The Bible passage for today, Sunday, 14th February, is the account in Mark’s Gospel of the transfiguration. Jesus was at a pivotal point in his ministry. He was just about to set out to Jerusalem and to the cross. What does he do? He turns to his Heavenly Father to get his endorsement. Although fully God, Jesus was also fully human and needed to be sure that the searing pain he was about to endure was fully part of His Father’s plan. Moses represented the ‘law’ of God and Elijah represented the prophets of God. By receiving their validation, Jesus was positioning himself to be fully in tune with God’s plan of salvation wrought in history. If Jesus had God’s backing, then he would be able to cope with the unimaginable pain of the crucifixion, death and temporary separation from His Heavenly Father. What is the application for us? Two things, I suggest. Firstly, before we embark on any major journey in life, we should seek God’s approval first. Secondly, once we receive this approval, we should boldly go forward in the sure knowledge that whatever the devil throws at us, we have the full backing and power of God to overcome.
Jesus once said to Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.” In truth, we do not know very much about the disciples. Two of them, Matthew and John, succeed in writing whole Gospels without hardly mentioning themselves within the story. The Bible passage for this week, the week beginning 17th January, sheds some light on two of the disciples – Philip and Nathanael. Doubtless, these two were close friends and work colleagues, coming from the same part of Galilee. It is also likely that they both studied the scriptures together. Indeed, it may be that Nathanael was meditating on the scriptures away from the noise of the house, under a fig tree when Jesus first saw him. Jesus clearly had a high regard for Nathanael declaring that there was ‘nothing false’ in him. However, Nathanael, Philip and all the other disciples were also prone to despair, despondency, negativity and even cynicism. Nathanael, for example, declared, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip, in turn, could not believe that there was any hope for them to feed five thousand men on the hillside: “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bit!” I find it immensely re-assuring that these great people who went on to plant churches, revolutionise the world and give their lives for their faith all started from a position of weakness. God is less interested in what we have been and more interested in what we can become. This year, 2021, why not start the journey of being a better disciple so that, one day, like Nathanael, we can hear the words of God: “This person is a true follower of Jesus in whom there is nothing false.”
The week beginning Sunday, 29th November is the first week in Advent. This marks the beginning of the season of the year when many families start opening Advent calendars. Inside will be pictures of Christmas trees, holly, Christmas stockings, a robin red breast and an intimidating snowman. Does this cover the meaning of Advent? The word ‘advent’ comes from two Latin words: coming and towards. The Advent message is a ‘coming towards’ and can be split into three parts. Firstly, Jesus came as a baby; secondly, Jesus is still coming to us today through the Holy Spirit and, finally, Jesus will come again in the future. For most people in Guildford and, indeed, around the world, their understanding of Advent is the story of Jesus coming as a baby to a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. However, the first Sunday in Advent focuses not on this, but rather on His second coming. The Bible passage assigned to this week is the ‘signs at the end of the age’. This is recorded in Mark’s Gospel chapter 13 and verses 24 to 37 and it focuses on a very different aspect of Advent to the common perception of Advent as a crib scene. This Bible passage highlights that Jesus’ second coming to the earth will be very unlike the first. It will not be as a tiny vulnerable baby born to a scared teenager in poverty but, rather, in glory and judgement on the whole earth. Nobody likes judgement. To be judged by an awesomely powerful and perfect God is even more terrifying. With regard to the pictures in the advent calendar, it is probably best not to frighten children with stars falling from the sky and the solar system shaking. However, and thankfully, Jesus has already given us one of his watertight promises: “whoever comes to me I will never drive away”. Thank God for this. Perhaps this is the real joy of Christmas. God is with us, Emmanuel, and if God is with us nothing can come against us – not even an intimidating snowman!
Old Testament reading for this week: Isaiah 64:1-9
Gospel reading for this week: Mark 13:24-37
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Psalm for this week: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
The Gospel passage this week is Jesus’ parable of the talents. Throughout history this has been a challenging parable to explain. What does it mean for us today? Let us start by reading Jesus’ words again and trying to hear them in our mind.
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Who does the useless servant represent? Scholars agree that the useless servant stands for the Scribes and the Pharisees and for the way that they treat the Law that they have received. The whole aim of the Pharisees was to keep the Law exactly as it was. They wanted to “build a fence around the Law”. They did not want any development, any growth or anything new. Jesus is saying that faith is about taking risks; faith is about adventure; faith is about giving out to others and not keeping everything safe and hidden. But, once again, there are other, more universal messages to this story. Firstly, it may suggest that God gives people different gifts. It does not matter how much of a gift you have but rather how you use it. Secondly, the reward for work well done is not rest but more work. Sometimes we do not see work as a reward but as a punishment. For God, work is good and a gift. Thirdly the story tells us that the worst you can do is not try. The servant who is punished is the one who did not try. The real sin is not falling but refusing to get back up again and keep going. Finally, to develop our service in the Kingdom of God, we need to exercise the God-given talents we have received. If you never use your talents, you will find one day that they have gone. “Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” The more we exercise our gifts the more we will improve and be of greater service in God’s Kingdom.
Old Testament reading for this week: Judges 4:1-7
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 25:14-30
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Psalm for this week: Psalm 123
Why should we continually be watchful or vigilant? In the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus tells the story of the ten virgins. We have this recorded for us in Matthew’s Gospel and chapter 25.
25 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Why did Jesus tell this story in this way? What is its significance for today? To us, in our society, we might think this is a ‘made-up’ story but, in fact, weddings in Palestine were not unlike this. The bridegroom would appear unexpectedly, and the bridal party needed to be ready. In the villages of Palestine this was (and is) a slice of life. What is the significance? Three things. Firstly, it was another warning for the Jews. They were the chosen people; they should have been ready for the bridegroom (Jesus) when he appeared. However, they were not ready, and therefore they were shut out from the joyous wedding celebration that the bridegroom (Jesus) would make possible. What about us? Just because we are from a country with a Christian heritage does not mean we cannot be excluded. Secondly, this parable reminds us that there are some things which cannot be obtained at the last minute. In developing our spiritual disciplines in church, many of these disciplines take time to develop. Yes, by God’s grace, salvation is instant but continued growth in holiness takes time. Finally, the parable reminds us that some things cannot be borrowed. We cannot borrow faith; we cannot borrow experiences. Rather, it must be our faith and our experience. In our Christian lives, while there are many to help us, we need to make the decision to follow Jesus and we need to keep following Jesus by being in constant communion with him – rather than relying on others. For all these reasons we need to be continually watchful and continually vigilant.
Old Testament reading for this week: Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 25:1-13
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Psalm for this week: Psalm 78:1-7
What is the greatest commandment and how do we make sense of it? The Gospel passage for this week is from Matthew’s Gospel and verses 34 to 40 of chapter 22 where we have these words:
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This passage in Matthew’s Gospel suggests that the expert in the law (a Scribe or Pharisee and not a Sadducee) uses this question to test Jesus but in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) the tone is different and the Scribe or Pharisee seems to be on Jesus’ side in opposition to the Sadducees. Be that as it may, this passage outlines the basis of all faith. The Christian is called, above all else, to love God. Everything flows from this. Proof of our love of God will also be made manifest in how we treat God’s creation and particularly our fellow humans – who are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26,27). If we really love God, we would love who God loves – humanity. Also, if we really love God, we would love those entities who reflect what God is like – namely humans. Note, we are called to love God first. It is in only loving God first that we can fully love humans. Without God, humans may be seen as selfish and beyond improvement. That is, without God humans become un-lovable. With God, love of humanity is not only possible but it is also the second of the two greatest commandments.
Old Testament reading for this week: Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 22:34-46
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Psalm for this week: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17