Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: God

15th January 2017

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

areyoucalledorchosen_2Isaiah 49:1-7

1Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
3He said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified,’
4but I said, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’
5Now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—
6he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’
7Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and His Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’

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


There are four servant songs in what is known as 2nd Isaiah, of which this is the second. As an educator with a healing ministry I have always liked the third of these songs, 50:4-9, because it is so close to my heart and my own ministry. Here we have another very powerful passage.

At the time of “Isaiah” writing this the Hebrew people were spread across several countries, having been invaded and having their temple destroyed, now enduring what, to us, seems to be yet another period of exile because they lost track of what God wanted of His chosen people. The prophet calls to his people, wherever they are, and stakes his claim to being one whom God had chosen to lead them back to their homeland and back to their faith. Isaiah has spent much of his life labouring at his task and not getting any results of which he can be satisfied – “proud” is often misunderstood because pride can be a negative characteristic, but God has declared that the prophet will not only bring His people back from exile, but will extend the message of the divine love and goodwill to nations beyond Israel’s shores. It seems that Isaiah’s work has been annoying rulers. Given that the Hebrew people were scattered in a number of countries with different rulers and Isaiah was trying to get them back to their homeland it’s not surprising that the rulers were objecting to his entreaties and forcing him to fit in with their wills. “Don’t tell me what I should be doing. I can ignore you to my heart’s content and you will just have to deal with it.” It is not clear from the wording of the passage who was deeply despising Isaiah, but the context suggests that it was those with authority, and God then declares that kings will recognise God and prostrate themselves in recognition of Him because of what the prophet has done and written.

The servant songs have long been part of the tradition of the Christian community as a prophecy for Christ himself. If we read this passage with Christ as the centre then we see His ministry unfolding in much the same way as the suffering servant. Christ would labour greatly through a few years of ministry, even struggling to get His disciples to see clearly what He was about, but His message of love and hope would spread to all nations, as we have seen, with few exceptions. Rulers have, indeed, seen the light of Christ and have worshipped Him as the Good News has spread around the world, thanks to those unlikely folk on whom God has called.

However, there is an increasing tendency towards secularism, especially in countries where living is easy, and where we have a choice of religious observance and attire. Though we have not been forced into physical exile are we, in various countries, experiencing a period of exile from God whilst still in our own homes? Are we succumbing to moves to make “Merry Christmas” into “Happy Holidays”? Are we denying our young children the opportunity to learn about the faith which has underpinned much of our heritage, our laws, and our security by banning religious education in government schools, and stopping even Christian children from singing Christmas carols and wearing signs of their faith? If we are doing that shouldn’t we be doing the same for people of all religions?

Who is going to be “Isaiah” for us? Who was called by the Lord whilst in the womb? Whose mouth is like a sharp sword to those in authority, raising issues which they don’t want raised and challenging them to address the deficiencies? Who has laboured long in an endeavour for the message from God to be heard in circles which do not want the message to be heard? Who is, or has been, deeply despised by rulers, and that can include those in authority in the church because they are frequently in the role of a ruler, because they ask questions or raise a differing point of view?

Those questions can be raised in a secular context as well as a religious one. Should we ask them of politicians, not only in the lead up to an election, as we will have in Western Australia in March this year, but at every opportunity? Should we ask them of leaders of our churches?

Over the years I’ve worked with people who have put themselves forward as potential ordination candidates in four Australian dioceses in the Anglican Church, all of them having a deep sense of call, as per these servant songs, all having support from their parishes, and all having been chewed up and spat out by a diocesan machine which tells them that their lay ministry is affirmed, but with no pastoral care forthcoming, or told that “many are called but few are chosen”. The church is quick to claim that the reference is to many being called to offer themselves but few being chosen by God to join the ordained ministry. I suggest it should be read as many are called by God but few are chosen by the church, and I also suggest that that is the case because those who have offered themselves bring questions which the church does not want to answer.

25th December 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

luke-2-we-are-all-innkeepersLuke 2:1-20

1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged, and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified, 10but the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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


In most cases the passages of scripture selected for reading as part of a church service are extracts from a much larger whole. When an extract starts with “In those days”, “In that region”, or any of the multitude of beginnings which depend on previous text for their sense, I wonder why an effort is rarely made to provide us with the setting, so we know the context for the story. Some years ago I was training people to read set passages, and gave them a challenge. With just one name changed to a pronoun I read the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus and asked them to listen as one who had never heard the story before, and to raise a hand when they could identify the main character. No-one raised a hand. If that happened with people who are already connected with a church how can we expect newcomers to church to understand what we’re talking about without the context being set?

Luke claims that the emperor Caesar (in classical Latin pronounced Kaiser, not seizer) Augustus initiated the first registration of everyone in the Roman world at a time when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and that was the reason for Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem. Given that the wise men, in Matthew’s rendition of the birth story, asked Herod for guidance to get to see the new-born King of the Jews, there is a significant problem with Luke’s information. Of course, a thorough investigation of Luke’s attempt to date-stamp the birth of Jesus, written well over half a century after the event, only goes to show that scripture is theological ahead of being historical in our sense of accuracy of details such as dates. We miss the point of the birth and its significance for the world if we try to confirm or contradict details of timing in Luke’s narrative.

It’s easy for us, in the 21st century and where it’s not unusual for a woman to be pregnant before being married, to overlook the importance of Joseph’s support for Mary. Matthew 1:19 tells us that Joseph was planning on “dismissing” Mary because he was unwilling to expose her, not him, to public disgrace – as if the developing pregnancy would not be noticed – but his intention was changed after a visit from an angel. In those days a pregnancy before marriage would have brought disgrace for both parties, but if the man disappeared from the relationship early enough he might escape because she had been unfaithful – isn’t “she” always the sinful one? What’s that lump in your throat called, Adam? Joseph showed strength of both character and faith by sticking with Mary in the lead up to Jesus’ birth.

If we think that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” what might we think of the location of Christ’s birth? All the good places in Bethlehem were occupied by the time Mary and Joseph arrived, so they had to occupy a stable, with the animals around them and the smell of their feed and their urine and faeces. This was no place of cleanliness in terms we humans think of it, especially these days. It was no royal palace, fit for a king on our human scales, but an indication of Christ’s connection with the poor and with every living thing.

‘There were shepherds, abiding in the fields, watching over their flocks by night’ – sorry, I’ve sung Messiah so many times that quotes are inevitable. Our Christmas celebrations are centred on a date close to the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, which is a time of intense cold, snow, and plenty of cloud cover. That’s certainly not a time when shepherds would be out in the fields at night, tending to their sheep: it’s a time when the sheep would be in barns or stables, protected as much as possible from the freezing conditions – and yes, it does get that cold in Israel! Even the Sahara desert got some snow recently. We don’t know the exact date of Christ’s birth; we don’t even know the actual year because when “Dionysius the Little” tried to calculate it, way back in the 6th century, he didn’t have the accurate information we have now. What we do know is that Jesus was born into a Jewish community and, later, showed his divinity as well as his humanity. As with many Christian festivals, the date was chosen to re-badge a pagan festival.

Angels come in various forms. Sometimes we don’t recognise them when they are vitally present for us, because we see just another human being. The film The Staircase tells the story of a real-life example of an angel providing a community of nuns in New Mexico with a staircase many believed was impossible, and disappearing without trace or payment as soon as it was complete. Have we been visited by angels in our lives, or, more particularly, have we been angels in the lives of others? The angels who visited the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem were no humans who walked into the shepherds’ lives and walked out again. In this case the appearance created fear and awe, and the experience was enough to stir the shepherds into action. Can we experience the birth of Christ in such as way that we are stirred into action to spread the Good News? Can we be so stirred by our encounter with the living Lord Jesus that we spend our lives rejoicing, and glorifying and praising God for what we have heard and seen. I hope so.

18th December 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
a-advent-4-d
© slideplayer

Isaiah 7:10-16

10The Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven’, 12but Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ 13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

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


You might think, based on the opening words of this passage, that Ahaz was a good and faithful king, who felt it would be wrong to put the Hebrew Lord to the test. The second half of verse 12 resonates with the temptation passages in the gospels, where Christ says that it is written in scripture that you should not put the Lord your God to the test, but challenging God by testing was far from Ahaz’s motivation. Destined to be one of the few Judean kings not to be buried with the others Ahaz had been defiling the temple with pagan altars and idols, and siding with kings who would make the Hebrew people little more than slaves because he was afraid of the kings of Syria and northern Israel. Did Ahaz refuse to ask the Lord for a sign because he knew what the Lord would do for and to him? Possibly. He could hardly have been ignorant of the damage his actions would do to the relationship between the people and their God. Indeed, after Ahaz had died it took a full sixteen days just to remove from the temple all the pagan artifacts and altars he had insisted on having there. That’s some load of rubbish – probably enough to fill a few dump trucks used in the iron ore mines in the north of Western Australia!

Isaiah has obviously had a gut full of Ahaz’s unwillingness to listen to priests and prophets. In the circumstances he declares what Ahaz doesn’t want to hear, but he doesn’t direct his comments to Ahaz. Instead he speaks to the people of ‘the house of David’ – in other words, the people over whom Ahaz was supposed to be ruling wisely on behalf of God. Not only has Ahaz annoyed the people, the priests and the prophets, who are described as weary mortals, but he has even tested the patience of God. That’s some achievement! I wonder how often the Church pushes God that far because those who can do something to bring us back to God don’t want to listen. Let it be known that there are still some serious issues in the Church yet to be exposed, but continually being swept under the carpet in the hope that they will go away, rather than trusting God to deal with them. In response to Ahaz’s refusal to ask God for a sign Isaiah declares, in my words, not his: ‘whether you like it or not, Ahaz, and whether you ask or not, God is going to give you a sign, so observe and note.’

To Christians the following statement is familiar – probably too familiar, because it has been used as a prophecy, from Isaiah, of the coming of Christ more than 700 years later. One thing I find about scripture is that there can be one meaning understood by the people of the time, including the writer, and a totally different meaning for later generations, and we can often look back and ask ourselves if the original writer actually had an idea of what was to come, or was there something else going on at the time. Scripture is inspired by God, so it’s quite possible that God knew what was going to happen, and got the prophets to talk or speak of events to come, when they were really thinking they were talking of things in their own time.

The Hebrew in verse 14 refers to a young woman of marriageable age. It does not refer to a virgin, though the young woman might be expected, at the time, to be a virgin. Matthew’s rendition modifies the original text, in line with the Septuagint translation, to suit the story of the birth of Christ, and to link directly to Isaiah’s prophecy. Names meant a lot to the people of the time, so a name like Immanuel, which is commonly translated as ‘God with us’ would not have been an uncommon name when a couple had been blessed with a child they had struggled to conceive. In a slight variation, Matthew uses the same name, Emmanuel, in his birth narrative, yet the child is named Jesus (Yeshua in Aramaic).

The prophecy from Isaiah continues: before this child will be old enough to know right from wrong the kingdoms of which Ahaz was afraid would be desolate. Clearly if Isaiah had been thinking of something as far away as Christ’s birth he wouldn’t have mentioned the desolation of Syria and northern Israel, both taken over by the Assyrians, who made Ahaz little more than a puppet. Yes, Ahaz was without troubles for the rest of his reign, but he was hardly a responsible leader of a faithful people.

Stories such as these are not only historical, reflecting the efforts of the prophets of old to bring the Hebrew rulers back to worshipping God and rejecting the ways of those around them, but they have a strong message for us, many centuries later. How far have we been led astray, by our Church as well as our political leaders? I was looking through some old Anglican Messengers the other day, and came across an article by Rabbi Dr Jonathon Sacks, entitled “Reversing Christianity’s decline and fall.” ‘Judaism and Christianity share an astonishing capacity for self renewal’, he wrote. In Isaiah’s time that renewal began after the death of Ahaz. Churches in Western societies are in decline as more power is centralised and we lose faith in ourselves. When will the next renewal begin, and what will start it?

13th November 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

2thess3-d22 Thessalonians 3:6-13

6We command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us, 7for you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate, 10for even when we were with you, we gave you this command: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


Now you have it folks: either work and eat, or don’t and don’t. It’s as simple as that.

That, of course, is if we read Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians quite literally, as some people are wont to do. Thank God for Paul. It would, of course, help if his writings were more easily understood in a 21st century context, but Paul was writing nearly 2000 years ago and we need to honour not only the context in which Paul wrote those words, but also how they might apply to us, here and now.

If Paul needed to write to a Christian community in this way, especially one he had brought together, what were they doing? Clearly, there were some who didn’t want to be involved in any work, but expected the rest of the community to look after them. Note the want, not an inability. As ever, Paul is trying to lead by example. Though he had every right to depend on a community in which he was operating, his modus operandi was to keep working, to be self supporting, and to provide support for others who were less fortunate than himself. He was determined that they were not distracted from the mission to follow Christ by having to provide for him when he was quite capable of doing that himself.

As with every Christian, the Thessalonians were called to spread the word about Christ. In Romans, Paul exhorted that we are justified by our faith [Rom 5:1], not by our works, but James reminds us that if our faith is real then it will result in us doing work for the sake of the gospel [James 2:17]. If we don’t exercise our faith by doing “works” then our faith is illusory, and not real. In the context of this letter to the Thessalonians, if we are unwilling to work for the sake of the gospel then we shouldn’t expect the community to support us, because we are not expressing our real live faith in the real live world to touch real live people.

Looking back across the passage I note Paul saying that he “did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it”, and I am reminded of a recording I engineered several years ago, in which Ched Myers spoke on the subject “How Many Ways Can I Rob You?” Being idle, and still expecting to be fed because of the generosity of others would be one of the many ways.

The last verse of this passage highlights a problem with translations of scripture. A good study bible will provide a translation which is honest to the Greek of the New Testament, without interpreting it, and would have “brethren” because the word Paul used was adelphoi, which is a masculine plural noun. A good reading bible, however, would use “brothers and sisters” or even “friends” as that is the sense we should take from the reading. I believe that the Revised Standard Version was a good study bible, but the New Revised Standard Version has tried to be both – and it doesn’t work well.

What do I get out of this passage? First, an opportunity to stir those close to me when they sit around expecting to be fed even though it’s clear there are things to do before we can be fed. As a grammarian I love to have fun with the English language, and deliberately taking a text like this out of context provides an opportunity to have such fun when those around can see the intended joke. Second, a reminder that I must continue to do my work as an expression of my faith, not because doing so will justify me in my relationship with God.

6th November 2016 (All Saints’ Day)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
let-them-praise-dancing
from indulgy.com

Psalm 149

1Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, His praise in the assembly of the faithful.
2Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
3Let them praise His name with dancing, making melody to Him with tambourine and lyre.
4For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He adorns the humble with victory.
5Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches.
6Let the high praises of God be in their throats, and two-edged swords in their hands,
7to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples,
8to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron,
9to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord!

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.

 


Joy, joy, joy! With joy my heart is singing, for the one who sings, prays twice, according to St Augustine and many who have followed him. I am reminded of a visit one of my theological college lecturers made to a distant country, which shall not be named. On noting an absence of musical instruments in churches he visited the lecturer asked the reason, and was told that it was OK for the Romans, the Anglicans, the Uniting Church, and Protestant churches to have musical instruments, “but not in the House of God”!

The Psalms formed the hymn book for the Hebrew people. Music was as much a part of their life as it is for most of us today; and it is appropriate that we use our musical talents to worship God. Whilst the first verse of Psalm 149 encourages us to “sing a new song” I think the intention was that such new songs should be meaningful, directed towards worshipping God, and not banal, over-repetitive, or monotonous. From that you might gather that I have encountered all three, and sometimes in the one song. With the demise of nearly all parish church choirs in the Anglican tradition we have lost the opportunity to hear beautiful music played and sung. A four-part harmonisation of some of the still popular hymns is far more uplifting, even for those with little musical involvement, than singing the same hymns in unison. There is a desperate need to a return to singing in parts. The motto of the Royal School of Church Music is “Psallam spiritu et mente”, which means “singing with spirit and understanding.” New songs, created in that vein, can be hugely uplifting, and be of benefit to everyone.

The people are encouraged to be glad for what their maker has given them, and to rejoice in having someone, as monarch, who cares for everyone, and loves them unconditionally. We are encouraged to include dance in our worship, though there are many who believe church services to be an inappropriate place for that. Indeed, the original dances mentioned in this psalm were not celebrations for the Lord in thankfulness for the wonders of the world, but had overtones of military might, somewhat akin to the Haka performed by the New Zealand All Black rugby team. Nevertheless, dancing was encouraged, and should still be. Different means of producing music are encouraged: the version in A Prayer Book for Australia renders this as “with timbrel and with harp” but the important point is that all musical instruments should be welcomed. You could hardly expect the writers of the psalms to include bassoons, flutes, violins, harpsichords or organs, all of which were invented many centuries later.

Verses 4 and 5 continue this theme of celebration and worship with pleasure and adoration being expressed on the part of the Lord as we concentrate on the good things of life; but the tone changes drastically with the second half of verse 6. Why, oh why do we humans have to think that they must engage in violence to overcome those who think differently from ourselves? Why do we so easily forget that “vengeance is mine” as written in Deuteronomy 32:35? Why do we assume that we have the right to extract vengeance on behalf of God? Why do we not learn from such admonitions? Over the centuries verses such as 6b to 9a have been used out of context to defend actions which should offend the vast majority of sane people. We only need to look at areas of the world today where there is conflict to see this playing out time and time again. Psalm 149 is not just Christian scripture, it is scripture for Jews and Muslims alike. We are all “people of the book”. [I was surprised to find that, in Arabic, a Muslim is someone who adheres to Islam, but a Moslem is someone who is evil and unjust].

Some years ago it was said – if someone can give me the reference I’d really appreciate it – that if the governments of the world spent half of their defence budgets on cultural exchange programmes there would be no wars. Most of Australia’s cultural exchange activities are run by small organisations which are not allowed to compensate hosting families for the additional costs of having an extra person with them for up to a year, and though those costs include food, water, electricity and transport, Centrelink is unable to consider the extra person a dependent because school fees are paid by the biological parents; and those who come a volunteers are expected to contribute out of the money they are not allowed to receive. We need to rethink our priorities when dealing with people overseas. We may think we have the best living conditions in our part of the world, and we may believe that God has given us those good living conditions because we have been faithful – though that’s hard to justify with many churches becoming less and less relevant to the people around them – but does it give us the right to extract vengeance because other people don’t agree with us? I think not.

Fortunately, Psalm 149 returns to its original focus on God. Let us truly “Praise the Lord!”

30th October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
habakkuk_2-3_bb
artwork courtesy of www.goodnewstext.org

Habakkuk 1:1 – 2:4

1This is the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise, 4so the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous. Therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

5Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. 8Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand. 10At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it. 11Then they sweep by like the wind; they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!

12Are you not from of old, O Lord my God, my Holy One? You shall not die. O Lord, you have marked them for judgment; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment. 13Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they? 14You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. 15The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults. 16Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his seine; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich. 17Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?

1I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what He will say to me, and what He will answer concerning my complaint. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


The actual text set for Pentecost 24 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary (30th October 2016) is only the first four verses of each of chapters 1 and 2 of Habbakuk, but it is instructive to look at the verses omitted in the light of what is happening on the world stage at present.

How often have we heard cries such as “how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Among those who are borderline or below in their faith it’s a common cry that you can cry out to God and there will be no answer. In many cases people wonder if there really is a God at all. Neither is that call restricted to non-church goers. When prayers for healing have gone unheeded, so we think, it’s easy to say that prayer doesn’t make any difference. We still have a need for help, and we feel abandoned. Day after day there are examples of women, especially, being subjected to violence and God seems oblivious. Much as it might seem that way, however, the truth is that God is with us in our turmoil and our pain, and is feeling every bit as frustrated with human beings going off the rails because we were given free will. How He must regret ever giving us such a gift! Still, though, the sense of desolation and deprivation are real. It doesn’t take much to see violence and destruction every day. On the way home from church on Sunday we witnessed a police chase for an escaped criminal who drove a stolen car at police trying to stop him, and endangered the lives of many before he was caught. Every day we see war-torn areas under siege with building and lives destroyed, and God appears not to act. When matters settle down, only a few of those behind atrocities are ever brought to justice in the human sphere. We might wonder why God hasn’t acted to bring an end to the senseless violence. The second half of chapter 1 verse 4 takes a dramatic turn. If the wicked surround the righteous, and judgement comes out perverted, isn’t Habakkuk suggesting that the wicked are infiltrating positions of power within the temple leadership? You can’t surround yourself with criminals and come out smelling of roses.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard many horror stories about violence and other abuse of minors, often, though far from all the time, at the hands of clergy and church leaders. The very people you should be able to expect to trust to show us God’s loving care for everyone have not only been infiltrated by people of a less worthy background, but the institutional responses have been shown time and again to be lacking too. Jesus told us to “Keep watch, for you do not know when the thief will come” and yet we struggle to understand how people who should know better fail to act properly. These stories are of violence on our own turf, and against our own people. If we are the hands, the eyes, the feet, and the mouth of God then surely it is up to us to listen to what God has to say about a situation and not depend on Him taking unilateral action, or depend on those who are empowered to be our spiritual guides, and who have been shown, at times, to be asleep on their watch.

In the West today we live with wars on various fronts, with terrorist activity, with human suffering on an enormous scale, but we are leaving ourselves open to far worse because of our lack of focus on God and what we should be doing. Habakkuk speaks of a work which we would not believe if we were told about it. Focussing on ourselves and things in our part of the world exposes us to actions we would prefer not to contemplate. How many of the things Habakkuk mentions in verses 7 to 11 are happening now, in various parts of the world? How many are happening in Australia, or under the eye of Australians?

The lament continues, with the unnamed evil power rejoicing as victims are brought into his net. There is no mercy. This sounds far too familiar. Large powerful nations manoeuvring to grab land and sea; others looking to support régimes condemned by most; nations deciding they know best for other nations, without asking; senseless murder of people who oppose the ruling élite.

Habakkuk declares he is doing what we must also do: stand on the watch post and keep listening for God’s word to us. The prophet is told to write the oracle so clearly that even a runner can read it. We should listen, and act, rather than wait for those in charge to take action on our behalf. When we look at the proud, whoever they may be, we will see that things are not right for them – there is something amiss – but those who are focussed on God and doing the right thing are alive because of their faith.

23rd October 2016 Joel

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
Pieter Bruegel "Harvest"
Pieter Bruegel, “Harvest” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Joel 2:23-32

23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. My people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other, and my people shall never again be put to shame.

28Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


I was intending completing the reflection on Joel when I was asked to focus on the gospel passage from Luke, so here’s a bonus.

Joel? Who’s Joel? How many of us can pick up a Bible and quickly find Joel without referring to the index?

The book of Joel is divided differently in the Hebrew from how it is done in English, so who decided that we English speakers are better at organising scripture than the original owners of that scripture? This segment opens with abundance in the wake of desolation. You might think “bad year, good year”, but that’s not the case. One verse about the locusts eating all the crops – and everything else – does not do justice, if that’s a fair word to use in the circumstances, to the years of famine brought about, according to scripture, because of the Hebrew people not paying attention to God. I can imagine God thinking “why do you humans go off on your own ways so often and so far that I have to send you plagues, famines, sheer desolation, and more to get you even to the starting point of looking to me for your blessings?” I don’t want to count the number of times that God’s chosen people went off the rails and had to be brought back by some horrors being inflicted on them. It would be depressing! How many times should I forgive my brother: seventy times seven? If that were God’s limit then we’d be in strife very soon.

God, of course, is willing to forgive us for our blatant transgressions, far more than we are willing to forgive others for their transgressions against us. As a consequence, God is now willing to provide food in abundance, joy for all, and a wonderfully new experience in that close relationship we have with our maker. Never again will the Hebrew people be put to shame; until, or course, they forget that God is in the midst of Israel, or that He is the one and only God. That’s a different story, which we know in the 21st century AD but they didn’t in the early 5th century BC.

The declaration that God will pour out His spirit on all flesh is familiar to those of us who have read or heard the Pentecost passage from Acts [Acts 2:14-21] where this excerpt from Joel is quoted as near to verbatim as we can get with one passage in Hebrew and the other in Greek. In Joel, there is no indication of when this will occur other than “afterwards”; in Acts, Peter adds “in the last days”. What we see in the declaration is that God will pour His spirit on all humans – the text says all flesh, but the list is only of various groups of people – with no boundaries. That is, there will be no discrimination on the grounds of gender, age or social status. The spirit will be poured on sons, daughters, old men, young men, slaves, let me add wives and mothers, and all shall, not will, prophesy. It’s amazing that this list was written more than 400 years before Paul’s famous “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” if we take the King James rendition, though the Greek actually says “neither is there male and female”. [Galations 3:28]. It was clearly understood, even in the time of Joel, that God’s will was for equality, not segregation or subversion. If that concept was understood 2500 years ago, why do we still have opposition to women taking leadership roles in the churches?

In days when there was no understanding of the physical process of eclipses, the idea of the sun being turned to darkness, and the moon being turned to blood would have elicited fear of the end time whenever there was one – and we now know that they occur several times every year. Have we become complacent because we have a scientific understanding of eclipses? Quite likely.

If we are approaching the end time, and nobody really knows, have we done enough to reach out to those people who have little or no contact with God, remembering that “all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”? Some would answer that it is up to God to extend His grace to those who have had no contact with, or knowledge of the existence of God, and that we cannot reach out to everyone in every country because we don’t have the resources. That might be true, but does it exonerate us if we leave those who live close to us, and those with whom we work, ignorant of the loving grace of God?

23rd October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

jesus_w_children_600 Luke 18:15-30

15People were bringing even infants to Jesus that He might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it, 16but Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

18A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.’” 21He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” 28Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30who will not get back very much more in this age, and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


The poor disciples had some difficulty getting things right, even in the presence of Christ. This, of course, isn’t the only time that they were getting in the way of people being close to Christ: there was also the time when the disciples were stopping people from healing others because they weren’t part of the disciples’ group. I’m not sure whether that’s a case of big-noting themselves – we’re the ones with Christ’s authority to do those things, so stop doing them – or just a misunderstanding of the impact that Jesus was having on people’s lives. I cry every time I hear the second verse of this extract from Luke, because Jesus said to the disciples, the ones whom He was training to carry on after He left His earthly ministry, to let the children come to Him. Many pictures have been painted over the centuries of Jesus welcoming young children, wrapping His arms around them, and having them sit on His knees, yet that is precisely what the church of today is chastising its clergy and trainees for doing. We have let the misdemeanours of a small few clergy and lay leaders stop us from following in Christ’s footsteps, and welcoming children with open arms and a Christian love which they will not find anywhere else. Are our church leaders today behaving like the disciples in this story, and trying to prevent children from getting to the church, even if their motives are well-intended for the protection of children? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

When Jesus said “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” He was not suggesting that we should be childish in our approach to God. Just as a little child, growing up in a loving household, will have childish moments, it is not those to which Jesus was referring, but the child-like simplicity of the relationship with the earthly, and ultimately the heavenly, father. Young children trust their parents without judging them. Underlying the childish “I don’t love you because you won’t give me what I want” is the child-like trust which says “I do really love you, but right now you’re annoying me.” There is nothing wrong with having that same experience in our relationship with God. Given God’s sense of humour and brinksmanship it’s highly likely that we’ve all had times when we could tell God we don’t love Him, even though the bond is too tight to break. We clutter our lives with too much which doesn’t matter, and fail to be like Mary in the Mary and Martha story, taking time to be with God, to listen, and to be refreshed.

That clutter is, of course, very much behind the problem of the rich man in the second part of this passage. Did you pick up on that link before I mentioned it?

The passage refers to “a certain ruler” who remains unnamed and without any official title. It could be someone with land over which he had authority; it could have been a temple ruler; it could have been a Roman soldier; it could have been many different people. The fact that we aren’t told how this person ruled allows us to apply the approach to anyone. For the Pharisees, keeping to the letter of the law was of the utmost importance: if you kept the commandments you would be blessed by God, so knowing, and applying, those commitments (a better translation of the Hebrew) was all some people thought was necessary. Once again, Paul’s favourite response fits: “God forbid!” What the man with many possessions (in today’s world think iPhones and iPads for everyone, house with seven bathrooms, several luxury cars) hadn’t addressed was sharing his wealth with others who are less fortunate than himself. Though Jesus told him to go and sell everything it’s reasonable to assume that He meant everything that the man didn’t NEED. Does that include my professional equipment that has sat idle for several years in the hope that it might be used again? Probably, but technology has advanced so much that what I have a personal attachment to is likely to be worth very little other than as collector’s items.

The concept of a camel going through the eye of a needle is, of course, hyperbole. Jesus wasn’t suggesting that a large desert-based animal could pass through the eye of something which could be lost in its own hair. He was, naturally, emphasising that someone attached to his or her riches and unwilling to share resources for the benefit of others, would find it impossible, from a human approach, to be allowed into the Kingdom of God. I note that Jesus then tells us that everything is possible for God. One priest I knew a few years back said that once someone is a paedophile, that person will always be a paedophile, yet I know of one man whose life was transformed when he encountered God while in prison, and who was so appalled by what he had done that he was a shining example of what God can make possible. In the paedophile world he was like the reformed drug addict or alcoholic.

Leaving friends and family for the sake of something you cannot physically see is a challenge for many of us, but if those friends and family members are also on the journey to the Kingdom then we really haven’t left them at all. It’s the people who refuse to take the first steps on the journey who are the ones we have left behind, and that can still be hard. God still loves them, and we’re challenged to do the same, because He separates the sin from the sinner, loving the sinner, but not the sin.

Here’s another twist: we who have faith are already rich, though not necessarily in monetary terms. Christ’s message to us then, is to give away our riches, knowing that God’s love for us is like The Magic Pudding: it never gets smaller and will never run out.

16th October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
2_timothy_3-16_2
Artwork by Denyse at www.faithinheart.com

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5

14Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


The first thing that struck me about this passage was that it was exceptionally lucid for Paul, who exhorts Timothy to continue his own Christian journey, not allowing outside influences to detract from what he believed. Very quickly we encounter a problem with translation into English. It’s easy to read the first verse of this passage and think that Paul is asking Timothy to think of himself as the source of learning, but the Greek word translated “whom” is plural, not singular, so Paul is showing his humility and accepting that he is one among equals responsible for bringing the Christian faith to people. The second letter to Timothy could well have been the last of Paul’s writings, but he died around AD56, well before the first of the gospels was written, so what were the sacred writings to which Paul refers as helping Timothy from childhood, instructing about salvation through Christ? They couldn’t have been the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) because they made no direct reference to Christ, and Paul’s epistles and letters have long been considered the oldest of the writings we have.

Because of the grammar of New Testament Greek, verse 16 has often been translated “all God-inspired scripture” but the construction of the sentence suggests that the NRSV’s “all scripture is inspired by God” is better. Either way, this passage does not suggest that God dictated everything in scripture. I think of Paul’s favourite response to claims such as that, which could easily be translated as “God forbid!” Paul, of all the New Testament writers, was foremost in admitting to his own fallibility in speaking on behalf of God, often saying “it is Paul writing, not Christ within me”. As a Pharisee before his conversion, Paul would have been used to pulling scripture apart, criticising it, examining it for its meaning in the current time, and putting the message in a contemporary context, so he acknowledged the inspiration from God, but never claimed that God wrote scripture. I like to think of the Bible as “the word of God, as perceived by men (mostly), and written for men in a patriarchal society.” As such I have no difficulty in accepting that the inspiration which resulted in our scriptures is still useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training, but we should look at it the way Paul does: we should be prepared to pull it apart and find out what the message is for us without any cultural clutter from the day.

Paul’s solemn charge for Timothy is that he keeps the faith, through thick and thin, showing patience – what is that in a world of instant gratification? – mindful that the time will come when poor theology will take hold because people will seek leaders who suit their way of thinking and working, not God’s. How often do we ignore what God wants in a leader and seek someone who agrees with us? We banish leaders who say things we don’t like, even if taking note would be to our benefit, just as Jeremiah was because he prophesied against the king. Do we do the same? As part of the process of selecting a new priest for a parish in the Perth diocese members of the congregation are asked what they want of the new pastoral leader. It is tempting to set boundaries such that the new priest would satisfy wants, not needs. For lay people, some churches appear very welcoming to newcomers, but when those new people try to join groups there are often reasons why they can’t, or the established group members talk among themselves and ignore the new, and prospectively best member.

At least one Australian diocese had a training programme for potential clergy requiring a theology degree to be done online, with little or no contact with other students, and a development programme locally based and controlled. That missed the huge benefit of studying with people of different denominations, generating significant discussions on matters of faith and belief, and opening eyes to other ways of looking at scripture. Ordinands in dioceses with such a tightly constrained programme are left open to the problems Paul was suggesting would happen. Having worked, in a number of dioceses, with God-centred people who have offered themselves for ordination and been rejected, I wonder how often that happens not because of the lack of call but because the person doesn’t suit the selection panel’s choice.

The last verse is good advice to all of us: keep sober, endure suffering which comes from standing up for your faith, spread the good news (i.e. be an evangelist), and carry out your ministry fully, even if that does mean pushing boundaries and being uncomfortable. That applies to me, just as much as to anyone else.

For a short passage this is full of punch, though there are passages with more.

9th October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
The Healing of the Ten Lepers - Luke 17:11-19
JESUS MAFA, ‘Healing of the Ten Lepers’ from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As He entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him. He was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? but the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then He said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


In biblical times lepers were far more shunned than they are now, and were forced to live outside the towns for fear that they would infect everyone else, so Jesus meeting a group of lepers on the outskirts of a village should be no surprise, but their reaction to His presence raises questions. How did these people, who could not associate with the rest of the community, find out about Jesus and His healing ministry? Some people will explain that by claiming that they must have had some contact with people, or they had heard others talking about Him, but why couldn’t the Holy Spirit let them know so that this story could be told, to show how far from God the Jewish leaders of the day, and ultimately that includes us, had strayed? Jesus claimed that He came not to those who were well, but to the sick, and He showed His compassion for these ten outcasts. However, for them to be integrated back into the community they had to show themselves to the local priest for confirmation of their healing. All ten had enough faith in Jesus for them to head to the priest as if they were already healed, but only one, realising that he had been healed by Jesus, came back to give thanks. I thought the almost total disappearance of “please” and “thank you” in today’s world was bad, but this is the same story two thousand years ago, and Jesus was not happy! As a Jew, Jesus was reminded, by the Canaanite woman who said “even the dogs eat the scraps from the Master’s table” [Matt. 15:27] that His ministry was not limited to people of His own faith. Here, again, it is the foreigner, the highly despised Samaritan – remember the story of the “Good Samaritan” – who is so moved that he wanted to thank both the source and the means of delivery for the healing he had received. Such was his gratefulness that he prostrated himself. How many times have we done that when we give thanks to anyone for something they’ve done for us? I certainly didn’t when I saw my surgeon last week. We aren’t told if this man returned immediately or after being seen by the priest, but the important point isn’t whether it was before or after; the important bit is that he sought out Jesus to give Him thanks.

I’m also struck by the immediacy of this healing. Like Jairus’ daughter, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others, a prayer for instant healing was answered with instant healing. I’ve long held the belief that if we ask for what God wants to give us then our prayers will be answered in the way we want them to be – just like these lepers; but if we ask for something which God is not prepared to give us just yet, or in the form we ask for, then we risk being disillusioned about our prayers. That, however, shouldn’t stop us from asking for instant healing and being prepared to accept what is offered by the one who knows what is in our best interest, even if we don’t. Are we stopping ourselves, or do we need some more mustard seeds? [Matt. 17:20]

The last verse is interesting, and the interest relates to translation of the text. What we see as “get up” comes from a Greek word used in the early church in relation to resurrection, not just physically getting off the ground, and the word which most English translations render as “made … well”, or something similar, is actually the verb “to save”, also as in the sense of resurrection. Hence it would be better to finish this passage with “your faith has saved you.” Of all the different translations of the Bible in my collection, only the Jerusalem Bible renders it closely to the meaning of the Greek verb. My Jewish New Testament Commentary – yes, there is such a thing – also highlights that this has to do with salvation, not just healing in the here and now. The Samaritan has not only been healed, as were the other nine, but has been given a new life as well.

What does that revelation mean for us? This Samaritan had the faith not only to realise that God had healed him, but also to want to give thanks to God, through Jesus, for that healing. In exchange, though not as a bait for his actions, he knew he would be in the community of the resurrected people. Do we give thanks when God does something for us? When I’m running a little late and approaching a set of traffic lights which could turn red at any moment I often give thanks if the lights don’t change before I get through; but are those thanks really genuine, or have they become so frequent as to render them somewhat automatic?

2nd October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 1:20-31
20God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind; and God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth;” 23and there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind;” and it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind, and God saw that it was good.

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created mankind in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30To every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food:” and it was so.

31God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good; and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


Some parishes in Australia have been celebrating “Pet Sunday” in keeping with a tradition associated with St Francis’ Day, 4th October. A Prayer Book for Australia notes that readings for Rogation Days are suitable for this occasion, and one of the Hebrew Scripture readings is Genesis 1:24-31a, but vv20-23 fit in with St Francis, and it’s good to complete the section of this creation story, rather than miss off the last comment.

Readers may note a few minor alterations to the NSRV text quoted above, mainly to address punctuation and grammatical issues. Pronouns relating to God have been capitalised to show the gender is grammatical, not sexual, and “mankind” has been restored as it has never had a non-generic meaning.


This passage from Genesis is just part of the first creation story, which starts at verse 1. I have yet to see an English translation which is faithful to the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1. Because Hebrew has no indefinite article – ‘a’ or ‘an’ to English speakers – and because 1:1 does not contain the Hebrew equivalent of ‘the’, the opening words of Genesis should really be translated “In a beginning …”, and that opens up a wealth of interpretations of this passage. Other cultures of the time, and from much later, have their own versions of the creation of the world, and they are remarkably similar, despite their origins being from quite different eras and locations. Australian Aboriginal creation stories fit in with this “in a beginning” theme. Could we gain by listening to them?

Rarely heard is that the sense in the Hebrew text is not of a 24-hour day, but a period of time, so the creation can be seen as taking a long time, but, according to this passage, with certain developments at certain times, rather than some random order.

It seems a little incongruous to us, in the 21st century, that “swarms of living creatures, … birds, … sea monsters and every living creature that moves” (vv20-21) should not be classed as “living creatures” (v24), but that is the suggestion if we take the story too literally. It’s too tempting to force our way of thinking onto a quite different culture, which was without all the scientific understanding we now have. Instead, I see the story as a way of describing what happened long before anyone was around to record the events. This, like the similar stories in other cultures, is the way the Hebrew people understood how the God whom they worshipped had created the world in which they lived. I would challenge anyone to describe the creation of the world in a way which provides all the answers. Huge sums of money are spent investigating the universe in an attempt to fill in all the blanks, instead of just accepting that some things are beyond our knowledge.

We shouldn’t miss the reference to God saying “let US make” mankind “in OUR image” and “OUR likeness”. Who are the “us”? At the time of my own study of Genesis it was thought that amalgamation of texts written by a number of authors or editors had resulted in some of the pluralism of early forms of Judaism, influenced by outside cultures, being allowed into the text, because this is one of many places where there is apparent disagreement. Other ways of looking at this are that God consulted with the heavenly host before creating humans, and that there is great solemnity in pronouncing things in the plural – much as the Queen might say “we are not amused.” I don’t know, and it doesn’t really bother me.

God created mankind in His image. Well clearly God can’t be sexually male, or women wouldn’t be in God’s image; neither can God be sexually female, as is suggested by using feminine adjectives and pronouns, as men would then not be in God’s image. It is thus quite clear that God is neither male nor female, but that doesn’t rule out being both. Now that’s a thought which some people might like to follow. More importantly, though, in this passage there is no indication that women are less important, or subordinate to men, or vice versa. Men and women are to be fruitful, to multiply, to “fill the earth and subdue it” – not run roughshod over it, and to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” In other words, we are to look after the earth, and after all the animals, even if we do eat some of them as part of our food. God also gave us plenty of food in the form of plants and fruit. Are we satisfied with what has been provided for us? Are we good stewards of the earth, caring for the animals and plants which live on it with us? When we are given dominion over something there is a responsibility to care for it. Do we take that responsibility seriously?

It’s a well-known, possibly too well-known, passage, but it conjures up many questions. Feel free to add more.

 

18th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 79

1O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.
4We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.
5How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name
7for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
8Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
9Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


We continue through a period of lament, with not only Jeremiah, but also the psalmist bringing the desperation of the people into focus.

Once again, as with Psalm 14, the wording suggests, on the surface, that the cause of the problem is “the nations”. “They” have defiled the temple; “they” have laid waste to Jerusalem. ‘Who is “they”?’ we might ask. If we consider that “we” are doing, or trying to do, what God wants us to do, then “they” includes anyone who is not doing the right thing. In a world where the Hebrew people were supposed to set themselves aside from the peoples around them, and keep to the commandments – better translated as commitments – thought to have been brought to us by Moses, and not to be defiled by the ways of those other peoples, any moves to adopt the ways of non-Hebrews could be seen as going against the will of God. It was the role of the temple leaders to guide the Hebrews away from the pitfalls of other religions, and their way of life, but when the leaders failed to keep the people honest to their task disaster would befall the nation. Time and again the prophets would rail against bad leadership, and against the “false prophets” to whom some leaders turned for justification. If we take the line that failure to honour the commitment to God’s teaching will bring about disaster, then the destruction of the temple and the flattening of Jerusalem in 586BC, which is probably at the heart of this passage, shows that the people had strayed significantly from the ways of God, and the leadership was very much involved in that errant behaviour.

Scripture doesn’t just tell us what happened in the past, but it teaches us how to address issues which affect us today, many centuries after those passages were written. It’s more than a historical record of events from which we can learn: it’s an insight into how we can avoid the problems of the past revisiting us. Given that, what can we learn from this section of one psalm?

First, the Hebrew people were supposed to keep to their faith and not be influenced by the ways of life of those around them, where that would put them in conflict with God’s will. The people were required to be distinct from those around them. Customs associated with their faith took precedence over customs of the others, so mode of dress, days of worship, commitment to worship, decisions about what was good for the community had to be consistent with their faith teaching. Orthodox Jews still maintain a diet free from pork, even though the real reason for its exclusion in biblical times – the way it rapidly becomes unsafe to eat if not treated properly – has been overcome. As Christians, how often are we distinguishable from the rest of the community? How often have we stood up against incursions into the day of rest? When people come to church are they getting the same sort of experience as they would get in any other organisation around? Do we make a commitment to our faith journey such that others are touched by what can be achieved, or do we depend on the church establishment to provide everything, and expect it to be free? Are our churches any better at dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct than other organisations, or businesses? If the answer to any of those questions is “No” then we might be falling into the same pitfalls as the Hebrews were before the destruction of the temple, and we might find that our temple is destroyed. Are we prepared to stand up for our faith, and pick up the pieces after our church institutions come crashing down around us, or are we going to speak up, and act, to repent and change our ways before such destruction happens?

The section of Psalm 79 set for the 18th of September ends with a call to God to help us, to forgive our sins, and guide us back to a righteous relationship with our Creator. This should be an important part of our daily prayer life.

11th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Jeremiah 4:11-18

11It will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse — 12a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them. 13Look! He comes up like clouds, his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles — woe to us, for we are ruined! 14O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved. How long shall your evil schemes lodge within you? 15For a voice declares from Dan and proclaims disaster from Mount Ephraim. 16Tell the nations, “Here they are!” Proclaim against Jerusalem, “Besiegers come from a distant land; they shout against the cities of Judah. 17They have closed in around her like watchers of a field, because she has rebelled against me, says the Lord. 18Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

The set text omits verses 13-18 and adds verses 21-28.

Psalm 14

1Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
2The Lord looks down from heaven on mankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
5There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
6You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
7O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


The principal aim of these reflections is to look at one passage of scripture from the selection set down for the Sunday before I post my comments. However, the selection of readings is supposed to have a common thread, and sometimes that thread requires a look at more than one passage. Today is an example.

The author of Psalm 14 is clearly expressing negative comments about the “fools” who do not believe in God and follow the teachings of scripture: the Lord looks down to see if anyone is wise and seeking after God, but “they” have all gone astray. Who are “they”? It’s incredibly easy for us to separate the wheat from the chaff and include ourselves on the “good” side of that separation, then label everyone who isn’t with us as against us. Sometimes that separation takes on a self-righteous tone which demeans us. Some years ago an Anglican bishop I knew was invited to the ordination service for a Roman Catholic deacon. Though the service included Holy Communion the Anglican bishop was not allowed to take the bread (or wine) because he wasn’t “Christian”, that is, he wasn’t baptised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. At my son’s baptism we had Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church clergy participating, and the sermon made a point that we were not making a new Anglican but a new Christian. Far too often I hear comments along the lines of “you don’t do things the way we do, so you’re not Christian” even if the last bit is by implication, rather than direct statement. Psalm 14 rails against those who did things differently from the established trend, but the author wasn’t a prophet, rather a hymn writer. When we look at what a prophet was saying about the situation we are faced with a quite different scenario. Within verses omitted from the set text for the week – why they were excluded begs other questions – Jeremiah shouts “O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved” [v14], “Besiegers come from a distant land” [v16], and “Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you” [v18]. Once again the prophet is crying that the leaders are just as corrupt as any of those against whom they rail. Isaiah put it another way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” [Is 53:6]

It’s very easy for us to think that these passages refer to times in the history of the Jewish communities, but, as with all scripture, there is a message for us in the 21st century just as much as there was when Jeremiah was writing, mostly in the 7th century BC. What this combination of passages calls on us to do is to look at ourselves and see if we are guilty of classing ourselves as “good” and others as “bad” when the labels could easily be reversed. Have we lost track of what we are called, by God, to do in this world? Have we put ourselves above others as better Christians? Have we failed to recognise the Christ in others and looked for ways to denigrate those who are different from us, or approach our task of worship differently? How many false prophets have we allowed into “the Church”?

I have no doubt that sexual misconduct by those who have been able to get into influential positions in the church, either as clergy or lay leaders, is contrary to the message of love which comes from God, at least as perceived by the vast majority of Australians, but I truly wonder if we have been like the hireling who deserted the flock of sheep when a wolf attacked [John 10:12]. Only a tiny proportion of those entrusted with God’s work in the various denominations has failed to honour that task, yet we have allowed a very negative response from the non-church-going public to cloud the very good work done by the majority, and we have allowed those many good Christian leaders to be tarred with the same brush as those who have brought disgust.

 

4th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
the-potter
Else Berg, ‘Potter’ from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


In many churches the sermon would have been based on the Gospel reading, from Luke, but there is much for us to glean from the passage from Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a prophet, and the task of the prophet was to remind the religious hierarchy of their responsibilities in following God’s teaching. The same applies to today’s prophets – and, yes, there are plenty around today, but, like in Jeremiah’s day, some people wanted them in places where they couldn’t do any damage. Time and again a prophet would rise from the people and point out that the hierarchy were not always doing the right thing according to scripture, and the hierarchy, realising that the perks they had woven into their ways of doing things and getting others to do things, would be lost if they truly repented of their sins and turned their teaching around.

The common way of looking at the story of Jeremiah being led to the potter’s house runs along the lines of the potter being able to remodel the clay of the vessel under construction if what is developing is not desirable. God, as the potter, can restart the modelling process, or can continue to model that same piece of clay into something remarkable, because un-fired clay is malleable, not brittle or rigid.

Something else comes to my mind, though. In 1859 Charles Darwin stirred the religious world by publishing a book on evolution. “God forbid” cried the churches, which had, for millennia, taught that God created the world in six 24-hour days, and rested on the seventh. Evolution and Darwin were diametrically opposed. Darwin must be shown to be a fraud. Many of us have heard the joke about a man asking God if it’s true that one second to Him was the equivalent of ten thousand years to us, and, with a positive reply asking for a million dollars, to which God responded “in a minute.” If we take that line, then the “periods of time” (which is far closer to the meaning of the Hebrew text than “24-hour day”) become exceedingly long – well beyond the comprehension of even the people who finally wrote down the passages we find in Genesis. New species are still being formed, older ones, with no further part to play in the potter’s work, are disappearing. That, of course, should not be taken as an excuse for doing nothing about human contributions to the accelerating number of species becoming extinct. Improvements within one species take time to develop, just as the shape of the potter’s vessel takes time to develop. Arms and legs could be formed to fit a purpose, and modified as that purpose changed. We, too, can be co-creators with God of new things in today’s world, but if we go off the beaten track prepared for us then we can be in need of the prophet’s call to repentance and reconciliation, or in need of the potter’s intervention, as happened to Saul on the way to Damascus.

Jeremiah’s message is not just for those of his own time, but for Christians today too – all of us, and everyone in between. How far have we strayed like lost sheep because the potter is not in control? Are we willing to allow the potter to regain control and make something remarkable from the mess we offer? Do we need to change our ways? That could be at a personal level; it could have much to do with what happens in our churches; it could involve how we, as a church, respond to things which go wrong beyond our control. Are we going to be co-creators with God of a new revolution within the church, and the benefit from the rewards of repentance? I hope so.