The Bible reading this week is the account in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus’ sermon on the plain which strongly corresponds to Jesus’ sermon on the mount – Matthew chapters 5 to 7. Of course, there are slight differences, but the message is the same: “Happy are you poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Happy are you who are hungry now because you will be filled.” For me, these are some of the most remarkable words in the whole of the Bible if not in the whole of literature. The lessons for philosophy and political economy encapsulated in these words are breath-taking. Up to this point in history and, indeed, beyond it, there is no teaching like this – anywhere. Every worldly value says that it is good to strive after money, wealth, physical sustenance and social acceptance. Jesus turns this all on its head and points to something far greater. Jesus says, in effect, if you devote yourselves to every worldly value you will get them. But that is all you will get. If you forgo all these things for the sake of the Gospel you will endure hunger, poverty and hardship but your eternal reward will surpass any short-term discomfort. You will have lost the world but gained eternity. Once again “Happy are you poor (as a result of your sacrifice for the Gospel) because yours is the kingdom of God”. Amen.
STEVE’S DISCIPLESHIP BLOG
The Bible reading this week is the account of the miraculous catch of fish as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. There are many lessons from this passage ranging from how a fisherman had the humility to listen to a carpenter telling him how to fish, all the way to a glimpse of Jesus’ authority over the whole created order. However, the lesson that sticks out for me is the words in the Bible that the disciples were ‘astonished’ at what Jesus did. I fear that in our churches today we have lost that sense of astonishment, amazement and wonder at what Jesus did, and what authority he commanded. We have heard the Bible stories so many times that we are almost immune to their message. What Jesus did was, indeed, amazing! We expect too little from God and when God makes things happen we are surprised, not overwhelmed. This was not the case for Peter. When he realises that he doubted the power of Jesus he was intensely remorseful. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” How we need to re-capture the amazement of the first disciples; and when our faith falters about God’s greatness, how we need to repent. If the church in the ‘West’ is to grow again, we have to find a way to re-discover our amazement at the power of God and deeply repent if we ever doubt it.
Why was Jesus so rejected in his hometown of Nazareth? One reason is that he preached a Gospel which included the Gentiles. The Jews were so sure that they were God’s people that they utterly despised all others. Many genuinely believed that God had only created Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell. In the Bible reading this week, Jesus points out that no prophet is accepted in his own hometown and then he draws the link with the Jews not accepting God. He points out that God therefore had blessings for the Gentiles as well. This incensed the Jewish people. Indeed, in Jesus’ day there were many divisions between Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles and even Jews in Jerusalem and Jews in Nazareth. Before we judge their behaviour, we need to reflect that we too have many divisions: young; old; north; south; remain; leave and others as well. In proclaiming that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, Jesus is preaching about the need for unity. Diversity is good but dis-unity is not. Disunity can tear nations apart. God’s love spans all people and our love for others should do the same.
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.
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.