Year B, Epiphany 3

And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
– “The Bard, As You Like It”

Jonah 3:1-10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:25-31
Mark 1:14-20

We all know about Jonah, the reluctant prophet who booked himself an ocean cruise and had a whale of a time! Or do we?  Sadly, this is about all many people do know about Jonah, and that is wildly inaccurate anyway. Those who insist on the literal inerrancy of Scripture have had to resort to ever more fanciful arguments to support their case, yet even here in its setting among the OT prophets it clearly shows up as an  allegory. Nineveh of course was real enough, a militarily powerful city-state, hated and despised by Israel which had suffered greatly under its ruthless tyranny, whose religious and moral practices were seen as an “abomination” to Israel’s God. The story of “Jonah” tells of Nineveh repenting, but in actual historical fact there is no indication that it ever did, even briefly, and certainly not at the word of some third-rate Hebrew prophet! No, like all the other superpowers which marched across the stage of ancient times it continued on its merry way until it collapsed under the weight of its own pride and arrogant disregard of God and everyone else.

So then, what is this book about? Well, it starts with God telling Jonah, “Go to Nineveh and proclaim My message of hope for those who acknowledge and repent of their sin.” What? NINEVEH? No way, Lord, that’s not possible: Nineveh will never change – besides, I don’t want to see them forgiven; they don’t deserve it, as You well know! But God is very persistent, and after a number of creative attempts to flee God’s call, and after being swallowed and vomited up by a great fish, Jonah, like Shakespeare’s whining schoolboy, “creeps like snail unwillingly to” Nineveh (having first no doubt had a shower and changed his clothes) and proclaims God’s call to change. And would you believe it, everybody repents, even the livestock, and God cancels the execution order!! But is Jonah pleased? No way! “You’ve made a fool of me, God! I knew that’s what you’d do; I needn’t have gone to all this trouble to come here anyway!

We Christians have founded our faith on the fact of Jesus Christ God’s Son coming so that whoever puts their trust in Him might have eternal life – be radically changed from the inside out. But up against that we find ourselves with an ingrained subconscious belief that things don’t ever really change. In fact, we’d almost rather they didn’t. We complain about it, about people, wish they were different, yet somehow we are quite comfortable with the good old status quo. We know where we stand, where everything fits. We know, for instance, that alcoholics can never be cured, that some people are born with certain social attitudes that are fixed in their minds like concrete. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”; “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” And if God sticks His oar in and stirs up all our preconceptions, it scares the socks off us!

Jonah thought he had faith, that he knew exactly what God would or would not do. But he got surprised – by God. Perhaps that is what faith is – the willingness to be surprised, even shocked, by the unexpected intrusions into our lives of God’s love and power to change – change even us  – if we will let Him.

I came to call sinners, not just the righteous;
I came to bring peace, not to condemn.
Each time you fail to live by my promise,
Why do you think I’d love you the less?”

Deirdre Browne

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Year B, Epiphany 2

In fact, the wise men could not even agree on the precise meaning of the star; their textbooks were self-contradictory and allowed several interpretations.

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

(please also reread Matthew 2:1-12)

The Too Wise Men

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, wise men from the East came, asking, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Now each of these wise men was a recognised leader in his own field of expertise, but they had been trained in different schools of astrotheology, so each came to the project with his own expectations and his own agenda. One was of the opinion that no proper homage could be paid until a sound financial base, with a large reserve of funds, was established and administered according to all the best insights of modern financial technology. The second maintained that any homage must be paid in forms and orders accurately reflecting beliefs and teachings about kings and homage handed down from earliest times, yet with innovative and creative use of every art form and cultural tradition. The third wondered whether they should be paying homage at all when so many out there in the real world were suffering and dying from a variety of economic, social and psychological ills which needed to be put right immediately if not sooner.

In fact, the wise men could not even agree on the precise meaning of the star; their textbooks were self-contradictory and allowed several interpretations. Was this “king” an actual person or simply a mystic symbol of some cultural or spiritual concept? Should the star correctly be designated an “omen”, a “portent” or merely a “supernova”? They held many conferences and submitted many motions, most of which had to be referred to sub-committees for clarification of terms, but they could not reach a consensus. Consequently their attention was diverted from the star, and when they finally got back to looking for it, they fixed on the wrong star, which led them in quite the opposite direction. After many years of wandering, they reached a distant country called “Ettamogga”, vast and arid, whose inhabitants dressed in a strange garb of broad-brimmed hat, navy-blue vest and jandels and congregated in buildings they called “pubhz”, which were apparently some kind of temple, as those who gathered there spent their time in communion with gods in the shape of small brown bottles. One of these devotees, speaking in the outlandish dialect of the place, advised the wise men, “No, mate, that’s the Southern Cross. You should of changed stars back at Beirut!

So the wise men missed out on Jesus.

He/she who has ears, let him/her hear.

And he/she who has the right head size, let him/her wear the head covering!

Year B, Christmas 2

True, this is different from my usual approach, however, I felt strongly I should make this statement.

Jeremiah 32:2-14
Psalm 147: 12-14
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Last week we received from friends of ours the usual Christmas Newsletter, beginning with these words: “2020 is certainly a year to remember. We’ve had the pandemic and the tragicomic “Trump Saga”, [but] against a background of morbid news bulletins one can perceive a dawning of social conscience, the expression of the Christmas message and charge to love one another.” We have observed this too. And last week we watched the final “7.30” [Current Affairs program] for the year on television, which also commented on the way people have been looking out for each other, especially the vulnerable. We heard our grandchildren, 13 at the time, when schools were in lockdown and lessons on line, say how they missed personal touch with their friends. So maybe, as so often in history, good has come out of evil: God has used evil to bring about good.

I am surprised, but pleased, that so far no fundamentalist loudmouth has seen fit to proclaim the pandemic God’s punishment for sin (homosexuality, of course – what else?) That simply is not the way of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But it takes faith, patience and an alert inner ear to discern His intentions for us in this unexpected world upheaval: they are not necessarily what we might think they should be. Our congregation here at Indooroopilly, like many others here in Australia, had just entered upon a period of “Intentional Interim Ministry”, a process evolved by the Church for use after a congregation has been broken up by internecine conflict, or changes in membership, community demographics, etc, which have left the people despairing, feeling there is no place or purpose for them any more. Now, I am not directly involved in any of the groups deliberating these questions, neither should I be – my days at the coal face being well and truly over – but I beg leave to suggest that any plans which may have been formulating might have been knocked into a cocked hat by the totally unexpected lifestyle changes imposed on us by Lord Covid. “Intentional?” Whose intentions? Have we truly asked (and I put this to every single one of us) if God’s intentions for us are not what we thought they should be? If our committees and councils are already confronting these issues under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – well and good! Let the Spirit blow where he chooses, but we cannot tell where he comes from or where he is going (cf. John 3:8).

Hey!” I hear someone say, “I thought this was supposed to be a commentary on the Lectionary readings! Where are they in this reflection?” True, this is different from my usual approach, however, I felt strongly I should make this statement. Probably the nearest to it would be in the reading from Jeremiah. Like Isaiah a week or two ago, he is looking forward to the return from exile – in other words, God is bringing good out of a bad situation. Very different from the pandemic situation, but a reminder perhaps that God seeks our good in all situations, and nowhere more than through the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Year B, Advent 4, Christmas 1

The biblical narratives of Christ’s birth have incorporated three hymns of praise to God Who in Christ Jesus is coming to fulfil His ancient promise to His Chosen People of redemption for them, and through them of the whole world.

2 Samuel 7:1-11,16
Psalm 89:1-4,19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

The biblical narratives of Christ’s birth have incorporated three hymns of praise to God Who in Christ Jesus is coming to fulfil His ancient promise to His Chosen People of redemption for them, and through them of the whole world. This itself is interesting as all of them are found only in the Gospel of Luke, probably the only non-Jewish writer in the whole New Testament. He has taken these hymns, probably used in worship by the early Church, and placed each in the mouth of one of the characters in his narrative.

The first is often referred to by the first word in the Latin version – “Benedictus” – blessed, and is ascribed to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist when he regained his speech upon the birth of his son (Luke 1:68-79 – not one of the the set readings): “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David.” Then there is the Magnificat, the song given to Mary when told that she is to be the mother of the Saviour (1:47-55): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. . . He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors.” Finally there is a brief word given to the old man Simeon when the infant Jesus is brought to the Temple for the ritual Purification (2:29-32): “. . .my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Of the three, by far the most popular, with many translations and paraphrases, is the Magnificat. A popular paraphrase is in our our own “Together in Song” 161 – “Tell out,my soul, the greatness of the Lord!” The author, Timothy Dudley-Smith, was educated at Cambridge and ordained into the Church of England in 1950. He occupied a number of positions as parish priest, archdeacon and finally bishop of Thetford in Norfolk. He also edited a magazine, “Crusade”, founded after Billy Graham’s London Crusade. Although he began writing comic verse while at Cambridge, he did not begin writing hymns until the 1960’s. One of his first was “Tell out, my soul” and probably his best known. Of it, he himself said, “I did not think of myself…. as having in any way the gifts of a hymn-writer when in May 1961 I jotted down a set of verses, beginning `Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.’ I was reading a review copy of the New English Bible New Testament, in which that line appears exactly as I have put it above: I saw in it the first line of a poem, and speedily wrote the rest.” (1984) Certainly it is a most suitable expression of the exuberant joy in which we welcome the Saviour of the world.

“Tell out, my soul, the glories of his word!
Firm is his promise, and his mercy sure.
Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord
to children’s children and for evermore!”

TiS 161, WOV 109

Year B, Advent 3

Scholars believe that the book we call “Isaiah” is a collection of writings by at least three authors from different periods of Israel’s history.

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The other morning I heard on the radio for the first time in a long while Verdi’s hauntingly beautiful “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from his opera “Nabucco”. Scripturally inaccurate as it happens, because the Jews were not enslaved but exiled – forcibly removed from their homeland and forbidden to return. But the grief, loss and desolation so wonderfully portrayed in the music would have been very real indeed to a people for whom “homeland” had a very deep spiritual significance.

Scholars believe that the book we call “Isaiah” is a collection of writings by at least three authors from different periods of Israel’s history. Today’s passage from ch.61 appears to have been written by one of those exiles. For him, as for all his people, the Exile was the severest ever challenge to their faith: God Who had given them the land and promised to protect them in it has not done so – and the fact that this has happened in consequence of their own persistent disloyalty and disobedience does not make it any easier to swallow. But at this point, a change of government and foreign policy suddenly means that the exiles are free once more to return to their own land. Psalm 126, one of a group called “Songs of Ascent” because they were later on composed for pilgrims to sing on the way up the Temple Mount for some festal occasion, recalls the joy, excitement and renewed hope of that great moment: God has not forgotten His people after all, but is giving them a new start!

But they soon found that, while God may have made their return possible, He had not made it easy. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah relate the difficulties they encountered – the walls and buildings of a ruined Jerusalem had to be rebuilt; the true Temple worship which had been all but lost and forgotten had to be re-instituted with its priests and sacrifices – and all this while being continually harassed by other tribes who had moved in after the Jews had been taken away, and who now, naturally, resented having to move out again (yes, Palestinians even back then – and incidentally I must confess to a certain degree of sympathy with the Palestinians!)

Against this background our “Isaiah” declares, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. . . . has anointed me.” He might have been speaking of himself, giving his credentials, as it were, as a genuine representative of God, but it could be that he is echoing the words of one who is to come, who would in God’s Name “proclaim good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken-hearted, bring liberty and release to captives and prisoners .” Jesus Himself quoted these words in the synagogue at Nazareth at the very beginning of His ministry (Luke 4:16-21), thereby declaring His special role as God’s Chosen Anointed One, taking away not only the sins of the world but everything else that would crush and destroy humanity. Therefore we find this passage as the First Reading for this Third Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus,God’s Son, the Anointed One (by the way, did you know that the title “Christ” is from the Greek “Christos”=Anointed?) Like those of old, we have this year been in a very real “exile”, prevented by the pandemic from many of our usual activities of praise and service. Now there seems to be some light ahead, but we know that is still a long way to go. But, as then, so now, “the spirit of the Lord is upon us” making us channels of good news of every kind to one another and to all around.