The Bible in a Year – 24 November

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24 November. Luke chapters 23-24

And so we come to the end of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, with the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. He also starts here, with the appearance of Jesus p the Emmaus Road, his account of the beginnings of the Christian church. It ends with Jesus instructing the disciples to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations” (24:27), a task which Luke’s second volume (Acts of the Apostles) records.

From all this, the heart of the Christian Gospel, I will take the references to Christ as King, for that is the focus of Catholic and Anglican worship  this Sunday (the 5th Sunday before Christmas) .

First, the Jewish “assembly” takes Jesus before Pontius Pilate and lays charges against him, including that of claiming to be a king. Pilate asks for Jesus to respond to this charge, and Jesus says “you say so”, perhaps meaning, “if you are prepared to believe that I am a king as these people say, then I am”.  But Pilate does not consider any of the charges against Jesus to merit a death sentence, only a flogging.

Then, on the cross, the Roman soldiers also mock him “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:27). Maybe they were the same people who had mocked him in the same way with a purple robe at his trial.  And finally, there was an inscription over him, attributed in John’s gospel to Pilate, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

It seems that this was the most controversial title for Jesus in his day.  The Jewish people had not had a king of their own since before the Exile over 500 years earlier, and the Roman Emperor represented by the governor was the head of state in his day.  It does not seem from the Gospel stories that Jesus went about calling himself King: it was a title possibly given to him by his followers out of admiration, but mainly as a controversial political claim by his enemies in order to try and provoke Pilate or Herod to try him for treason.  The fact that neither of them did so shows that they did not consider him a political threat.

In Luke’s account of the Emmaus road and the subsequent appearance to all the apostles, Jesus still does not use this title about himself, preferring “Messiah” (although as that means ‘the anointed one’ it carries much the same meaning). Christians do call Jesus the King, though – but not “King of the Jews” for we believe his reign is over not just the Jewish people or the state of Israel, but all of creation.  Jesus’s kingship really only started with the Resurrection.    When we celebrate Christ the King and then move into Advent, we remember not only the fact that he reigns invisibly on earth now, but also the centuries of waiting that preceded his coming, and the faith that he will come again in visible form to take up his rightful place among us.

The Bible in a Year – 23 November

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23 November. Luke chapters 21-22

The best known Christian prayer is, of course the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father.   It does not appear in these chapters as such, but one of its phrases does.  The one that in the traditional English translation reads “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” and is rendered in Scottish English as “do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from evil”.   I prefer that version and use it in my own prayer times.

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials”, Jesus tells his disciples (22:28). Twice, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells them “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’” (22:40, 46)   And before that, in the Temple, after predicting the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish way of life, he tells them “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place” (21:36).

The “times of trial” that Jesus foresaw were many and varied.  From mocking and slander, to discrimination and prejudice, to persecution and martyrdom, his true followers would never have an easy life. For the people of Jerusalem as a whole, he predicted warfare, siege, looting, and fleeing in haste as refugees, never to return.  More than that, he foresaw the eventual end of human civilisation following a time of natural disaster and warfare as nation fights against nation.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether any of the signs of the last days are being fulfilled in our time – people have thought so before and been proved wrong – what Jesus is asking of his disciples is a commitment to follow him through these times of trial, whatever happens. They may face poverty – but he sent them out with no money before, and they were fine (22:35). They may be tempted to deny Jesus, as Peter was – and gave in – but for those who repent there is always forgiveness. They would face evil in the form of foreign armies, homelessness (with all the disease and despair associated with refugee camps) and for some, the lions of the Roman amphitheatre.  But Jesus promised to be with them in all of this. Elsewhere he explains that the words would be given to people at the right time by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

For Judas, there was to be no repentance.  He was tempted by the love of money to betray his master, and ended his own life rather than face the consequences. Don’t be like him – pray for the strength to resist temptation, stand up to evil, and turn back when you fail (22:31).

The Bible in a Year – 22 November

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22 November. Luke chapters 19-20

This is the turning point in Luke’s story of the life of Jesus – what is called the Triumphal Entry.  Every year on Palm Sunday, churches re-enact his ride into Jerusalem on a young donkey, with crowds cheering him on with shouts of “Hosanna!” (“Please save us!”). We even keep small crosses made of palm leaves to remind us for the rest of the year both of his joyful entry to the holy city, and also his crucifixion a few days later.

After entering the city, Jesus goes straight to the temple (did he ride the donkey into it? – we don’t know) and begins to drive out “those who were selling things there” (other gospel writers say it was the money changers – probably both).   He was angry with them for turning what was supposed to be a “house of prayer” into a commercial enterprise.   This passage is sometimes used to criticise those cathedrals that charge an entry fee, although I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, as the cathedral chapter is only trying to cover its running costs from visitors who otherwise might not make a donation at all.

So we have Jesus being acclaimed by the crowd in great joy, then maybe an hour later angrily confronting the temple merchants.  What made him change his mood so swiftly?

In between these two passages are a few verses that get less attention in Holy Week observances.  “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (19:41-44).

It seems that as he approached the city walls, he was given a prophetic insight into the spiritual truth behind the immediate events around him.  He saw the Roman army marching against the city, laying siege, conquering, looting and setting fire to it.  His own act of driving profiteering merchants from the temple court was nothing to the sacking of the city that the Romans would accomplish a generation later, driving all the Jewish people from the city. It would be nearly 2000 years before the city was once again the City of David, and even then the temple site would be in the control of others.

Jesus also understood that this would happen because his own people had rejected him, rejected his peaceful path, passed up an opportunity to turn back to God.  Instead their desire for independence and their love of money and power would lead to their destruction, where he offered salvation.  No wonder he wept.

Probably only those closest to Jesus in the crowd noticed his weeping, as the praise continued around him. Sometimes we find our own emotions at odds with the people around, when we are aware of circumstances beyond the immediate events that give us concern. We might wish that those who are rejoicing at some trivial matter would share our understanding that there are deeper and graver issues at stake.  But like Jesus, we find ourselves alone.  In such circumstances, take heart, for he is with you, and he understands.  Jesus weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn.

The Bible in a Year – 21 November

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21 November. Luke chapters 17-18

People are always fascinated by the idea of the Apocalypse.  Or something like it.  A time when human society with its conflicts between good and evil, with all its joys and sufferings, will be transformed into something vastly different, and usually better (at least for “good” people).  It is a desire born of the frustration that even the best human leaders are far from perfect, and even the best systems of government leave many injustices unrighted.

There has rarely been a time in human history without at least one person who claims either to be the key figure in that transformation – the Messiah, the final prophet, the enlightened one, the immortal one – or at least to know exactly when that day will come.   The fact that no-one who has predicted the date of the Apocalypse has (yet!) been right, and that no-one other than Jesus has ever lived up to claims of immortality, does not stop many people from believing the next man who comes along with such a claim (and it does always seem to be a man).

In Jesus’ day there seem to have been lots of self-proclaimed messiah figures and prophets.  John the Baptist had been the most recent, and in Jesus’ estimation, the greatest, because he called people not to “get rich quick” but to a simple life and to repentance.  But John himself had been quick to point to Jesus as “the One who was to come”.

So it was, that people were asking Jesus such questions.  In chapter 17 it was the Pharisees. Their question was phrased as “when [is] the kingdom of God coming?”   Jesus told them that “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed … the kingdom of God is among you.” It sounds as if they have missed out on its coming.  But a few verses later Jesus describes what was clearly to be a future event, as unmissable as when “the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other”, which he calls ‘the day of the Son of Man’.

Are those answers contradictory?  No.  Jesus is talking about two things.  For him, “the Kingdom of God” meant any situation in which God’s will was truly done, as he was doing it.  His disciples, indeed anyone who tried then or tries now to follow him, would be able to experience something of the Kingdom.  “The day of the Son of Man”, as he described it, was something else, and closer to what the Pharisees had in mind – the time when God’s rule on earth would overthrow imperfect human rule.  But he warns that it would not be something for most people to look forward to.  It would be as catastrophic as Noah’s flood, he says, or the destruction of Sodom – both of which were seen as God’s punishment of human sin and evil.

“One will be taken and another left” on the day of the Son of Man. It is not clear whether that means the righteous would be taken away to heaven and the unrighteous left to suffer destruction, or the righteous would be left to enjoy life on earth while the unrighteous are carted off to hell.  It probably does not matter, for apocalyptic language like this is not intended to be taken literally.

What does matter is that we learn from the parables that follow in chapter 18. We should be like the widow who never ceases asking God for justice, like the tax-collector who continually seeks God’s mercy, like Simon Peter who was willing to leave his wife, home ad business to follow Jesus, and like the blind beggar who asked Jesus to make him see – metaphorically, to see the Kingdom of God that is already all around us, if only we will look with the eyes of faith.

 

The Bible in a Year – 20 November

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20 November. Luke chapters 14-16

The first ten verses of chapter 15 comprise the two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  They go together, two ways of making the same point, which is: “there is joy in heaven over one person who repents”.  Why does Jesus make this point about joy?  Because the “scribes and Pharisees” – those full-time theologians who became the bane of his life – were grumbling again.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.

What was the motivation of the Pharisees for their grumbling? I think it was jealousy, for they saw people coming to Jesus, finding forgiveness, and responding joyfully.  They themselves, caught up as they were in their own detailed commentaries and interpretations of Jewish law, had no time for joy.  Joy, in the sense that Christians use the term, is not physical pleasure but the deep contentment and happiness of a fulfilled life, something that God always intended for us.  It’s easy to lose that sense of joy in the busyness and troubles of this life.  Sin, self-centredness and materialism (all of which characterised the Pharisees) work against a joy-filled life. But Jesus saw it as part of his mission to restore it.  In John’s Gospel he says, “I speak these things so they may have my joy made complete in themselves” [John 17:13].

There’s nothing like a sense of guilt for making people joyless, and nothing like having that guilt removed for restoring joy. That is why repentance is more than merely praying for forgiveness.  Saint Paul experienced this, as he writes to Timothy.  He may not be using the word “joy”, but “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:14) surely describes such joy.  This “joy in the Lord” comes when someone experiences, as Paul did, the assurance of forgiveness and being made at one with God.

Looking again at the second of Jesus’ short parables, the lost coin, he is describing the joy, the relief, of finding something that we knew all along was missing.  The coin was not additional income, but something that already belonged to the woman.  In the same way, repenting and finding peace with God through Christ is restoring a relationship that we all should have had in the first place.

For that reason, it’s more than just a matter for the individual.  Christianity is never a closed shop, our mission is always to help people see what they are missing and find it.  The shepherd, or the housewife, in the parables represents not only Jesus, but each one of us. Jesus says there is “joy in heaven”, or “joy in the presence of the angels of God”, over one sinner who repents.  It is a matter of rejoicing for the whole Christian community when another person understands what Christ has done for him or her, and turns to him.

How might we express joy when we see someone coming to faith?  The charity “Christians Against Poverty” work with churches throughout the country to offer debt counselling.  Each local church is encouraged to celebrate when someone is set free from debt, after the counsellor has negotiated cancellation of some of their debts and a repayment plan for the rest that they can afford.  But more than that, along with debt counselling, CAP advisers take any opportunity they can to share their faith and tell people of Jesus who can set them free from sin as well as financial debt.  In CAP head office in Bradford there is a bell, and that bell is rung whenever it is reported by a local church that one of their clients has decided to become a Christian.

Have you found a lost sheep recently?  Helped another person along the way back to God?  Or experienced joy when he found you? Then meet up with with other Christians and rejoice together.

Extracts from a sermon for Holy Trinity, North Greenwich, 15 September 2013

The Bible in a Year – 19 November

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19 November. Luke chapters 12-13

Today’s passage starts with what sounds like a stark warning from Jesus. “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (12:2-3)

This is one of those verses that makes me feel uncomfortable.  As the old cinema adage has it, “be afraid, be very afraid!”  Not because I have some terrible crime to hide that would have me sent to prison if found out, but because like most people there are things that I say or do “in secret” that would be embarrassing or compromising if said in public.  You will know what your own secrets are and it is not for me to enquire about them.

But as someone said to me this morning, one test of someone’s integrity is their reaction to a note slipped to them that simply reads: “Flee! All is known!”  Just witness the shock that goes round a place of work, or a church, when someone everybody thought was trustworthy turns out to have been defrauding the organisation, or giving away industrial secrets, or abusing their position of power to sexually harass younger or less influential members of the organisation.

Jesus might have been warning about this sort of public disclosure, things that would be made public in the lifetime of his hearers, that would make people’s life difficult.  But it is more often interpreted as referring to the last judgement, that unknown day on which everyone’s deeds will be weighed in God’s balance.   The Biblical image of the day of judgement is often a very public one, in which the souls of all who have ever lived will be gathered together or the truth to be revealed.  And like one of Hercule Poirot’s denouements, what is revealed may surprise everyone gathered.   On that day, those people who might have been held up as paragons of virtue in their lifetime might be revealed as the worst of sinners – but the opposite might also apply, that those vilified in their lifetime may turn out to have repented and to have done good deeds that outweigh the bad.

But what if Jesus was talking about a different type of disclosure?  What if his words were addressed not to those who have something shameful to hide, but to his disciples who at that time (and certainly immediately after his death) were frightened to share the “good news”?   Maybe he is saying to those who would hide in their rooms for fear of their persecutors in the early days of the Church that there would come a time when it is the glorious Gospel of Christ that is “heard in the light”, and the stories of his faithful followers that are “proclaimed from the housetops”?

For that is the alternative understanding of the day of judgement that Jesus brought.  Not an occasion of weighing good deeds against bad and hoping that the former will be judged greater, but one of vindicating all those who have been oppressed for doing the will of God, of raising up those whose acts of love and mercy were done in secret and lifting them high as victors for Christ.

So if “what you have said in the dark and what you have whispered behind closed doors” refers to the unknown ways in which you have spoken to other people of your faith, the times you have said a kind word to someone in distress, the prayers you have offered in private for individuals or groups of people, then be encouraged, be very encouraged.

 

The Bible in a Year – 18 November

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18 November. Luke chapters 10-11

When people ask for a “sign” to prove that Jesus was truly the Son of God, he refers them to the story of Jonah.  Why Jonah?  He shares some things in common with Jesus: perhaps most obviously in the storytelling, as Jonah slept in the boat, a great storm blew up and his fellow passengers woke him, believing that he could calm the storm, just as Jesus did.  But Jonah was not the Messiah, in fact we are told that he was sinning by running away from God, and far from being able to calm the storm, only by being thrown overboard, apparently to certain death, could it be abated.  So when Jesus calmed the storm with a single word, he was reckoning himself greater than a prophet.

That explains Jesus’ next comment, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (11:32). How else was Jesus greater?  Well he rose from the dead.  Jonah was in the darkness of the fish until the third day when it miraculously spewed him up, alive and unharmed, on dry land.  Likewise Jesus lay dead in the tomb until the third day, but he was resurrected.

Jonah was very unlike Jesus, though, in one respect. He loved the idea of preaching doom to the people of Nineveh but hated it when they obeyed the message and repented, and God spared them from destruction.  Jesus on the other hand wept over those who refused his message of salvation, and told of the joy there would be in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Which are you?  A Jonah who loves bringing bad news, or like Jesus, one who delights in bringing good news?

The Bible in a Year – 17 November

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17 November. Luke chapter 8-9

These chapters are “bitty” – they consist of about twenty short anecdotes or recollections of the words and works of Jesus in different places. I can however see a common theme in five of them:

In explaining the parable of the sower, Jesus says “The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (8:11-12).

In sending out his twelve closest disciples, Jesus tells them among other instructions, “Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them’” (9:5).

Likewise, when the inhabitants of a Samaritan village refused to accept him, Jesus criticised his disciples for praying against those people, but merely moved on to the next village (9:53-56).

In speaking of those who feel unable to “carry the cross” (I.e. to experience rejection or hardship of any kind because they follow him), he says “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (9:25).

Finally, when people made excuses for not following him (such as being recently bereaved, or having family ties that they were reluctant to break) he said “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).

What all these have in common is that not everyone who saw Jesus perform miracles and heard his incomparable teaching about the meaning of life actually believed in or followed him.  Some turned away, some were indifferent and some actively opposed him.

So it is not surprising that the same is true today.   Seeking new disciples (witnessing, evangelism, nurture, outreach, mission  – whatever you call it) will always be disappointing if we expect instant results.   The majority of people will always either fail to understand the Gospel message, or  be too busy with other things to really engage with it, or may even feel threatened by it and reject it (and thereby reject Jesus himself).

Jesus’ reaction to that seems to along the lines of “keep calm and carry on” – if one village rejects you, try another.   If one person doesn’t engage with what you are trying to tell them, speak to someone else. The fault is theirs, not yours, and it is for God to decide, ultimately, whether they have chosen to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Bible in a Year – 16 November

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16 November. Luke chapters 6-7

This section of the Gospel begins and ends with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, in different ways.  The Pharisees seem to get a bad press in all the versions of the Gospel, because after all they were observant Jews who thought they were doing their best for God by following all the rituals and laws of the religion.  Sometimes Jesus confronts them angrily, but in these exchanges we see him taking a gentler line, just trying to get them to understand faith his way.

In chapter 6, the issue is, not for the first time, what constitutes “Sabbath work”.  To the Pharisees, it seems that any preparation of food, even the simple act of picking grains and removing the husks, and any form of healing, counted as “work” and therefore sinful if undertaken on the “day of rest”.  Jesus contests that preparing a small amount of food because you are hungry is not “work”, and neither is helping someone in need as an act of charity. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, he says, in other words, “I can determine what the Sabbath regulations mean in practice”.  He had a right to say that, if we accept his divinity; but even if not, the point is more generally valid that religious rules are intended to be interpreted according to the situation at hand – that was how the rabbis understood the Law.

In chapter 7, the Pharisee in question is one Simon who thinks Jesus is sinning by letting himself be touched by a “sinner” without looking into the details of her circumstances. Jesus’ understanding is quite different – he looks not at the fact of what she is doing, but why; and not at what she had done in the past but what she is doing now.  Her weeping shows that she has repented of whatever her sin may have been (possibly prostitution, although we don’t know – the woman’s “sin” may have been something else.)   Washing and anointing his feet with ointment is a sign of tribute to him, where the Pharisee refused Jesus even the expected courtesies of a social kiss and a bowl of water to wash his dusty feet.

When Jesus talks about faith, whether it is the faith of the woman who is brave (or desperate) enough to enter a rich man’s house weeping and interrupt the dinner party with her acts of love and kindness, or the centurion in chapter 6 who accepts Jesus’ authority over sickness as equivalent to his own military authority over his cohort, he means the sort of trust in God that breaks down social barriers and expects unusual things to happen for the common good. That is very different from the Pharisaic “faith” that is based on creeds and regulations.   The second type is easier to fall into than the first, but far less effective in encountering the living God.

 

The Bible in a Year – 15 November

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15 November. Luke chapters 4-5

Each of the Gospel writers has different emphases.  Luke was a physician and so it is not surprising that he focuses on the healing miracles of Jesus. But he focuses on other things too.  Unlike Matthew and Mark who suggest that Jesus went straight into a preaching ministry after his baptism, Luke shows Jesus preaching in the synagogues after his baptism (and after the desert temptations).  Only when he is asked to preach on the text from Isaiah about the good news being shown by good deeds does he begin to heal (4:14-19). Even then, “making the blind see” is one of only three signs of the Gospel in that passage, the other being releasing captives and freeing the oppressed.  So for Luke, physical healing from illness or disability was only one aspect of the wholeness that Jesus brought: a right understanding of God and his laws, and freedom from being put down in any way by other people, were at least as important.

Another difference is that Luke has a particular interest in demons and devils.  This is shown in chapter 4 not only in his own desert temptations, but in the demon at Capernaum (34), and the many in Nazareth (41), that recognised him as the “Holy one of God”.  It seems that Jesus knew he had to fight the devil, but wanted to put off that moment as long as necessary.  By resisting the three temptations of working miracles, seeking earthly power and putting God to the test, he made the devil go away “until an opportune time” – which might be seen as the attempt by the men of Nazareth to kill him not long afterwards (29), or as the plots of the Pharisees and the betrayal of Judas that led to his crucifixion three years later.  In between those times, Jesus seems to have been untroubled by demonic activity himself.  Apart from the very few people who genuinely suffer demon possession, for most of us the devil tempts us from time to time, but he does not stick around for long if we don’t take his bait. “Resist the devil and he will flee” (James 4:7).

Finally, I would just like to share an unrelated thought that just came to me as I read about the calling of Levi (5:27-28): “After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.”

What happened to Levi’s money?  This money-obsessed man had been sitting at his booth all day raking in the taxes (some of which he would have kept for himself) then accepted Jesus’ call to follow him, and without further ado walked away.  The people around must have wondered when he was going back, but when they realised he was not returning, surely they would have rejoiced and reclaimed the piles of cash for themselves?  When Jesus calls someone to follow him, it is others who benefit.