The Bible in a Year – 25 December

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25 December John chapters 19-21

I am sure it cannot be coincidence that the reading for Christmas Day is the last three chapters of John’s gospel, which cover the death and resurrection of Christ.  The people who planned this year-long programme of Bible readings must have arranged it like that, and for a good reason.

Our priest at this morning’s Christmas communion service started his sermon by talking about the Yorkshire tradition of eating cheese with sweet foods – salty blue Stilton with mince pies, creamy Wensleydale with Christmas fruit cake.   He linked this odd, but actually very tasty,  combination of tastes to the fact that within the last week before Christmas, when the church is looking forward to the joy of the Nativity, and the world is celebrating in its own pleasure-seeking way, the church leaders and musicians have been planning the music for services in Lent and Holy Week.

It may seem strange reading about the death and resurrection of Christ, or planning solemn music for the season when we particularly remember those events, just when the focus should be on his birth.  But there are good reasons for doing so.

We cannot understand the birth of Jesus into the world unless we think also of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the crucifixion without believing in the resurrection.  For that was the whole point of his birth.  The way God rescues us from the consequences of our own sin is to take those sins upon himself and suffer the consequences – separation from God, mental agony, physical torture, and death.  But that was not the end of the story – the resurrection proved that the sinless  one was stronger than sin and death and would live for ever.

Even at the time Jesus was dedicated as a baby, it was prophesied about him that he would be the cause of the “falling and rising of many in Israel”, and of Mary his mother it was said “a sword will pierce your own heart also”.  Throughout the last year or so of his life, Jesus had tried many times to explain to the disciples that his death – and subsequent resurrection – were absolutely part of God’s plan for him, and could not be avoided without wrecking the plan.

There is a line in a Christmas carol that says “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”.  It sounds good, but it is not good theology.  It would be more accurate – if less poetic – to say “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day”.  But we can make a concession – as the timeless God came into our world in the form of a time-bound human being, birth had to come before death.  Without Christmas there could be no Easter.  And without Mary’s willing acceptance of God’s will there could have been no Christmas.  Therefore we say with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Merry Christmas to all readers.

 

The Bible in a Year – 24 December

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24 December. John chapters 16-18

Chapters 17 and 18 are the conclusion of Jesus’ last speech to his disciples.  They are immediately followed by the betrayal in Gethsemane and the trial by the two high priests and Pontius Pilate.  These are the readings of Holy Week (the approach to Easter).  So what can they say to us at Christmas?

One word you hear a lot in church at this time of year is “glory”.   It occurs thirteen times in the Bible readings and liturgy for Christmas Eve.  The angels at Bethlehem called out “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace to men of goodwill”.  The opening of John’s gospel that will be read at midnight services around the world tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us; we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

It is easy to talk about glory when we celebrate a miraculous birth. But what did Jesus say about glory as he was about to die? “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (17:1-5).

It may seem counter-intuitive, as does much of Christianity when you think about it carefully, that someone about to be crucified can talk about his death bringing glory.  ‘Glory’ as a concept is closely related to ‘honour’, which itself is something less important in our society than it often was in the past or still is in other cultures.  Someone may be honoured for having an important role in society, or for doing something brave or selfless, or for bringing about justice.  No-one is honoured by receiving a death sentence, are they?  But if you think about it, Jesus’ death was a brave and selfless one as he accepted an unjust death sentence in order to start bringing about God’s rule of justice over the whole earth; and far from being the unimportant radical preacher that the Romans imagined, he gained supreme importance when he was resurrected as the eternal Son of God.

So it is that Jesus could speak of God the Father glorifying (honouring) him in his death, as he had glorified (honoured) the Father in his work on earth.  Understanding that makes it easier to understand why the angels sang of glory at Jesus’ birth, for at that time only they knew what would come of it.

 

The Bible in a Year – 23 December

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23 December. John chapters 13-15

Here we have Jesus’ final speech to his disciples, in the course of which he washes their feet to demonstrate that his way of loving and saving people begins with serving their practical needs.    There is much that could be said about any small part of this important speech, but I will start with one verse – “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (13:20).

It reminds me at this Christmas season of another verse from the beginning of John’s Gospel which is traditionally read on Christmas Eve – “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).  Put the logic of those verses together in the right order, and whoever “receives one whom I send” (any Christian proclaiming Jesus) can “become a child of God”.

What makes Christianity different from many other religions and philosophies is that it is not really about believing certain things about God and the world, and even less about how we behave (although neither of those is unimportant).  Principally, to be a Christian is to receive Jesus, who became flesh for us, in our bodies as well as our minds,  and this is never something done in isolation, it is equally about becoming part of the community of other believers, which started with the eleven faithful disciples at the Last Supper, and now numbers hundreds of millions around the world.

The act of receiving Jesus has variously been expressed in different ways – “inviting Jesus into your life”, “turning to Jesus”, “being born again” (see my blog for 18 December).  It is symbolised in the one-off act of being baptised, and is also part of the repeated symbolism of the Eucharist or Mass, in which some people will share at Christmas if at no other time of year. By eating a piece of the broken and shared bread that represents Jesus’ body offered in sacrifice for us, we become part of the “body” of Christians.  Even if, with most protestant/evangelical Christians, you don’t believe that the bread literally becomes Christ’s flesh, it is still a reminder of that holy and sinless body that first appeared on earth about 2020 years ago in Bethlehem.

This dual emphasis on both the physicality of Jesus’ incarnation and our relationship with him, and on the act of serving others as the proof of sharing in his love, is why at this time of year individual Christians and congregations often make more effort than usual to attend to the needs of those around them.  It might be inviting lonely people for a festive meal, singing carols in care homes, opening the church building as a shelter for homeless people on winter nights, or giving food and clothing through local foodbanks and charities that work with people living in poverty.  Of course people of other religions or none do the same – compassion is a human instinct. But where these acts of charity and compassion are motivated by the love of Jesus, there is also the offer to those being served of becoming part of the Body of Christ themselves.  “whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me”.

The Bible in a Year – 22 December

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22 December.  John chapters 11-12

Chapter 11 records possibly the greatest of Jesus’ miracles – raising Lazarus from the dead.  This, more than anything else, seems to have created an unbridgeable divide between the crowds who believed in him on the basis of the evidence they saw, and the Pharisees and others who stuck to the official line that Jesus could not be a prophet or Messiah because he did not keep all their rules.  Their only reaction is to threaten to kill both Jesus (11:53) and Lazarus  (12:10).

Jesus knows for certain by this time that he did not have long to live.  But had he achieved enough in his lifetime to ensure that his renewal of the Jewish faith would live on?  What persuaded him that he had, according to John, was the arrival of the unnamed Greeks who asked to see Jesus (12:21).  This seems insignificant when he was already very popular, but the point is that these were not Jews, and yet they had made a special trip to see him.  That meant that the message had started filtering out beyond the Jewish community to the wider population of the Roman/Greek empire.  And once the message was out, it could not be stopped by the authorities in Jerusalem. A fire had been lit, and spread to the point where no-one could put it out.

Therefore Jesus tells them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. … it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (12:23-26).  It is one of the marks of a mature person that they do not rate themselves as irreplaceable, that they are willing at the appropriate time to step down and let someone else take over.  Jesus knew that time had come.  Time, in fact, for him to die in order that something different could appear – the Holy Spirit – to take the message onwards and outwards.

The Bible in a Year – 21 December

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21 December. John Chapters 9-10

It is clear from these chapters that Jesus was not worried about causing divisions. In fact he seems to have regarded it as inevitable that his ministry would cause division, attracting some people and making enemies of others.  Many (though not all) of the ordinary people believed in him, because they looked at his “works” (healing, teaching, feeding, showing love and compassion).  Many (though not all) of the religious and political leaders became his enemies because they looked at how his actions fitted into their “laws” – or rather, did not fit.  This is clear from the story of the blind man.  What mattered to him and his friends was that he had been healed, and not surprisingly, worshiped the man who had healed him.  What mattered to the Pharisees was that it had happened on a Sabbath. They would not have been surprised, for Jesus had healed on the Sabbath many times – they just could not get the point that healing should not be counted as “work”.

Laws, whether of religion or state (and in some societies, it amounts to the same thing), are a necessary construct for society to function.  We all need to know what is expected of us.  But no system of laws stays unchanged for ever – both religious and secular law changes in small ways all the time, and occasionally needs major reform.  Like an earthquake zone, frequent small movements cause less damage than rare large ones.  Jesus, when he was in Jerusalem, found himself in a fossilised religious environment that had not changed substantially for centuries – in fact, the layers of interpretation added to the original “laws of Moses” (intended originally for a desert people) had made them almost impossible to change.  Jesus was the earthquake that was about to hit the Jewish religion in a devastating way, and the warning tremors had been happening for some time.  Little wonder that on Good Friday, an earthquake was one of the signs that something very important was happening.

We see the same in the way people come to believe in Jesus today.  He turns no-one away, not even people whose lives are already generally well-adjusted and people-centred.  Such people may find faith in Jesus but their lives do not need to change very much.  On the other hand there are those whose lives are totally broken, whether by disease, stress, guilt,  addiction, or being victims of violence and persecution – or the cause of them.  Such people, if they find Jesus and his accepting love and transforming forgiveness, are (in a very positive way) the ones caught up in an earthquake, as the tension that has built up in their lives is suddenly released.  The metaphor of an earthquake may not be the best one – do tell me if you can think of a better one – but the point is, that whether your need is for another slight change in your life or a desperately overdue major one, Jesus will do it, if you let him.  If you only have eyes to see.

The Bible in a Year – 20 December

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20 December. John chapters 7-8

Finally Jesus returns to Jerusalem where he knows that the authorities are looking for a reason to have him killed.   He does not hide from them but confronts them, and the crowds who are present for a religious festival (presumably the Passover). It seems that he wants to make the maximum impact in the short time left to him, in the hope that a few at least of those who hear his teaching will accept it and continue to spread it after his death and resurrection.

Jesus makes much of his relationship with God (whom he never refers to directly, because of the Jewish taboo against using the name of God) but calls him “the Father” (or “my Father”) or “the one who sent me”.  But he comes pretty close to identifying himself as divine in some of the exchanges in chapter 8: “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (19), “I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (23), “I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence” (38), and finally “before Abraham was, I am” (58).  This last statement angers them enough to threaten him with stoning, for it amounted to blasphemy: not only did Jesus imply that he existed before the start of the Jewish religion (indeed, before all time), but the very phrase “I am” in a religious context was considered to be one of the unutterable names of God.

The thrust of his argument though, is not to set himself up as Lord over the people, rather to urge everyone to regard themselves as children of God, and to be open to the possibility of eternal life.  But it does not work.  When they claim to be children of Abraham and following the law of Moses, Jesus points out that neither Moses nor Abraham would condone killing someone for their beliefs.  When they criticise Jesus healing someone on a Sabbath (yet again), he makes the reasonable point that they themselves consider it acceptable to perform circumcision on a Sabbath – so if that, why not healing? When he offers “the truth that sets people free” (8:32) they simply say that they are not slaves so what would they need to be freed from?  As they say here in Yorkshire, “There’s none so deaf as those who won’t hear”.

To be fair to the Jews of Jesus’ time, though, it has always been the case that when someone comes along as a prophet, revolutionary or radical, the majority of people do not want to believe their message.  We all prefer to stick to the understanding of the world that we have either been taught as children, or discovered for ourselves in youth, or which keeps us in a comfortable stability as adults.   To be challenged about your religious heritage, or set of moral values, or to be told that you are suffering from some deficiency or addiction that you need to be freed from, is uncomfortable at best, maybe even threatening.

The call of Jesus is always to something better, though it may not seem like it at the time.  And the more we understand of it, the more challenging it may be.  Few people in his own time stuck with him through the events of Easter, and few will follow now.  But the call, and the challenge, are always there. In the words of a seasonal carol, “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in”.

The Bible in a Year – 19 December

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19 December. John chapters 5-6

Understanding John’s gospel is not easy: he writes in an oriental style in which many themes are woven together in a way that does not work in English.  Resurrection, faith, the Last Day,  Heaven, eternal life – all these appear in this passage, and each deserves a book in itself.  So I have decided to focus on one verse “no-one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44).

However brilliant Jesus’ teaching may have been, that alone would not have drawn crowds of followers or made committed disciples.  Indeed at the end of this passage, following his very difficult teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (6:66).  Rather, it is a sense of spiritual hunger that draws people to Jesus, then as now.  And hunger is a personal experience. We all know what it is to be hungry in an ordinary sense, but some of us can only guess what it is for others to experience the hunger of strict dieting, lengthy fasting or starvation.

The contemporary Christian writer Tom Wright says that the Father’s drawing of those whom he has given to the Son “takes place in the silent, secret places of the human heart”.  How can one describe a silent experience in words? What does it mean to feel hungry for God, to be aware of being drawn to him?  St Augustine famously wrote of the heart that is restless until it finds its rest in God.  That resonates with my experience.  A continuing sense of “feeling restless for God” sometimes takes the form of being unable to relax, even though there is nothing I could name that is causing me any anxiety or pain.  Once I have spent time in prayer or praising God, then I can relax more easily.

Your own experience of spiritual hunger, of being drawn to God, of having a real need for him, may take a different form.  What matters is that we can feel this spiritual hunger when it comes, recognise it for what it is, and know that God will provide the spiritual food in Jesus to satisfy it.

 

The Bible in a Year -18 December

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18 December. John chapters 3-4

It is often claimed that John 3:16 is the best known verse in the whole Bible – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  I’m not so sure – in a largely secular world where many people only come across the Christian message through Nativity plays and Christmas carols, something like “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7) is probably better known.

Be that as it may, the message in John 3:16 is an important one.  At the core of the Bible story is God’s love for humanity. Love so strong that it endures any number of rejections.  Love so strong that it is willing to put up with pain, humiliation and rejection.  Love so strong that it could go through the apparent finality of death and come out triumphant the other side.  And where Jesus led, entering eternal life, those who follow him can also expect to go. Hence the bit about not perishing.  Yes, we will die physically, but spiritually we can gain this “eternal life” here and now, and know that it will survive death.

That is what Jesus also managed to convey, in a different way, to the Samaritan woman.  Here was someone probably rejected by her neighbours because of her multiple marriages (to have had five husbands and now be living with another man suggests that she was not the innocent party in the failure of all those marriages).   She knew what it was to be thirsty for a stable relationship, for someone to whom she could finally commit herself.  Jesus offered to satisfy that thirst – not with another sexual relationship but with one based on a deeper kind of love, that heavenly love of unquestioning acceptance, long-suffering and unending commitment. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14).

Jesus also tries to explain it to Nicodemus.  He should have known better – Jesus calls him a “teacher of Israel” who knew the scriptures far better than a Samaritan woman.  But Nicodemus does not understand about being “born again”, taking it too literally.  So Jesus puts it another way – “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).  Our physical life come from our earthly parents in the form of a baby’s body, as Nicodemus says, and as the Virgin Mary experienced when Jesus himself was born, but our spiritual life comes from our heavenly parent in the form of a spirit.  And the life of the spirit has to be fed to keep growing in us just as our physical bodies require regular food to grow to adulthood.

So we have different ways of looking at the gift of God’s love – in the physical form of his Son, in a lasting relationship with him that feels like an endless supply of fresh water, or in a spiritual rebirth. All of those came together for Mary as she laid her newborn, special bay in the manger.  She gazed on the very form of God, entering into a lifelong an unique relationship with him as mother, that would lead to the cross and empty tomb. Maybe it was only at that moment that she understood fully the angel’s message at the moment of conception: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”