Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Reflections on Scripture

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?