The Bible in a Year – 17 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

17 December. John chapters 1-2

John, as is well known, orders the material in his Gospel differently from Mark, Matthew or Luke – he is not telling the story of Jesus necessarily in the order things happened, and pays no attention at all to the birth or parentage of Jesus. Instead he selects those scenes that he thinks most important and orders them in a symbolic way.  The first two chapters are like an overture or the brief scenes at the start of a movie before the credits, that give an idea of the plot that is to follow.

This evening, churches across England including my own will have a service of “lessons and carols” – Bible readings and hymns or other music selected to tell the story of Jesus, focusing on his birth.  By tradition the last reading is the beginning of this Gospel, with its mysterious description of Jesus as “the Word” who existed in the beginning, even before the creation of the world, but became flesh as a man.  Over the next two weeks, our readings in church will include other passages from these chapters – this morning, the third Sunday in Advent, the theme was John the Baptiser; and the story of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into fine wine is read at Epiphany, usually the first Sunday of the new year.

All these are understood to be among the “signs” that John is presenting: events that point towards who Jesus really is, rather than stating it directly.  The nativity itself is the first and greatest of these signs. The angels and the mysterious star that Luke and Matthew tell us about, respectively, were also signs that led shepherds and magi to Bethlehem to see this greater sign – that God had appeared as an ordinary human being.

John’s ministry of baptism was, as he told anyone who would listen, also only a sign of something greater – baptism in water signifying repentance was only about preparing oneself to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus would offer (but only at Pentecost, after his resurrection). And the miracle at Cana was not so much about just keeping a party going, as an example of the abundance of life that Jesus came to bring.  The one who could draw water from a well and turn it into wine would, as we will see tomorrow, also draw water from another well and turn it into a means of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.

As John tells us, “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2:21).  Are there enough signs here for you to believe?

 

The Bible in a Year – 14 November

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14 November. Luke chapters 2-3

Chapter 2 of Luke is probably one of the best known passages of the Bible – at least the first twenty verses about the birth of Jesus and the visitation of the shepherds, a story retold at every nativity play and carol service.  For Anglicans, verses 29-32 are also very familiar in a slightly different translation as the “Nunc dimittis” said or sung daily at Evensong in cathedrals.

So I am going to look at chapter 3 – continuing the story of John the Baptist that was started yesterday with his own miraculous conception.  Thirty years on, John and Jesus were both called by God to the tasks for which they had been destined.  We don’t know how long John had been proclaiming his message of repentance before Jesus came to be baptised, or how long he had lived a solitary life in the desert before that until he received the “Word of God” (3:2), i.e. the conviction that God was about to appear in a new and unique way that demanded special spiritual preparation.  But it might not have been very long, for his “unofficial” ministry made him unpopular with the religious elite, as well as the secular authorities.  It seems that soon after Jesus was baptised, John was arrested.

So the baptism at the Jordan of Jesus by his only-slightly-older relative was a moment of handover, when the Holy Spirit that had been in John descended on Jesus in more dramatic form – in appearance as a dove, but with the voice of God from heave (3:22).  This is reminiscent of the occasion when Elijah as he was taken up into heaven, passed his robe and with it a “double share of his spirit” to Elisha.    On this occasion, the message of self-denial and repentance was about to be replaced with one of rejoicing and healing – fulness of life.

For everyone who turns to God, there is a unique ministry – not preordained in every detail, but to worked out with God and other people according to our aptitudes and character.  No-one (other than Jesus) is perfect, we all have weaknesses as well as strengths.  Sometimes God arranges it that one person will follow another in a particular situation (such as a parish priest or teacher) with gifts that are different but complimentary.   A caring pastor might be succeeded by a brilliant preacher or gifted evangelist, drawing a different set of people into the church.  Or in the progress of one group of pupils through school, a teacher who is rigorous in teaching theory might be followed by one skilled at illustrations and practical exercises.

So there is no point worrying whether there are some aspects of your faith or career at which you are weak, as long as there are others at which you are strong.  Leave it to God to fill in the gaps.

 

The Bible in a Year – 13 November

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13 November. Luke chapter 1

The first chapter of Luke’s gospel begins with an assurance that he has researched it before writing it, and although clearly influenced by what Mark had previously written, he adds material of his own, which seems to have come from talking to Jesus’ extended family.  Thus, before getting to the matter of the start of Jesus’ ministry, or even his birth, he finds that the birth of both Jesus and John was prophesied by angels.    Such an annunciation was not unique – Abram and Sarah, and Hannah, had such angelic visits before the birth of Isaac and Samuel respectively.  But for it to happen twice in one year, and to members of the same family, that was something quite astounding.

John the Baptist is sometimes rather overlooked, although for Luke he seems to have been just as important in Jesus’ story as his mother Mary.  Jesus himself described John as “the greatest of those born of women”, and John’s ministry seems to have started well before that of Jesus although they were the same age.   He is often described as the forerunner or herald, the one whose role was to prepare people (by his baptism of repentance for sin) for Jesus whose task was the full reconciliation of people to God.

John’s feast day is traditionally 24 June (my birthday, as it happens). I presume that this is working backwards six months from the supposed date of Jesus’ birth (24 or 25 December) given that Luke puts the annunciation to Mary “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  It is probably appropriate to put them at opposite points in the circle of the Christian year, since their approach was diametrically opposed.  John, dedicated as a Nazirite who had to abstain from alcohol, also felt compelled to live the life of an ascetic hermit in the desert, fasting or eating  sparingly, clothed uncomfortably and preaching a hard message of judgement and repentance.

Jesus’ interpretation of the holy life was quite different – enjoying life’s pleasures in so far as they did no harm to anyone else, living in the midst of the people to whom he ministered, with a message that emphasised forgiveness and healing (but not suggesting that our actions do not matter).  But both of them were filled by the same Spirit and inspired by the same scriptures.

Whether you or I are more like a John or a Jesus in our interpretation of the religious life will depend on character, upbringing, the surrounding culture, and circumstances.  If you find meaning for your life in silence, fasting and penitence, that’s great, but don’t criticise those who find it in a more active lifestyle and the enjoyment of good food.  I am more of  a Jesus in that respect, despite sharing a birthday with John.  “Everything with thanksgiving” was St Paul’s motto, and it can be yours.

 

The Bible in a Year – 25 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 May. Jeremiah chapters 38-41

In chapter 38, Zedekiah (the Jewish king appointed by the Babylonians) first told some of the men at his court that they could do what they liked with Jeremiah, but then when he heard that Jeremiah had been lowered into a pit to starve, had mercy on him at least to the extent of having him brought back up so that he could question him.  Zedekiah seems at one point to have accepted Jeremiah’s advice that it would be sensible for him to surrender to the Babylonians rather than hold out to the bitter end and be killed with the rest of his people (although he instructed Jeremiah not to tell anyone this); yet when the siege actually took place (chapter 39) he failed to act on this, and tried to escape from the enemy, only to be taken captive, and blinded after being forced to watch his own sons murdered.  Such was the violence of those times (and unfortunately, still of our own times in places like the ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo or in Syria).

 

Zedekiah seemed to have the same kind of hating-but-fascinated relationship with Jeremiah that Jezebel had with Elijah, Herod with John the Baptist, Pilate with Jesus, or perhaps Catherine the Great with Rasputin.  These monarchs must have had enough of a conscience to have known that the holy men who troubled them had the moral high ground and that their criticism of the king’s or queen’s conduct was right; yet they clung to power without having the courage to mend their ways, for the last thing a ‘strong’ leader wants is to be seen to be weak, and changing your mind or acknowledging when you are beaten is seen as weakness not strength.  It is only with God’s perspective on things, as Jeremiah had, that ‘giving in’ can sometimes be seen as the right and courageous thing to do.

 

We see this in a smaller way in politics when a politician announces a policy that they think is right, but then find opponents even in their own party telling them the policy is a foolish one.  Some have the courage then to moderate or abandon the policy, which the media tend to decry as weakness, but may actually be a sign of strength; while others refuse to make the ‘U turn’ and press on with their intentions until they are forced out of office.

 

 

Chapters 39-41 tell of the actual captivity of most of the people of Jerusalem and Judah, and the bloody power struggle that went on after the captivity between Gedaliah (Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet ruler) and the remaining army officers of Judah.  In all of this, Jeremiah finally gets his reward as he is freed by the Babylonians from among the captives, and allowed to return to Judah a free man.