Following the preaching of John the Baptist which is a call to repent, Jesus begins his ministry with the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor.” The Bible passage this week is Luke 4 verses 14 to 30, which is well-worth reading. The scene is the synagogue in Nazareth, his boyhood home. No doubt there were aspects of synagogue worship with which Jesus disagreed but, nonetheless, he always went. When Jesus said these words, the Jewish listeners felt aggrieved in two ways. First, Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah himself and secondly, and more importantly, he was proclaiming God’s blessings on the Gentiles and not the Jews. Yet I think there is more. All of us, Jew and Gentile are captives. We are captive to our weaknesses and temptations which bind and torment us. We are blind to truth through our ignorance and arrogance. Finally, we are downtrodden by broken and corrupt economic, political and social structures working across the world. Yes, John the Baptist is right: we need to repent but after God’s mercy comes God’s grace. In Christ we are set free, we are released from all forms of bondage and torment; we can see the beautiful truth and we are no longer downtrodden economically or socially for the Lord’s favour has indeed come.
The Bible reading for this week is the account of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee. Like all of John’s Gospel this story contains layers of meaning. On the surface we come across Jesus as a man who was both keen to enable people to enjoy themselves, and also to do what his mother asked, so that she, and everyone else, would not be let down. However, there are also deeper meanings contained in this passage. John, writing almost 70 years after the event, probably as an eye-witness, was able to reflect on its spiritual significance. Notice there were six stone water-pots. To the Jew, seven was the perfect number and six represented imperfection and incompleteness. It was Jesus who took this imperfection and through grace transformed it into perfection – wine for the body, heart and soul. But there is more! Have you ever thought of the amount of wine Jesus created? Six stone water-pots each containing up to thirty gallons; this represents a total of 180 gallons of wine. No wedding feast is ever going to need that much wine. What Jesus brings is an abundance of grace more than we can ever need. Yes, this passage shows the importance of family, of home and of a young couple from humble circumstances but it also shows more. This passage shows us a God who makes things perfect and complete with a glorious super-abundance of provision and grace.
Do we speak the truth when there are great dangers involved? Th Bible reading this week is the account of the arrest of John the Baptist for criticising the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, his brother’s wife. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great had many wives and many children (some of whom he ordered to be killed!). The royal dynasty was therefore large and highly inter-related. Not only was Herodias, Herod Antipas’s sister in law, but she was also his niece. The whole set-up was abhorrent to the Jews. Nonetheless, to speak out against a tyrant like Herod Antipas was almost certain to risk imprisonment, or worse. Yet John the Baptist spoke out against Herod Antipas, and he was imprisoned for it and ultimately beheaded. Do we speak the truth when dangers are involved? Throughout history many brave men and women have been punished, exiled or even killed for speaking the truth. Jesus, Himself, was crucified for it. Yet the reality is that you cannot banish, kill or crucify the truth. Plato once said that the wise man would always choose to suffer wrong than to do wrong. What about us? Would we rather be remembered as someone like John the Baptist, or someone like Herod Antipas?
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.
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.