The Bible in a Year – 13 November

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

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 – 26 August

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

Introductory notes to Esther

The book of Esther in the ‘standard’ Bible, i.e. the one generally read by the Protestant church, consists of ten chapters.  It is in fact an abridged version of the full story as found in the Greek (Septuagint) Bible still used by the Catholic Church and which consists of 16 chapters. However scholarship has shown that these are out of order.

 I am commenting on the fuller text as set out in the Revised Standard Version Common Bible (Collins edition, 1973), which sets these 16 chapters out in a sequence that tells the story of Esther in its natural order. This is why the chapter numbers may appear in my comments to be out of order.  I hope that makes sense.  In this version, the name of the King is Ahasuerus.  In other translations this Babylonian name is rendered Xerxes (don’t ask me why!)

26 August. Esther chapters 4-6

The story of Esther, Mordecai and Haman continues to unfold. Yesterday’s cliff-hanger left us fearing for the future of the Jewish people who were about to be exterminated throughout the Babylonian empire.  Now, Mordecai whose refusal to bow to Haman was the cause of the plot turns to fasting and prayer, and persuades Esther to do the same.

The additional chapters 13 and 14 in the full text give us the words of their prayers to God.  Chapter 15 then elaborates on the meeting between Esther and her husband King Ahasuerus in chapter 5 of the abridged version.

These additional chapters show Esther’s true character. She, the queen, is not only willing to fast for the sake of her people, but goes beyond the usual sackcloth and ashes by covering her head in dung (of which animal is not specified). She claims that wearing a royal crown is so awful that she considers it ‘like a menstrual rag’.  She also shows remarkable cunning in the way she approaches the king: she pretends to faint in fear to win his sympathy, and does not tell him at once about Haman’s plot, but invites the king and Haman to banquets on two successive nights.

In between the two banquets, Haman’s pride sets him up for a fall as he has a gallows built for Mordecai to be hung from. But before the second night, the king discovers Mordecai’s previous act of courage in foiling a plot against the king, and decides to honour Mordecai even above Haman, who then has to bear the humiliation of leading Mordecai round the city and praising him.

What is to be learnt from this? One phrase from this book that is often quoted to show the way God works through individuals is this: “who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14) – in other words, God plants people in particular places or roles at particular times so that their experience and gifts may be used for the benefit of others.

Also, chapters 13 and 14 are model forms of intercession: praising God, remembering his mercies in past times, bringing the current need before him, calling on God to act, and finally explaining the benefits not only to the intercessor but the God himself if the prayer is answered. Anglican collects (public prayers for the day or for a particular circumstance) still follow the same sort of pattern, in abbreviated form.

The Bible in a Year – 2 March

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

2 March. Deuteronomy chapters 8-10

Again (see yesterday’s reading ) we see the origins of the discipline of Lent, both in the reminder that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3, as quoted by Jesus to the Devil) and also in Moses’ reminder that the twice spent forty days and nights fasting and praying, first to reach a level of enlightenment in which he could know God ‘face to face’ and receive the commandments, and again in prayer for God’s people in their disobedience.  Jesus likewise spent 40 days and nights fasting in the desert as he wrestled with temptation before starting his ministry of teaching and healing.


It is a biblical pattern that God calls, people hear, but before they can fully and effectively do God’s work they must receive what the Church calls ‘ministerial and spiritual formation’ – reaching a deeper understanding of God, his teaching through the Bible, and one’s relationships with other people.  Most of us though, take a lifetime of training and experience to achieve this, if at all, rather than the ”crash course” that Moses, Jesus and also St Paul took.




The Bible in a Year – 6 February

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

6 February. Leviticus chapters 16-18

The day of atonement (Yom Kippur) was originated in this desert period and is still observed by Jews to this day as a day of fasting, prayer and confession of sin.  For those not part of a religious tradition such practices may seem strange, but to those who do belong to such a tradition, they are essential elements of it, although various religions express them differently.  For Christians, the fasting element is generally less important than it is for Jews and muslims, although many Christians do observe some kind of fasting during the period of Lent (40 days before Easter).  Confession, though, is still important, for although we believe that Christ died “once for all for the forgiveness of sin” thereby putting to an end the need for any animal sacrifice, as individuals we do still keep turning away from God and need to come back to him to renew our relationship by recalling his loving mercy and seeking his pardon.