Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Jesus

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.

11th December 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / 1 Comment on 11th December 2016

Matthew 11:2-11

a-advent-3-d
Agnus Day appears with the permission of www.agnusday.org

2When John heard, in prison, what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them – 6and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
      “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
      who will prepare your way before you.”
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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


To us, reading this passage just a week after the story of John baptising people in the River Jordan and declaring that Jesus is the one to follow, it seems a harsh change for John to now be questioning his own declaration; but if we look at the two passages in the context of the time, there is plenty between the two events, and the expectation of most people was that the Messiah would come and throw out the Roman occupation of their land. Given that, and the lack of movement in that direction, it’s hardly surprising that John might be querying his own declaration of some months or years earlier. Jesus’ response is almost one of “Hey, chaps, are you actually paying attention to what’s happening?” He probably knew the Hebrew Scriptures backwards, so was the reference to Isaiah’s “then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing” (as per Handel’s ‘Messiah’) misquoted by Matthew, or modified for some purpose? There is no reference in the Isaiah passage to lepers being cleansed or the dead being raised so their inclusion by Matthew shows a connection with the later ministry of Jesus, rather than shortly after His baptism. Verse 6 is interesting: ‘blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ Is that a suggestion that those who note all the wonderful things that were happening, albeit over a period of time, and connect the dots to see who Christ really was, were blessed? Is it a challenge for those who find the actions of Jesus to be contrary to how they have perceived leadership and responsibility? I think of the number of times when the disciples tried to get Jesus to do things differently. Touching lepers was an absolute no-no; waiting until after someone had been buried to heal the grief of family was a no-no; declaring that someone had been healed because of her faith was a no-no; and welcoming children could not be tolerated. These were just some of the times when people took offence to Jesus. Blessed are those who don’t take offence.

When we’re told that “Jesus began to speak to the crowds” we should read “Jesus began to speak to our congregation”. These are relevant questions for us, today, just as they were for the crowds around Jesus in His day. What did we come to church to look at? The rhetorical question is directed at us personally, so we should ask ourselves that very question, and be honest in our response.

If we only came to see a reed blowing in the wind then there are plenty of those outside the church; if we came to see glorious frescos in the sanctuary then we are but tourists admiring someone’s skill and artistic talent; if we come to hear good music then, unless we choose the particular church carefully, we are likely to be disappointed; if we come to be uplifted by a sermon then the chances are we will leave hungry; but if we come to worship God, ignoring all the distractions, then we will be both fed and given a new lease of life.

If we come to church seeking people in clothes fit for royalty then we are going to be disappointed unless we go to a parish in a rich area, and if that’s all we seek then we will miss the Good News which the church is meant to spread. In most churches where colourful vestments are worn that is done by a small number of people in the sanctuary, representing the Kingdom of Heaven, and, hopefully, being the bearers of the Good News. Unfortunately, there are those who dress in fine robes for the show, the prestige, and the power, rather than taking on the responsibility associated with their status.

When we go to church wanting to see and hear from a prophet then we are on the right track, because good prophets will draw us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven, and will feed us spiritually, and challenge us in many other ways. We do not know when Christ will return, so new prophets need to emerge on a regular basis to carry on crying in the wilderness for us to prepare a way for the Lord. This is Advent, a time for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We should prepare the way by getting rid of those obstacles which would prevent Him from getting to our hearts. We might be self-centred; we might be too attached to technology to observe the world around us; we might turn a blind eye to those in need; we might engage in war to show that we are no better than our enemies and further from Christ than we think; we might worship the mighty dollar – and those are only some of the problems we might need to address. Christmas is just two weeks away. How ready am I? How ready are you?

4th December 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 3:1-12
matthew-3a-john-the-baptist-preaching

1John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said:
 ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’
4John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the regions along the Jordan, 6and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves: “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able, from these stones, to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

11‘I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

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


Oh how we’ve lost significant meaning of some words, because their over-use has resulted in the important meaning becoming subservient. One such word is “repent”. Too often, these days, “repent” is used as a synonym for “sorry”. The invitation to the confession in the Book of Common Prayer (1928) Eucharist opens with the words “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in His holy ways …” The BCP embraces that aspect of repentance which involves turning around from what we have been doing, and being genuine in our desire to live according to what God wants us to do. It’s too easy, with the common use of “repent” to think all we need to do is say “sorry” to God. Repentance includes an acknowledgement that our ways have not been according to God’s will, and that change is needed.

When John reportedly said “the kingdom of heaven has come near” he was, of course, working on the belief that Jesus was already around and would establish the kingdom of heaven, on earth. We know, from Christ’s own words, that even the Son didn’t know when he would return, so we can’t know either. That makes it all the more important that we are prepared for His second coming now, and don’t put off our preparations. “If the owner of the house knew at what hour the thief would come he would have stayed awake” [Matthew 24:43]. There is thus some urgency, even for us, to be prepared. If your Christmas plans include having friends or family to a celebration meal, do you leave dirty washing on the floors? Do you ignore the dust and the dirt on the floor? Do you go to the shops and only buy enough food for yourself? Of course not! If the kingdom of heaven is near, and we are preparing for the second coming of Christ, shouldn’t we do all the cleaning we would do to welcome our King? Shouldn’t we be serious about preparing the way for the Lord? Because of the lack of punctuation in the original writings, the quote from Isaiah could read “the voice of one crying ‘in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord’”, in which case the lack of active Christian presence in our communities might be the wilderness in which the way needs to be prepared, or it could read “the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘prepare the way for the Lord’”, in which case we have to listen to the lone voice, not the combined and harmonised voice, or leadership. Either way, we should be preparing the way for the Lord to enter into our lives in a decisive way. Let’s put out the welcome mat, and mean it.

Some may wonder why Matthew chose to mention what John wore and ate. I believe that it is to emphasise that this call to repentance comes not from the religious establishment, but from someone who could easily be discarded by that very establishment. John was different; John did not dress like everyone else; John did not eat what others would eat; but God chose John to proclaim the Good News. How often do our church leaders reject those who offer themselves to walk in Christ’s footsteps simply because they are different, and don’t fit the mold which those leaders use, probably subconsciously, in their ‘discernment’?

If you want to take literally the idea the people from all over Judea came to be baptised by John then you must acknowledge that he would have been a very busy beaver. The idea in the reference is, of course, that the people were clamouring for good guidance to renew their relationship with God in a meaningful way, and they weren’t being satisfied elsewhere.

We might think of John’s description of ‘Pharisees and Sadducees” as a brood of vipers in terms of Matthew trying to separate the Christian community from the Jewish one following the destruction of the temple in AD70, and that might be true, but there is also the element of criticism of the pedantic and legalistic approach of the Pharisees to the way they approach worship, in contrast with the loving, caring approach of Christ. Those who wish to behave like Pharisees should be reminded that Christ’s approach in nothing like theirs. Personally I’d prefer to follow Christ than follow any Pharisee. It is not good enough to just claim a direct link back to Abraham (or to the Apostles) if we have lost our way and become tied up with controlling everything everyone does. God is the master gardener, and, just as Christ did to the fig tree, He is prepared to chop down the biggest trees if they are not producing fruit. Let the one who has ears, hear. [Matthew 11:15]

When I think of this passage through EfM (Education for Ministry) eyes, I see a world in which the people are screaming for spiritual guidance because the religious hierarchy appears to have left them to themselves; I see an honest call to genuine repentance and dire consequences if we don’t; I see judgement in the form of the description of those who seek to escape the inevitable by being superficial; and I see hope of reconciliation through baptism, initially with water and later with the Holy Spirit.

Verse 11 includes an example of what I call the future present tense in English. Essentially we use the present tense to indicate something in the almost immediate future. When a friend is scheduled to have a meal with us next week, we say “my friend is coming” even though the friend may not leave for several more days. That gives us a sense of urgency, and gets us to prepare. John said “one who is more powerful than I is coming” even though Christ was not there. Maybe we should proclaim, in the Eucharist, “Christ is coming again” to stir us into action preparing the way for the Lord.

27th November 2016 (Advent)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
psalm-122-f
Image © City Church York, Pennsilvania

Psalm 122

1I was glad when they said to me,
    ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’
2Our feet are standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together.
4To it the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
      as was decreed for Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
    the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    ‘May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls,
    and security within your towers.’
8For the sake of my relatives and friends
    I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

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


I grew up with the understanding that the selection of scriptures set for any Sunday eucharist was made so that a common thread could be seen through them. That included the Hebrew Scripture passage, the psalm, a reading from the New Testament, and the gospel reading. On one Sunday, whilst in Bunbury, I preached a four course banquet, bringing to life all of the readings in relation to each other. In trying to limit my reflection to just one of the readings set for Advent Sunday 2016 I was faced with a dilemma, because they are all good readings for reflection, and they are tied together.

When I noted the psalm was 122 I was transported back to a time when Michael Wentzell was organist at St George’s Cathedral, in Perth, and to music written by René Rebound. This is a joyful song, celebrating an invitation to go to the house of the Lord. The music which Michael and Albert McPherson chose for their rendition of Psalm 122 is lively and joyful, unlike the usual rendering of the same psalm when read straight from the prayer book, whether done together or with a leader reading parts and the congregation reading the rest.

Together in Song, hymn 78, which Rebound, Wentzell and McPherson composed, opens with the refrain “I was overjoyed, Alleluia, when they said come with us to the house of the Lord.” Am I “overjoyed” when asked to go with someone to their “house of the Lord”? My answer to that is, unfortunately, “nothing like as often as I would like to be.” On my travels I have visited many parishes where the experience has not conveyed an impression of people who were overjoyed to be attending. To be fair, that’s not to say that the people haven’t been enthused by the Holy Spirit, or coming because they know that they can be spiritually fed. When I think of days when the church encourages people to bring others with them, I ask “if unchurched people come will they be turned away not by words or actions at the door, but by what they experience during the service. When joyful psalms sound anything but joyful, are we going to encourage people to come again? To me, that’s a “no brainer”.

For the Israelites of the time, Psalm 122 was a song to be sung on the way to the temple in Jerusalem – a time when they visited the most important religious shrine in their experience. To us, the most important religious shrine is usually our parish church, sometimes the cathedral. One of the beauties which these people encountered was that of their sacred music: they were uplifted by the sounds of well sung music and their joy was real. I remember the time when most parish churches had four-part choirs and someone with good musical skill to train them and to play for services. Alas, we have lost that in most places, so the uplifting of souls during our services is dependent on the hymns or songs chosen, how well they are presented, and how involved the congregation is in uplifting each other.

Verse 4 of the biblical version, or verse 2 of hymn 78, reminds us of our need to worship and to praise the name of the Lord for all time. We gather together to make a joyful noise to the Lord so that we are giving thanks to God for everything we have, good or bad. As someone said: “if you win the lottery, praise the Lord; if you’ve just got married, praise the Lord; if you break a leg, praise the Lord!”

Psalm 122 is also a song of hope, and expectation. Let us pray not only for peace in the physical city of Jerusalem, but also for peace in every place which represents Jerusalem for those who cannot be there. While we’re at it, let’s pray for God’s peace. Those of us who live in Australia might be thinking that we already live in a peaceful environment, but those who have been physically or mentally abused, robbed or defamed would hardly describe their own experience as one of peace; and those affected by the terrorist activities which we hear about more and more frequently would also dispute a sense of peace. God’s peace is far more than an absence of war on our own soil, because it includes a fair sharing of our resources and a willingness to look after each other.

In keeping with this thrust for God’s peace to reign in Jerusalem, we can think of today’s passage from Isaiah, in which the prophet suggests that, in response to the word of the Lord, people will turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning forks, and they will no longer learn to be at war. This is the way to God’s peace, not spending more and more on military might and threatening nuclear war because we can’t get our own way. Let us be responsible, rather than irresponsible like those who engage in violent behaviour of any kind; let us, from congregations all the way up the ecclesiastical ladder, speak up for God’s peace; and let us be overjoyed when we are called to the House of the Lord.

This psalm ends with a challenge. Note the last words: YOUR good. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, which, to Christians, is all the people not just a building, we should seek God’s good. I acknowledge that that will be tough; but it is achievable.

20th November 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / 1 Comment on 20th November 2016

jaremiah-23-bJeremiah 23:1-6

1Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3Then I, myself, will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,” says the Lord.

5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up, for David, a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety, and this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

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


As with the vast majority of the writings of the prophets, the environment in which Jeremiah finds himself is one of corruption in the religious establishment. Like the other prophets, Jeremiah spent much of his time speaking God’s word to an unreceptive audience, just as 21st century prophets find themselves doing; and when an oracle, such as this, starts with “woe” it’s more than just bad news for those in the sights of the prophet. Given that attendances in “mainstream” churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Uniting in particular – have been declining for many years I would not like to be a bishop, or equivalent, in any of them, and have to read this passage from Jeremiah. It’s the responsibility of clergy, at all levels, to guide the faithful flock and to build up that flock by welcoming new people and helping to convert non-believers into believers. Though the number of clergy involved in child sexual abuse in Australian institutions is small, and the proportion of errant clergy is no larger than the proportion in the wider community, the churches’ response to the issue is one which continues to drive people from our churches. Jeremiah doesn’t mince matters. ‘Woe to those shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep’ is bad enough for the perpetrators of abuse, but the passage goes further. Those who have not attended to the problem are also in the firing line, and God is not happy! ‘I will attend to you for your evil doings.’ I’m reminded about a public meeting with one of the bishops, in which we were told 10% of people in the suburb we were in considered themselves Anglican, only 2% attended church at least twice a year making a parish unviable, and the solution was to make the parish bigger to have more people contributing to the cost of running it. Where is the Good Shepherd, bringing the lost sheep back to church? This scream from Jeremiah is all about divine judgement. We’ve been hit in the face with the reality of declining attendances, and then we’ve been hit with a warning of judgement to come because we either haven’t attended to the problem, or we’ve exacerbated it. There is no forgiveness in this passage, though we, as Christians, would expect, and hope, to find it.

On first reading I missed a challenging word, but then thought “hang on a minute”! God says that He will gather the flock from the lands where HE has driven them. Wasn’t it the unfaithful shepherds who had driven them away and not attended to them? I looked at several commentaries to check what renowned scholars were saying about that, and there were very few who said anything. A scholarly answer suggests that the shepherds were driving them out of their own land, and God was driving them to foreign lands, for their own safety, before being rescued and returned to Israel.

Jeremiah continues issuing the word of the Lord against a people who will not listen. God will take over feeding the sheep, and looking after them. He will be like The Good Shepherd and go looking for those who have been lost, bringing them back to the fold himself, because those who have had responsibility for that task have been like the hireling. When the lost have been returned to the fold, God will select a new breed of shepherds, one which will look after the flock faithfully. Ouch!! Are we listening, or are we just hearing?

Thankfully, there is hope of redemption and reconciliation for the flock which has been scattered and decimated. We can look forward to God bringing in a new era where we can live in safety, where the religious community will be well supported, where people are brought to Christ on a daily basis, and where the Good News will be celebrated.

When our Jewish friends celebrate the Passover, it is not a memorial of an event well in the past, but a real-live moment in their own lives, such is the connection with scripture. If we took the same approach with the birth of Christ then how would that affect our lives? Is that how God will bring back to the fold the lost sheep who don’t know they are lost?

 

 

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?