St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 28 October 2011


October 30                             NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         All Saints' Sunday

Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Theme:  Imitating, Not Idolising.  We honour our saints as examples to be followed, not idols to be placed on pedestals and worshipped.

Introduction.  The first thing to notice about today's readings is the absence of a lesson from the Old Testament.  If we think of saints as great heroes of the faith, we would find this omission surprising.  There are, of course, a large number of great heroes of our faith history in the Old Testament.  But look up a Concordance and you will find a clue:  the one I use has only 1 reference to "saint" in the whole Old Testament.  It is very much a New Testament term.  But the same book also reminds me that it is a post-resurrection New Testament term.  It gives only 1 instance of its use in the gospels.   And there's one more thing to note about its usage in the New Testament: it is almost always used in the plural – "saints" rather than "a saint".  So what does the term mean?  "Saints" are those people who, through faith in Jesus Christ, have been sanctified by the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, "saints" is a synonym for "Christians".  Today, we celebrate ourselves and all our fellow Christians!

We begin with a glimpse of the eternal destiny of saints, courtesy of the great seer St John the Divine.  The saints are there in the presence of God, wearing their white (baptismal) robes.  They are already multitudinous, but there's always room for more.  Our second lesson acts as a bridge between now and then, here and there, earth and heaven.  We are already children of God, but the best is yet to come.  St John does not know the details: all he can say for certain is that we will see God face to face.  In the meantime, our calling is to purify ourselves, by living the life outlined in the Beatitudes given by Jesus and recorded in today's gospel passage.

Background.  Most of us can remember a time in our youth when we had a hero or heroine: a sports star, perhaps, or a film star, or someone in a book, or even someone in our family.  My first hero was a man called Albert Hooper, and I first came upon him when I was five.  My mother had noticed that I was keen on kicking a ball around, so she started taking me to watch the local football team in our home town of Newquay in Cornwall.  Albert Hooper was the goalkeeper, and from the very first time I saw him I knew that that was what I wanted to be – a goalkeeper like Albert Hooper.  No doubt my Mother expected the phase to pass, but when it didn't she knitted me a little yellow goalkeeper's jersey just like the one Albert wore; and every Saturday when the team was playing at home I would wear my little yellow jersey and I would stand behind my hero's goal, even changing ends at half-time.  After a while Albert noticed me and from then on he always greeted me nicely, as if we were great mates.  And about 13 years later, at the tender age of 18, I ran onto that same field and took my place as the goalkeeper for the Newquay team.

The point of that story is this.  My little 5-year-old self was a lot wiser than my present-day self.  He knew that heroes are for imitating, not idolising.  Think about that word "idolising" for a moment.  If we make idols out of our heroes, we are not merely guilty of idolatry: we are rendering them safe.  We place them out of our reach.  We tell ourselves that they are exceptional and we could never be like them, so they present no challenge to us.  I could have done that with Albert Hooper when I was 5.  To me he was the best goalkeeper in the whole wide world!  Yet that inspired me to do everything I could to become like him.  It took me 12-13 years, but I made it!

How do we treat our saints?  Alas, we idolise them, don't we?  First of all, we treasure miraculous stories about them, making them larger than life, and far beyond our ability to imitate them.  So we are excused from even trying.  Yet the Scriptures tell us two things of relevance here: we must not commit idolatry and we must become imitators.  Go back to the Concordance and you will find a number of entries for "imitate" and its correlates.  St Paul does not hesitate to exhort the Corinthians and the Philippians to imitate him: 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17.  He also said quite a bit to the Thessalonians about imitating himself, the Lord, and the churches of God in Jesus Christ : 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews urged the faithful to imitate the faith of their leaders (Hebrews 13:7); and St John urged his followers to imitate what is good: 3 John 11.  And then there's Ephesians 5:1: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love."  IMITATE GOD!

The old practice of naming a child after a saint, or giving a child a saint's name on baptism, carried with it the hope that the child would grow up to be like that saint.  We might also think about our practice of dedicating our individual churches to particular saints.  St Barnabas, the encourager of others; St John the apostle of love; St Mary the model of faithful obedience; and St Stephen, the joyful martyr.  Perhaps each congregation could ponder how well we imitate our patron saint, or do we simply idolise them and render them innocuous?  

Revelation.  This passage is part of the astonishing vision of life beyond the curtain of time.  It follows the famous reference to 144, 000 servants of God who were about to be sealed on their foreheads.  We are very clearly told that these are representatives from the 12 tribes of Israel; not the elect few who are the only ones to receive salvation, as one or two sects have argued down the ages.  Now comes "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language".  The language is surely intended to suggest to us the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant.  They are waving palm branches, perhaps to suggest Christ's entry into Jerusalem.  Most importantly, they are all wearing white robes – surely intended to refer to the white robes given to people following their baptism.  In baptism we enter into the death of Christ – hence the robes have been made white "in the blood of the Lamb".  And they are beyond all pain and suffering.


Taking It Personally.

·        Do you have a mental vision of heaven?  How does it compare with the one we are given here?

·        Note that the promise of God is always "I will be with you" (or perhaps "you will be with me"), whether it's with Moses in Egypt or the martyred saints in heaven.  Is that enough for you?  What more do you want?

·        Note how the great multitude seems to be united in one voice and in service to God.  All ethnic, national, and other divisions have been overcome.  How do you feel about that?

John.  Today's passage from John's First letter is surely one of the most wonderful in all Scripture!  It is a progress report on the transformation of the saints from our natural selves into something far more glorious.  And the process is already underway.  Note the tense in the first verse: it is not a promise for the future: we are already "children of God".  We are already two natures in one person, human by natural descent and divine by the grace of God.  And, as the commercials love to say, that's not all!  Something even more glorious is still in store for us, although we do not yet know what it is.  Just as children often grow to be more like their parents with the passing years, it seem that something similar happens to us, the children of God.  We become more and more like God (in whose image and likeness, of course, we are created).  Notice, in passing, the link between verse 3, and verse 8 of today's gospel passage: to see God we must become pure in heart.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is a perfect passage for slow, meditative reading.  Let each word, each phrase, sink in to your consciousness.  Come back to it many times over the coming week.  Ask God to give you the grace to believe it.

·        When you are next before a mirror remind yourself that you are looking at a child of God.  How do you feel about that?

·        Note the opening thought in this passage: God has "lavished" love on you.  If you have any particular hurt from your past that is troubling you,bring it into the presence of this great love and ask for healing.

Matthew.  The implication is that Jesus withdrew from the crowds, and addressed this famous teaching to his disciples.  Certainly it makes no sense to those who do not believe in God.  Notice that there seems to be a mix of "being" and "doing" here, but the emphasis is on the former.  It is about being moulded into the person God created us to be.  It is about being imitators of Christ, or having the same mind as Christ.  It is about the way saints are to grow into the glory of God.  Notice that in verses 3 and 10 the present tense is used, while in the other verses the "reward" follows the event.  Above all, notice how this "charter" turns on its head the values of our country at this time.

Taking It Personally.

·        Use this passage as a personal checklist.  How are you doing?

·        Which of these beatitudes do you find the most challenging?  Why?  What can you do about it?  Is there someone you could talk to about it?

·        To what extent (if any) are you going to use this list as a checklist for assessing policies and programmes put forward in the coming General Election?

·        We have already noted the connection between 1 John 3:3 and verse 8 of this passage.  Now reflect on the connection between verse 1 of that passage and verse 9 of this passage.  As a child of God how might you carry out the ministry of peacemaker in your present circumstances?


Saturday, 15 October 2011


October 16                             NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Pentecost 18

Texts:  Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Theme: Two Sides of the Same Coin?  Coins can be used to express diametric opposites: "on the other side of the coin..." and equivalence: "two sides of the same coin".

Introduction.  In the Western World we tend to favour dual thinking, the either/or approach.  We think in terms of right or wrong, black or white, good or bad, winners or losers, strong or weak.  We naturally assume that today's gospel passage is about the political world or the spiritual realm; but is it?  And what are we to make of this passage from Isaiah?  Could God really be using a foreign king to further his divine purposes?  Is God really the creator of darkness as well as light; and does God really send disaster as well as prosperity?  And where does the epistle fit into all this with the people of Thessalonica becoming renowned for their conversion from one mindset (polytheism, Greek secularism, etc) to a very different one (faith in Christ).  There is something in all this about paradox and mystery – which is to say, there is something in all this about God.

Background.  There is no doubt that Cyrus was a real historical figure.  He rose to power in Persia around 550 B.C., and proved himself a brilliant leader and military strategist.  He began expanding his power beyond his national boundaries in 547, and within 2 years he had taken over most of the peninsula of Asia Minor.  In 539 he captured Babylon, before that the great power in the region.  Among his first acts was to grant freedom to many captive people held in Babylon.  He decreed that any Jewish captive who wished to do so could return home to Jerusalem; and he even returned the sacred vessels that had been looted by the Babylonians when they conquered Jerusalem.  In fact, he showed the same generous attitude to people of other nationalities and faiths, but that is not mentioned in the Bible: these are, after all, the Hebrew Scriptures telling Israel's story.

Glance back to the end of chapter 44 and you will find these words: "who says of Cyrus 'he is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please'; he will say of Jerusalem, 'Let it be rebuilt', and of the temple, 'Let its foundations be laid'.  This has given rise to much debate over the timing of this prophecy in relation to the actual event.  There are 3 possibilities:

·        It was written before the event as inspired prophecy:

·        It was written before the event by a politically shrewd observer who could read the 'signs of the time':

·        It was written after the event, with the benefit of hindsight.

The issue of tax raised in the gospel passage was a very important one.  Jerusalem was often under foreign domination and required to pay tribute money to the overlords of the day.  But in 6 A.D. the Roman occupiers had imposed a temple tax; effectively a cut of all money given as offering to the Temple had to be given to the Roman authorities.  This had so enraged some Jews that there had been a violent uprising: to take money from the Temple was to rob God.  The Zealots in Jesus' time still held to this line so it was a very important issue, a political 'hot potato'.

It might be useful to think of our own way of dividing issues up into separate compartments.  Is the oil-spill off Tauranga a transport issue for Stephen Joyce to handle, or an environmental issue for Nick Smith?  Is the sole aim of Fonterra to maximise returns to farmers, or, bearing in mind the importance of milk in a healthy diet for growing children, should Fonterra have a responsibility to keep down the local price of milk?  Is it either/or or both/and that should guide our thinking?

Isaiah.  The first shock is that Cyrus, a foreigner, Gentile, leader of a pagan nation, is referred to as God's "Anointed", meaning "Messiah" or "Christ"!  On the other side of the coin (so to speak!), Cyrus' great military successes are ascribed to God (vv.2-4).  God has summoned (called) Cyrus by name (as we have been called), and has even bestowed on him a title of great honour.  And all this even though, we are assured twice, Cyrus has never acknowledge God.  Even all-conquering foreign kings are under the governance of God for there is none like him in the whole world.  In God there is no duality: God is both/and, not either/or.  He creates both light and darkness, prosperity and disaster.

Taking It Personally.

·        Looking back over your life, can you see God's involvement in it even when you were quite unaware that God was at work in and with you?  Was there a time when you did not "acknowledge" God?

·        Many have claimed that the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism was God's doing, working through people like Mikail Gorbachev.  In the light of this passage what do you think of claims such as these?

·        How do you feel about the statement by Isaiah that God is responsible for darkness and light, disaster and prosperity?  (If you are tempted to assume that 'good' people get the prosperity and 'bad' people get the disaster, remind yourself of Job!)

·        Where was God in the Pike River Mine disaster, the Christchurch earthquakes, or the Tauranga oil-spill?

Thessalonians.  This may well be the earliest letter we have from St Paul.  He visited Thessalonica (modern-day Salonika) on his second missionary journey.  The city was large and important, with a busy sea-port and all the dubious behaviour that went with that.  It was also on an important trade route, the Via Egnatia, and had a large Jewish community with a synagogue.  When many people started to be converted to the new faith it aroused deep hostility in the Jewish community, and Paul was driven out of the city by them.  Widespread persecution of the new converts followed; yet many remained firm in their faith and this became widely known in the area.  Hence Paul writes to them warmly, commending them for their faith, and lauding them as great examples to other struggling faith communities.

Taking It Personally.

·        In your prayers do you regularly give thanks for particular people or groups, family friends, workmates, your local church community, your neighbourhood, etc?

·        Is there someone you seek to imitate as a person of faith?  Who have been or are examples of faithful people for you?  Have you given thanks to God for them?

·        Have you in turn become a model of faith for others to imitate?  Has the gospel rang out from you; is your faith well-known to people who know you well?


Matthew.  Recall again that this is in Holy Week, after the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus has upset the money traders and others making money from the pilgrims in the Temple.  Notice, too, that this is the first of three issues raised with Jesus, before he raises one of his own.  Thus, he is asked about paying taxes, the resurrection life in relation to divorcees, and the greatest of all the commandments.  He raises the issue of the Davidic descent of the Messiah.  It's all rather tedious stuff, as the religious hierarchy and an assortment of powerful allies make one last attempt to trap him into self-incrimination.


Today the Pharisees and the Herodians team up.  Not natural allies, as the latter support the puppet-king, Herod, and favour collaboration with the Roman overlords, and the Pharisees do not.  [Which means, of course, that the Herodians would favour paying taxes to Caesar, and the Pharisees would not.]  After an opening flourish of nauseating flattery they put their question in classic binary mode: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, yes or no?  Jesus begins his response by making it clear he knows exactly what they're up to, and then finesses them by asking for a coin used in the payment of taxes.  The implication is that Jesus and his disciples do not have such a coin and therefore cannot pay the tax, whereas his questioners do have one and could pay the tax.


The coin bears an image of Tiberius Caesar [emperor from 14-37A.D.], and the inscription read: "Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus."  Such a claim to divinity (or descent from divinity) was blasphemous to the Jews.  Jesus' response uses the word "render" (not merely "give").  It is a technical word meaning to pay a debt owed to the payee.  Thus Jesus is saying, if you owe something to Caesar pay him what you owe; likewise, whatever you owe to God repay that debt.


The subtlety of all this is two-fold.  First, none of us can ever repay the enormous debt we owe to God.  Secondly, the coin belongs to Tiberius because it bears his image.  But we bear God's image, so we belong to God.  God's claim over us is total; Caesar's claim, if any, is a few coins.




Taking It Personally.

·        To what extent do you separate your religious beliefs from your business decisions?  Do you live in two separate realms, the secular and the spiritual, or is there only one? 

·        Are you an either/or person or a both/and person generally?

·        Take out a coin and look at it.  Look at the Queen's head on it.  Remind yourself it bears her image.  Now remind yourself whose image you bear.  Stay with that thought for some time.  How do you feel about it?

·        How do you feel about paying taxes?  Are you glad of the opportunity to share in providing health care and education to others, or do you begrudge it and seek ways to minimise your tax liability?

·        Do you agree or disagree that these are valid questions of faith?

Saturday, 8 October 2011


October 9                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Pentecost 16

Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-12

Theme: R.S.V.P.  In other words, it's all about our response to the King's invitation – better known as God's grace.

Introduction.  In the broader picture the gospel narrative today is, and in recent weeks has been, about authority and our willingness or otherwise to accept it.  Related to that is the ongoing question of identity.  The teachers of the law and the elders questioned Jesus' authority: now we have invited guests throwing their invitations back in a denial of the King's authority over them.  Who is this king that expects them to drop everything and attend his son's wedding feast?  The passage from Isaiah is set in the context of rebellious enemy states having been brought into submission, and now being open to God's gracious invitation to become one with his people.  All nations are under God's authority.  In the epistle, St Paul writes as one having authority to a local church in which personal agendas are damaging the community's witness.  Their response will depend, in part, on who they think he is: an Apostle or an interfering busybody?  Does he have the authority to tell them what to do?

Background.  We might think about our own Royal Wedding, which all seems so long ago now, but, in fact, it was at the end of April.  The invitations to that event were greatly sought after, we were assured!  It is unlikely that any fortunate recipient made light of it; even less likely that anyone declined it on the ground of having better things to do with his/her time!

We might also see some connections between a more recent event, one much closer to home.  The kingdom of heaven, we might say, is like "Party Central" or "God's Fanzone", open to everybody who wants to turn up: however, patrons who are inappropriately dressed (not wearing official sponsor's products) will be ejected.

There's also the lovely (but rather provocative) story about the Vicar who started missing the odd Sunday morning service.  When Vestry finally challenged him about this he produced a series of explanations: he missed one Sunday because a friend he hadn't seen in years turned up unexpectedly on his doorstep so he stayed home to spend time with him; another, because it started to rain rather heavily and the church always felt so cold in bad weather; a third because it was such a lovely day he took the opportunity to play a round of golf; and the fourth, because his wife was away visiting her sister, so he needed to look after the children.  After hearing all this and deliberating for some time, Vestry resolved to warn him that if he continued to behave like the parishioners they would have no alternative but to ask the Bishop to dismiss him.

Isaiah.  One of the key ideas running through the whole Book of Isaiah is the universal reach of God's salvation.  Until his time, the prevailing view was that different nations had different gods: Yahweh was the God of Israel but had no "jurisdiction" outside her borders.  Then sometime around the 8th to 7th centuries B.C. a change of thinking developed.  As the idea of monotheism took hold, it became clear that Yahweh could not be limited by national boundaries.  He was still the God of Israel, irrevocably bound to Israel by the Abrahamic Covenant, etc, but through Israel he would bring salvation to all nations.  In this passage we see evidence of this shift.  Isaiah begins in the first person singular: "you are my God; I will exalt you".  Then he speaks of God overcoming "foreigners", "strong peoples", and "ruthless nations", representative of the traditional view that everyone else was Israel's enemy and therefore an enemy of Yahweh.  But then (v.6) comes a wonderful invitation addressed to "all peoples", "all nations", and "all faces".  By verse 8, God's people are "from all the earth".

Taking It Personally.

·       Do you prefer small gatherings of people you know or large crowds of all sorts?  When you receive an invitation to a social function how concerned are you about who else may have been invited?

·       On Christmas Day, would you prefer to have dinner at home with family and friends, or join in a community "open-to-all" type celebration?

·       Do you agree with Isaiah that God has done "marvellous things"?  Such as what?

·       Having pondered those marvellous things, spend some time in prayer extolling him and praising his name.

Philippians.  St Paul is clearly writing to a real congregation of real people!  Even among those who ministered alongside Paul a personal dispute has arisen.  Paul does not ignore it or try to make light of it: he acknowledges it and names the participants.  Nor does he take sides.  Instead, he urges them to settle their differences, and the rest of the congregation to help them reconcile.  They should all focus their attention, their energies and their hearts on God, in worship and prayer, and fill their minds with all that is good and positive.  That is the way to establish and experience the perfect peace of God.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you at ease and at peace with each of the other members of your local church, or are there "issues" needing to be addressed?

·        How might other members of the congregation help in promoting any necessary reconciliation?

·        Is your gentleness evident to all?

·        Are you anxious or worried about anything?

·        Are you presently experiencing the peace of God that passes all understanding?

·        Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking negatively?

·        Review the last week.  To what extent have you succeeded in putting into practice the things that you have learned from St Paul's writings?

Matthew.  We continue Jesus' teaching in Holy Week, only days (and perhaps only hours) from his capture and crucifixion.  Although introduced as a "kingdom parable" this one is very much a "judgment parable".  There is an uncompromising division between those who receive salvation (or, more accurately, those who accept it) and those who do not.  Some of the language is harsh, even brutal.  And the plot verges on melodrama in places: burning a whole city does seem something of an over-reaction to what was, at worst, a social snub.  But the central message is clear: God's invitation is open to all, but each must actually accept it.  A reply is required.

The image of the wedding feast is common, reaching its climax in the wedding feast of the Lamb.  We're in eschatological territory here.  As in the Parable of the Vineyard, the treatment meted out to the King's servants equates to the treatment of Israel's prophets over the centuries.  Those who received their invitations did not just politely decline them; they made light of them, preferred to pursue their own agendas.  This was a terrible insult to the dignity and authority of the King.

The new batch of "guests" was a very mixed bag.  It included "the good and the bad", dealing a grievous blow to all those who believe that entry into heaven depends on the quality of our behaviour.  Two difficulties with this story have baffled commentators for years.  The first concerns the "man there who was not wearing wedding clothes".  As he had been rounded up off the street it's hard to see how he (or any of the others) could be.  Among many possible explanations perhaps the strongest two are these:

·        The literal approach.  It has been suggested that the custom for such weddings was for the host (the King) to provide wedding garments for the guests as they arrived.  Perhaps this guy had refused to "dress up like a penguin" -  that is, his attitude was hostile.

·        The metaphorical approach.  To enter into God's presence we must "put on Christ".  This guy tried to enter as himself rather than "in Christ".

Taking It Personally.

·        Recall the last time you received a social invitation.  Did you accept it gladly, accept it reluctantly out of social convention, decline it on 'diplomatic' grounds, or simply decline it?  How did you feel about the invitation and your response to it?

·        Recall the royal wedding in April (William and Catherine), and the speculation beforehand about who was on the guest list.  How would you feel if a recipient of such an invitation had made light of it, perhaps by trying to sell it on TradeMe, or joking about it on YouTube?

·        Ponder the tough language in verses 7 and 13 – remember this is Jesus speaking).  How do you feel about it?

·        Can you recall a social occasion at which you felt inappropriately dressed?  How did you feel about it?

·        Does it matter what you wear to church?  Is it a sign of respect to God, or are you more concerned about what others may think of you?


Friday, 7 October 2011

Dog Collars the Order of the Day

St Stephen's Anglican Church ,Hampden

Pet Service held on Sun 2 Oct 2011 at 2pm


Dog Collars the Order of the Day

It could have been the weather.  It could have been the Bishop's visit.  It could even have been the need to seek comfort in the wake of Dan Carter's injury.

Whatever it was, it resulted in a wonderful gathering of 48 human beings, 14 dogs and two budgies in St Stephen's Anglican Church in Hampden on Sunday afternoon for the annual Pet Service in honour of St Francis.  They came from as far afield as Waitati in the south and Oamaru in the north.

 At the beginning of the service  pet owners introduced their dogs and budgies .The largest dog was a leonburger, with daushounds, poodles , a 15 year old Jack Russell, springer spaniels,  and  two all black labradors sitting  in the church with their owners.

The service was a mixture of the usual and the decidedly unusual, with hymns, readings, and prayers before and after a keenly contested Canine and Feline quiz between two equally inventive teams.

In his sermon, Bishop Kelvin Wright spoke of the pet that had had the most profound effect on him – a rabbit called Chester who had joined the Wright family when he was Vicar of St John's, Roslyn.  The Bishop described how his relationship with Chester had grown into one that could only be described as friendship.  "When I looked into Chester's eyes and Chester returned my gaze, I knew him as a fellow creature, not a thing – a manifestation of God's creative and loving power.  Chester reminded me that all creatures have a God-given dignity worthy of human respect."

After the service in which the pets present were blessed, and those that had passed away were remembered, certificates were awarded in some very imaginative categories of pet; and the dogs were rewarded for their impeccable 'Sunday-best' behaviour with some tasty nibbles, kindly donated by Oamaru Vet Services.  Then it was the humans' turn, with a scrumptious afternoon tea in the hall.

The service was led by Rev Roger Barker, Interim Priest of the Parish of East Otago, and Alistair Wright, from St Barnabas Church in Warrington, provided the musical accompaniment on the organ.

by  Rev  Roger Barker


Saturday, 1 October 2011

October 2 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Pentecost 16

October 2                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Pentecost 16

Texts:  Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Theme:  Something like "Facing the Inevitable".  Judgment is sure and unavoidable.  What hope is there for us?

Introduction.  There comes a time when time runs out.  Our past catches up with us.  That which we always intended to do one day has not been done.  Judgment is upon us.  A man of great wealth has run out of reasons for delay: he is declared bankrupt.  In the sixth week of his trial on multiple fraud charges another man shocks even his lawyers by changing his plea to guilty.  In both cases a day of judgment has arrived.  So to for Israel.  Even God has given up on his people.  They must now accept the consequences of their unfaithfulness.  St Paul faced such a moment on the Road to Damascus.  Everything he had sincerely believed put him right with God turned out to be wrong.  Fortunately for him (and for all of us!) he got the message and repented.  The tenants in the vineyard did not: they followed the time-honoured course of committing one crime to cover up another and so on.  Their punishment will follow.  They have killed the only person who could have saved them if only they had been prepared to accept him as their (land)Lord.

Background.  A young man who had been a stalwart in the local church throughout his teenage years – often playing the organ and leading the singing – in his early twenties suddenly discovered the joy of courting and stopped attending church.  Discussing this one day with the Vicar, his mother, who was very involved in the church herself, commented: "But I'm not worried, of course – he's got plenty of time to come back."  "How do you know that?" the Vicar asked her.

God shows us enormous forbearance, but the teaching of Scripture is clear.  It has an end.

Isaiah.  The first 5 chapters of the Book of Isaiah form a preface to the rest.  Throughout those chapters the metaphor of the vineyard is used in three different ways.  In 1:8 it identifies the faithful remnant that God reserves to himself within the otherwise faithless people.  In 3:12-4.1 the elders and leaders of the people stand accused by God of having ruined his vineyard by –

·        Plundering the poor

·        Crushing his people, and

·        Grinding the faces of the poor.

But now the prophet faces the seeming inevitability of divine judgment.  The vineyard has become the place where total destruction must be pronounced.  The hope in 1:26-27 has gone: as has the cleansing and new creation in 4:2-6.  This time even God has run out of ideas: what more could be done?  Sin has taken hope away: nothing is left but gathering darkness.

Vines have only one use – to produce good grapes.  If they fail to do that they are of no value: see Ezekiel 15:2-5.

The Feast of Tabernacles followed the gathering in of the grape harvest.  It has been suggested that might have provided the background for Isaiah's song.

Notice the careful structure of the song:  1-2: the singer sings of his friend; 3-4: the singer sings as his friend; 5-6: the singer reveals the identity of his friend; 7: the singer reveals the identity of the vineyard.

Taking It Personally.

·        Recall an instance when you lavished time and energy on a particular project (cooking, making something, sowing something, etc) only to be extremely disappointed with the outcome.  How did that feel?

·        How did you respond?  Did you try again, or did you abandon the exercise in disgust?

·        What about a child, grandchild, or perhaps a pet?  Have you felt let down, unrewarded for all the love, care and commitment you have given?

·        Has God done everything possible for you?  What more could he have done?  How might he feel about the outcome?


Philippians.  This passage is one of the most important of Paul's personal testimonies: see also Galatians 1:13-24; 1 Timothy 1:12-16; Acts 22:1-21; 26:1-23.  This passage is a model for Christian discipleship.  He begins by an honest assessment of himself; his Jewish pedigree is impeccable, but he had placed his faith in that pedigree; and he had believed that his righteousness was earned by his study of and zeal for the Law.  This forms the first part of today's passage, dealing with his pre-conversion identity and belief system.  In verses 7-14 he shows how much has changed on his conversion to Christ.  For him, nothing has any lasting value compared with knowing Christ – not "about" Christ.  Righteousness comes, not through zealous adherence to the Law, but through faith in Christ.  He wants nothing more than to know (that is, experience) –

·        Christ

·        The power of Christ's resurrection, and

·        The sharing in Christ's death and resurrection.

Conversion is a process, not an event.  Paul has not yet achieved all these things.  He is becoming more Christ-like: he is not yet like Christ.  So "Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead I press on towards the goal."


Taking It Personally.


·        How important is your relationship with Christ?    Can you say with Paul that no one and nothing else even comes close to the value you attach to knowing Christ?

·        What have you lost through your faith in Christ?

·        Have you experienced the power of Christ's resurrection in your life?

·        Look back 10 years.  Are you more Christ-like now than you were then?

·        How willing and able are you to forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead?  Are you convinced that the best is yet to come?


Matthew.  This parable is clearly based on today's passage from Isaiah.  The details in v.33 play no role in the development of the story, and serve the purpose of reminding his audience (the chief priests and elders) of the Isaiah passage, which they knew was about the judgment of Israel by God.  It follows on immediately after last week's passage, and so is set in Jerusalem in Holy Week (after the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple).  The chief priests and the elders were members of the ruling class, and would have within their ranks many absentee landlords who would naturally sympathise with the landlord in the parable.  They would certainly not tolerate such behaviour from their own tenants!  Hence, they are suckered – forced to pass judgment on themselves by the question in v.40.


The reference to "harvest time" in v.34 is code for the time of Judgment.  The treatment handed out to the servants in vv.35-6 reflects the treatment traditionally handed out to the prophets of Israel.  Many such tenancies of the time may well have passed down through the generations: tenants with an eye to the future would have wanted good relations with the current landlord's son and heir: v.37.  The reasoning of these tenants in v.38 is decidedly wobbly in terms of succession law, but serves the purposes of the narrative.  The quotation in verse 42 is from psalm 118:22-3.  The implication seems to be that just as builders can fail to recognise good stone when they see it, so they (the experts in the Law) have failed to recognise the Son of God about whom the Law testifies.  In v.43 there is a rare reference (rare for Matthew) to "kingdom of God" rather than "kingdom of Heaven", perhaps indicating that this verse did not originate with Matthew.  Note, too, the direct tone in this verse:  the kingdom of God will be taken away from "you".  Story-time is over and the gloves are off!  In verse 44 a distinction seems to be drawn between those who trip over the stone, who may be redeemed, and those on whom it falls (judgment) who will be destroyed.  In verse 45 the reference to the Pharisees is inconsistent with v.23.


Taking It Personally.


·        Look back over the past week.  What judgment would you pass on yourself?

·        Do you ever have a sense of God's absence – as if he had gone away on a journey?

·        Does God's apparent absence worry or frighten you – or is it sometimes more of a relief?

·        As you read or hear his parables, do you sometimes feel Jesus is talking about you?  Which parable(s) in particular?