect He deserves then He will not be able to be a witness for us. It sounds Deuteronomistic – do the right thing and be blessed, do the wrong thing and be cursed – but this has to do with our allegiances, not to the love which God has for us.
Verses 34 to 39 seem so cruel, and so much against the idea of the unconditional love which God has for us, but let’s revisit that book I mentioned earlier. The message which Christ brought to us was to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. In that context family members are neighbours – just think of Christ’s response to the question “Who is my neighbour?” When any form of abuse gets in the way of being a united family, and when we try to hide evil ways and keep people silent, we are going to divide families, friends, communities, … and churches. Where is our allegiance? Do we ask ourselves, often enough, what Jesus would do in our situation, here and now? Do we fight for the devil, or for God? Are we prepared to continue to raise concerns until those with authority acknowledge the concern and do something about it? The more I ask those questions the more I realise that I am not doing as well as I should be. How about you?
1I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my supplications. 2Because He inclined His ear to me, I will call on Him as long as I live. 12What shall I return to the Lord for all His bounty to me? 13I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, 14I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. 15Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. 16O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid. You have loosed my bonds. 17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. 18I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, 19in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!
I am back but it might take a little while for me to pick up speed.
This psalm has a personal pull for me, right now, as well as one associated with a return to church services in Western Australia. Rules related to the size of gatherings and spacing of people have prevented services being held normally, and even though people in my own parish are still limited in some ways we can now gather in numbers we are used to seeing. For that we give thanks to God. The day before this psalm was to be read in church I was rushed to hospital with chest pains. My pulse dropped markedly and my blood pressure was varying rapidly.
Just as with the Covid-19 problem the recovery is slow and changes to lifestyle have been necessary, though not devastating. Just as with Covid-19 prayers have been offered by many people across many nations. Just as with the Covid-19 situation, prayers have been answered. Because the Lord has heard our supplications and our voices, and has included His ear to them, it is time to commit further to Him for as long as we live.
God has given us a new opportunity to worship Him, but are we going to return to our old ways of paying lip-service to Him, or are we going to see the cup of salvation as something we need to share with others? Our commitment should be to pay our vows to the Lord in the presence of ALL His people, not just those around us, not just those of the same first language, or the same skin colour. All seven-plus billion people in the world are His. I don’t see that in the world in which I have to work, and I wonder whether we will have to endure another pandemic before we start to think of others more than ourselves.
I have two funerals to “attend” over the next few days: people who have spread the word and looked after others but who have now been called home to God because they are precious in His sight. I say “attend” because my own health is not up to such events yet.
When we give ourselves to the Lord the love which goes with that giving also calls on us to do our bit, and to praise the Lord. The Hebrew word at the end of this psalm is Hallel, which is a call to praise, so let us really Praise The Lord. Hallelujah!
14One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15nd said, ‘What will you give me if I betray Jesus to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16From that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
17On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 18He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, “The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.” ’ 19So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
20When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; 21and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22They became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ 23He answered, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for him not to have been born.’ 25Judas, who betrayed him, said, ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ He replied, ‘You have said so.’
26While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ 27Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’
30When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
31Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered,” 32but after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.’ 33Peter said to him, ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’ 34Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ 35Peter said to him, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples.
36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ 40Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 42Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ 43Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’
47While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ 49At once he came up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him. 50Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put up again your sword for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?’ 55At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
57Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. 58Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. 59Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, 60but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61and said, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.” ’ 62The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ 63But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ 64Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ 65Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66What is your verdict?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ 67Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, 68saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’
69Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean, 70but he denied it before all of them, saying, ‘I do not know what you are talking about.’ 71When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, ‘This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ 72Again he denied it with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ 73After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.’ 74Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed. 75Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.
1When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. 2They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
3When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ 5Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 6The chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ 7After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. 8For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 10and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’
11Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so,’ 12but when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ 18For he realised that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’ 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ 22Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ 23Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’
24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ 25Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ 26So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
27The soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28They stripped him and put a purple robe on him, 29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 30They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
32As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry His cross. 33When they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered Him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when He tasted it, He would not drink it. 35When they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’
38Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ 41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ 44The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
45From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink; 49but the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’ 50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
55Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
57When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
62The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” 64Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ 65Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
Phew! I’m tired after reading that long gospel, even though I’m sitting down. It’s packed with important points. I can’t imagine anyone trying to do a reflection about the length of these I’m doing but on the whole of that gospel, so let me pick and choose parts for this exercise.
We start with Judas going to the authorities and asking how much they will pay him to betray Christ. Didn’t he have a reputation for stealing? The response from Jesus, however, raises a valid point: ‘Day after day I sat in the Temple and you did not arrest me.” Was that because the Temple leadership didn’t take note of who was in the Temple? Surely there would be no reason to pay someone for a betrayal if they had actually seen Christ.
Verses 26-28 give us the familiar words of consecration in our Eucharist. Some people have taken these words literally and spoken of the trans-substantiation, or change of substance, of the bread and wine, but I think that Jesus was taking something very familiar to help the disciples remember what He had been doing during His ministry period, and these were to them symbols of Christ’s body and blood.
Again the disciples get a bad wrap. They didn’t know, or didn’t realise, how important the events which were about to unfold would be to them, or to the Christian community which would result. They were tired; so they fell asleep, even as Christ was praying to God to have the plan for His death changed. Can we pray “not my will, but yours”? We say that every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus meant it. Do we?
When Jesus was arrested, one of the disciples, reportedly Peter, used a short sword in an attempt to stop the arrest, and cut off one of the High Priest’s servant’s ears. Peter’s way of handling a situation he didn’t like was to use violence, just like a lot of people do today, but Christ’s way was peaceful and healing. Can we follow the example of Jesus and avoid violence?
Sometimes, often out of fear of some retribution, we want to dissociate ourselves from another, but we also want to know what is happening to that other. Peter’s case is no different from ours. He feared that he would suffer the same fate as Jesus, so didn’t want to be linked to Him, and kept his distance. Unfortunately for him he was recognised, and his accent gave him away. I can imagine Jesus thinking “O Peter, what have you done? Here’s a cock crow just to remind you of what I said.”
When all the shenanigans of a kangaroo court trial are over, Pilate asks the people if he should release Christ or Barabbas. “Bar” “Abba” literally “without father”, so the choice was “Father” or “not Father”, “God” or “not God”, and the religious authorities of the day put pressure on the people to choose the worst option possible. Claim to worship God, but reject Him. Not good!
Every image of Christ on the cross will show him wearing a loin cloth. Rubbish! To add to all the degradation and humiliation associated with Him being crucified, he would have been totally naked, but we sanitise the image for fear of showing people what it was really like. “The Passion of Christ”, directed by Mel Gibson, was highly criticised for showing the lead up to, and the crucifixion of Christ in all its gory detail. Were the critics afraid that seeing what it really was like would help stop violence?
Matthew only relates one of the phrases attributed to Christ on the cross. Luke 23:34 tells us that Jesus said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Think about it. Jesus is asking His Father to forgive the people responsible for His death, because He, in all His humanity, cannot. Sometimes it’s difficult for us to forgive; sometimes we might feel it’s impossible; but we can always call on God to do the forgiving for us, and to help us find peace in that decision.
The Jewish calendar counts the beginning of a day as sunset on what we call the evening before. Jesus was crucified on a Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath. When Joseph of Arimathea went to collect the body of Jesus it was already evening, so his handling of the dead body, and its burial, would have made him ritually unclean for the Sabbath. For a devout Jew that was almost unthinkable. How did Joseph even get permission to take the body? That was usually reserved for the next-of-kin. Some people consider that Mary Magdalene, who was present at the crucifixion, and the burial, and was, according to John’s gospel, the first witness of the resurrection, might be as close as anyone to Jesus. Otherwise, why was she named as being at all three events where a next-of-kin might be expected? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone will until our souls depart this mortal life and go to where neither “moth nor rust will destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
For those who are interested in reading more, I would strongly suggest trying to get a copy of The First Easter by Peter Marshall. If you can’t find one, please email me and I’ll see what I can do to help.
For those who want to know more about the crucifixion, and who have a strong constitution, I suggest watching The Passion of Christ.
1A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, but you are going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world, 10but those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died; 22but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29When she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Ah, Lazarus! We named one of my cars ‘Lazarus’ because it kept coming back from the dead, first after a certain learner driver ploughed into a stone gate post and later when I had the distinction of hitting two kangaroos at once on the Nullarbor Plain. The mechanics and repair people did a wonderful job in both cases.
Here, of course, we have a story about a man who was restored to physical life by the words of Christ and the actions of God. Jesus would have known, before he received the deputation from Martha and Mary, that Lazarus was about to die, but the timing of His return to Bethany was not right for raising someone who would have been acknowledged as really dead, rather than in what we could call a coma. The chance to raise someone from the dead for the glory of God was not to be missed, but to achieve that He had to wait a little longer. God’s timing and ours don’t always match.
Even at this stage Jesus is not afraid of going into hostile territory. John’s favourite phrase “The Jews”, meaning the Jewish authorities who were keen to protect their own skins and get this upstart out of the way, had been finding issues which irked them and their collective temper was getting a bit too hot. Even so, Jesus tells His disciples that they should go into this enemy compound, to visit Mary and Martha. I have pity for the disciples as they are frequently portrayed in the fourth gospel. If we’re in the same house and say that someone has fallen asleep, it’s very likely that we’re talking about restorative rest as we (hopefully) get each night, but if we make the same statement when we’re a long way from home it’s likely to be interpreted as referring to permanent sleep, i.e. death. Our poor disciples needed that explaining, as they seem to need everything explaining on their journey with Christ. Thomas has to have the worst rating of all, suggesting that they too should die just because Lazarus has died.
So the group arrived at Bethany, and Jesus finds that Lazarus has been dead for four days. It’s important to realise that the Jewish people believed that the soul left the body after three days, so there was no hope of being brought back to life. Stop the press! Has anyone done some arithmetic here? Jesus waiting two days before heading to Bethany, but by the time He got there Lazarus had been dead four days, so even if He had left immediately Lazarus would have been dead before He arrived.
We could allow Martha the right to say “if you had been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died” in the sense that had He been in Bethany when Lazarus became sick He would have cured the sickness, but many people think that she was critical of the delayed travel. That might not be fair to her. There are eight “I AM” statements in John’s gospel, of which His claim to be “the resurrection” is the sixth, but Martha thinks only of the resurrection as what scripture told her would happen “at the last day” when we all face God. Did she get the message properly when Christ explained things to her, or later? Her affirmation of Christ as the Messiah, however, comes a long time before Peter made a similar statement. Then Mary came to Jesus, with the same response as her sister, not understanding what was about to happen.
Stop the presses again! John 11:35 is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible, based on the translation in the King James Version, which says “Jesus wept.” That’s a somewhat reasonable translation of the Greek word εδακρυσεν (edakrusen). The NRSV translation “Jesus began to weep” is, to me, as weak as dishwater because the Greek verb really means “to ball one’s eyes out.” No wonder those around commented that He must have loved Lazarus a great deal. If anyone tells you that men don’t cry we can refer to this verse and say that Jesus was a blubbering mess, so yes, men do cry, and should.
Even as the group approached the tomb, the focus of the bystanders was still on what they fully expected regarding someone who had been dead for so long. Decaying flesh has an awful smell to it, but Jesus was not bothered because He knew what has about to happen. Lazarus walks out of the tomb, still wrapped in burial cloths, and those gathered round believed in Christ because of what they had seen, and hopefully heard. Are we dependent on seeing God’s work to believe in Him? Do we fail to see God’s helping hand at work in our lives because we are looking for the wrong thing? I think we’re all guilty of that.
8Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’O come, let us sing to the Lord,
First let me mention that most scholars believe the letter to the Ephesians was written by a follower of Paul some years after his death. Though it was common, at the time, to write something in the style of an acknowledged leader, and attribute the writing to that person, the language, in the Greek of this letter to the Ephesians, uses phrases which we would not expect to find in genuine writings of Paul.
The earlier chapters of Ephesians celebrate the fact that the community had adopted Christ as its ultimate leader and source of inspiration, and so the people, who had engaged in activities and a way of life inconsistent with Christ’s own teaching, were now reformed. They had been living as “children of the dark” but were now “children of the Light” under the influence of Christ as “the Light of the world.”
One of the themes attributed to Paul is that we are reconciled to God by our righteousness, not by our works, and this has often been used to redirect our attention to being focussed on how we go about life, not what we do. In the letter of James, however, we hear that doing “works” is important. There is no contradiction here, because James tells us that there is a consequence of guiding our lives along the right path, and that is that we will want to do things that please God, so faith in God will result in actions for God. Hence “the fruit of the light is found in all that is good.”
Verse 10 is an exhortation to all of us, in every generation and place. Try to find out what is pleasing to God in every situation. In the current health crisis around the world that means doing the right thing according to the needs of others, rather than ourselves. If we have been infected by the Covid-19 virus Ephesians tells us that we should avoid all but absolutely necessary contact with anyone who hasn’t been infected, even if self-isolation is inconvenient. We are told to take no part in unfruitful works of darkness – read failure to think about the health or safety of others – but to expose those issues and see that they are addressed for God’s benefit, and thus ours. The ways of the world in which we live are “darkness” according to this passage, but the way of Christ is “light”. It is up to all of us, not just the ordained among us, to be witnesses to Christ in this world, and to bring His light. Think of Isaiah 60:1, or Handel’s Messiah with the chorus “Arise, Shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Stepping aside from the health crisis, we can see many ways in which the world around us is affecting us, or trying to do so, and trying to pull us out of Christ’s light into the darkness in which Satan enjoys seeing us. If we have a chance to have Easter services then we will be renewing our baptismal vows, including responses such as “I turn to Christ” and “I reject all that is evil.” If we are true to those responses then we will awaken, the “dead” within us will return to life, and Christ will shine on, or through, us. That concept reminds me of a story about a young child visiting a cathedral and being asked “what is a saint?” to which the child replied, seeing the stained-glass windows displaying several saints, “someone the light shines through.” How many of us are saints by that definition?
1O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! 3For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. 4In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. 5The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
6O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! 7For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
O that today you would listen to his voice!
8Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. 10For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.’ 11Therefore in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’
During Lent we usually stop things we could describe as making a joyful noise to the Lord, and it’s only on the fourth Sunday when we relax restrictions for Mothering Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday, so it’s interesting to see Psalm 95 in a time of reflection and contemplation, but let’s look at this from a different angle.
When our focus is on contemplation we might be tempted to think that it doesn’t matter if we don’t go to church, because nothing of note is going to happen – except, of course, those glorious, uplifting and energising sermons which most of us yearn to hear, but rarely do.
We aren’t urged just to make a joyful noise. That can be done any time and in any place, just to lift us out of the misery we bring upon ourselves. This, however, brings us immediately into focus with who brought us into existence and on whom we depend for our salvation. We should be making that joyful noise with thanksgiving for what God has done for us, and what He will do for us in the future. In case we’ve forgotten, verse 3 reminds us that God is greater than all the gods which other people worship. If we’re really thankful for what we have received how can we not give thanks to God?
Not only do verses 4 and 5 remind us that God created the world, and so everything, without exception, belongs to God, but they set us up for looking at everything that God has created since then. Every child, every new species of plant or animal, is a creation of God. Those who think God created the world in six 24-hour periods lose sight of the fact that the creation continues to this day. Having made it clear that God is the source of all that is good we are called back to worship. Kneeling is a position of subjection. When we kneel before God we are acknowledging His importance in our lives. Kneeling seems to have gone out of the window in most churches these days. Yes, there are some people for whom kneeling is physically painful, but how many of the rest of us don’t kneel because we’ve lost the sense of being in awe of God? We might feel insulted by being compared with sheep, but we so often behave like them it’s not funny. We’re easily led like a mob when one person shows ‘leadership’ only to find that we’ve all gone astray. Despite that God gives us pasture to satisfy our needs – pasture in the form of food, rain to grow plants, dwellings, and many more. Why do we find it so difficult to give thanks for those things, and so easy to complain that we haven’t got this, that, or the other?
When Moses was leading the Hebrew people across the Sinai desert they complained time and again about what God had NOT done for them. We are reminded about the time when they complained that they didn’t have water for themselves and for their livestock. Their attitude was so bad that Moses thought they would stone him unless he produced water. Are we not just as guilty of hardening our hearts when we give God token credit for the things which have gone well, and complain when things haven’t? How often do we actually give full credit to God? How often do we acknowledge that we have gone astray? Are we not at risk of being treated the same way as the Hebrew people in the Exodus story?
Is it possible for us to recognise that we need to change our ways, and to focus on what God wants us to do, rather than what we want God to do for us? Given the way our church attendances have declined over the last 40 years can we hope that the time is coming where people will turn back to God? We live in such a “me, me, me” world today that just trying to get people to think of others can be hard, but that’s what this call is asking us to do. “Do not harden your hearts” is probably too late for many of us.
If you would like to read the reflection on the Exodus passage set for Lent 3 (Year A) see
1The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
Short, sweet, and loaded. We meet Abram, whose original name meant “exalted father”, before his name was changed to Abraham (“father of many nations”). In earlier chapters of Genesis we hear of his wife, Sarai, who was barren, and their journey with Abram’s father to Haran, in what is now known as Turkey. By the time we get to this story Abram is already 75 years old, and past the life expectancy of his era. Sarai, too, is getting on in years, and well past the normal age for bearing children, so this couple would be expecting to live out their twilight years as an aging couple. Poor old Abram was given an instruction he would most likely have thought was totally unreasonable: leave the place you now call home, leave your family, your friends, your possessions, and take only your wife to live in a land far far away. I could imagine Sarai saying along the way “are we there yet?” because the journey would be long and tiring.
Abram was a man of great faith, believing that God would provide for his and Sarai’s needs along the way, and would give them a wonderful place to live when they got to The Promised Land, but God did not expect them to travel without some help and encouragement. We often hear about Sarai, then Sarah, laughing at what she heard about her having children many years later, but what of Abram when the old, childless man – and let’s not forget how badly adults were treated if they had no children – was told he would become a great nation. There is no indication, here, of God setting a maximum age for being called into a special relationship with the Creator. Anything is possible with God. Anything!
This is a personal invitation from God, supported by a series of personal commitments to Abram, and, by association, to Sarai. The language may be directed to Abram, but the message is clearly for both. “I will show you (the land)”, “I will bless you”, “I will make you a great nation”, “I will make your name great”, “I will bless those who bless you”, “I will curse those who curse you”, “through you I will bless all the families of the earth”. The great “I AM” is emphasising that He will … do these things.
How many of us would think of taking up the challenge Abram was given? Give up family, house, car, job, friends, contacts, comforts, and knowing how things work in your area, are likely to be far too great for most of us, but Abram left Haran, despite his age. Abram trusted God. Do we trust God as much as Abram did? Are we prepared to get up and leave everything behind and follow where God wants us to go, ignoring how old we might be, or feel? We might not have to physically leave our homes to take up an assignment from God which involves us pushing boundaries, taking new approaches, and encountering hostile reception from those around us. Are we still prepared?
If you want to read about names in the Bible ask me to send you a link. Names were really important to people in biblical times.
1Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards He was famished. 3The tempter came and said to Him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread;’ 4but He answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
5Then the devil took Him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command His angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear You up,
so that You will not dash Your foot against a stone.” ’ 7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
8Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 11Then the devil left Him, and suddenly angels came and waited on Him.
Oh dear! How many times have we heard a passage of scripture being quoted in support of some ideal, ignoring other passages which either contradict the ideal, or support an alternative to it? Leviticus 20:13 tells us that a man having a sexual relationship with another man should be put to death because his actions are detestable, but Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created male and female in His (i.e. God’s) image. Since we are all created in God’s image homosexual people can’t be detestable to God, however much the relationship might be considered undesirable for the continuation of the human species which God has created. The Epiphany 4 passage from Matthew spoke of “an eye for an eye”, which is still practised in some countries, but must be abhorrent to a loving God who is willing to forgive, and forgive, and forgive. Here we have the devil trying to coax Jesus into his errant ways and attacking the relationship Jesus had with God by quoting passages of scripture which were to his suiting, and ignoring others which weren’t. I note the beginning of the words attributed to the devil: “IF you are the Son of God”. Anyone for an insult?
Whenever I see images of the devil I am struck by how unrealistic they seem to be. If the devil really appeared to us with horns and carrying a pitch-fork would we ever be tempted? Of course not! We’re far more likely to willingly go down the track the devil wants us to take, and move away frm God, if we feel we can trust him; and that trust only comes with being happy to be with him, or one of his entourage. It might be the willing person who wants to help run the children’s group, or the person who invites you to play games at the casino, or many others. Keep watch! Be vigilant! How much our society has slid when we have to be constantly doubting the motives of people around us!
The devil was trying to get Jesus to take the easy way out of His hunger after days in the wilderness, but Jesus was wise to his motives, and appreciated the work which goes into producing food. It’s not magic! When the disciples came back to the Samaritan well (John 4:32) Jesus told them He had food which they didn’t know about – food from His relationship with God. He didn’t need to turn stones to bread. He didn’t need to break His relationship with His Father. Go run up a shutter, Satan: it didn’t work. Christ 1, Satan 0.
It might sound disrespectful to the scriptures, but when I think of the devil taking Jesus from a location in the wilderness to the pinnacle of the temple I have images of Superman or Dr Who travel. Of course it’s not. That’s just my 21st century mind picking up on aspects of the story which appear unrealistic, and it’s a distraction from the essence of these verses. These days Scripture is often discredited because we put a 21st century spin on, in this case, a 1st century text, and we let the distraction get in the way of our appreciation of, and understanding of, the message being portrayed. Here Satan quotes Psalm 91:12 as if it should be taken literally in such hypothetical situations. How often do we do the same, especially when it suits us? Again, Jesus is wise to the move and quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, which counters Satan’s reference. Can we respond in such a way? As a follower of Christ should I be able to respond that way? Christ 2, Satan 0!
Then Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows off all the world, offering to give Him all of it in exchange for worship. Hey, hang on a moment, Satan. You don’t own the world, though you seem to have a foothold in many places, so you can’t offer to give it to Him anyway. Do we offer things to others when we have no right to make such an offer? That’s one way in which we can get caught up with actions which are not in keeping with God’s will, or the benefits which following God will provide for all of us. How often do we succumb to offers, or temptations, which are in our personal best interest, but which are detrimental for others? Temptations aren’t just about being faced with a dilemma as to which of a number of options to take; temptations are about testing, in this case our faith and our relationship with God. There’s no doubt about who wins here. Christ 3, Satan 0. The Trinity wins, and Satan goes, but he is wily and uses his own followers to try to tempt us.
If you want a reflection on the Genesis passage set for Lent 1 then go to http://frends.biz/reflections/5th-march-2017-lent-1/
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.