Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Musings on Scripture

15th January 2017

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

areyoucalledorchosen_2Isaiah 49:1-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8th January 2017

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Acts 10: 34-43

34Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation, anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him. 36You know the message He sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — He is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39We are witnesses to all that He did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree; 40but God raised Him on the third day and allowed Him to appear, 41not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.’

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

It horrifies me to think of all the times I’ve heard people say, or imply, that someone isn’t a Christian because that person doesn’t belong to a particular denomination.  Peter, talking to a Gentile group after being summoned by Cornelius, a Roman soldier, is very specific here in declaring that God shows no partiality. Unfortunately for native English speakers, “fear” now has the connotation of “dread” as if something nasty will happen. Though “fear” is derived from the Greek word used here, a better translation of phoboumenos would be “hold in awe” because that is the sense implied in the Greek. To his audience Peter would have been quite clear: just because you are of Roman origin, and have had no contact or relationship with the God whom the Jews have been worshipping for centuries, does not preclude you from God’s love and grace. Peter was, of course, speaking out of his experience with the risen Christ, and encouraging his audience to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Note the challenge, though. If we are to emulate God in this world then we must show no partiality at all. When I was asked how a priest should respond if an openly homosexual person should enquire about being part of the parish I responded: ‘we can consider the person to be sick, and we are called to minister; we can consider the person a sinner, and we are called to minister; or we can consider the person normal, and we are called to minister; so the only choice available is to minister, and not to judge.’ I wish I could claim I always respond in the same way when faced with other situations which might disturb my well-being, but that is the challenge. Our partiality, of course, isn’t limited to how we relate to other Christians; it is deeply ingrained in the way our society works, so it is hard to set it aside. Do we shudder when asked to help someone who has no food, no home and no money? Do we run the other way when an openly homosexual couple walks into church? Do we expunge from our lives all the good memories of people whose encounter with Satan has led them astray, or do we celebrate the good and pray for forgiveness for the bad? We should ask ourselves how God would respond, and do the same.

Peter’s summary of Christ’s ministry is very succinct. Though physical and time restrictions meant that Jesus spent His entire ministry in a small area there is no indication in what Peter says that the message is limited only to that geographic area. Indeed, his comments to the people gathered by Cornelius show that there is no limit. Jesus went about doing good. He also went about “healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Are we following in Christ’s footsteps, healing those who have been oppressed by the devil? At least one priest I knew was told to stop casting demons out of the lives of those who sought him, even though we are all commissioned to do so by Christ himself.

One question I have asked myself many times is did Christ rise from the dead or was He raised from the dead. “What’s the difference?” do I hear you ask? It all boils down to who did the raising, was it Christ (as second person in the Trinity), or was it God (as first person)?

Christ may not have appeared to a large number of people, after his resurrection, but to those who had lived with Him through His ministry He was as bodily intact as they were. Peter tells us that He ate and drank with them. This was no figment of someone’s imagination: there were too many who had the experience, and all of them were transformed into people who had the confidence to preach the Good News, irrespective of the consequences. Is that how our churches work today? Are our priests expected to be the only ones jumping up and down with joy at the Good News, or are we going to share in that ministry? How often do priests not do what they feel called by God to do because of some perceived possible consequence? When a priest’s licence can be withdrawn at any time and without explanation because someone else shows partiality, God’s work can be threatened by humans.

The last verse of this reading is a first century Christian slant on how the prophets, well known to the Jewish people but not to the Gentiles, tried to bring people back to worshipping God, and having their sins forgiven as a result of the new righteousness. That message rings loud and clear for us today, too. If we, like sheep, have gone astray, but return to the flock then, just like any doting parent of a child who has wandered off, God will forgive our sins – forgive, not forget. God doesn’t keep a count of our sins, but might just remind us if we are about to stray down the same path again. Whether we are listening or not is another matter.

1st January 2017 (Epiphany)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 2:1-12

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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

If you ask someone who knows the Christmas story, even among those who go to church regularly, to tell you what they know, you are likely to hear about the angel visiting Mary, about Joseph and Mary having to travel to Bethlehem, about the lack of room available for them and their need to rest in a stable, about the shepherds in the fields being visited by an angel telling them of Christ’s birth, about the wise men (or kings) visiting Herod on the way to Bethlehem but returning by another route, and about the star which guided those wise men on their way. When we delve deeper we discover that Luke has the story of the shepherds, but no wise men, Matthew has the wise men, but no shepherds, and Mark and John don’t mention what happened surrounding the birth. Our Christmas story is, therefore, a mixture of two gospel renditions of the event.

Both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in the time of King Herod, who was appointed to the position in about 37BC and died, still holding that position, in 4BC. On that basis Jesus Christ was born “before Christ.” That, of course, doesn’t stop us referring to the era based on the birth of Christ, however inaccurate the calculation might have been, as the Christian era, and the time before that as “Before Christ”. There is nothing derogatory for other religions to complain about if we name an era after a particular person. People of other faiths might object to public references of “Anno Domini” – in the year of our Lord, but that shouldn’t stop Christians from using the term in Christian circles, or referring publicly to the current era as “Christian” rather than “Common”.

When I read about “all of Jerusalem” being frightened about the news of Christ’s birth I begin to wonder who “all of Jerusalem” refers to, and why they, rather than Herod, should be frightened at all. With Herod’s reputation for being a cruel leader it might have been that those in Jerusalem were afraid of the consequences of someone potentially taking over Herod’s kingdom, and the possibility of some form of retribution. The Jewish leaders might, if they had been reading their own scriptures carefully, have been afraid of “The King of the Jews” being someone who would take away the status and prestige of their being religious leaders, but that would hardly be “all of Jerusalem.” I have to wonder what a 67 year old king, in a time when three score and ten years was a real achievement, would have to be afraid of with the birth of a new child. Surely he would have been dead, from old age if nothing else, before the new King of the Jews was old enough to do anything. In the verses immediately after the passage read for Epiphany, Matthew tells of Herod’s rage when he realised that he had been deceived, and his order that all boys two years and younger in Bethlehem and surrounding areas should be killed. Whether or not that is a historical event, with Herod’s reputation for violence suggesting that it might have occurred but not been noteworthy enough to be recorded elsewhere, and the lack of reference to such an event in even early Christian writings suggesting it was a contrived fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, there are things to note. The wise men saw a new ‘star’ in the sky and travelled, with camels, some distance before they reached Jerusalem. It wasn’t as if they could get into a car and hurtle along at 100km/hr and be there in a couple of days. Camels might be good for carrying loads, but they are slow. It could well have taken these wise men two years to get to Jerusalem. If Herod did order the murder of boys two years and under, based on timing given by the wise men, then Jesus would have been born in 6BC or earlier. If you remember the comments on last week’s gospel reading, there is some support, though not strong, for Quirinius to have been pseudo-governor in Syria around 6BC. Another point to note is that the birth was reported to have taken place in a stable in Bethlehem. Matthew, however, comments that the wise men entered a house, not a stable. What’s more, they found ‘the child’ (‘paidion’ in the Greek) whereas we might expect them to have found ‘the baby’ (brephos) if their visit was immediately on the heels of the birth. Had Mary and Joseph moved into a house in Bethlehem? The registration which brought them to Bethlehem wouldn’t have taken the two years it appears to have taken the wise men to reach Jesus, so had they returned to Nazareth and continued their lives in their own home there? If the slaughter of young boys was, indeed, a contrived fulfilment of scripture then there would be reason for Matthew not to suggest that the wise men had travelled on to Nazareth. Travelling back to their own countries by another route would have been easier if they had encountered Christ in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem. The gospel only tells us that the wise men found Mary and the child – there’s no mention of poor Joseph. Wouldn’t he have stopped doing his carpentry if three high ranking delegates from another country appeared at his house? What about that star? More than 2000 years on from the event, we know that, as the earth rotates the stars appear to move across the sky, but is it really possible to say that a star stopped over one building rather than over another? A heavenly event, such as the alignment of certain stars or planets, could easily have resulted in the guidance those wise men used, but they still had to depend on advice from Herod, or the religious leaders of the time, to find the actual place they were seeking.

Much has been said about the gifts the wise men brought: gold, to mark Christ’s status as a king; frankincense, marking his deity; and myrrh, used for embalming a body after death. Three gifts to show His importance in the world. Three important gifts from gentile leaders. We are gentile leaders, so what are we offering the new-born king?

One final note: were there three wise men, or four? The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry van Dyke, tells of a fourth wise man who intended to join the other three but was delayed and eventually caught up with Christ, who was, at that time, on the way to His crucifixion. Artaban used his gifts to help many others on the long journey to Jerusalem. That story was inspired by God, just as the canonical scriptures were, but it was written a number of centuries too late to be included.