The Bible passage this week, the week beginning 24th January is the story of the call of James and John to become disciples of Jesus. The Bible records the fact that these two men ‘left their father and their boat and followed him’. On the surface, this seems a straightforward event until we reflect on the circumstances. James and John were fishermen. That was their life, what they knew and what they did well. It was also their source of economic stability, status and reputation. Moreover, in the ancient world, the father in the family was revered. Often, boys would aspire to be like their father and eventually take over the family business before handing it on, in turn, to their children. Further, because their father’s name is explicitly mentioned, it is likely that he was both well-known and a highly successful businessperson. Therefore, in giving up all of this to follow Jesus there would have been an enormous sacrifice for the two brothers James and John. They were choosing to give up all that they had, were, owned, did and aspired to become. However, that is what they did! God is less interested in our own status, profession and income than He is in our faith. God wants to build, not our wealth and fame but our character and faith. This is what is of eternal consequence. What about us? Will we give up everything to follow Jesus? Although salvation costs us nothing, discipleship costs us everything. We know, for example, James was one of the first to be martyred. Will we, like James and John sacrifice everything to follow Jesus? If we are prepared to do this, let us start today.
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.”
Too many people for too many centuries have laboured under the misapprehension that God is not pleased with them. God has often been viewed as a harsh judge who likes to condemn us for our wrongdoings. In my personal experience, of over 40 years as a Christian, nothing could be further from the truth. More crucially, the notion that God is not pleased with us is not the message of the Bible. This week, the week beginning 10th January, the Gospel passage includes the words of God at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, whom I love; WITH YOU I AM WELL PLEASED.” The amazing reality is that, if we are fully united to Christ and imitate Him, then these words of God can be levelled at us! Maybe we should start 2021 by letting these words wash over us, again and again. Maybe this is the year when we should dispel the notion that God is not pleased with us because then, and only then, can we fully be the people God wants us to be in 2021.
How good are we at waiting? In a task-driven society, it is easy to be overwhelmed with meeting deadlines and hitting targets within a strict timeframe – even during a tier 4 lockdown! Indeed, in many countries of the ‘Commonwealth’, Britain’s obsession with getting things done on time is the subject of much humour. John Cleese’s iconic film ‘clockwise’ underlines the absurdity of always trying to get things done at exactly the right time. Perhaps we need to learn the art of waiting – waiting on God. The Gospel passage for this week, the week beginning Sunday, 27th December, is the story of the prophet(ess) Anna. In the story, Anna is very old, perhaps over 100 years old and she had spent all her adult life worshipping God in the Temple. Day and night, she fasted and prayed while waiting on God. In the end, just before she died, her patience was rewarded. She was one of the few people to see Jesus in the flesh. Her eyes had seen the Son of God! Perhaps in 2021 one of the best targets we can have is to devote less time to worrying about meeting tight deadlines and more time to waiting on God. If we do this, it is my prayer that, just like Anna, we may see God.
Old Testament: Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Would you trust (another) teenager? Would you base your entire life’s plan in the hands of one so young? The week beginning Sunday, 20th December is the fourth, and final, week of Advent. The Bible reading for this week is the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. The news that the angel brought must have terrified Mary. She was to become pregnant, out of wedlock, and was to give birth to God’s Son. To become pregnant outside of marriage was to risk, at best, being disowned by her family and, at worst, being stoned. Then, if she survived, there was the whole issue of being responsible for raising God’s Son in the correct way. No wonder she was ‘greatly troubled’. And yet, Mary said: “Yes!” Was it Michel Quoist, the Catholic theologian, who speculated about how many Mary’s God could have approached before He found one who would say yes to his request? It is the most remarkable act of faith from this young teenage girl. However, there is another aspect to this story. This story demonstrates the remarkable faith that God has in us, as humans, to carry forward His plans. This Christmas will we say yes to God’s plans or will we eternally frustrate them by not making ourselves available for Him? Perhaps, these plans may even require us to trust young teenagers we know.
Old Testament Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
New Testament Readings: Luke 1:46b-55 and Romans 16:25-27
Gospel Reading: Luke 1:26-38
I heard someone jokingly say recently, “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without John the Baptist. “In a sense this comment is true in that we really only think about this great New Testament prophet at Christmas time. Jesus described John the Baptist as more than a prophet, so who was he? The fourth Gospel gives the following account.
(John 1 Verses 6-8) 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (Verses 19-28) 19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” 24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
What is the background to this passage? The Jewish leaders were the Sanhedrin who had dispatched a delegation to investigate the activities of an unauthorized teacher. Levites were descendants of the tribe of Levi who not only looked after the Temple but also had teaching responsibilities. The Jewish leaders remembered that Elijah had not died (2 Kings 2:11) and believed that he would come back to earth to announce the end time. There was also an expectation of a variety of others to accompany Elijah. It was sometimes believed that a prophet par excellence like Isaiah or Jeremiah would accompany Elijah (Deuteronomy 18:15). John the Baptist emphatically denies being either “Elijah” or “The Prophet.” Instead, he quotes the prophecy written in Isaiah 40:3 and sees himself as helping people come to the Messiah (the Christ). The Pharisees, the third part of the delegation (Levites, Priests and Pharisees), probe more deeply. Messiah means “Anointed One” in the Old Testament but here The Messiah is ‘The’ Anointed One. What confused the religious delegation was the kind of baptism that John was carrying out. Only Gentiles needed to be baptized by full immersion since Israelites were already clean and did not need to be washed. What John was therefore implying is that the chosen people of God had become unclean and had to be cleansed themselves. Untying sandals was the lowest of menial tasks. Disciples would perform many tasks for their rabbis (teachers), but they would never stoop so low as to untie their sandals. What John the Baptist is saying therefore is however great he is perceived to be, the gap between him and Jesus is so much bigger than they can imagine. Of course, returning to where we started, Christmas would not be Christmas without Jesus so however much we revere the work of John the Baptist, the work of Jesus is infinitely more important. That is the voice we need to listen to this Christmas above everything else.
Old Testament Reading for this day: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Gospel Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Epistle Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24