Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Isaiah

Advent 3 (Year A)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Isaiah 35:1-10

1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart: ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’ 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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

Just as hope is the recurrent theme of readings leading up to Christmas, Isaiah gives us a sense of hope for an exiled community. When we take a simple reading from scripture, and read it in isolation in our churches, we miss the connection, or disconnection in this case, with the surrounding text. This message of hope comes amid others of despair. Why? I think it’s important that even in our darkest hours we can hear the hope of a future which will restore us to a good relationship with God. Give thanks to God in all circumstances. If you break a leg, give thanks to God; if someone close to you dies, give thanks to God; if you’ve just won a major lottery, give thanks to God; if you have a child with disabilities, give thanks to God; if you lose your job, give thanks to God. Why? Because God doesn’t give us a challenge we cannot meet when we put our minds to it and trust Him to help us, and what you will receive can be a far greater reward than you might expect – just don’t expect to see the reward in a time-frame set by you. In this instant-gratification era that’s hard, I know, but it’s what God calls us to do.

Some commentators believe this passage appears too early in Isaiah for it to be in its original position. This is a passage which appears before people would expect to hear it. Absolutely fantastic! Of course it’s earlier than people would expect. That’s precisely what God has intended. Isaiah is showing us that we need to speak up against what is wrong in this world, and speak with hope for a future where we can live peacefully with others. This passage tells us that we should not wait for ’the right time’ because the right time might never come.

The message in this passage is not directed at anyone in particular, and there is no time reference which would allow us to stick it at some point in history and forget the implications of the message. No, the message applies to everyone, everywhere, in every age, including Australians in 2019! We should help the weak, those who are downhearted and fearful of the consequences of their actions because God will deal with the oppressors. We don’t have to be concerned about them. Let go and let God!

Whenever I read the next few verses I can’t help but start to sing from Handel’s Messiah. Remember the quote from last week’s reflection: ‘there are none so blind as those who will not see’? Does it matter, in terms of the message from Isaiah, if those who are literally blind do not see, when the message which Christ brought as well was that we need to be willing to open our eyes to what is happening around us, and to act. The lame can leap, the dumb can ‘sing’ and the deaf can hear when God’s message is shown in our lives. We will find what we haven’t been able to see, even though it has always been there, new life will spring forth because we are charged by the power of God – as Christians we would say by the Holy Spirit – and we will live protected from the evil ways of oppressors.

Trust God unconditionally. Do not wait for the right time to pass on messages of hope and an opportunity to redirect our ways so that we listen to God, rather than human ways of thinking, which are all-too-often self-centred, power greedy, worshipping money, and trying to stop people spreading the Good News.

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, so let’s prepare the way for the Lord, let’s make a straight path through the wilderness around us for the Son of God, and let’s challenge ourselves with the question “What would Christ do in my circumstances?”

Advent 1 (Year A)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Isaiah 2:1‑5

1The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning‑hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

I don’t think it does justice to the text to limit the meaning of this passage to Judah and Jerusalem on the basis that they are mentioned, and nowhere else is, because scripture talks to us wherever we are, and in our own time. Isaiah was writing for people to whom, for many, Judah and Jerusalem meant the known world. As with much of the world in that era, the people were obsessed with hatred, fear, and the threat of wars. That should ring alarm bells for those of us in Australia, where violence and intolerance, based on religion and cultural differences, are well attested, and where the national government is determined to become a leading arms exporter. Recent censuses in Australia have shown a declining number of people who openly claim to be religious, so is there an underlying unwillingness to turn to God – by whatever name the deity is known – to find a resolution which is good for everyone? We have become a self-centred society in which God is often thought of as meaningless. If in doubt, just look at the number of pedestrians who can’t get their eyes off smart-phones connected to the internet, or look at those whose driving shows contempt for other road users. Thoughts and prayers for those whose lives have been thrown into turmoil because of early-season bush fires influenced by a drying and warming climate have been seen as tokenism when real action has been demanded. The problem with rich man stories in scripture isn’t the actual wealth but the focus on making money for self-interest. Those of us who long for a return to worshipping God can be encouraged by this word from Isaiah, suggesting that the house of the Lord will be established as the place to go, even if we feel it doesn’t stand a chance right now. Let us remember that ANYTHING is possible with God.

At some time in the (hopefully) not-too-distant-future people will begin to realise that what we have been fed for many years, and what we have been denied the chance to investigate, is what we really need to bring true peace to the world. If we sing “I was overjoyed, when they said ‘Come with us to the House of the Lord'” we need to be prepared to be challenged in the way we address people who are different from us in some way. One quote I often use is that if the governments of the world spent half of their defence budgets on cultural exchange programmes then there would be no more wars. The way to be a civilised society is not to engage in war, or provide others with the tools of war, but to work together, and to let God be the arbiter in any disputes. Our ‘tools of war’ need not be the usual weapons of guns and bombs, because our words are often ‘tools of war’. How often do we try to undermine someone else because “I’m right and you’re wrong”?

What does it mean, for us, if we are to let God teach us His ways, that we may walk in His paths, not ours? I have no doubt that we will all be faced with accepting that our behaviour in some circumstances is far from responsible, and that we have to look at issues as if through the eyes of someone with whom we vehemently disagree, but that it precisely what God wants us to do. When we accept the challenge we will walk in the light of the Lord.

9th April 2017 (Palm Sunday)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

33-ot_isaiah_50-04-09_ton_optIsaiah 50:4-9a

4The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher and skill to console the weary with a word in the morning; He sharpened my hearing that I might listen like one who is taught. 5The Lord opened my ears and I did not disobey or turn back in defiance. 6I offered my back to the lash, and let my beard be plucked from my chin, I did not hide my face from spitting and insult; 7but the Lord God stands by to help me; therefore no insult can wound me. I have set my face like flint, for I know that I shall not be put to shame, because one who will clear my name is at my side. 8Who dare argue against me? Let us confront one another. Who will dispute my cause? Let him come forward. 9The Lord God will help me; who then can prove me guilty?

Text © The New English Bible, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, used with permission.

I am a firm believer that when God wants you to have a skill which you don’t have, so that you can do His will more effectively, He will ensure that you get that skill, even if you don’t know what the mighty Creator has in store for you. When the only way to get out of Sydney, which I still hate with a passion, was to resign from my position as a weather forecaster, I turned to a profession which runs through my family: teaching. The first Principal under whom I worked gave me a professional kick in the guts, and a compliment, before my first class as a teacher. He said that I would never make it as a teacher, and, after a pause, added ‘because you’re an educator.’ How true! His discernment skill could be helpful in many areas. For several years after that, whenever this passage of scripture came up to be read, my name was on the readers’ roster beside “1st lesson” with no planning on behalf of the people doing the rosters. Yes, God; you don’t have to bash it into me, I get the message. I chose to use the New English Bible translation here because it rang so true for me and has stuck with me over the years.

On the face of it, Isaiah 50:4-9, which is the third of four “Servant Songs” in what is known as Second Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55 – is also a call to Isaiah to speak the word of the Lord to the people. God calls people who might be considered by others to be inadequate for the purpose, and flawed, and He gives them the skills they need to achieve the goal set for them. Some theologians have spent many years trying to work out who the servant mentioned in these songs is, and many have concluded that there isn’t just one person who fits the description. To my mind, that search for the identity of a single person in the Bible, just like the search for “the historical Jesus” leads us away from the message we should be getting. Scripture speaks to people in every generation, and we might well find people who could be added to the description of “the servant” even in today’s world.

If we read the verses before this passage, or the ones after it, we will find a description of the post-exilic Israelites showing them, yet again, to have difficulty following the instructions from God, and listening to the prophets. Sandwiched between those sections is this short passage where Isaiah claims that the Lord has given him the ability to talk to those who think they are followers of God’s word.

Isaiah has been given the tongue of someone who has studied: in other words he has been given the gift of teaching. Those who are weary in spirit need his words, morning by morning, to refresh the spirit and revitalise the people. What’s more, Isaiah has gained the skill to listen to what others are saying, and to understand their needs. We often confuse hearing with listening, so the servant’s hearing has been sharpened to listen as one who has been trained to listen. The servant was now attentive to God’s message, and had declared that he had not done as the others had done before him, and been disobedient. What God wants Isaiah to say or do, Isaiah will say or do.

God never said that following Him would be all peaceful and wonderful, because He knows that there are people in the world who don’t want others to hear the message. Maybe they think they have the message and someone else is wrong; maybe they hang onto power over people, rather than power to enable people. There could be a thousand reasons. Whatever the reason, there are people who will try their hardest to undermine any message from God unless it is agreeable to them. The violence portrayed of those opposing what God had asked Isaiah to say is far from pleasant. Under Jewish law someone found guilty of an offence could be subjected to 39 lashes across the back, as a punishment which shouldn’t kill the person but would leave an unwillingness to risk being lashed again, and here Isaiah indicates that he not only offered his back to the lash – though it doesn’t say that he received that treatment – but also allowed his beard to be plucked from his chin. Anyone who has been waxed to remove hair from the body knows that it would be very painful, but Isaiah is prepared to suffer for God’s sake. He endured the ignominy of being spat upon and insulted, again so that the message from God would be heard. The enemy would not win.

This passage is read at the beginning of Holy Week, in which Jesus, one with the tongue of a teacher and the skill to console people every day, and with a sense of hearing which allowed Him to know everything about everyone around Him, doesn’t turn His back on God, or the message which He brought. He endured the lashing, the spitting, and the abuse of the Jewish leaders of the day, and of the Roman soldiers. Jesus was the fulfilment of the Suffering Servant in this passage. Why? – because God stood by Jesus, so that no insult would harm Him, and Jesus knew it.

Modern-day prophets, and there are plenty of us, have to endure the 21st century equivalent of the treatment of Isaiah, and of Jesus, but we persevere because we know that, in God’s eyes, we will not be put to shame. When we are falsely accused we know that we can hand over responsibility to God, and He will clear our names.

When the disciples were brought before the Sanhedrin for professing that Jesus had risen from the dead, and for preaching the Good News, Gamaliel stood up and declared that, if the movement was from God then opposing it would mean fighting God, and if the movement was of men it would die out quickly once the generation which had experienced the teachings of Christ during His ministry also died. Was Gamaliel picking up on Isaiah 50:8-9? As a well trained Pharisee it is very likely that he would have been intentionally referring to that passage. What it says for us is that we should continue to preach what we believe God has been asking us to preach, and if we are right then the message will live on.

I’ve often been described as arrogant. Assertive would be a much better description, because, whilst I can be forthright in what I say, and some people, for a variety of reasons, do find that intimidating, I welcome people challenging my statements, and I’m prepared to accept that, as a human, I haven’t heard the message from God as clearly as I might have done. So who will argue against me? Let the debate begin.

18th December 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

© 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

Agnus Day appears with the permission of

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

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

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.