The Bible passage assigned to this week is the story of the visit of the Magi to the new-born baby, as recorded in Matthew chapter 2. What is the main point of this story? Is it about a star? Astronomers have thought deeply about what the ‘star’ might have been. We know that Halley’s comet appeared in 12-11 BC or, it could have been some kind of supernova. More likely is the fact that the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction with each other in 7BC. However, perhaps none of this is the main point of Matthew re-telling this story. What are the other possibilities? Is it that Jesus, the true King of Israel, is juxtaposed with Herod, the autocratic and cruel king put in place by a pagan empire? Is it that the Magi, who were Gentiles, were the first to respond by giving gifts and realising Jesus’ kingship? The answer is possibly all three but something else as well. Perhaps the greatest purpose of Matthew re-telling this story is to encourage each of us simply to come to Jesus as the real king – no matter what our background, no matter where we have come from. To come to Jesus, at this time, with the best gifts we can possibly bring.
STEVE’S DISCIPLESHIP BLOG
The Bible reading assigned to this week is the story of Jesus being found, as a boy, in the temple when his parents were looking anxiously for him. One of the powerful messages of this story and the Christmas story, is not only the divinity of Jesus, but also his humanity. To be gently told off by our parents is part of life. Here Jesus, the Son of God, takes it in his stride. To embrace the whole human experience from birth through childhood and beyond is, for us, entirely natural. However, for the Son of God it is an act of immeasurable humility. It is like us becoming a tiny insect for a day and never complaining. Of course, the gap between God and us is much greater than this as the Creator chooses to become the creature. At the start of the new year, as we thank God for His blessings of 2018, we can thank him for his incredible humility and aspire in 2019 to be humbler ourselves.
What is the significance of the advent candles? The answer to this question varies according to the different Christian traditions. However, in the UK for churches following the revised common lectionary, the first candle is for all God’s people; the second candle is for the Old Testament prophets; the third candle is for John the Baptist and the fourth candle is for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Does all this matter? The simple answer is no, and yes! Certainly, there is no teaching in the Bible from Jesus or any of the Apostles about advent candles and yet the Church is wise in creating a liturgical year in which God’s people can find rhythm and coherent teaching to develop their faith. This is the fourth Sunday in Advent and therefore the focus this week is on Mary, the mother of Jesus. What is wonderful about Mary is her pure, simple faith and obedience. Perhaps for us, there is nothing more we need to remind ourselves about and learn this Christmas. When God reveals Himself to us through creation, other people, the Bible, the church, circumstances or other more supernatural ways, let us simply say ‘yes’ to his plans, not only this Christmas but for evermore.
Should Christians only perform certain jobs? In the Bible reading assigned to this week, the words of John the Baptist suggest otherwise. In this, the third week of advent we get an insight into what we should be doing when Jesus returns. The answer is simple: we should be about our daily business which God has called us to do. In John’s time, the question was: ‘What should we do?’ Perhaps surprisingly, John deals with two jobs which shored up a pagan Roman empire which suppressed God’s people. John says, in effect, if you are a tax collector, keep collecting taxes – but do it fairly. If you are a soldier, keep soldiering – but do it justly. So it is for us. We are not called to desert our jobs and live in isolation. John Wesley once famously said, ‘The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion’. When Jesus returns, let’s be about the business that God has called us to. Let’s bring glory to the Kingdom of God by doing our jobs to the best of our ability and with as much love, kindness, integrity and professionalism as we can muster.
How do we respond to church members who hold very strong views which cause conflict within the church? How do we respond to neighbours, or colleagues at work, who challenge our way of thinking and make implicit criticisms of the views we hold? I suspect that most of us would shy away from these people, avoid them altogether or even make complaints about them behind their back. This week marks the second Sunday of Advent where the Bible reading assigned focuses on the story of John the Baptist. John the Baptist caused conflict in the church. John the Baptist was the source of division and argument amongst the religious people and their leaders of his day. What about us? How would we treat a ‘John the Baptist like figure’ in our church every Sunday morning? How would we respond to his powerful preaching, his challenges to the lives we live, his call for a radically different approach to God? I suspect a lot of us would be upset; we may even make a complaint to our church leaders. But, of course, this is the whole point. Christianity never was, never is and never will be a ‘walk in the park’ for the rich and respectable. Rather, it is about confession, repentance and obeying God. This is what John the Baptist was saying in the wilderness and it is as true today as it was then.
The week beginning Sunday, 2nd December marks the first Sunday in Advent and the start of a new lectionary year as we transition to the Bible readings of ‘Year C’. The word advent comes from two Latin words ‘Ad’ meaning to, and ‘Vent’ which means coming. Advent is a coming towards. The message of advent is that Jesus came, Jesus still comes, and Jesus will come again. On the first Sunday of advent we focus on this last aspect, the fact that Jesus will come again. The Bible reading assigned to this year is from Luke’s Gospel chapter 21, where we have this warning from Jesus: “Watch out! Don’t let me find you living in careless ease and drunkenness, and filled with the worries of this life.” I am sure that this Christmas we will all be filled with the worries over the economy, the future of our country and, within that, our own futures and the futures of our own families. Jesus’ command is to not let this dominate our lives. There is something more important for all of us. The picture that Jesus paints of these times of His return are times of great uncertainty and great fear. However, for the Christian, there is the hope of escaping all these horrors and standing before the Son of Man. This advent season let us cling to this hope and keep watching out without being distracted from what is going on around us.
Do we have the courage of our convictions? Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from AD25- AD37, had a notorious contempt for Jewish customs and traditions. This is highlighted in this week’s Gospel reading concerning the trial of Jesus, where he says to Jesus, in effect, don’t ask me to understand your Jewish religion. Despite this contempt for the Jewish leaders, Pilate has an interest in what Jesus stands for, even a respect. He is interested in the source of Jesus’ authority as a king – a kingdom not of this world. He certainly finds no reason to kill Jesus. However, there is something, sadly, that is even more important to Pilate. He knows he has not been a particularly good prefect and he knows that he could be summoned back to Rome for judgement before Caesar unless he improves his relationship with the people in Judaea. So, despite his interest in what Jesus stands for, he takes the easy option and ultimately succumbs to the wishes of the Jewish leaders and the mob by having Jesus crucified. In the final analysis, he was more concerned about his own job than he was about the truth. What about us? Do we take the easy way out or stand up for the truth? Pilate famously asked, what is truth? Ironically, he was the one man in history who had the opportunity to accept the truth that was talking to him and exercise the courage of his convictions. Alas, he didn’t, and history moved on. Let us not miss our chance.
In the Gospel reading this week, Jesus foretells the horrors that would befall Jerusalem in AD 70, about 40 years after his own death. The Roman Emperor Titus surrounded the city and starved its inhabitants into submission. The events within the city were unimaginably terrible. Although none of us, hopefully, will ever endure anything so horrible, Jesus goes onto say that his followers will also experience persecution. Moreover, this persecution may divide families. Today in parts of Asia and the Middle East, sons and daughters are disowned by their parents if they become Christians and leave the religion of the upbringing. On a smaller scale, we too may be mocked in our own workplaces and communities for being followers of Jesus Christ. This, said Jesus, is all to be expected. What is the answer? Jesus simply encourages us to endure to the end and then we will be saved. Life is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Jeffrey tells the story of a famous man who refused to have his biography written while he was still alive because he knew of many men who fell on the last lap of the race. It was John Bunyan who, in his dream, saw that from the very gates of heaven there was a way to hell. We are all called to endure to the very end and then, along with all who have suffered in Christ’s name, we WILL be saved, no matter how terrible our plight.
The Gospel reading this week involves two stories. The first is Jesus’ warning about the teachers of religious law who take pride in their religious robes and the fact that people bow to them as they walk by. The second story is the account of the widow’s mite. For us, there is a challenge in both stories. Are we obsessed with our religious status? Christians are most vulnerable when people tell them that they have done something great for the Kingdom, such as preach a powerful sermon. It is here that our ‘puffed up’ pride can cause us to fall. Next, the story of the widow’s mite reminds us about real giving. Our giving to the work of God should be, above all else, sacrificial. If we simply give what we have left each month then that is not really giving at all. Rather, our giving should cause us to give up something fundamental to our lives each week or month. Our giving should cause us to go without. In a sense both these stories are linked. Here, Jesus is painting a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. Being a Christian is not about obtaining status, reputation and resources, rather it is about emptying ourselves of all these things. Being a Christian is quintessentially not about receiving but about giving.
A well-known educationalist once said, we often end up valuing what we can measure rather than attempting to measure what is of real value. This practice spills over into church life as we strive to quantify spiritual standards by how pious we have been. This religiosity or legalism was no less prevalent in Jesus’ day. The sacrificial system was based on performing certain religious practices with a certain quantity of bulls, rams, doves or other elements of sacrifice. Today, some in the church delight in measuring spiritual worthiness by our ability to keep the rules and follow the laws. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there is no place for order, spiritual discipline and even religion but I fear we often go too far, because there is something much more important. The Gospel passage this week is the account of the conversation between Jesus and the inquiring religious law teacher. Jesus commends the religious teacher for his understanding of love. Jesus confirms that loving God and loving our neighbour is more important than all the sacrifices (old and new) required in the law. This is not a licence to do anything; far from it. Rather it is a life of action and deeds which is borne out of love rather than a sense of failure if we don’t follow all the pre-determined man-made rules.