St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 21 December 2012

Advent 4-Christmas

"The Notes for Reflection" on this blog are based on the weekly readings set for the coming Sunday in The Lectionary, and are written by a former Vicar of the Parish of Port Chalmers-Warrington, The Reverend Roger Barker.  Now retired, Roger lives with his wife Trish in Waikouaiti, but continues to worship at St Barnabas.  He offers occasional teaching in small groups, with particular emphasis on spiritual practices.  With a background in law, Roger also has a keen interest in apologetics, and is particularly interested in the interface between science and the Christian faith, topics which he refers to often in the Notes.  Roger welcomes feedback.  He can be contacted directly by email at, or phone on (03).465.7719.
December 23-25                     NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Advent 4-Christmas

Texts: Luke 1:39-45, 67-79, 2:1-20

Note.  I am changing the format for this time.  Like it or not, this is one of the occasions when the Christian faith comes under attack most stridently, within and without the Church.  The "elephant in the room" is, of course, the apparent belief in the birth of a male child to a virgin mother.  What can people of faith say about that in the 21st century?  That's the question I'm pondering in these Notes.

Introduction.  Luke is at some pains to separate his Annunciation story from his birth narrative, and so we can have gospel readings on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day without any reference to the miraculous conception of Jesus.  Indeed, on two of those occasions we seem to be invited to give top billing to John the Baptist, himself the product of an "assisted" but not quite so miraculous conception.  Quite why we are to focus on Zechariah's Song at the Christmas Vigil baffles me.  Over all, the emphasis is on God's initiative.  Whatever else is going on with Elizabeth and Mary, God is working his purposes out.  So perhaps the first thing we can say as people of faith in the 21st century is that the texts we have are intended to make theological statements rather than biological ones.

What do we believe?   Let's start with what we say we believe.  The most specific statement is in the Apostles' Creed (page 461 of the Prayer Book):  Here each of us affirms:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit , born of the Virgin Mary...

Here there is no real reference to the "pre-existent Christ": we might describe the Creed as pre-Johannine.  But is does draw a sharp distinction between Jesus' conception (the work of the Holy Spirit) and his birth (the labour of Mary).  And notice our preference for a capital  "V" for Virgin; perhaps an attempt to name or identify Mary, rather than to describe her as a woman who has not had sexual intercourse.  The references to "Son of God" and "Lord" hint, perhaps, at divine status, but seem little more than honorific titles.  It may be worth noting that this Creed is not used by the churches of the East. 

 A much more nuanced statement is found in the Nicene Creed (page 410):

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became fully human.

Here there can be no doubt that theology trumps biology.  And given the Trinitarian emphasis, the clear understanding of Christ's divinity, his eternal existence with the Father, his "coming down from heaven", and being "incarnate" in Mary and becoming "fully human, we can surely see the folly of arguing one way or the other on the biological details of how exactly Mary became pregnant.  [Far better, surely, to follow Luke's wonderful example of discretion and delicacy – the "conception" is described only in prospect, but when does it actually take place?  Between verses 38 and 39?  Is Mary already pregnant when she visits Elizabeth and sings her wonderful song?  Luke does not say.  Indeed, 2:5-7 does not link the birth of Mary's child to the Annunciation.]

What is asserted clearly in this Creed is Christ's humanity.  Whereas we tend to waste our breath arguing about Jesus' paternity, it may be worth noting that in the early church there was strong debate between those who believed Jesus was human but not divine, and those who believed that Jesus was divine but not human.  The vital point to stress at this Christmas time especially is that, in Christ, the two natures, divine and human, come together in their fullness.

For the sake of completeness only, I should make a brief reference to the so-called Affirmation of Faith on page 481 of the Prayer Book, if only to urge that it should not be used at Christmas.  While it has some wonderful things to say about "God" it is open to question which god it is referring to.  It only narrowly misses, if it misses at all, the heresy of unitariansism, by brief references to the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity.  It has no reference to the Incarnation.

Our Catechism is no real help on this subject.  Question 12 (page 928 0f the Prayer Book) summarises what the Church teaches about Jesus in 4 terse sentences, the first of which, concerning the Incarnation, follows the wording of the Apostles' Creed.

What do our Gospels say?  A brief overview of all four show a growing interest in, and development of theology around, the question of Jesus' conception and birth.  Mark, the first gospel to be written, shows no interest in these questions at all.  As far as Mark is concerned, the story of Jesus starts with his baptism.  If he thought about such matters as the dual nature of Christ at all, his view would seem to be that the Holy Spirit joined with Jesus the human being at baptism.  Presumably, human curiosity being what it is, it was not long before someone asked what Jesus was doing before that, and the teachers of the Church started to re-think this matter.  The result was to push the union of the divine and the human back to the start of his life on earth.  Hence the "birth narratives" we have in Matthew and Luke.  Finally, the mystical John saw through all this petty obsession with the facts of life and gave us instead the Facts of Life.

To bracket Matthew and Luke together in this way is more misleading than helpful.  A brief read of their respective "birth narratives" will show the very different concerns that drove each of them in his composition.  Matthew seems already concerned with what people were saying: he tries to deal with real queries that people, perhaps within the believing community as well as outside it, were already raising (remembering that he is writing at least 60 years after Jesus' birth).  If Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, how did Joseph feel about that?  Surely any man would not take kindly to discovering that his fiancĂ©e was pregnant when he had not had sex with her?  So we get the passage in 1:18-24 which is all about Joseph and Mary is only referred to in relation to him.  Matthew is also concerned about prophecies, and goes to some trouble to explain why it is that Jesus is known to be from Nazareth, yet was born in Bethlehem.  For similar reasons he has a story about the Holy Family taking refuge in Egypt.

For Luke a major pre-occupation is the vexed question of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, which bubbles just beneath the surface in all four gospels.  Clearly, this caused tensions in the early Church for many decades.  So Luke needs to give considerable prominence to John's conception and birth as well as those of Jesus; and of course his charming story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth is a barely disguised excuse to tell us that even en ventre sa mere the embryonic John hailed the Mother of God and (by inference) the even more embryonic Jesus.

A New Approach for the 21st Century?

As I pondered all these things I found myself thinking about the origin of life.  Even the most dedicated Darwinian stumbles a bit when considering the first life to evolve.  How did we get from non-living stuff to living stuff?  And if life is guided by DNA, and DNA is found only in living things, which came first, DNA or living things?  Granted that once life got going it "evolved", how could it evolve before it began?   Somewhere in all that there is mystery, and can we not see common ground here between at least open-minded scientists and open-minded people of faith?  Out of the mystery of its beginning came life: out of the mystery of the Incarnation came the One who is the Life.  Which is the greater miracle?  With God all is miracle, for he calls into existence things that are not.

So what might we say as people of faith in the 21st century at this special time of the year?  That at the heart of our Christmas belief and practice is God as the source of all things, including human life.  Just as our story of Adam and Eve recognises the fundamental creative power of God uniting his spirit (breath) with inanimate material (the dust of the earth) and thereby "explains" how the leap was made between the inanimate and the animate, so our story of the Incarnation recognises how our creaturely being is impregnated with the Spirit of God, and recognises how the leap was made from the divine to the human.  Christmas is a Festival of Life in all its fullness: that is why we celebrate it with great joy.

Some Reflections on these readings from Luke.

1:39-45.  The passage is notable more for what it doesn't say than what it does.  I have already noted the careful way Luke does not refer to the actual "overshadowing" of Mary by the Holy Spirit.  So we do not know for certain if Mary was already pregnant when she visited Elizabeth.  Was Mary aware of Elizabeth's pregnancy before Gabriel told her?

1:46-56.  Mary's song is surely the creative work of Luke rather than Mary herself.  The same comment applies to Zechariah's song in 1:67-79.  Notice that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy (1:36), and Mary stays with her for about 3 months (1:56).  She leaves when the birth is due?  Luke may have a point in mind but I'm not sure what it is.

2:1-7.  Luke's careful attention to historical detail is significant, as I have mentioned in previous Notes.  The Incarnation is an actual historical event.  It is about the eternal invading the temporal, the heavenly coming to earth.  Throughout these readings there is a tension between Transcendence and Immanence, God in heaven and God with us.

2:8-20.  Nowhere is this tension more obvious (and handled more beautifully) than in this passage.  The shepherds were the lowest of the low in their society, and yet it is to them that the glory of the Lord is shown, the angelic messenger speaks and the heavenly choirs sing.  And notice the emphasis in the song – God is in heaven, but "his favour" rests on those on earth.  The passage finishes on a very matter-of-fact level, straight reportage.  The angels had "left them and gone into heaven".   There's a hint of, "We've told and shown you all you need to know, now it's up to you to make whatever you will of it."  Being practical men they check it out for themselves first, before witnessing to others and worshipping God.

Taking It Personally.

·        What are you most looking forward to this Christmas?  Make a list.  Now check the list – is there anything religious/spiritual on it?

·        Who or what are you most thankful for at this time? Give thanks.

·        If the Spirit and body are joined at birth, what is the point of baptism?

·        What would it mean for you for Christ to be born in you anew this Christmas?

·        Notice the importance of names in these readings.  Reflect on your own name.  Why was it chosen for you?  Has it had any obvious effect on your life?  Has it shaped the person you are?

·        If you have had and named children, why did you chosoe the names you did?  Were you guided by your faith in choosing those names?

·        What would you say to a friend who asks you to "explain" our belief in the "Virgin Birth"?

·        Pray especially for those who are in the final stages of pregnancy at this time.  Pray, too, for our neonatal units, and their staff during the holiday period.


Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Reverend Roger Barker author of Reflections

"The Notes for Reflection" on this blog are based on the weekly readings set for the coming Sunday in The Lectionary, and are written by a former Vicar of the Parish of Port Chalmers-Warrington, The Reverend Roger Barker.  Now retired, Roger lives with his wife Trish in Waikouaiti, but continues to worship at St Barnabas.  He offers occasional teaching in small groups, with particular emphasis on spiritual practices.  With a background in law, Roger also has a keen interest in apologetics, and is particularly interested in the interface between science and the Christian faith, topics which he refers to often in the Notes.  Roger welcomes feedback.  He can be contacted directly by email at, or phone on (03).465.7719.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Third Sunday in Advent

December 16                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Third Sunday in Advent

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Theme:  Anything about Waiting, Expectancy, Hoping, Looking forward, etc. would work in this Advent Season.  I'm going with "The Fullness of Time".  [I meant to go with "The Fulness of Time", but my Spell-check wouldn't let me.]

Introduction.  All three of our readings are about time, and in particular about "the right time".  Zephaniah looks forward with the eye of a prophet to a future that may be many centuries away.  John the Baptist looks forward with the eye of a meteorologist, warning of imminent danger.  St Paul looks forward with equanimity: far or near, people of faith have nothing to fear in the future.

Background.  Recently I heard an interview with an author of a number of novels who was describing his somewhat chaotic approach to writing them.  Apparently he starts with one small incident, asks himself who might have been involved in that incident, and then "let's the thing develop pretty much under its own steam from then on".  In other words, when he starts to write a novel he has no clear idea what it's going to be about, or who is going to be in the novel.  It reminded me of a wonderful story I came across some years ago in "The Mind of the Maker", by Dorothy L Sayers.  That book is about the creative process of an artist and how, reflecting on that process can help us into a deeper understanding of our belief in God as our Creator.  She writes of a male novelist who had been broken-hearted by a woman, and had decided to create a fictional woman who would be perfect in every way.  Eventually he had had to abandon the venture because the story just would not turn out the way he had intended: the final straw came when he was writing a dialogue between two other characters in the book, and one of them dropped in the conversation that the heroine actually had a rather shady past life!

Putting these two things together, what do they tell us about God our Creator?  First, the contrast: all the evidence suggests that from the very beginning God has had the full story in mind: new things happen "when the time is right" or "in the fullness of time".  So the method adopted by the interviewee probably does not tell us anything about God as Creator of the Great Story of All Things.  But the experience of the other novelist does sound familiar.  How often the characters God has created (yes, including you and me) have done our best to change God's plot as we have gone along!  And yet...the story somehow continues to develop as God has intended from the beginning.

Traditionally at this time of the year we hear some of the great Messianic prophecies, particularly those in the Book of Isaiah, and we marvel at their accuracy given that they were uttered 700 years or so before the event – or perhaps we should say, before the Advent.  Well, over the last two weeks or so I have been reading a remarkable book called "Thank God for Evolution" by an American religious teacher called Michael Dowd.  Printed on the front cover is this a short sentence from John Mather, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006: The Universe took 13.7 billion years to produce this amazing book, which is a very clever and succinct summary of what this book is about.  If we now accept (as we surely must) that Darwin got it broadly right, and if we wish to continue to assert (as we surely do) that God created all things seen and unseen, then we have to find a way of understanding the evolutionary process from the Big Bang (or the Great Radiance, as Michael Dowd likes to call it) right down to the present moment as the unfolding of God's purpose, as chapters in the unfinished story in which we live and move and have our being.

To help us get our heads around such vast stretches of time Dowd gives (on page 278) a "Cosmic century timeline": if we take 100 years to represent that nearly 14 billion years since the birth of the universe, then each year represents 140 million years, each month represents 12 million years, each day represents 400,000 years, each hour represents 15,000 years, and each minute represents 250 years.  On that basis, he says, assuming the universe was created 1 second after midnight on January 1 in Year 1and we are now living in the last second of year 99, we can say this:

The earliest bipedal apes (hominids) rose up on two legs and looked out across the African savannah less than two weeks ago, on December 20.  The first species classified as fully human, Homo habilis, appeared in Africa on December 25 of the 99th year....Our ancestors domesticated fire during the early morning hours of December 29.  Homo sapiens emerged just 24 hours ago, at the beginning of the 365th day of the Universe's 99th year of existence.

Or, in our time, we have been around in our present manifestation for about 400,000 years out of the 13.7 billion years that God has been in the process of making all things seen and unseen.  That's quite a thought – and quite a story!  And yet, even against this background, it still makes sense to us to claim that, "at just the right time" God sent his Son into the world.  Or, as Luke put it, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the desert."

One final thought about time for this week.  It may be helpful to read again some of the early Christian sermons as we have them in the Book of Acts: see, for example, 2:14-36; 3:18-26; 7:1-53.  These give a clear view of the importance of the concept of a "timeline" approach to telling and understanding the Christian story.  Somewhat paradoxically, the eternal God is revealed through history – through the passing of time.

And a footnote on John the Baptist.  I had just started preparing these notes when I paused to listen to a radio interview with the (still relatively) new Bishop of Wellington, Justin Duckworth.  On paper, it would be hard to think of a greater contrast between his ministry before his appointment as the Bishop and his ministry as bishop.  He has now held that position for close to a year.  What has been the greatest difficulty he has faced so far?  Encouraging those who have faithfully served the church for 60 or more years to hand over power to the next generations, knowing that they will do things differently.  John the Baptist had only a short time in the limelight, yet was able to say, "He must become greater; I must become less."  What a man for our times the unsettling John really is.

Zephaniah.  An unequivocal utterance of joy and hope this time.  As we read or hear the passage we might expect it to "take a turn for the worse" as such passages often do.  But this prophet deals with the tough stuff first, clears it out of the way, and so is able to give the unadulterated good news. This comprises three main elements, and each is introduced with a temporal reference.   "On that day" God will be with his people in the Holy City (verses 16-18).  Secondly, "at that time" God will deal with Israel's enemies, all who have afflicted them, and raise up the afflicted to new dignity and honour wherever they are (verse 19).  And thirdly, "at that time" God will gather up the people and bring them home (verse 20).

Taking It Personally.

·        Spend some time reflecting on the "Cosmic Century TimeLine", above.  Many years ago, somebody wrote a book called "Our God is Too Small".  Does this help you to broaden your understanding of God the Creator?

·        Look in the bathroom mirror, and say to yourself, "It has taken the Universe 13.7 billion years to produce this amazing person".  Take the time necessary for that thought to sink in, then put it this way: "It has taken God 13.7 billion years to create this amazing person."  How do you feel about that?

·        Now meditate on verse 17.  After 13.7 billion years of creative work God is going to rejoice with the one he has produced.  Rejoice with him!

·        Zephaniah (and the other prophets) was looking ahead several hundred years.  What is your prayer today for the world in 100 years time?

Philippians.  It is hard to grasp that this wonderful passage (as well as the rest of this letter, of course) is written by Paul while he is imprisoned in Rome.  (He makes a brief reference to his personal circumstances in 1:14.)  Far from calling on his followers to resist, flee, or anything in-between, he exhorts them to "rejoice in the Lord always"; to be gentle in all they do; and to pray constantly.  Then they will experience that wonderful peace that is beyond all human understanding.

Taking It Personally.

·        Take a moment to think about Paul's personal circumstances.  He is in prison in Rome.  Try to put yourself is that situation – or call to mind difficult circumstances you have faced in the past.  Would you rejoice in his shoes?

·        Notice the words in verse 6 "by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God".  Use that as a template for your prayers this week.

·        Are you anxious about anything at this time?  Pray about it, and ask God to grant you his peace.

Luke.  This week John the Baptist brings us crashing back to earth: from the ethereal, perhaps mystical heights of last week with the lofty quote from Isaiah, he turns on the people present with a savagery of language rarely heard outside of Parliament.  He  famously calls them a "brood of vipers", not a term advocated by church growth enthusiasts and evangelists.  And yet, at the end of the diatribe Luke gives us this summary (verse 18): And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.   This is a man announcing good news?  Yet the people do not try to stone him, or block their ears, or turn on their heels and go home.  They engage with him and ask his advice.  They are open to his message.  So he gives them the message.  He makes it clear that, whatever Isaiah might have meant in his poetic flights of fancy, the way to "prepare the way of the Lord" is repentance.  And words of sorrow are not enough: true repentance produces a change in actions as well as thoughts.  His other target is their religious smugness.  It is not enough to claim descent from Abraham: only a radical turning-back to God in true repentance can save them from the coming wrath.

Taking It Personally.

·        A good day for some serious spiritual stock-taking.  What may be blocking the Lord's way through to you?

·        What might you need to do to remove any such blockages?  Be as specific as you can.  (See verses 10-14).

·        Ponder verse 9.  Think of a tree cut down, and how, in certain species, a new shoot will emerge.  ("From the stump of Jesse...)  Is this a helpful image for you?  What might need to be cut down in your life to allow new shoots to grow?

·        What role does John the Baptist have in your preparations for Christmas?


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Second Sunday in Advent

December 9                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Second Sunday in Advent

Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Theme:  Orthodox choices would include "Prepare the Way", or some direct reference to John the Baptist as the Forerunner.  Staying with last week's idea of reality and fantasy, I'm tempted to go for "Nothing Trivial".

Introduction.  As I noted last week, we seem to walk backwards (to Christmas) during our Advent journey.  Last week we looked ahead to the return of Jesus at the end of the age.  This week (and next) we look back to Jesus' coming into the public arena as an itinerant preacher, healer and holy man, by focussing on one of the most perplexing characters in the New Testament, the one we call John the Baptist.  (His importance in the scheme of things can be seen in the fact that he is featured at least 4 times in the Lectionary.)  Today's gospel passage is short, giving us the historical and theological background, before we look more closely at his message next week.  He himself identified his ministry with the prophet Isaiah's prophesy, but today we have a similar word from the lesser known prophet Malachi. The "typical Advent package" is completed by a reading from St Paul's letter to the Philippians exhorting godly and faithful living while we await the return of Christ.

Background.  Recently a property visible from our lounge window changed hands, from a farmer to a contractor.  For days now we have heard the distant buzz of earth-moving machinery as the new owners have been making a flat area for parking, and putting in a long driveway to give better access to their site for their trucks.  Bulldozers, diggers, and goodness-knows-what-else have been carrying out a sort of ballet of their own, as heaps have been levelled, holes filled in and crooked paths made straight.  Signs of Advent are truly all around us.  For those not so blessed here is an invitation to see in the high number of road works that seem always to break out at this time of the year something other than an irritating and dusty cause of delay: as you wait for the road-worker to turn the sign from stop to go, remind yourself of the purpose of the works, and pretend they are doing it all for you.  They are straightening the crooked road or smoothing the rough way for you!  Not as appealing visually as a red carpet, perhaps, but far more enduring.  So give them a cheery wave and an Advent blessing as they let you through!

Advent seems to be a time for violent language.  Last week we heard of trials and tribulations to come on an unimaginable scale.  Next week we will hear John at full-roar, calling the crowds "a brood of vipers" and warning them that the axe is already at  the root of the trees, which goes quite a way towards explaining why, in any popularity poll, he would lag some way behind Santa.  But he would, I think, enjoy a book I have been reading with some interesting things to say about Advent.  The book is Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, whose day job is religious correspondent for the National Public Radio of the USA.

She has a gift for the striking phrase, and there is no better example of that than the title to chapter 2 of her book: The God Who Breaks and Enters.  How's that for an Advent stunner!  It stopped me in my tracks when I first read it; frankly, my immediate reaction was negative.  I thought she was being shocking for the sake of it; but then the voice of Scripture took up her theme.  Into my mind came the phrase "like a thief in the night", closely followed by this: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but division.  (This is from Luke 12:51, but Matthew has much the same in 10:34.)  Now I ask you, when did you see anything like that in a Christmas card, even a supposedly religious one?

Our God doesn't just come, says Ms Hagerty, he breaks and enters; and to illustrate her point she gives us the story of one Sophy Burnham.  At age 42 Sophy was living the American dream: she had two teenage girls, a caring and successful husband, a glittering social life, and a demanding career of her own.  Then she joined a tour party to Machu Picchu, the sacred Inca mountain ruins in Peru.  There she had a profound religious experience, and she heard God say to her, "You belong to me."  She described what happened when she returned to her old life in Washington:

O, yeah, I'm a successful writer, I'm married to a successful journalist for The New York Times... But that was ashes in my mouth.  I could not bear it.  It was physically painful to sit at a dinner party and listen to the shallowness of the conversation.  I was so sensitized.  I could hear what was going on underneath people's conversations.  This woman is telling a story at a dinner party in a brittle, gay, happy way, and underneath it, I can hear her heart breaking!  I wanted to shake people and say, "Stop it.  I can't bear it!"

Did she get over it?  No, within three years she had ended her marriage, given up her longtime friends, and abandoned her comfortable life as a Washington journalist.  She is now about 70, still living alone, still in love with the God who breaks and enters into our lives unexpectedly, like a thief in the night.  Come, Lord Jesus?  As a friend of mine is fond of saying, be careful what you pray for!

Malachi.  I do realise that those who put our Lectionary together have tough choices to make, and that I ought to be grateful for all the work they do, and I ought to pray for them far more often that I criticise them, but really!  If we really do need a break from Isaiah this Advent – and I'm not at all sure that we do – I have no objection to Malachi (in fact, I've had a bit of a soft spot for him ever since a reader announced many years ago that "our reading this morning comes from the lesser known prophet Malarkey"!), but was it really necessary to save us from the horrors of verse 5?  (Yes, I'll wait while you look it up and read it.)  Apparently we are grown up enough to cope with the general concept of divine judgment, as long as it is hidden behind images of blast furnaces and laundry soap, but we must be spared the specifics.  Anyway, the point of the passage remains the same as it was from Jeremiah last week.  The Promised One is coming, but disabuse yourselves of any warm and fuzzy feelings.  As Sophy Burnham will tell you, when Reality breaks and enters into your lives it causes havoc.

Taking It Personally.

·        Spend some time pondering Sophy's story.  How do you feel about it?  How does the idea of "The God who breaks and enters" strike you?  Is it a helpful image for you as we progress through Advent or not?

·        Notice in verse 1 the promise that the Lord will come to the temple.  Fast forward in your mind to the story of Jesus "cleansing the temple".  Does this help to understand the rest of this passage?

·        Now focus on the word "offerings".  What offerings are you bringing to God at this time?  Are they acceptable to him?

Philippians.  Characteristically St Paul begins this letter to the faith community at Philippi with a wonderful prayer of thanksgiving and intercession for them.  It is rather similar to the passage we had last week from his first letter to the Thessalonians.  The whole passage is based on the idea of spiritual growth: he starts by referring to the beginning of their faith journey, and expresses confidence that "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus".  He prays that their love may "abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that they might be able to discern what is for the best.  All this is framed by the confidence that Christ will return to them one day.

Taking It Personally.

·       This is a great passage for slow tasting, phrase by phrase.  Sense Paul's love for those he is addressing, and for whom he is praying.  Use this passage as a template as you pray for your own faith community.

·       Notice how Paul gives in this passage an outline of the spiritual journey, from when the gospel was first received until the end in Christ.  The journey is one of growth in love, knowledge and discernment (depth of insight).  Another opportunity for your own spiritual stock-take today.

·       Focus on verse 6.  Are you confident that the Spirit has begun, and will carry it on to completion, a good work in you?  Talk to God about that in prayer today.

Luke.  It would be a good idea to re-read 1:1-4 as background to today's passage.  Here we have the methodical scholarly approach that Luke claims for himself at the outset of his gospel.  Scholars claim to have detected some historical difficulties but the general thrust is clear: what is even clearer is what Luke the storyteller is doing by starting with these histori-political data.  He is emphasises that what follows happened in real time: what he is giving us is a factual, historical account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  [Compare Isaiah 6:1, "In the year King Uzziah died..."]  It is not a legend, an allegory or an early example of Tolkien fantasy.  So he has placed his story at a precise moment in history.  Then he turns to faith history, and he does the same sort of thing.  He reminds us that the great prophet Isaiah had prophesied about a voice calling (or crying) in the wilderness.  Right, says Luke; hold that thought in your mind because I am now going to tell you about a man called John who is the fulfilment of that prophecy.  John has both historical reality and biblical pedigree of the highest order.

Taking It Personally.

·       Think about a particular event in your life.  Where did it occur?  Who was the mayor of that place at the time?  Who was the Prime Minister of New Zealand then?  Who was the Governor-General?  Who was the monarch?  Now put all that together in a sentence equivalent to 3:1.  Do you see what Luke was doing?

·       Focus on verse2 – "the word of God came to John".  This seems to have been before Jesus, the Word of God, came to John at the Jordan.  Reflect on those two comings together.  What do you make of them?

·       John then went "into all the country around the Jordan".  He didn't just stand by the Jordan and wait for the crowds to come to him.  Take time to ponder the work and effort John put into his ministry as the Forerunner and give thanks for him.

·       Now ponder the quotation from Isaiah.  Spiritually, what might you need to do this Advent Season to clear the way for Christ to come more fully into your being and your life?


Saturday, 1 December 2012

Advent Sunday

December 2                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Advent Sunday

Texts:  Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-26

Theme: Not very difficult this week: "The Coming of the Lord" would do nicely; although we might be tempted to add an "s" to "Coming".

Introduction.  Traditionally we spend Advent going backwards through the three comings of Christ.  We begin with his wrongly-called Second Coming", a term not found in the Scriptures; then through the ministry of John the Baptist we remember his coming among the people of Galilee in ministry; and finally we turn our attention to his coming to Mary through the Holy Spirit.  I suppose that pattern has two advantages: by ending with Mary it links in nicely with Christmas, and by beginning with his Return at the end of the age it means we get the difficult bit over with first.  Today's readings, then, do their best; Jeremiah looks ahead in hope and confidence; Luke warns that it will be a harrowing time; and St Paul tells us what to do in the present.  It is one of those unusual weeks when the epistle reading is perhaps the most helpful of the three.

Background.  So let's begin with what we are SUPPOSED to believe about Christ's Return.  There are two relevant questions in The Catechism (Prayer Book, page 938):

70.       What does the Church believe about the last things?

That God in Christ will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, in the fullness of time.  We look to resurrection life and participation with the saints in glory.

71.       How are we to live in this hope?

We anticipate the coming of Christ and we live now in the newness of eternal life which the Spirit gives: we work for the fulfilment of God's purpose for the whole creation.

Our creeds and affirmations of faith are what we SAY we believe.  The Nicene Creed (page 410) says this: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.  The Apostles' Creed (page 461) is more terse: and will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Lastly, the Affirmation of Faith on page 461 makes no reference to Christ's return.

So that's what we are supposed to believe, and what we say we believe, but what do we actually believe about Christ's return, if anything?  Perhaps a fairly safe starting-point may be a belief that history has a direction; it is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  That's a very Jewish view of history, and we have adopted it into the Christian faith.   God is revealed in history.  As the great hymn tells us, "God is working his purpose out", and "the time is drawing near... when the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea."

So we are heading to a conclusion, whatever that may involve.  And in speculating about that, there is another element of Jewish understanding of history at work in today's gospel passage.  Looking back over their history the Jewish people discern certain "patterns of behaviour" that God has repeated over the centuries.  Thus, in Jewish belief, there is a similarity between the rescue from slavery in Egypt and the release of the exiles in Babylon.  In today's gospel the key image is around the destruction of the Temple and the ransacking of Jerusalem, and this gives rise to the cataclysmic view of "the end of the world" imagery invested in the "End Times".  There is also the idea of death and resurrection here: that out of the destruction and desolation comes new life.

With this in mind I was fascinated to read the following passage in Michael Dowd's book, "Thank God for Evolution":

Then one spring day, a terrible catastrophe struck.  An asteroid, 10 miles across, travelling at a speed of 50,000 miles per hour, crashed into our planet just off the Yucatan peninsula of what is today Mexico, punching out a crater 100 miles wide...

The meteor impact that wiped out the dinosaurs turned the sky into a cauldron of sulphuric acid.  It also triggered a magnitude 12 earthquake, which is a million times more powerful than a magnitude 6 earthquake.  This, in turn, unleashed at least 6 mega tsunamis, several of which were more than 300 feet high.  The impact ignited a global firestorm that incinerated perhaps a quarter of the living biomass, releasing so much carbon dioxide that the average global temperature (after plunging into cold, owing to the cloud of dust obscuring the Sun) later rose by 20 degrees Fahrenheit and stayed that way for a million years...three out of every four species alive at the time went extinct.

All in all it was not one of earth's better days.  But thankfully, from our perspective, it was precisely this catastrophe that allowed those mammals that [previously] survived in burrows to flourish and diversify, culminating in all the amazing mammals of the world today, including ourselves.

So...the next time you're greeted by a 300-fopot tsunami at home or at the office, just remember that you are part of an amazing, creative Universe that turns chaos and catastrophes into new growth and opportunities as regularly as day follows night.  This is very good news.

Now read Romans 8:38-39!

More recent examples may be worth referring to, including the Christchurch earthquakes, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Super-storm Sandie, or the Boxing Day Tsunami.  For people caught up in those terrible events it must have seemed like the end of the world – certainly the end of their world as they knew it.

So what do we actually believe about "the last things"?  Perhaps at least this: that even if the world were to end by the extreme folly of humankind, via nuclear war or ecological destruction, we believe that, as in the past, life in and with God will continue.  Or as Question 69 in our Catechism tells us:

69.       What is the hope of a Christian?

The Christian hope is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which endures and prevails for ever.

Perhaps as we head into the Season of Advent there are two other general points worth noting.  First, there is an emphasis on God's timing throughout the New Testament.  Things (including last things) happen when God decides they will.  This is part of our understanding that God governs history.  Secondly, there is a time for judgment, vindication and accounting.  A moral universe, created and governed by God, requires nothing less.  And were that not so, there would be no need for Jesus our Redeemer to have come at all, would there?

Jeremiah.  Like most of the prophets, Jeremiah's ministry included dire warnings and wonderful promises.  Today he has a wonderful message of hope.  God has not forgotten the (historical) promise he made to King David.  One from his lineage will come to rule the people, and he will be a righteous leader committed to what is right and just.  Through him the country will be saved, and the holy city of Jerusalem made safe.

Taking It Personally.

·        Start by asking yourself what you believe about the "last things?  Do you believe in an ending of some sort?  If you were to learn (somehow) that the Return of Christ was imminent, would you be excited, terrified, disappointed, or none of the above?

·        In the light of this particular passage, reflect on the present state of the Holy Land.  Pray for the people of that whole area, Israeli and Palestinian, and particularly for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Thessalonians.  There is a strong case for believing that this is the earliest of Paul's letters that we have in the New Testament.  Today's passage outlines St Paul's prayer requests for this small, struggling faith community.  He gives thanks for the joy their faith has given him, and prays that it may be possible for him to visit them again.  Then he prays for them: for a deepening of their love for one another and for others; and for strength to stand firm in their faith as they await the return of the Lord.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is a short letter, and well worth reading in its entirety.  If you do that, make a brief note of the topics covered by it, remembering that Paul is writing to those who are still very new to the faith.

·        Reflect on the content of Paul's prayers in today's passage.  Use the passage as a guide to shape your own prayers for you particular faith community.  What sort of struggles is that community facing at present?  Pray for guidance and strengthening in dealing specifically with those struggles.

·        If the Lord were to return tomorrow and visit your faith community, what would you delight in showing him, and what would you hope he doesn't notice?

Luke.  It's important to read verses 1-24 of this chapter 21, and compare Luke's approach with the so-called "mini-apocalypses" in Mark and Matthew.  Luke's thoughts are clearly rooted in the Temple, and are shaped by his knowledge of Jewish history.  Only as he gets to verse 24 is there any real indication that he sees the forthcoming destruction of the Temple and the Holy City as being part of the wider cataclysmic ending of the old order and the inauguration of the new.  His view of the natural world being in upheaval is quite brief, and may be no more than a well-known image being used metaphorically, much as we might talk about an "earth-shattering" event, without actually meaning that the event shattered the physical world.  (However, it is a recurring theme in his gospel; see 9:26; 11:30; 12:8, 40; 17:24, 26, 26, 30; and 18:8.)  Moreover, he encourages alertness so that the people may be ready to take evasive action, again suggesting that he is talking about something happening on earth, rather than to it.  The important thing is to remain faithful, "able to stand before the Son of Man".

Taking It Personally.

·        Perhaps a good idea to start Advent with a careful spiritual stock-take; are you ready to stand before the Son of Man?  If not, what do you need to do to get ready?

·        A good day to remember the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and super-storms in your prayers this week.

·        Pray to for the leaders of the world as another attempt is made to agree on measures that might help to slow global warming and reduce its damaging effects, particularly on the poorer countries of the world.