Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Matthew

Baptism of Christ (Year A)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 3:13-17

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

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


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

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

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

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

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?

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.