St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 27 December 2013

First Sunday of Christmas

December 29              NOTES FOR REFLECTION             First Sunday of Christmas

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

Theme:  We might need to remind ourselves that it is still Christmas – at least, liturgically!  If you do, that might be a good theme to consider.  More realistically, we might need to face the fact that, for many of us, Christmas feels distinctly "over".  If Easter Day is followed by "Low Sunday", perhaps Christmas Day should be followed by "Flat Sunday"?  A similar idea, but one a little more relevant to this week's gospel passage, might be "Clean Up Sunday".  But I'm going for "A Real Birth into a Real World", if only as a mouth-wash and diuretic to rinse out the last bits of sentimentality from my system.

Introduction.  When the Eternal invades the Temporal it messes with all ideas of chronology; and our Lectionary at this time of the year certainly illustrates that.  Today's "events" are said to follow immediately after the departure of the Magi, whose arrival we feature next week.  So there's a "Boxing Day Sales" feel about our readings for this week: we seem to have an assortment of things to be cleared before we get back to real business in the New Year.  We begin again with Isaiah, even though his "dismissal" of angelic involvement seems strangely at odds with the gospel passage.  Perhaps he gets the nod today because of his emphasis on God's saving presence with his people – the Emmanuel theme.  Our epistle reading is more obviously associated with Jesus' suffering and death than with his birth; but that in itself is useful.  There would be no Christmas celebrations had it not been for Easter.  And the author reminds us that it is precisely because Jesus is one of us in all respects, including in birth, that he is able to save us.  Meanwhile, Matthew is back at his desk, poring over the Scriptures, playing his own version of biblical chess, seeking to counter each and every move to raise doubt about Jesus' messianic credentials.

Background.  This year I was invited to preach at the Christmas Eve service at St Barnabas, Warrington and, as a preliminary to that, to read the gospel chosen for that service: John 1:1-14.  The hour being late, and the congregation already exhausted by almost an hour of joyful carol-singing, I deemed it safe to do something a little different.  To announce the gospel reading I said: "The Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John".  Apart from hearing the presiding priest's eyebrows move sharply upwards, I was not aware of any other signs of shock or dismay; and so I continued on for a few minutes before offering an explanation for this liturgical innovation.

I said I had two reasons for doing this.  First, to remind us that there is nothing about Jesus' birth (much less his conception) that would have been known or remembered today if it had not been for his death and resurrection.  And secondly to remind us that St John is reflecting on the same experience recorded in their somewhat different ways by St Matthew and St Luke in their so-called birth narratives.  In other words, I was trying to recover from all the tinsel and wrapping that seems to have invaded even the church the essential truth of Christmas, so brilliantly encapsulated by St John in his Prologue.  I summed up in this way:

What makes this birth unique is not the biological details – not the poverty into which this child was born – but the fact that in some mysterious way that we cannot and should not attempt to know or explain, the Spirit of God entered into our human flesh, and through that flesh into the whole of creation.  The creative energy of God, the life-force of God – whatever terms we choose to use – took flesh in that wee baby and everything was transformed.  Matter and Spirit became one.

Since then I have had a few hours of cake and recreation (well, I would have had some recreation if the rain had stopped) and I now wish I hadn't said "everything was transformed" – I should have said "everything is being transformed", or something along those lines.  But I would stand by the basic message.  And confirmation came for me when I tuned into the service on National Radio on Christmas morning – from St Mark's in Remuera – and heard a reading from John 3:1-8 – the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus about the need to be born "from above".  Like Mary, we must assent to the Spirit overshadowing us if we want the Christ to be born in us.  In short, the correct name for the miracle of Christmas is "the Incarnation", not "the Virgin Birth".

Having said all that, we need the corrective of today's gospel passage to remind us that the Incarnation came through a real birth into a real world, whatever our carols, our Christmas cards, St Francis, Hollywood and all the other mythmakers of the world would have us believe.  As we say, it wasn't pretty.  Mary suffered the normal pains of labour, and ran the usual risks involved in childbirth.  The baby himself was as fragile, as vulnerable, and as dependent as any other newborn.   And now St Matthew reminds us that surviving childbirth was only the first challenge.  He was born into poverty, and into a world of political intrigue, human chicanery, and even genocide.  This was a real birth into the real world.

And there might be the first thing we need to reflect on today.  According to the TV News around 150 babies will have been born on Christmas Day in New Zealand.  Of course, the reporter then had to dumb down to the old chestnut about how sad it must be to have your birthday on Christmas Day and only get one lot of presents, etc.  Perhaps it was too much to hope that someone in the newsroom might have remembered the figures released recently about children live in poverty in this country, and how many will suffer abuse during their early years.  Of the 150 or so babies born in this country on Christmas Day, how many of them are facing those sorts of challenges?  That, it seems to me, might be a useful way into our reflections on this week's gospel stories from St Matthew, however "contrived" they might be.

Isaiah.  Such depressing thoughts are a fitting backdrop to this week's first lesson.  In the worst of times Isaiah (and the other prophets) often calls for renewed hope, based on God's "past record", and that's what's going on here.  Our short reading is a sort of love and compassion sandwich: in verse 7 he recalls God's "mercy" and "the abundance of his steadfast love"; and in verse 9 he comments again on God's saving deeds "in his love and pity".  It is in verse 9 that we get the key reference to the direct involvement of God in the lives of his people: "It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them"; and this follows verse 8 in which the point is made that it was precisely "in all their distress" that God became their saviour.  Quite what we are to make of the reference in that verse to God's people being "children who will not deal falsely", I am not sure!

Taking It Personally.

  • A good time to review the past year.  How do you feel as you come to the end of it?  What were some of the highlights for you?  What are you most thankful for?  What particular struggles have you faced during the year?  Has your faith grown stronger or weaker during the year?  When you have finished your review, bring it before God in prayer.
  • Now read slowly through this passage.  How much of this passage can you directly relate to in your life over the last year?  When have you been most aware of God's mercy and steadfast love?  What great things has he done for you this year?  Have you felt that God had lifted you up and carried you through your difficult times?
  • When were you most aware of his presence with you?
  • Time for prayers of thanksgiving!


Hebrews.  The author of this letter also feels the need to "bring us down to earth".  Presumably there were many in his social network who were big on angelology, because he is at some pains to insist that Jesus the Christ is above the angels, and not subject to them.  Yet he insists that such an exalted spiritual status does not detract in any way from Christ's humanity.  It is precisely as a human being that God has exalted him above the angels, and put all things under his authority.  Only as a human being could he bring us salvation.  And so he insists that Jesus shares with us flesh and blood.  Jesus is, as we say, "fully human" [subtext: not an angel or other spiritual being dressed up to look like a human being].


Taking It Personally.


  • Not an easy passage to love or ponder!  Perhaps the best use of it may be to reflect on your own belief about the humanity of Jesus.  Do you really accept that he is "one of us" – that through the Holy Spirit your humanity is redeemed, not replaced with a spiritual version?  Are you becoming more like him with each year that passes?  Are you growing in him – or, more correctly, letting him grow in you?
  • Read through this passage slowly and prayerfully again.  Hear/read what the Spirit is saying to you through this passage.  What word or phrase particularly strikes you?
  • Have another look at verse 15.    To what extent have you been "held in slavery by the fear of death?"  Are you still held captive in this way? Pray for deliverance, if you are.


Matthew.  This week we have the account, unique to Matthew, of the Holy Family's period of asylum in Egypt.  Again, it's worth noting that neither Joseph nor Mary speak in this passage; but even more striking this week is the completely passive role played by Mary.  In fact, she is not even named, being referred to only as "the child's mother" in verses 14 and 20.  It seems likely that, apart from the Scriptural arguments Matthew is addressing around the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, he may also be dealing with social objections here concerning the role of Joseph.  If Joseph was not the father, how could he possibly have agreed to go ahead with the marriage and brought up Jesus as if he were his own child?  No self-respecting man would do that.  So here we have a carefully constructed story to show Joseph as the man of extreme faith carefully following a series of instructions sent to him from God.  In the course of this narrative Joseph receives three dream messages, although the third one is not directly attributed to an angel of the Lord.  The picture we get is of Joseph acting as the head of his household, but subject to the authority of God.  The idea of Egypt as a place of refuge is important; and the echoes of the first Joseph and his dreams is no doubt deliberate.  The report of the murderous activities of Herod also looks ahead to another Herod who was to decapitate John the Baptist and play a role in Jesus' trial and execution.  Notice, incidentally, that whereas St Matthew purports to be "explaining" the phenomenon of Jesus in terms of the prophetic Scriptures, the reference (in verse 23) to "the Nazorean" or "the Nazarene" does not seem to be based on Scripture – although some commentators have made a half-hearted attempt to apply it to " the Nazorite" or "Nazirite" reference to Samson in Judges 13:5.


Taking It Personally.


  • Take time to reflect on the whole idea of the birth of Christ as a parable of the birth of faith in a believer.  Pray for a fresh birth of Christ in you.  Assure God that you assent to his Spirit overshadowing you and entering into you again.
  • Think about the early stages of pregnancy as you reflect on the growth of faith within you.  When did you first feel its stirring?  When did it first show?
  • What has most threatened the growth of your faith – from what or whom has it been necessary to seek refuge?
  • Pray for the children born in New Zealand on Christmas Day.  What do you most seek for them at this time?  Pray, too, for refugees and their children.
  • What concerns do you take with you into 2014 from this gospel reading, bearing in mind we will have a General Election next year?

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 22              NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts:  Isaiah 7:1-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew

Theme:  I'm tempted to suggest something about "Role Reversal" or even "The Birth of Gender Inclusiveness"; today's gospel passage always catches me by surprise with its central role of Joseph rather than Mary.  We might even go for "The Annunciation of Our Saviour to the Blessed St Joseph of Jerusalem".  Another key feature of this extraordinary passage is the fact that neither Joseph nor Mary speaks in it: so perhaps we might like "The Fruit of Silence", or "Listening to the Voice of God".  My second favourite this week is "The Facts of Life", because all three readings are about facing up to what is happening and responding in faith.  Above all I think today's readings are about faith, and so I'm going for "Unto Us a Faith is Born".

Introduction.   We start once again with Isaiah.  Judah is in great peril, threatened with imminent invasion, and its terrified King Ahaz has a tough call to make: should he try the worldly approach and seek to join in a military alliance, or should he follow Isaiah's prophetic advice and rely on God?  But where is God when everything goes wrong?  That is the dilemma facing the anguished Joseph when his young fiancĂ©e tells him the shocking news that she is pregnant, even though they haven't had sex together.  Should he follow the world's advice and end their relationship, or should he have faith and believe the angelic message he receives in a dream?  St Paul has a message for us that suggests that our obsession for "either/or" thinking might be the real problem.  We have a Saviour, he insists, who is both born of the flesh and of the Spirit.

Background.  Well, I guess we should brace ourselves.  It's that time of the year again when somebody will burst into print rubbishing the so-called Virgin Birth, quoting the usual gang of Modern Prophets Spong, Geering Dawkins and Harris, and wondering how any of us can believe such preposterous unscientific nonsense as that.  What answer can we or should we give to such attacks?

Not, I think, a quibbling one.  We get nowhere by pointing out that, even from a scientific point of view, the focus should be on Jesus' conception rather than his birth, as it is in our gospel narratives.  Nor will it do much good to point out that there are a number of cases where a woman has given birth to a child without male involvement, although the child is always female.  In strictly scientific terms the doubters have a case; though why they think the emergence of the whole cosmos out of nothing (a.k.a. the Big Bang) is more believable than the emergence of a baby from a woman who has not been impregnated with human sperm) is an interesting one.  (Faith translation: if I believe that God created everything out of nothing, why should I not believe that God can create a child from a woman's egg?]

So, personally, it's not science that bothers me on this part of our Creed but the biblical witness itself.  Let's start with the four gospels; do they not show a gradual development of a theological belief, rather than a refinement of the historical record?  Accepting that Mark is the earliest of them, the complete absence of a "birth narrative" is surely telling.  For Mark Jesus is of no interest until his baptism by John in the Jordan.  By the time Matthew is writing the second gospel questions have arisen: where did Jesus come from?  Did he only become "the Son of God" at baptism?  So we find the fist of our birth narratives, building on the "God-assisted" birth narratives associated with Isaac and Samuel and others, but going a step further.  Then comes Luke, and perhaps another issue has arisen in the meantime.  If John is the great Forerunner, announcing Jesus' arrival on the scene, isn't he 30 years or so late?  And so we find Luke assuring us that John has been the great forerunner from his very conception and birth.

It was left to the Fourth Evangelist to rescue us from our prurient interest in the biological details of Jesus' conception and birth, with his magnificent Prologue, compared to which all such quasi-scientific squabbles seem as shrill and silly as they are.  Having been rescued, let us stay rescued and take the opportunity for a fresh start.  Whatever happened 2,000 years ago is part of our history and tradition: what is happening, or is failing to happen, today is where our focus as people of faith must be, even at Christmas time.

So let's look at our birth narratives as descriptive of the birth of faith in us.  The first thing to note is that it starts by divine initiative – it comes to us as gift.  Mary didn't choose God, God chose her.  This is brought out even more fully in the Annunciation account in Luke.  Gabriel's first words to Mary announce, not that she is to become pregnant, but that she is "favoured" by God.  Indeed, "The Lord is with you", a fact of which she was presumably unaware, judging by her response: "she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be".  And here's a thought: look at that word "pondered".  Doesn't that seem an odd word to use in these circumstances?  To ponder surely takes time: it's not an immediate response.  We haven't even got to the announcement of her forthcoming maternity, and already Mary is pondering. 

I'm beginning to suspect that the Annunciation was not a single, brief event, but a process by which Mary grows in faith and understanding.  The sudden encounter with Gabriel is a classic "religious encounter": unlooked for, unexpected, ineffable, inexplicable, but undeniably real to her.  She ponders it.  What does it mean for her?  Now have another look at her song, the Magnificat.  Do you notice anything missing?  There is no reference in it to her own pregnancy, is there?  What she is astonished at (still) is that the Lord "has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant".  Again, a classic response to a religious experience: "Who am I that this should happen to me?"  And think about the culture of the time, and to her status (or lack of it) as a poor, young, maiden.  How could she expect to have a relationship with God: how could she even know anything about God?  Surely that can only be given to her by a man?

Luke, of course, is the only one of the four to give us the Presentation and the story of Jesus being found in the Temple.  Both accounts feature an amazed and bewildered Mary, and both end with an assurance that the boy, the fruit of her womb, grew stronger.  Faith is like that, isn't it?  Times of shaking and doubt, followed by periods of reflection and pondering, resulting in growth and strengthening.

One last and obvious point.  Mary gave her assent to whatever it was that God had in mind for her – not an intellectual, carefully thought out assent – one much more like a gut reaction.  And that's when her difficulties started.  She could have said no – she could have panicked and cleared off somewhere, too afraid or embarrassed to face Joseph, her family or the neighbours.  Again, faith can be like that – an embarrassment to us.  (How easily we subscribe to the "Faith is a private matter" school of thought!  Even at Christmas – "it's all about family, really, isn't it – what with all the cooking, packing and everything – probably can't get to church, Vicar – you know what it's like..."

And faith takes time to grow.  We have to nurture and protect it, particularly during the early years, giving it the time it needs, and feeding it good healthy food, including bread and wine, and reading to it daily.  Helping it to reach maturity so that when everything turns to custard, when the forces of illness or death or violence or any of their ilk, are threatening to break down the walls of our life, we can rely on it to keep us open to the voice of the One who spoke through the prophet Isaiah, and through the Angel Gabriel, and through the apostle Paul, about a Saviour, a descendant of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God by resurrection from the dead.

Isaiah.  King Ahaz of Judah faces the classic challenge in the face of military threat – fight back or trust in God.  The threat is real.  The imperialist forces of Assyria have been on a roll for some time, and heading his way.  Already two nations to his immediate north, Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Aram (Syria), have joined forces and demand that Judah joins them in the hope of together repulsing the Assyrians.  When Ahaz declines they turn on Judah, threatening invasion.  Prudence seems to urge a re-think: Isaiah urges instead a policy of pacifism – do nothing and watch how God will save us.  Ahaz hesitates, so Isaiah urges him to seek a sign from God.  Ahaz refuses this suggestion, wrapping his lack of faith in false piety.  So Isaiah gives him a sign anyway: a young woman with child whose name is Immanuel – God with us.  Perhaps Ahaz is the virgin, the barren woman, in whom faith in God can still be born if only he will accept the gift he is being offered?  Like Mary herself, he has to be convinced that the Lord is with him.

Taking It Personally.

  • It's time for you to do some pondering!  What do you make of the idea that the birth narratives can be understood as a story about the birth of faith?
  • In terms of human growth, at what stage of development is your faith at this time?  Gestating?  New-born?  In its infancy?  Childish?  Adolescent?  Adult?
  • When are you least likely to be aware of God's favour, or of his presence with you – in good times or tough times?
  • What do you make of Isaiah's "advice" to the king – when in a pickle do nothing, and wait and see what God will do about it?  Have you ever followed this approach?  What happened?


Romans.  What a great opening sentence (yes, it is all one sentence!) for this epistle. Paul identifies himself and his calling (his credentials, we might say), names the subject-matter of his letter, and then summarises his fundamental belief in the identity of Christ.  Christ is the one of whom the prophets spoke, a descendant of David by (natural) birth, and shown to be the Son of God through the power of the Spirit by his resurrection from the dead.  He rounds it off by making it clear that the gospel is not some insulated historical story of interest to readers, but has immediate personal importance to him and to them.  It's about his calling as an apostle to bring about a faithful response in them – he is, so to speak, a midwife to assist in the birth of faith in the Gentiles.


Taking It Personally.


  • Read slowly through the rather dense passage.  How much of it can you apply to yourself?  Are you a servant of Christ?  Have you been set apart for him?  Have you a specific ministry in his name?
  • Is St Paul's description of Christ in verses 3 and 4 compatible or incompatible with the "Virgin Birth"?  Does it matter to you?  Why?


Matthew.  Just one more point to add here.  If this is a parable about the growth of faith, perhaps more notice should be taken of that little phrase in verse 24 "When Joseph awoke from sleep":  following his own spiritual awakening, he obediently followed the will of God as revealed to him by the angel.  And the result was new birth.


Taking It Personally.


  • Mary experiences an angel in her waking state – Joseph in a dream.  What do you make of that?
  • Imagine someone reporting to you that an angel appeared to them while they were awake.  Would you believe them?  Would you be more inclined to believe them if they reported that an angel had spoken to them in a dream?  Why?
  • Think for a moment how Joseph must have felt when Mary first broke the news.  If it wasn't an angelic intervention, what could have caused him to "go along with it?"
  • Do you give Joseph much thought in your faith journey?
  • What do you make of the fact that neither Joseph nor Mary speaks in this passage?  Is the proper response to the call of God one of action rather than words?

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Third Sunday of Advent

December 15              NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Theme: Something about dark places perhaps – particularly if we are sticking with John the Baptist this week.  Possibilities include "When the Light Goes Out" (or "When the Power Goes Off"); "From the Depths of Despair", or "From a Dark Place".  Or perhaps "Is He the One?".  Anything that can rescue us from Santa sentimentality and reminds us that Christmas is ultimately about Ultimate Reality.

Introduction.  Once again the formula this week is the same.  Isaiah gives us the overarching framework as he looks far, far into the future God has had in mind from the beginning.  John the Baptist reminds us that we live in the Now – particularly when we are in pain or distress.  And the ever-practical James exhorts us not to get too far ahead of ourselves – or too lost in lofty dreams and tempting illusions.  Patience is required – without too much grumbling!

Background.  Some rather disjointed reflections to get us underway this week.  I begin with some more helpful insights from Fr Thomas Keating, in a short but powerful collection of mini-homilies he has published under the title of Awakenings.  [That title in itself is worth pondering.]  Fr Keating talks about the Christmas-Epiphany experience, for which Advent is the Season of Preparation, and he reminds us what we are about as we follow the liturgy through this period:

The purpose of the readings in the liturgy is not so much instruction as demonstrations of the power of grace.  They are parables of the power of grace as we experience it now.  We are exposed in the liturgy to sapiential teaching, that is, teaching that is designed to awaken our awareness of the grace of Christ at work within us.  As the liturgical community celebrates divine light and life, our participation presupposes that we are experiencing it.  In the lessons we hear our own biographies.

At Christmas, we celebrate the event of the Word becoming flesh.  The historical implications are predominant in that feast.  At the Feast of Epiphany, which is the transmission of divine light, we are celebrating the spiritual significance of the Christmas event.  Epiphany is the celebration of our union with the Word made flesh and our experience of that union.  The liturgy presents us with readings that are historically disconnected but which describe our assimilation to the mystery of the Word made flesh, our awakening to the divine life within us and our capacity to transmit it.  "Today" in the liturgy means the transmission of the mystery as immediate spiritual experience.  The Christian religion is a life to be lived.  It starts, falters, fails, rises, grows, and eventually matures through all kinds of vicissitudes.  We must know how to listen to the liturgy not only as inspiration and encouragement, but also as empowerment.

There is far too much in this passage to comment on here, but I do urge you to take time to ponder it carefully.  I can think of no better introduction to a new liturgical year than this teaching from one of the founders of the modern school of Centring Prayer.  Week by week the challenge to each one of us as participants in the liturgy (not spectators or auditors of it!) is to truly hear OUR story and to reflect on OUR spiritual experiences.  To seek to learn how to hear God's will for us and for the world as Isaiah did; to acknowledge that the doubts and questions that troubled John the Baptist in his place of darkness are our doubts and questions in our places of darkness.  And to know that James is talking directly to us and urges us to develop the virtue of patience and lose the vice of grumbling.

A second, related source of reflection for me this week has been the death of Nelson Mandela, and his extraordinary life story.  Like John, there must have been times in his prison cell where darkness threatened to overcome him.  As a young man he sought justice through the law and through peaceful protest; but that didn't work.  He turned to acts of sabotage and violent struggle and that didn't work either.  He went to prison bitter and angry and defiant.  He emerged 27 years later to demonstrate to his nation and to the world the power of love and forgiveness.  He had learned patience; he had renounced all forms of grumbling – he had learned through experience and proceeded to teach out of that experience.  His words carried conviction because they were incarnated in his flesh.  Like Isaiah he kept his eyes on the vision of a better future and a better world; like John he had periods of darkness; like James he was able to root all this in the here and now.  How appropriate that his passing came in this Season of Advent.

And thirdly, and more surprisingly, I have found myself reflecting on the marvel of time-lapse photography, much loved by makers and presenters of Natural History documentaries.  I am not a photographer, and I certainly can't pretend to understand the technology involved in these miraculous productions; but somehow they can show us in 20-30 seconds natural processes that in real time took hours, days or even longer to complete.  And as I have once again marvelled at the prophecies of Isaiah it seems to me that his prophetic vision can best be understood as a form of time-lapse visual recording, made all the more remarkable because it is seeing that which has not yet happened!  In short beautiful poems taking no more than a minute or two to read he describes what is to happen over a time-span of hundreds of years.  And John's problems are precisely our own: we try to understand such teaching as if it were set in real time.  "Last week" John announced the arrival of the Messiah – the coming of the Kingdom of God.  "This week" he is doubting himself by doubting Jesus.  Why? Because he hadn't understood that the Messianic prophecies were time-lapse visions, speeded up thousands of times to make it seem that what will in real time take thousands of years to reach final fruition will all be over before the next advert break.

Through time-lapse photography we can see a seed germinate, grow to maturity, blossom and fruit in seconds.  As a gardener who hates delayed gratification I only wish that was possible.  James knew better.  A priestly colleague once assured me that Centring Prayer was a waste of time: he had tried it once and it didn't work.  He obviously believed in time-lapse prayer!  As the famous cheese ads used to remind us, "Good things take time."  (Come to think of it, that would make a good theme for Advent, don't you think?)

Isaiah.  Taken by itself this passage would not seem to be a voice crying out in the darkness, as we have today from John.  But it most certainly is, as a brief glance that chapter 36 will tell us.  This wonderful vision of ultimate redemption, wholeness and salvation is proclaimed as the storm clouds of Assyrian invasion are about to break over the people of Judah.  Notice that the vision is both an assurance of a wonderful future and an exhortation to stand firm in the horror of the present.  Notice, too, that this vision is not only about the immediate future – the Assyrians did not succeed in this invasion; but no sooner was that threat over than a fresh threat arose from the Babylonians.  Defeat and exile were to follow.  The vision looked far beyond even that catastrophe.  Some believe it did not reach its fulfilment until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948: others believe it hasn't reached its fulfilment even now.

Taking It Personally.

·        Can you recall being in a dark place, assailed by doubt and fear?  How did you emerge from it?  What was your source of hope?  Who encouraged you and how?

·        Is it helpful to focus on the "afterwards" when you are in a crisis, or does it strike you as escapism – a denial of the reality of your present circumstances?

·        Reflect on the life and times of your grandparents; did they have it tougher than your parents?  Now reflect on the life and times of your parents; did they have it tougher than you?  If you have children and grandparents, continue this exercise through those generations.  Is there a general pattern or direction?  Are things getting better or worse, or staying much the same?

·        Do you hope that things will be better for the people of this country in 100 years time, or do you give them no thought?  What about in 500 years time?

·        Reflect again on the passage from Fr Keating.  In what way is this reading from Isaiah describing your own experience, or telling you a part of your own biography?


James.  Always a man of (relatively) few words, but always worth paying attention to.  Notice how he picks up some of the themes of Isaiah.  "Until the coming of the Lord" reminds us that the waiting goes on, after the birth, death, resurrection and ascension.  We are still awaiting the coming of the Lord – a coming that is not yet complete.  So we require patience – the patience of the gardener who knows that in real time there is always a period between sowing and harvesting.  This interim period is also a time to "strengthen our hearts" – to grow in love as well as patience.  And to quit grumbling at the manifest faults of our fellow travellers – to leave the task of judging them to the One whom we are awaiting.    We shouldn't just read the prophets, we should follow their example.  Barack Obama made much same point to those who are willing to eulogise Nelson Mandela without following his example.

Taking It Personally.


·        How patient are you with yourself?  How patient are you with others? 

·        What have you learned about yourself during the week as the news media have focused our attention on Mandela?  Has he made you "want to be a better person", as Obama put it?

·        Are you given to grumbling – particularly about others in your local church (yes, including the vicar!)?  (Or if you are the vicar, do you grumble about some of the parishioners?)

·        In what way might you "strengthen your heart" this Advent Season and beyond?

·        Reflect again on the passage from Fr Keating.  In what way is this passage from James describing your own experience or telling you part of your own biography?


Matthew.  What a contrast between the bold, blunt character we met last week as John appeared, ready to take on the world, and the doubting, questioning one we hear from indirectly this week.  From hero to zero, to quote the modern headline.  Last week he was so sure of himself that he took on the religious elite who turned up among the huge crowds that were hanging on his every word.  (Again, my mind drifts back to the memorial service this week: how many of the world leaders who attended are quite so in favour of liberation and justice in their own lands?)  This week John is a voice crying in a different sort of wilderness.  He sends emissaries to ask Jesus the same question each of us must ask from time to time.  Is he the one or is there some other?  And notice what Jesus does in response.  He invites them to look at what he is doing (not listen to what he is saying).  And then he turns to the crowds and asks them a good Advent question:  what are you looking for?


Taking It Personally.


·        What are you looking for?  Where are you looking for it?  What have you found so far?

·        If someone asked you if you are a follower of Christ, what would you say?  What would you point to in your life to show that you are?

·        To what or to whom are you most looking forward this Christmas?

·        Reflect again on the passage from Fr Keating.  In what way is this passage from Matthew describing your own experience or telling you part of your biography?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Second Sunday in Advent

December 8                NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Second Sunday in Advent

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Theme:  There are so many possibilities in this Season of Advent – and for this particular Sunday!  If we want to focus on the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist (second only, perhaps, to Peter as the most fascinating of all the supporting cast we find in the drama of Christ) we might go for "A Voice Crying in the Wilderness": or something a little more original and shocking such as "The Jolly Thin Man".  [Think Santa Parade here – and by the way did you notice that this year Auckland shifted theirs from the Season of Advent to the Kingdom Season – think of the theological implications of that!]  Or should the focus be on the great Prophet of the Advent, Isaiah, with his extraordinary vision of the restoration of Edenic peace?  Something like "Shoot, Root, and Fruit" might be both catchy and accurate.  Or perhaps we might want to address the idea of starting all over again, as we get into another liturgical year, in which case "Starting Over" or "Tell Me the Old, Old Story" might do.  We are often told that this Season is one of preparation, though we might forget that that has nothing to do with Christmas shopping, holidaying planning or other worldly challenges of that kind.  It has everything to do with being open, alert and aware to meet the God who keeps on coming to us and waiting for us to see and hear him everywhere, from a stable in Bethlehem to a mall in George Street, Dunedin.

Background.  In some ways The Season of Advent serves as a brief summary of the story we are about to rehearse all over again.  Like any good story it has a beginning, a middle, and an end – it has a coherent plot.  It is a time to summarise the story so far, to clarify the story as we are now experiencing it, and to assure us that if we continue until the end all will be revealed, and it will all make sense.  Isaiah is the perfect contributor to such an introduction.  Speaking to the people of his time, he draws on the past, and envisions the future.  St Paul, too, emphasises that we learn from the past in order to understand the present and to have hope in the future.  And then John the Baptist comes on to the stage to remind us that this story is inter-active – we are not called to be spectators but active participants.  We are, as it were, dramatis personae – members of a cast that is already too vast to count.

As I have started into this Season of Advent I have found the following passage from Thomas Keating very helpful:

 Christian life is a process of spiritual growth and transformation.  Each new level of growth brings with it a gradual or sudden burst of understanding, a kind of awakening.  The meaning of the Gospel changes as we change.  This growth takes place without rejecting the knowledge that went before and manifests itself through ever-increasing understanding of the example and teaching of Jesus.

I was particularly struck by that third sentence – "The meaning of the Gospel changes as we change."  That's a particularly daring thing to say, I think.  Surely the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – never changes – isn't it a message for all people of all times?  Yes – but all of us who have spent some years pondering the various texts will have had that experience of finding something in a particular text that we had never noticed before.  It's as if someone has changed the text since we last read it.  But, of course, the text is as is was the last time we read it – it is we ourselves who have changed – changed in our openness to the guidance of the Spirit as he leads us further and deeper into all truth; changed in our lessening of our resistance to that truth, too.  And changed in our willingness to let go of old certainties to embrace new possibilities and insights.

The other phrase in the passage from Father Keating that strikes such a chord with me is his reference to "a gradual or sudden burst of understanding".  That's exactly how it is in so many aspects of our lives, including our faith journeys.  Day by day, month by month our growth may be so slight and slow as to be imperceptible – and then suddenly a particular insight flashes before us and we start seeing things in a new and deeper way.  As with an individual, so with creation as a whole.  In fact, I was recently reading a book about the evolution of the cosmos by an author who is a devout Christian.  One of the exercises he invited his readers to attempt was to imagine the "time" before the Big Bang! (Go on, try it!)  If our scientists (and the author of Genesis 1) are right the whole of creation as we have it today had a beginning.  So what can we say about that which preceded the beginning?

After I had completely bamboozled myself trying to perform what the author had described as this simple exercise, I suddenly remembered that when I was about seven or eight, I became very interested in the problem of where I was before I was born.   My ever helpful sister told me the bit about being in "Mother's tummy", but that was a category-error on my sister's part.  I was not interested in the biological issues surrounding conception and birth: my inquiry was much larger than that.  Where was I before I came into existence?  Even if my sister's completely unlikely story was true, what about before that?  Before I had somehow got into Mother's tummy, where was I and what was I doing?  Even at that tender age I seemed to have an intuition that to understand our lives we need to know our history and even our prehistory.

That is surely the case with our faith.  Yes, it is true that in Christ God is doing a new thing – the Incarnation certainly qualifies as "a new thing".  And yet it is a new thing that only makes sense in the story as a whole – it could only occur in Israel – to a Jewish woman – in the history of that people.  It only makes sense in the course of a history (which is another word for "story") that includes Abraham and Moses and David and Isaiah and John the Baptist.  In that sense the Incarnation is both one small step and one giant leap – it continues an old journey but with a great new leap forward.  And there's a real sense in which those great men of God ARE our ancestors – their spiritual genes form our spirits.

"Advent" means "coming".  It is a Season of One Coming, not several.  The Incarnation began with Jesus' conception and birth and it has been continuing ever since.  Along the way there have been many steps and occasional leaps, but it is all one journey, one path that leads to the One God.  If our readings and reflections tell us nothing else, they surely should tell us that – this Advent and throughout this new liturgical year.

Isaiah.  We begin with this typically wonderful passage from Isaiah, and his telling image of the stump of a tree.  Visualise that for a moment before going any further.  To all outward appearance it is dead, the tree is no more.  But then a shoot appears from the side –a sign, we might say, of new life – but it is not.  A sprouting seed might be described as new life, perhaps, but a shoot from a tree stump cannot be anything than a manifestation of the life that is in the stump itself.  The tree is not dead.  The one life is continuing.  Isaiah says this stump is the "stump of Jesse" – not of David, as we might have expected.  The shoot, like David himself, received life from the same source.  But fast forward to verse 10 and notice the sleight of mind Isaiah has pulled on us.  No longer are we dealing with a shoot on the stump of Jesse: now we have gone deeper (literally): the one who is the shoot is also the root.  [Isaiah had already mentioned the root in verse 1, but it doesn't seem compelling at that point.]  The life that is coming into the world is the life that has passed through Jesse: the Messiah both precedes and succeeds Jesse.  Jesus is both Jesse's descendant and ancestor – precisely because, as God, he is eternal.  All life is one life – with a shared pre-history, history, present and future.  And what a future it is!  In brief, the Adamic curse is removed and the Edenic unity of all things is restored.  That is the vision of Advent we look forward to, which arises from all that has gone before from the beginning of all things until today and beyond.

Taking It Personally.

  • Try to imagine what was before the beginning of all things, when only God was.  What words come to you?  If God is love (as St John says), can we not say that all things emerged out of love?
  • Reflect on the image of the tree stump.  What new insights come to you?
  • Read verse 2.  Notice the coming together of the spiritual and the human, which points both to the Incarnation and to Pentecost.  Ponder the gifts of the Spirit in this verse, and their practical application in verses 3 to 5.
  • Read Genesis 1 (noticing particularly verse 30), and then ponder verses 6 and 7 of this passage from Isaiah.  What do you make of that?
  • Read verse 8.  Think about the serpent as the traditional enemy of humankind.  Yet there is time coming when even the most vulnerable baby will be in no danger of harm from snakes.  Do you believe that – truly believe?
  • In verses 9 and 10 notice how the Incarnation – the coming of God expands from Israel to all peoples and nations.  With that in mind pray the Lord Prayer's slowly and earnestly.
  • Finish with prayers of thanksgiving for all that God has done, is doing and will do.


Romans.  St Paul begins this passage by emphasising the importance of knowing our past, and learning its lessons, for the past is the basis on which we build our hope for the future.  He reminds us that we are in the adventure of life together – if God is bringing all things into unity, we must ourselves seek ever greater unity with others.  ["Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."]  Then he turns his attention once more to emphasise that the Gospel is for all people, Jew and Gentile alike.  This was a revolutionary idea to the people of his time; and yet he is able to show that this message has been in their Scriptures all along.  Faithful Jews would have been very familiar with the Psalms, and yet most of them had simply not "seen or heard" the many references to the Gentiles, including the ones he now cites to them.  This is a classic illustration of what I was talking about earlier, and what Fr Keating has written about on many occasions: we tend to filter out those things that contradict our present ideas and challenge us to change them.


Taking It Personally.


·        Can you recall an occasion of being surprised to find a word or phrase in a passage of Scripture that you had never noticed before?  Give thanks because that is a sign of spiritual growth on your part.  Ask the Spirit to continue to lead you deeper into the truth of that passage of Scripture.

·        Do you truly value the Old Testament as part of your own faith history, or do you tend to be dismissive of it?

·        What might you do to better keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace within your local community of faith in this liturgical year?


Matthew.  Enter John the Baptist with a loud crash!  There is nothing subtle about him, but there is, I think, about Matthew's approach in identifying him.  In one sense we might take from verses 1 and 2 that John needs no introduction: he simply appears and starts preaching.  But what about verse 3?  It seems to me that there is an element of incarnation – of embodiment or enfleshment – here.  The voice has become a person: Matthew's introduction says that this man, John, and his message is the "voice" Isaiah fore-heard centuries ago.  [The fore-runner of the incarnate Word of God is the incarnate Voice of God, we might say.]   Matthew also seems to hint in verse 4 at a "re-incarnation" of Elijah.  Be all that as it may, John drew the crowds – testimony to the widespread spiritual hunger of the time.  And he was no sweet-talking crowd-pleaser: when the religious elite turned up he didn't hesitate to challenge them.  But his message was clear:  there is One who is coming who will baptise, not with water, but with Spirit and fire.


Taking It Personally.


·        Another great passage for Ignatian prayer.  In your imagination put yourself in the crowd at the Jordan.  Why are you there?  What are you seeking?  What is your first impression of John?  Listen to him as he rips into the Pharisees and the Sadducees: how do you feel about his treatment of them?  How would you describe his attitude towards them?  Shouldn't he welcome all-comers?

·        What might the Church learn from his approach – particularly in respect of baptism?  Do you favour an "open-door policy" for parents seeking baptism for their infants, or a more challenging and searching approach?

·        This Advent and Christmas period, for whom are you waiting?  Someone who will turn your life upside-down, call upon you to change, and offer the gift of Spirit and fire?  Or is the God you seek more of a Santa figure?

·        Re-read the quotation above from Thomas Keating.  Review the liturgical year just past.  Has it been a period of "spiritual growth and transformation" for you?

·        Now look ahead.  What are your goals of spiritual growth and transformation for the next year?



Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Feast of Christ the King

November 24                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Feast of Christ the King

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Theme:  There's no great need to depart from the title of the feast, "Christ the King"; "the Reign of Christ" is apparently more politically correct, although I must confess I don't understand the distinction.  Taking our lead from the wonderful choice of gospel passage for this celebration, we might want to beef it up into "Christ the King Enthroned on the Cross"; or to steal the first line of the chorus from Graham Kendrick's great hymn, "This is our God, the Servant King".  [And if I may stray outside my usual brief, that hymn is a must for this celebration, and if you have a large crucifix available to gaze at as this hymn is sung, so much the better.]

Introduction.  We come to the triumphant conclusion of the liturgical year with this great feast, which should be given far greater prominence than has been our custom in the past.  This is not a day for the Church to be humble or apologetic – or overly sensitive to the feelings of non-believers or adherents of other faiths.  This is a day to celebrate the vindication of Christ and all who have believed in him.  This is the day when the extraordinary promises mouthed through the great prophets centuries ago, men like Jeremiah from whom our first lesson comes this week, are seen to be coming to fulfilment.  This is a day for celebrating the extraordinary vision of St Paul, as typified by this week's passage from his Letter to the Colossians.  Above all, this is the day to give thanks for the gift of faith that enables us to look at the tortured and broken body of Jesus of Nazareth dying the most terrible of deaths on the Cross and to cry out in joyful defiance, "THIS IS OUR GOD, THE SERVANT KING."  What a wonderful finale to another year of worship that is; and what wonderful preparation for next Sunday (Advent Sunday) when we re-commit ourselves to the never-ending task, so beautifully  summarised in the final verse of Kendrick's hymn:

So let us learn how to serve,

and in our lives enthrone him;

each other's needs to prefer,

for it is Christ we're serving.


Background.  So many thoughts and images have been flying around in my mind this week as I have once again prepared for this feast.  For some years past, when I was preaching regularly, I often took this Sunday as an occasion for summing-up all that we had thought about in the second half of the liturgical year.  In broad terms, Trinity Sunday was the conclusion of the first half of the year, with its emphasis on the identity of Christ – Summing-up Sunday No.1, so to speak.  Then at the conclusion of the second half of the year, with its central theme of discipleship, this feast presented an opportunity to summarise what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  All very logical and sensible, perhaps – and maybe that approach has been helpful to some over the years.  But it now strikes me as far too dry and "theological": above all, it doesn't seem to me to recognise "the mystery of our faith" – a mystery unravelled in particular by people like St Paul (and the author of the Fourth Gospel) who looked at the cross and saw – the King and Lord of all!  It is in dying that we are raised to eternal life!


Various memories have come to me this week, as I thought about the usual images of royalty.  I remember very clearly, my classroom teacher at primary school telling us that the King had died, and then bursting into tears.  I had no idea what that meant, but anything that could bring Mrs Roberts to tears was enough to terrify me, so I burst into tears with her!  I remember watching the coronation of our present Queen and being astonished at the size of the building: I have loved huge buildings ever since, despite my Christian (and political) convictions telling me I shouldn't.  I still watch programmes showing splendid palaces and stately homes with great wonder and admiration.  They are symbols of great power and wealth and success – they are what we expect of royalty and other important people.  I remember the "rogues gallery", as we used to call a long corridor in the old Parliament Buildings full of oil paintings of terribly important people of the past, mostly long forgotten today, of course.  And now I imagine for a moment what a religiously minded version of Banksy the artist might do by slipping a portrait of the crucified Christ in amongst portraits of the Kings and Queens of England!  What a point that would make!  And isn't that exactly the point our Lectionary is making with its choice of this passage from Luke's Gospel?  We might have expected something from the Ascension, perhaps, or from the "Second Coming"; but instead we get this passage from the crucifixion.


This is real faith in a real world.  Think of the things that have been in our headlines this week alone.  Our Prime Minister and his equally important counterparts from around the Commonwealth dining in splendid buildings in Sri Lanka, discussing important things, while outside people demand justice for the victims of alleged atrocities.  On to Thailand, and more important people, more fine food, more staggeringly beautiful buildings, sharing the news with increasingly desperate scenes of human suffering on a vast scale in The Philippines.    More terrible loss from natural disasters in the US Midwest, while above the border the usually sane and settled Canadians are transfixed by the increasingly bizarre behaviour of Toronto's mayor.  The list goes on and on – this is the world in which we live – this is the real world in all its shades of grey – and this is the world about which we are speaking when we proclaim that, in its midst, at this very moment, despite all appearances to the contrary, God is working his purposes out, and he has exalted the one hanging on the cross to be the King of all creation.


And finally I have been thinking again of the ongoing losses of people in this country – through the earthquakes, through the Pike River disaster, through financial scams and rip-offs, through problem gambling and material greed, through sexual and other violence, through bullying and mockery and suicide.  And here all that is summed up in this extraordinary passage from St Luke' gospel.  It all comes together at the cross of Christ.  Crucified between two criminals, Jesus hangs on a cross, in full view of all sorts of representatives of humanity.  Gamblers were there; some just looked on; others scoffed and mocked.  And, according to Luke, the two criminals were divided in their own opinions of Christ.  For Luke, this is the key to the cross: it is the supreme venue of judgement – which is another word for choice.  Each person decides his or her response to the invitation of God written on the cross.  Who is this who asks you to come and follow him?  Do we stand and watch?  Do we scorn and deride?  Do we kneel and worship?  Do we stand tall and proclaim "This is our God, the Servant King"?    


Or, as Teilhard de Chardin put it:


[The cross] stands up even straighter at the crossroads of all values and problems, at the very heart of humanity.  It can and must continue, more than ever, to be the place where the division takes place between those who climb and those who descend.


Which gets me to a more personal note.  In my own spiritual practice at the moment I am using 15 Days of Prayer with Teilhard de Chardin by Andre Dupleix, O.S.B.  On Day Three the theme is The Meaning of the Cross, and he ends with these "Reflection Questions":


How do I view the Cross?

Do I see it as a goal for which I strive, as a sad reminder, or as something to avoid?

Do I seek to unite myself with the Cross?

Do I seek to accept the suffering and transformation that accompanies the Cross?

Can I understand the Cross as a means of uniting myself to Christ in Suffering?


To which I would add:


Can I in all truth and with complete conviction proclaim – "THIS is my God, the Servant King"?


Jeremiah.  A promise of better things to come for the people of God, following the pain of exile.  The promise is threefold.  First, a clear-out at the top – the leadership (the shepherds of the people) have failed and need to be removed.  Secondly, God will re-gather the people and appoint new shepherds.  Thirdly, God will raise up a new King from the line of David to rule the people with justice and righteousness.


Taking It Personally.


  • A time for spiritual stock-taking.  What do you need to replace – thoughts, habits, beliefs, attitudes, etc – as you prepare for a fresh beginning next Sunday?
  • Are you too scattered – do you need to be more gathered, focused, single-minded in your faith practices?  Where might you start that process?
  • Have you enthroned Christ in your life?  Do you seek his kingdom first?  Do you bring your life as a daily offering of worship to him?


Colossians.  Another wonderful gift from the pen of St Paul.  First, a prayer to teach us how to pray; and secondly, a brief biopic of Christ to teach us how to adore.  Recently, a group of us were reflecting together on intercessory prayer, particularly in the context of a service of worship, and we made an interesting discovery.  We are comfortable about praying for the physical healing and well-being of our fellow-worshippers, but not for their spiritual well-being.  St Paul would have found that even more baffling than we did.  As for his paean of praise to Christ – again, remember that he is talking about the one whose death is being described to us in our gospel passage – and that he is writing this no more than 30 or so years after that death.


Taking It Personally.


  • Use verses 9-12 as a template for your own prayers, first for your own spiritual growth and then for the spiritual growth of the members of your faith community, your family, and your friends.
  • Would you feel uncomfortable praying for someone's spiritual well-being?  Why?
  • Read very slowly and prayerfully through verses 15-20, preferably before an icon of Christ ("eikon" is the Greek for image in verse 15).  Offer prayers of adoration.


Luke.  I don't think I need to say anything more about this passage: it speaks for itself.  Avoid any intellectual game-playing – what does it matter that Luke's account differs in detail from the others?  It is not addressed to our minds but to our hearts.  If we are not deeply moved by this passage, our hearts must already have stopped beating.


Taking It Personally.


  • A classic passage for praying with your imagination.  Where are you in this scene?  With the crowds looking on silently?  With the mockers?  What are your feelings?  Are you scared for your own safety?  Are you outraged?  Why do you remain silent?  What would you like to say?
  • Which side of the cross are you – with the penitent thief or with the mocking one?  Can you identify with both?  Have there been times in your life when you turned against God in a crisis?
  • Focus on verse 34.  Is there anyone you have not forgiven?  Was their offence worse than crucifixion?
  • Visualise Christ on the cross and proclaim:  This is MY God, the Servant King!