A Lectionary Resource for 10 October 2004 - 1 November 2004
These preaching ideas or sermon starters are based on the 2003/2004 Revised Common Lectionary which is being used in many churches in Australia and New Zealand .
This set of notes is the 8th in a series being written again this year by a variety of writers who will cover the full year. Writers of considerable experience and variety have agreed to write notes including: the Revs Brian Williscroft, David Grant, Lawrie Hampton. .Margaret Martin, Neil Churcher, Philippa Horrex, Shirley Fregusson, and Bob Eyles.
This Kit has been written by the Rev Dr Bob Eyles
Reign of Christ
October 10, 2004
The Lectionary provided by the church provides four systematically chosen passages for each Sunday; I find this to be useful as, by using and preaching from one or more of these passages I am less likely to "ride hobby horses". These notes will provide a short summary of the meaning as I see it of each passage, and some suggestions for preaching themes based on the readings. You will be left - of course - to make the linkages with your congregation and with world or local events on each particular Sunday. I encourage you to not always preach from the gospel, but to explore the richness of other passages and perhaps give a mini-series on Jeremiah, Timothy or Thessalonians; I hope that you find joy in your preaching ministry.
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7: We may be surprised at Jeremiah's message - there is none of the Jewish exclusiveness evident in some Hebrew Testament writing. Although Jeremiah remains in Jerusalem he is still trying to exercise a ministry by letter to the exiles in Babylon post 597 BCE. He has heard of unrest among them caused by two 'prophets' advising them to rebel against their captors. Jeremiah is clear that this advice is not of God - instead of rebelling or retreating into a Jewish ghetto mentality, he believes that the exiles are to work actively for peace and the welfare of the very people who have humiliated them! Verse 7: 'Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile... for in its welfare you will find your welfare.' Jeremiah is convinced that the very exile itself is part of God's continuing plan for his chosen people, and out of it - in God's time - will come restoration into a new future.
Psalm 66: 1-12: The first section of a two-part psalm; in the part we read the temple congregation praises God whose majesty has been shown in miraculous saving deeds - especially the escape from Egypt under Moses and the settling of the Promised Land. The second part - verses 13 to 20 – is the thanksgiving of an individual who tells the worshippers how his personal prayer has been answered. God is praised at all levels for saving acts, from the day to day life of an individual to the formative events in the life of the nation. Verses 10 to 12 are important because they show that the way to salvation along which God leads his people includes suffering, humiliation, temptation, exile and trauma. This links to the passage from Jeremiah and forward to the 'Way of the Cross' in the gospel representation of the death and resurrection of Jesus and its implications.
2 Timothy 2: 8-15: A series of contrasts and even paradoxes are outlined in this passage - Paul is chained like a criminal but the word of God [the gospel] is not... The gathering threat of persecution faced by the early church as it struggled to cope with a callously aggressive pagan empire are not the only realities for Paul; underpinning his life and work as a missionary is his faith in the love of God as shown in the resurrected Chris t. Verses 11 to 13 are a saying dating back to the earliest days of the church - the 'tit for tat' nature of verses 11 and 12 are in contrast to verse 13 which emphasises the faithfulness in love of Jesus Chris t and therefore, for Paul, of God. I would probably begin the reading with verse 1 of chapter 2, a verse which is a key to Paul's life and philosophy.
Luke 17: 11-19: The life of lepers at the time of Jesus was in effect a living death as the Laws of Ritual Purity banned them from any normal social involvement. Lepers - such as the 10 here - tended to live in hovels on the outskirts of villages and towns, eking out an existence on the scraps of food they could find in the village or town refuse. Some skin conditions cleared and the sufferers could be certified as 'clean' by a priest, but true leprosy - like HIV and Aids today - was deeply feared because there was no cure.
At this bedrock level of human existence, distinctions such as that between Jew and Samaritan had no traction and the leper colony which encountered Jesus contained a Samaritan. As the lepers obey Jesus and go to the priest, they are healed - their lives will return to normal as they reintegrate into village life. The nine Jews disappear from the narrative but the Samaritan returns to thank Jesus and to give glory to God. As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, here the foreigner shows up the Jew! All ten lepers are physically healed but only the Samaritan experiences the deeper healing made possible by his faith. The passage ends with Jesus' familiar: "Your faith has made you well" [compare 5.20, 8.50...]. The word 'faith' is rich and has to do with trust, integrity, steadfastness, fidelity... Here the Samaritan's faith is that the God of healing love is working through Jesus to transform his life.
Directions for Preaching: It seems to me that each of our readings starts from a similar point - one of the crises faced by individual or community. The exiles in Babylon are humiliated as they live with the memory of Jerusalem being razed.; the psalm reminds us that the way of salvation includes suffering, humiliation, temptation, exile and trauma; Paul is speaking to a church beginning to experience the heavy hand of persecution by the Roman Empire; and the lepers in Luke 17 are living the most degraded form of existence.
If you need a text, perhaps 2 Timothy 2.1: 'You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Chris t Jesus.', would suffice. Into any and every human condition, the grace of God can reach to transform, to bring hope out of despair and life out of death. This is the heart of the gospel!
There is no difficulty in the choice of music to support such a central theme as this - 'Amazing grace...' is the first hymn which comes to mind.
October 17 2004
Jeremiah 31: 27-34: The theme of restoration continues - the exiles are not only to seek the welfare of the city and nation in which they have been forced to live, they are to believe that God is with them, that memories of failures from the past will give way to anticipation as God begins to do a new thing in their midst, drawing them into a future which is different from the past. The covenant between God and God’s chosen people is to be renewed - the tablets of stone and its commandments [Exodus 21] will be replaced by laws which will be written on the hearts and minds of all the people, which will become part of their very being and identity! We are familiar with the inner workings of the Holy Spirit as God draws us into lives of compassion, forgiveness, freedom and a new ability to give and receive love. This is one of the passages that feeds into the Pentecost experience of the earliest church - the very term ‘New Testament’ comes from here and verses 33 and 34 are referred to or quoted by the writers of Mark, Corinthians and Hebrews.
Psalm 119: 97-104: This is part of the longest psalm in our bible – 22 ‘acrostic poems’, each line of which starts with the appropriate letter of the Hebrew alphabet, are joined to give the 176 verse psalm. [This, incidentally, is information which I would not share in a sermon as it contributes nothing of value!!] The psalm contains hardly a verse which does not refer to God’s ‘word’ or ‘law’ expressed in terms such as ‘ordinances’, ‘statutes’, ‘precepts’, ‘testimonies’, ‘commandments’, ‘decrees’ and so on. The word or law of God which comes to us through the Spirit, the bible, worship, and our interactions with people, is ‘written on our hearts’ [Jeremiah 31.33] and leads us to participate in gracious community living. The psalmist rejoices in the way God’s word has moulded his life, enabling him to cope with trauma and tragedy. Our passage points to the need to spend time in prayer and to meditate actively on scripture.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5: Timothy has grown up with the scriptures and his life has been moulded by them as he has read, meditated, interpreted and applied their truths to his day to day living. Verse 16 has often been used -erroneously I believe - to assert the infallibility of the bible. But the ‘sacred writings’, the ‘scripture’, used by Timothy and the early church, was not our bible [the canon of which was not finalised until two or three hundred years later]. It was the ‘Old Testament’ plus other intertestamental books which cannot be fully identified which did not make it into our bible. This verse and those around it are not about the nature of scripture, but about its usefulness. Timothy is urged to immerse himself in scripture, allow it to mould his motives and understanding, and then go out to fearlessly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Chris t.
Luke 18: 1-8: Another parable which can be hard to understand unless it is recognised that Jesus is using the principle of ‘from light to heavy’ or ‘how much more!’ ‘The woman is in an apparently hopeless position. She is a woman in a man’s world, a widow without money or powerful friends. The judge cannot be appealed to out of duty to God, and no human being can make him ashamed of any evil act he may perpetrate on the innocent. Yet this woman not only gets a hearing but has the case settled in her favour... The main thrust is clearly persistence in prayer. If this woman’s needs are met, how much more the needs of the pious who pray not to a harsh judge but to a loving Father. However discouraged and hopeless their situation may seem to be, it is not as bad as that of this widow. They can rest assured that their petitions are heard and acted upon. When fear grips the heart the believer is challenged to pray, and to pray continuously in the face of all discouragements with the full confidence that God will act in his [or her] best interests.’ [Kenneth Bailey, 1983, ‘Through Peasant Eyes’ p136].
Jesus encouraged his listeners to open their hearts to God and to persist in prayer, believing that the God who is love will work in their situation to bring justice with mercy - the essence of our Chris tian life is a relationship of trust and hope in God.
The nature of prayer is always an important issue which can come out of our gospel reading - there was a time when I seemed to have a ministry of healing in which I prayed for people and they were healed, but then there have been other occasions [like the death of my own wife] when prayer for healing seemed not to be answered or even appropriate. A God who is all loving [and therefore not all powerful] answers prayer often by giving us the inner resources to cope with the journey through suffering. When we emerge we are wiser and pastorally more sensitive toward other people.
October 24, 2004
Joel 2: 23-32[I would start at verse 21]: Like many of the ‘minor prophets’ it is not clear when this was written - possibly late on [c 370 BCE] during a period of stability after the return from exile. If this is correct Joel¹s message is for a comfortable people. Their complacency had been shattered by a devastating drought [ 1: 17 -20] and plague of locusts [1: 4 and 7]. Joel says: ‘watch out, the Day of the Lord will be as unexpected and devastating as the drought’. In our passage Joel proclaims the power of God to restore a faithful and purified nation. The land and people together will rejoice in God¹s blessing and bounty. As the early church searched the scriptures [the
‘Old Testament’ or ‘Hebrew Testament’] for explanations of what was happening to them, they found in verses 28 and 29 an expression of their own experience of the work of God in bringing new life out of a religion which had become preoccupied with obeying the Law of Moses and its extensions. We must be aware that keeping the machinery of church life running [‘maintenance’] is not where new life will come from; we need to be alert - as was Joel - to the work that God is calling the church to [‘mission’].
Psalm 65: A beautifully crafted song of praise which may have originated in a particular event; a time of drought seems to have raised the scary possibility of a famine but prayers have been answered and the believing community is gathered in the Temple to respond to God in praise. The song writer envisages God¹s saving action in bringing rain in the widest possible context of the redemptive work of God. In verses 1-4 the gifts of grace to be found in the house of God [the Temple] are praised; verses 5-8 praise the saving works of God in creation [natural history[ and in human history – a common theme in the psalms; and the remainder of the psalm applauds the blessing of fertility with which God crowns the year. To the poet ‘the same goodness of God is in question whether he confers earthly blessings or forgives human sin, whether he favours the godly with the communion of his presence in the house of God or makes the nations testify to his glory.’ [Artur Weiser, 1962, ‘The Psalms’, p466]. Verses 1-4 could be used as a call to worship.
2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18: These may have been the last words that Paul wrote as he awaited death. He is lonely and mentions in verse 11 that only Luke is with him. In Jewish Temple worship an offering of wine was poured over the foot of the altar before the daily sacrifices began; Paul, in verse 6, envisages his death as an offering to God. ‘The good fight’ in verse 7 is probably a wrestling bout - the sport itself is noble and Paul sees his ministry as a missionary as the noble contest in which he has been engaged. There are parallels with the death of Jesus who forgave the disciples who deserted him and who trusted in God as death approached. Paul is confident that the Lord will save him through his death. He has continued to preach the Good News at his trial [verse 17] and in prison, is confident that God will enable him to continue to live faithfully until his last breath is drawn and then will welcome him to his ‘heavenly kingdom’ [verse 18].
Luke 18: 9 - 14: Kenneth Bailey gives an excellent treatment of this parable in his ‘Through Peasant Eyes’, pages 142 - 156. Much of the parable¹s impact is lost if we don¹t understand its setting. The first point to note is that public worship, not private prayer, is indicated. The Pharisee is a pious ‘24/7’ observer of the Law whereas the tax-collector is a breaker of the Law and an outcast. The Pharisee stands by himself [verse 11] for two reasons - he considers himself superior to other worshippers and he does not want to risk contact with anyone who is ritually unclean; he seems also to be praying aloud and is preaching to the ordinary and less righteous people within earshot. The tax-collector also stands apart - he cringes from public recognition while longing to be among the worshippers. The acceptable posture for public prayer is to stand, cross the hands over the chest and cast the eyes down. But the tax-collector beats his chest as a gesture of extreme distress. This is an action characteristic of women, not men, and implies utter and complete humiliation for him.
The message is clear - the original self-righteous audience is challenged by Jesus to reconsider how righteousness is achieved. Jesus declares that righteousness [ right relationship with God] is a gift from God to be received by those [like the tax-collector] who approach in humility as sinners, trusting in God¹s grace rather than in their own achievements, status and piety; in other words, in their own self-righteousness.
Periodically I need to remind both myself and congregation of the broad and comprehensive love of God for all living things. Joel 2: 23-32 and Psalm 65 remind us that humans are not the centre of the universe but are part of the natural planetary order. An ecological sermon on the need to cease exploiting global resources and confusing ‘need’ with ‘greed’ would be appropriate. The Old Testament Jew, with no scientific understanding, attributed all natural events to a God who either blessed or cursed, who rewarded or punished; we, with our scientific and technological knowledge need to be humbly aware that ‘the more we know, the more we realise that wedon¹t know.’
October 31, 2004
Habbakuk 1: 1-4, 2: 1-4: The prophet is not afraid to ask the tough questions – ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ is the title of anexcellent little book by Harold Kuchner which explores the same issues. Habbakuk writes in the late 7th century BCE in the face of harsh rule and severe suffering under - probably - the Babylonians. ‘How can you allow this? why is this happening?’ asks the prophet throughout this book as he debates with God. The situation is very like that in the book of Job who debates similar issues with his well-meaning but misguided friends. The question: ‘How can a God of love allow such suffering?’ is a question we all ask in time of trauma. We are not meant to accept these things passively in a ‘doormat’ mindset; we are expected to express all our feelings, our doubts and our confusion to God - as did the writers of the many Psalms of Lament in our bible. God¹s response is seen in 2.5: ‘Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.’
Psalm 119: 137-144: This passage ties in well with the reading from Habbakuk. The psalmist is aware of enemies [v139], of being despised [v141] and of trouble and anguish [v144], yet he continually praises God¹s righteousness, God¹s judgements, faithfulness and justice. We are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the flood of news media reports of rampant violence; praising God allows us to see that the God who is love is hard at work in the same world! Our passage concludes with the words: ‘Your decrees are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live’ - real living consists of stepping out in faith into the maelstrom that is around us - we, like the poet, are called to be agents of God¹s love in a suffering world. This psalm is best read in small doses and today¹s passage could be well be used in worship as a responsive prayer of thanksgiving or as a responsive call to worship.
2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12: Some key ideas or attributes are linked - ‘thanks’ and ‘perseverance’ [verses 3 and 4], ‘faith’ and ‘love’ [v3], ‘steadfastness and faith’ and ‘persecutions and afflictions’ [v4]. Paul is clear that being committed to God¹s ways in the world does not guarantee an easy life, quite the contrary as following God leads almost inevitably to conflict with the wealthy and powerful. That was true in biblical times and it is just as true today. But even the rich and powerful can change, can be converted to the ways of unconditional love. Thus Paul himself who, as Saul, was one of the most ardent persecutors of the early church, was met on the road to Damascus by the risen Chris t and became one of the church¹s greatest missionaries. Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica assuring them that their steadfastness, love and faith in the midst of persecution and affliction is evidence of empowering by God. Faith is not intellectual understanding [Hebrews 11.1], it is loving commitment to the love of God and the purposes of God in and through the church.
Luke 19: 1-10: One of the most vivid incidents in the bible, told in simple and clear terms. It is necessary to spend time ensuring that the congregation understands the social situation at the time of Jesus. Tax collectors worked for the occupying Romans and were therefore outcasts in Jewish society. They regularly extorted and cheated, and so became wealthy. As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus would also have made money from his subordinates. And so, as his clothes became finer, his house larger and more opulently decorated, and his slaves more numerous, Zacchaeus would have become a hated figure in the city of Jericho .
Jesus, as usual, is not concerned with being politically correct as he looks up and sees Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree - we can imagine Jesus sensing the yearning for a human response other than loathing as he looks into his eyes. And so - ignoring the crowd - he invites himself to Zacchaeus¹s house. The tax collector immediately responds in repentance and extravagantly promises publicly to return fourfold the money he has got illegally and to give half his property to the poor. Jesus reminds the crowd that Zacchaeus is a Jew and invites them to accept the new Zacchaeus back into society. Life would not be easy as he would have to earn trust and respect by living honestly and compassionately. Jesus concludes: ‘The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save the lost.’
The incident of saving lost Zacchaeus could be unpacked, with people in the congregation being invited to come down from their ‘trees of refuge’, to respond to Jesus, to ask and give forgiveness, to receive and give love, and to become new beings.
November 7, 2004
Haggai 1: 15b-2.9: The prophet preached the five sermons recorded in the book of Haggai during 520 BCE at the time Darius was beginning his reign in Babylon .
The Jews had begun to straggle back to Jerusalem in 537 BCE - the locals were not happy to see them trying to reclaim property abandoned at the start of the exile 60 years earlier; tension also arose with the Samaritans in the north who resisted the rebuilding of the temple, fearing resurgent southern nationalism. Haggai challenged the people to consider that the reason their conditions were bad was because they had not been putting God first; rebuilding of the temple began soon after his prophetic pronouncements. A trap that the Chris tian church has fallen into over the centuries is to think that if we erect elaborate church buildings God will bless us – but large and empty buildings are just as bad as those that are ruined and neglected. In a deep sense we are most likely to build acceptable ‘houses of God’ when we ensure that the poor and disadvantaged are adequately housed! Haggai¹s call should lead us to re-examine what the centre of our lives is.
Psalm 145: 1-5, 17-21: It is a pity that the key verses, in which the whole of creation is invited to join the worshipping community in praise of God, are cut out of the lectionary reading - we could, at least, read verses 1-7 and 13b-21, in accordance with the paragraphs in the NRSV. Incidentally, the psalm is an acrostic in which each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalm was probably used in public worship as a hymn or prayer of thanksgiving – ‘the glorious splendour of [YHWH¹s] majesty [v5], abundant goodness and righteousness [v7], grace and mercy, slowness to anger and steadfast love [v8], justice, kindness and responsiveness to those in need [vv 17-19], are all reasons for both individual and worshipping community to praise God. Some manuscripts translate verse 21 as follows: ‘My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh praise his Holy name! We praise the Lord from this time forth and for ever more. Hallelujah’. The psalm was thus likely to have been used responsively in worship.
2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17: Paul comes to the reason for his letter – the time is probably about 52 CE, very early on in the history of the church. The return of Chris t [the Second Coming] is still actively awaited and Paul is concerned that the small congregation is being unsettled by people who were asserting that Jesus Chris t had already returned or was in the act of returning. This is not to be confused with the much later concept of ‘realised eschatology’ that we find, for example, in John¹s gospel. Paul says that the rumour does not originate with him and that the congregation should continue working and actively waiting for Chris t to return. Verses 13 to 17 are warmly affirming - if Paul is experiencing impatience and frustration at the congregation¹s vulnerability to destructive ideas, this is overcome by his love for them and his faith in the God¹s long termpurposes.
Luke 20: 27-38: This is the only time Sadducees appear in Luke¹s narrative. They were few in number but wealthy and with huge influence. They were the governing class and collaborated closely with Rome to preserve their power and status. Sadducees accepted only the written Law of Moses, ignoring the prophetic and other writings in the Old [or Hebrew] Testament.
In particular, the Sadducees opposed belief in the resurrection, a doctrine held by Jesus [see Luke 14.14]. So they devise a complex story to trap Jesus - ‘in the resurrection’, they ask, ‘if a woman becomes a widow seven times which will be the woman¹s true husband?’ This is typical of debate among Jewish rabbis and Jesus responds without hesitation. The Sadducees quote from their scriptures [the first five books of the bible] - Deuteronomy 25.5 - in setting up the debate; Jesus responds by also quoting from the Pentateuch. He points out that resurrection life will be different with sexual relations being irrelevant. Death is abolished - reference in Exodus 3.6 to the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ means that the patriarchs are alive in God¹s presence, awaiting the final resurrection. ‘He is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive’ [verse 38]¹
For Luke, this incident is the climax of Jesus¹ disputes with his opponents. Luke has him in 20: 45 -47 going on the offensive and attacks scribal teaching and lifestyle.
‘Life after death’ or, in more formal terms, ‘the doctrine of the resurrection’ would be another possibility - a pity to only treat this central issue on Easter Sunday or at funerals! Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 2: 1-10, and Colossians 3: 1-11 are helpful passages in this context.
November 14, 2004
A strange combination of readings - we will need to struggle though them for common themes and directions!
Isaiah 65: 17-25: The Third Isaiah [the restoration Isaiah of chapters 56-66] addresses a broken community; the people have returned from exile and are beginning to rebuild Jerusalem and their lives. As time went on they became increasingly discouraged. To give them the energy and will for reconstruction, they badly need the vision which we find in this passage. Isaiah speaks of a powerful act of God¹s grace, renewing creation - hurts of the past, memories of domination and helplessness in the face of destruction are to be replaced by hope for peace and stability. God delights in his people who respond in joy; life will be lived to the full, each person will reap the rewards of hard work, children will grow to maturity, life spans will allow for the joys and satisfactions of childhood, maturity and old age. Overall God will be present and rejoice in his people - the creative grace of God is able to replace despair with hope, death with life, hatred and apathy with love and can heal the worst of memories. God can replace a hurtful and crippling past with a joyful and purposeful present that encourages planning for a just and peaceful future. There are similarities here with the visions of Genesis 2 and Revelation 21. Isaiah¹s vision encourages us to realise that love will prevail and that God will lead us through the worst experiences of the human condition into new life.
Isaiah 12: This is in the Psalm ‘slot’ and probably would be best used as a responsive Psalm. These few verses can be called, ‘The Song of the Redeemed’. The phrase, ‘You will say in that day’ [verses 1 and 4] links it to the time of the return of the Jews from the ‘diaspora’; its position relates to editing of the Book of Isaiah as it forms a link between chapters 1-11 and 13-23. This song, therefore, looks forward to the day when God will lead the redeemed from captivity [in Assyria ] in a similar way to the leading from Egypt [11.16]. Joy comes with the realisation that God is present to bring release and comfort. Even in the most desolate times - individually and in the life of the nation - it is possible to anticipate the joy that comes with God¹s salvation!
2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13: Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are nearing the end of their second letter to the church as Thessalonica and they return to their main point - the need to keep working, to keep the fabric of day to day life intact while waiting for ‘the Coming of the Lord’. Some of the congregation believed that because Jesus¹ second coming was imminent there was no need to continue working; others may have said, ‘let¹s party, we are saved and the end is near!’ Paul and his fellow missionaries have set an example of earning their keep during their visit; in our day, we all meet people who abuse Chris tian generosity and compassion; this passage sternly says:
‘Anyone unwilling [but able] to work, should not eat!’ [verse 10]. But there is an element of compassion - bludgers should be respected as believers. And, of course - in the light of Matthew 25.36 - we should not interpret the violence, wars and natural disasters we experience or see on television as meaning that ‘the End is near’.
Luke 21: 5-19: The Temple was the centre of the nation¹s religion, politics and economy at the time of Jesus - it was one of the wonders of the world and many people believed - complacently - that God would always protect his Temple and therefore also his people. But Jesus, following on from Luke 19: 42-44, says that it will be torn down. The gospel, of course, was written after the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. There is an overlapping between this historic destruction and End of the World concerns - of course, the AD 70 events ended the Jewish world centred on the sacrificial liturgy in the Temple . Thereafter Judaism was forced to rebrand itself as the ‘people of the book [Torah]’.
Jesus warns of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues and astronomical events.
We know today, in the light of scientific understanding, that earthquakes are a part of the natural global system; famines and plagues are worsened by exploitation of the environment and unwise use of things like antibiotics, and astronomical events indicate the vulnerability of a small planet! Jesus says that events such as these should not be interpreted as ‘signs of the End of the World’ and that all this will be preceded by persecution of his followers - his church. Persecution - first by the Jews and then by the Romans - was beginning by the time Luke was written.
Jesus ends this difficult passage by offering the encouragement that when his followers are being tried in court they will be able to testify by words and wisdom that he [ie, his Spirit] will give them [verse 15] and the hope that their endurance will enable them to gain true life [verse 19].
The gospel and epistle readings - also Isaiah 65 - could lead to a sermon on what or who we put our ultimate trust in. The Jews tended to trust in the Temple and in the Law of Moses, do we trust in the church, in tradition, or in the bible? None of these is adequate - our trust must be directly in the God who can and will give us the resources we need to cope and witness whatever is happening to us and around us.
November 23, 2004
This is the final Sunday of the church year - traditionally the ‘Festival of Christ the King.’ Our readings invite us to worship and reflect on Jesus Chris t as the risen Lord who reigns and who will return in triumph. Some people find difficulty with the old fashioned images of kings and kingdoms and some find triumphalism hard to handle in our world of violence and pain - so, the preacher¹s task today is challenging!
Jeremiah 23: 1-6: Verses 5 and 6 are the reason for the inclusion of this passage in today¹s lectionary readings - the early church, searching back through the Old Testament, recognised Jesus as the righteous king being foretold. Verses 1 to 4 are very like Ezekiel 34 - national leaders are likened to shepherds who, instead of nurturing and protecting their flocks, abuse and drive their sheep away. Jeremiah pictures God as sending a righteous shepherd to gather the scatted flock and to reign as a wise, just and righteous king over Judah . Jesus uses this same strong imagery in Luke 15: 1-7 and in John 10: 1-18. In the latter passage he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’ who lays down his life for the sheep. Here is a picture of kingship that avoids triumphalism.
Luke 1: 68-79: From deep within the birth narratives at the beginning of Luke comes this passage - the ‘Benedictus’ - spoken by Zechariah at the birth of his son, John the Baptist. This prophetic poem is about God finally acting to fulfil ancient promises in a time when God¹s chosen people were weary of oppression. Zechariah¹s own story - of nine months without being able to speak as punishment for lack of faith - reflects the experience of Israel itself. Prophecy had been silent for 200 years, now it was going to burst forth again and lead people back to a true and deep allegiance to God. The poem talks of ‘political salvation’, of the way of peace, and of sin and death itself being dealt with. This reading - in the ‘psalm slot’ - could be incorporated in a prayer of thanksgiving or adoration to Christ the King.
Colossians 1: 11-20: Verses 15 to 20 represent the ‘highest’ view of Christ in scripture; probably this ‘ Christ hymn’ was being used in the church at Colossae and has been reworked by Paul for inclusion in his letter. False teachings which Paul wanted to counter had been portraying the cosmic ‘powers’ as independent agents to be venerated in their own right. Paul portrays Christ as superior to all created things including the cosmic powers, as sharing the divine being and as the goal of creation. ‘Jewish and Greek thinkers had ideas of ‘wisdom’ and ‘logos’ as the instrument by which the world came into being. But no philosopher ever thought of wisdom/logos as the goal of creation as verse 16 announces. And, for Paul, no part of the universe is excluded’ [Ralph P Martin, 1991, ‘Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon’, Knox Press, p108]. The church, in verse 18, is described as the body of Christ - compare the great image in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. ‘He is the image of the invisible God... In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ [vv 15, 19]; God in his total essence, is expressed only in Christ, and not scattered through the universe, as was evidently the view of the false teachers.
Luke 23: 33-43: There is a huge contrast between this, and the epistle reading! So this passage from the heart of the crucifixion narrative is well chosen to make the crucial point that the kingship of Christ is different from all human experience of power and authority. There are many paradoxes in this reading:
- Jesus is dying a death reserved for the worst criminals yet, instead of cursing his killers he prays for them.
- One of those hanging beside him asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom [this is not a sarcastic comment] and Jesus responds by saying ‘today you will be with me in Paradise ’.
- The royal cup bearer approaches but turns out to be a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine drunk by the poor.
- Instead of being dressed in coronation robes, the clothes he is wearing are disposed of by casting lots.
- The royal announcement of his coronation is a mocking statement of his crime nailed above his head: This is the King of the Jews.
- Throughout his ministry, Jesus has associated with the wrong people [tax collectors, widows, the ritually unclean such as lepers, prostitutes...] now at last he is hailed as king, but in a spirit of mockery .
- Jesus, in dying the death reserved for traitors - the worst of sinners - although innocent is carrying the sins of those who crucify and taunt him....
Clearly, today, our task is to show that the crown worn by Christ is unlike all human crowns. Chris t the king is not remote and majestic, sitting at God¹s right hand in the heavens, but is the suffering Lord, bringing forgiveness, compassion, sacrificial love - the very life of heaven - to the here and now life of earth!
The triumph of the cross over death, evil, hopelessness and despair, brings new hope into our lives.
Spend some time in your sermon with Paul¹s vision and Paul¹s Christology;
Paul links at deep levels, suffering and sovereignty, cross and crown and is convinced of the continuing involvement of the God who is love in the life of our world.