Advent 1 B

3rd December 2017

The first reading comes from a great cry of lament that has a typical pattern for prayer at the time, and which is still found sometimes in our prayers; first of all God is ‘reminded’ of all that He has done and continues, for the benefit of the petitioner – of the relationship that there is between Himself and us; but then it is a cry of desperation, of feeling let down by a God who doesn’t act as we expect – He is giving us grief; followed by a cry for God to come anew. We think of God as our father and redeemer, but can be too confident about this and reliant on God’s love and forgiveness with the consequence that we encounter difficulties, we actually become hardened in our attitude to religion and to God – God gives us a bad time so we shall be stripped of our complacency and realise our utter dependence on Him. To execute this process seems to have been a task given to Isaiah, called to “make the heart of this people heavy!” (Isaiah 6:10). In the reading we hear that God hardens the people’s heart so that they will lament their situation, realise their wickedness, call on God desperately to bring good times upon them, openly admitting their guilt and the weakness of themselves before God like clay in the hands of a potter. Two and a half thousand years ago when this was written people were not so self-willed and individualistic as we might be today, and they would not have had such a caring and gentle view of God, so they thought of Him as actually hardening their hearts – an image that is strange to us. But now and in Advent we have to change our ways and be ready to help and work for our God, who comes like a weak and helpless babe not bursting into our lives with power and might; our image of God is put on its head! It is not so much that He helps us, but mysteriously, we must help Him.

Paul opens this letter to the Corinthians with a paean of praise for the blessings given them by God in Jesus Christ. This is what we sometimes need to hear, because, not only are we generally wanting to please God, but also He is determined to bring to a successful conclusion to the work of creating and redeeming our world. Paul is a well educated and skilful spiritual leader, and this is a most tactful opening address to those whom he needs to correct in a number of ways throughout this letter. The words can apply to us, when he writes that we are not short of any needful spiritual gifts as we prepare for the advent of Christ. God will surely bring a happy fulfilment to His work with us; but we might think, if Paul was writing to us, what reprimand and criticism would he make after this uplifting introduction.

The gospel reading comes at the end of the only long discourse attributed to Jesus in Mark’s gospel; it is a discourse about the final days before the end, similar to a type of visionary writing of first century alluding to disasters leading up to the day of judgement and followed by a kind of farewell speech expected of important religious leaders. The reading is the concluding exhortation; it is mixed up with allusions to parables that the readers would know, like those inMatthew and Luke about a leader leaving his servants in charge. There is a hint that even if the times seem dark (“at midnight”) they must be ready; for at the time of writing, the Temple has been destroyed and the Romans are becoming suspicious of Christians. At Advent when we are preparing to celebrate the past coming of Jesus with an eye on the final completion of creation, we are reminded to remain faithful and resist the temptation to postpone committing ourselves wholeheartedly to Christ – to Christian living. From the old missal’s Collect prayer for this day comes the phrase ‘Stir Up Sunday’ with its culinary traditions!

see Jeffs Jottings – Yelling kids

Christ the King

David the youngest in the family was out tending the sheep when the prophet Samuel called for him and announced that he was God’s choice to be king. The people lived closer to nature than we do and were familiar with the work of the shepherd, living with and caring for the sheep and leading them to safe and profitable grazing. A king was often likened to a shepherd with responsibility for the care of the people. The prophet Ezekiel draws on this sympathetic imagery when trying to encourage and console the people who were in the difficult situation of exile – some had fled to Egypt but most were in Babylon. So he depicts God as a shepherd caring for them and gathering them together. Yet this great comforting message also has a warning of judgement, for God acts righteously. Throughout their history as a settled nation in Israel some had been rich and materially successful and even now in exile some would become well-off and powerful – sometimes the words for these folk are poorly translated as “the sleek and the strong” or even as “the fat and the healthy.” But there will be judgement as the next verse makes clear; God will be a shepherd but will sort out the good from the bad – the sheep from the goats. The responsorial psalm to this reading is appropriately number 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

The first recipients of this letter were worried about death and about what would happen to those who died before the final coming of Christ as judge, so Paul in this letter addresses this worry. They would know the story of the fall when Adam sinned and so became mortal and due for death. Adam stands for all humanity and we know even now that the only thing certain about our life as humans is that it will end in death. But Christ, Paul is anxious to point out to the Corinthians, brings about a significant change to all of this by his conquest of the finality of death and by having a life that goes beyond death – by His resurrection. And just as Adam’s situation affects all of us, so all are changed by this transcendent life of Christ. All this will be realised at the time of the fulfillment of the kingdom, the end of the world, when all who are in Christ, will become one people in Christ and under God. Let us live as people of Christ, ready for our part in all of this!

This Gospel reading is the last of a series of parables, and is the conclusion of a section about the end of the present age; it is followed by the account of the last Supper and the beginning of the narrative of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. It is a description of the nature of the Last Judgement. This whole section is unique to Matthew’s gospel and somewhat typical of his style and content. It is easily understood as a call to treat others well, especially those in need and this is a very important lesson for us. However what makes this care for others the deciding factor in the final judgement, is the important theological teaching that it holds. Firstly, it is quite explicit that Jesus is the divine king with glory around him, angels below and God as his Father; the Son of Man, the expected Messiah is also called Lord, the name of God. Secondly, all other human beings, particularly the needy, are so intimately involved with the Son of God that any attitude and action towards them is directed also to Christ Himself; in some way He lives in us, who are all needy one way or another. These doctrinal elements in the story are complemented with the Christian code for life; positively this is doing good for others, but the Jewish leaders and authorities would also have noticed the absence of any seeming benefit from all the religious practices and devotions that they supported, taught and enacted. What a lot this has to say to us here and now!

see Jeffs Jottings – Ways of reading the bible

33rd Sunday A

The reading from Proverbs is a surprising choice, though it is a beautiful picture of a wife if we overlook the the servility of the woman that was part of the writer’s culture.  It is a selection of verses from Proverbs chapter 31.  It might remind us of last week’s first reading praising the lady Sophia (meaning wisdom).  In the end we must realise the beauty in any person who loves God and shows care and devotion to others.

The second reading addresses the anxiety the Thessalonians have about the end of the world – many Christians thought that it would be quite soon, but Paul wants to allay their fears – the phrase ‘like a thief in the night’ is just a way of saying that you don’t know when it will come.  If they are good living people they should have nothing to fear.

The Gospel reading takes up the same message about being ready to meet the Lord when that time comes.  It does make the point that we are all different in the talents that we have, but what matters is what we make of what we’ve got – we all must strive to make our own sphere of influence as good at we can.

see Jeffs Jottings – Company

32nd Sunday A

The first reading is from the later Greek writings not in the Hebrew Bible.  It is about wisdom; which is female in the Greek language and also in the English female name ‘Sophie’ which means wisdom.  She is to be loved, cared for, cherished and constantly looked for and looked after – and these words that we read of her, is itself very wise!

The second reading shows us that in the early days of Christianity there was the thought that the complete end of God’s creating would be soon; though this was not to be, the ideas about life in God after death, eventually for us all, is still what Christianity believes and what gives us comfort when friends or family die.

The parable from Matthew that is our gospel reading is also about death – and notice that it is likened to the marital joining of one with the beloved – and that is a beautiful image of death; but we must be ready for it.

see Jeffs Jottings – Not Religiously

all Saints

The first reading is from the Book of Revelations; the writing is to a large extent visionary, utilizing Old Testament interpretations of history, images of heavenly realities and hopes for the future completion of God’s creation. At one point the author dreams of the opening of seven sealed documents about disasters in the history of the world, past, present or future; but just before he reaches the perfect number seven, he inserts the passage from which we read today (from Revelations 7:2 -17). This opens with the suspension of the stormy elements of disaster brought by the four angels, and the signing with a seal for rescue on those to be saved; at first the perfect number of 144,000 is given for the tribes of the chosen people as those to be saved (the mention of each tribe is omitted from the reading), but that is followed by a countless number of every variety of person one might find in the world; all are rescued by the Lamb of God – salvation from the great disaster – for which there is celebratory thanksgiving.

The second reading is from 1 John 3:1-3 (the first of three short letters to Christians in the tradition of John’s Gospel); it seems to be written by one who has an oversight of a number of church communities, and that there are two groups of Christians who interpret things differently and have split from each other. The writer is trying to encourage faithfulness to the early teaching and to the tradition that goes back to Christ himself. But the message of Jesus and the beliefs of Christians were from the start developing to suit differing contexts and to express further reflection on the mysteries of God and Incarnation. It seems that the ‘elder’ writing the letter is upbraiding those whom, he thinks, have taken this development too far, though in exactly what way is not clear. This short passage is stressing the changed relationship that Christians have with God through the reality of the Incarnation; he uses the word ‘children’ to express this though admits the mystery of what this will be in the future when Christ reveals Himself in some fuller way. However he contrasts the Christians with other people (‘the world’) in a way that might shock us nowadays; at least in the Catholic Church for the last 50 years the values of others have been respected: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons [and daughters ed.], that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions… they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them.” (Nostra aetate).

The third reading is Matthew 5:1-12a expresses the qualities, attitudes and actions that we should strive for if we are to be truly happy (be blessed), usually referred to as the beatitudes. Although you might count nine or even ten of them Matthew has put the first eight of them poetically together in a section opening and closing with the same second part of the couplet: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They are drawn to a large extent from thoughts in the Old Testament (Matthew’s Bible). The setting is from a mountain which is a place of special revelation, for example at the transfiguration (chapter 17) and after the resurrection; the disciples are close to Jesus to learn about the new laws for life, just as Moses received the Commandments on mount Sinai; Jesus sits, which is the customary way for a Rabbi to teach; His teaching is to be passed – the last words of Jesus to His disciples in this gospel are a commission to pass His teaching on to others (Matthew 28:16ff). Matthew clarifies what is mean by poor – it is not necessarily those on low income, or beggars, but those living a simple spiritual life free from attachment to earthly goods. Being pure in heart might mean avoiding desires of a sexual or avaricious nature (lust or greed) but the phrase can also mean having a healthy and spiritual vision of what one is to do with one’s life. The rest of the chapter might expand on the beatitudes in the reverse order of the eight.

see Jeffs Jottings – Be an angel

30th Sunday A

The first part of the book of Exodus lives up to the meaning of its title – exodus means going out; it is about the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, the early life of Moses and the miraculous escape from slavery into the desert and on the way to the promised land.  But then we read of the establishment of the covenant between them and Yahweh.  But this is an account put together after much retelling, adaptation and development.  During that time the rules by which the people should live became established and were put together in the form of a book; they originated at the time of Moses and the Book is attributed to him (Exodus 24:1-7).  The first reading for today is taken from this book shortly after the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai; among all the ways that those in covenant with God should live is this definite section about how to treat immigrants – foreigners living in your land.  We notice also the strong image of God as a strict ruler who in anger will deal harshly with those who let him down.  Ideas about God also develop with time.

The second reading, 1 Thess 1:5c-10, follows on from that we had last week from the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians.  Now we hear how this Gentile community of Christians have influenced others in that part of the world.  Paul had preached to them about there being just one God, whereas they were used to a multiplicity of gods in their pagan environment.  He had preached to them about how they should live their lives to please this one God.  And it was quite a development for them to move from polytheism to monotheism and to a belief in a God who cared for them.  Paul himself had developed in his understanding as a Jew to the idea of a God who was there for all peoples.  We detect in this reading two other ideas that were present at that time; the potential wrath of God and the proximity of the final coming of Christ.  Some Christians today still have these ideas, but generally we think of God as a loving father and the end of the world as a distant future fulfillment of Christ in the world.

The gospel, Matthew 22:34-40, does not follow immediately from last week’s reading; in between is something about the Sadducees trying to question Jesus about life after death, for they didn’t believe in resurrection.  Today we read from Matthew how after the Sadducees, the Pharisees come to Jesus.  The story is based on Mark (12:28-34) where a scribe asks what is the most important commandment, and in response to Jesus’ answer tells him he is right.  But in Matthew’s version the encounter is more confrontational; a Pharisee asks the question in order to trap Jesus; for them more than 600 laws in the Bible were all of equal importance.  But the importance for us is Jesus’ reply, namely that loving God and neighbour are the two most important commandments; the first is taken from the succinct and central creed of the Jews in Deuteronomy (6:4-9) and thus avoids the trap posed to him.  However, as thinking develops, nowadays we might think of them as necessary and best practice rather than commandments.  I think, in addition, that we might put the two together and believe that loving others is the way that we love God; and we extend ‘neighbours’ to mean all other people that we encounter or who need our love.

see Jeffs Jottings – Meet God

29th Sunday A

It is a time when the Babylonian empire is coming to an end.  Many Jews are in exile there, bemoaning there lot by the rivers of Babylon (see Psalm 137, made into a song).  But after a generation and a time that somewhat transformed their religion, God will set them free.  The empire is being overtaken by one called Cyrus.  The reading we have today (part of Isaiah 45:1-6) actually mentions this non-Jewish leader by name, thus dating the text to around 530 BC.  The return will be a momentous experience for the chosen people of God.  But as part of the dramatic transformation in their religion at this time, this text has God addressing Cyrus and calling him the anointed one – a phrase that in the original Hebrew is Messiah and in Greek is Christos.  This is a word that we now think of as referring only to Jesus so it also gives us pause for thought.  This may well mean that everyone who is contributing to the world how God wants it, is doing so through the wish and blessing of God.  Maybe Christians, who share this name, should make sure we live up to it.  The text implies that many without claiming to or even recognising any God can nevertheless be doing His will even though unknowingly.  We must ask are we who should know the will of God for us, doing what we should?  [In our present Covid situation you might like to read my (Jeff’s) jotting iseeitmyway.wordpress.com 

The Second Reading is the beginning of the First Letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul, together with Silvanus and Timothy, went initially about 50 AD to this capital city of Macedonia in Greece.  There was a large community of Jews there and for the first few weeks he preached in their synagogue.  But there were a lot of Gentiles who were enthusiastic in other religious cults as well; it was mostly these that came to hear the word preached; they gathered in the house of one called Jason and initiated the Christian community there;  the Jews caused trouble for them and Paul and companions had to leave, according to the account in Acts (17:1-9).  The opening of the letter shows the feelings Paul had for them now that they had formed into a strong community.  Going straight to the important elements of their new found religion, which are also central for us, he notes their faith, their works of charity and the firm confidence – which we often name as faith hope and charity.  Like them we too are chosen for particular roles in the world.

In the gospel extract we read today, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life is now moving towards its completion; it is clear that the Jewish leaders want rid of him, for his way of life is such a challenge to theirs; it also proved almost incomprehensible to his disciples when he tried to explain to them what he foresaw his fate would be (what we read as predictions of his passion).  It is the Pharisees who want to entrap Jesus so as to have a case against him to put to the courts.  They sent their disciples to link up with the enthusiasts for king Herod who ruled under the Roman emperor, with whom they would not want directly to co-operate themselves.  But what they had to say to Jesus, according to Matthew, showed a real grasp of the driving force of Jesus’ life: addressing him as teacher, they said he spoke the truth, the truth about God, and he showed no partiality but rather indifference to people’s opinion of him.  The question is about the legality of paying tax to the Roman emperor; Jesus is a Jew and in an occupied country; Jesus is known to be fearlessly outspoken for what he thinks is right.  This is a good entrapment question for it seems the answer must undermine either the Jewish tradition or the Roman requirements, and whichever way he chooses they have something against Jesus; the coin for this poll-tax attributed divinity to Caesar which a Jew couldn’t agree to, but refusal to pay it would offend those supporting Roman rule.  When we are caught in a dilemma because of our beliefs, we must either walk away or have a very clever answer to the situation as Jesus did.

see Jeffs Jottings – The creator’s problem

28th Sunday A

The first reading is a very upbeat announcement of the good times that the Lord will bring about for all nations.  This is not just about the freedom of the Jews who have been in captivity, but it is a universal message of good times, with plenty of all the fruits of the earth and no fear of troubles.  The destruction of death might be seen by Christians as the announcement of life after death, but when this message was first delivered, probably in the 6th century BC, it meant no more will enemies kill each other.  All these wonderful gifts from God are, however, delivered to all peoples “on this mountain,” a phrase that initially refers to the city of Jerusalem which is centred upon and around a prominent hill in the countryside; though the phrase was used symbolically to refer to all the people of Israel.  So we see in this passage the basis for a future view of what God will do for all people on earth, but with the restriction of it being centred on the people of Israel; it is the vision of a prophet who sees the future darkly, reading it from the worldly state of affairs that he interprets from the standpoint of his assured belief that his is also the god of those who share his faith.  We know ourselves that many of us Christians are caught in similar limitations in our vision of God’s relationship with the whole world and its people.

The Christians of Philippi made up the first community that Paul established about 50 AD in Europe.  Though at first he preached to the Jews, it soon expanded into a mostly Gentile Christian church.  They had on several occasions sent funds to him during his further missionary activities, and there was a caring friendship between him and them.  The letter to the Philippians that is in the New Testament is most likely a conflation of extracts from several (maybe three) letters that he wrote to them at different times and about different matters.  The resulting letter that we have comprises different sections with different tones and we can detect a number of different apparent endings in the last chapter.  The two passages we have as our second reading today, are from one of these endings (verses 12-14 and 19-20).  They reflect a situation where Paul has received more financial support from them brought to him by a respected member of the community named Epaphroditus; but while thanking them, he indicates that he can manage, for he has experienced both sufficiency and hardship, but has always been supported by God.  He wants them to know also that God will see that they are all right (as He does us), and he gives glory to God for this – as we should.

The parable in today’s reading, seems to be drawn from a source used also by Luke, and even in a writing not in the New Testament, the Gospel of Thomas; the source is often referred to as Q (which is just short for the German ‘quelle’ meaning source).  Matthew has altered the parable to have a somewhat different meaning that is more in line with his way of thinking.  It is addressed specially to the priests and the Pharisees.  The story is about a king putting on a banquet for his son; the invitations are rebuffed and the carriers of them ill-treated (even killed), so the king has his vengeance on them destroying their city.  And then the commoners are invited and respond gratefully, yet some of them are ill-prepared and get thrown out (to hell).  This is about God trying to win over the people (the Jews) with prophets and preachers, but they were not heeded at all.  It is about the disasters that have befallen them – even the destruction of the Temple which happened in 70 AD by the Romans.  It is about the Gentiles being invited, like the Christian communities open to all people.  But finally it is about the need to repent sin and put on the new Christian way of life (like a garment) even if you are part of the community, else it will not go well with you.

see Jeffs Jottings – St Cardinal Newman

27th Sunday A

In the first reading we have a very good illustration of a successful approach to delivering bad news when you are a prophet and that is your job.  The book of Isaiah has been heavily edited, and our reading from chapter 5 is very likely the first public appearance of the prophet.  If you want the crowd to listen to you, you don’t want to be known as a prophet of doom.  So Isaiah draws a crowd by saying he is going to sing a song, like a street busker setting up his spot.  It’s a song, he says, about his friend; it’s told as though it is about a man setting up a new vineyard, but it is really about unrequited love.  He did everything one should for the vineyard to be successful, but it just produced (literally) stinking grapes.  The friend then questions the crowd: “is there anything more I could have done?”  And he tells them he is going to completely wreck the area and make it a wasteland.  Then, when the crowd has grown and is listening intently, like a punch-line the prophet announces: “this song is about the Lord and you Israel!”  The image of the vineyard became quite popular in the sayings of prophets and even among the people themselves; one of their hymns is the psalm that follows the reading for today.

The second reading is part of a final summing up of Paul’s wishes for the Christian community at Philippi.  He himself is in a difficult situation in prison with an uncertain future;  also there are some difficulties in the Christian community he is writing to; in the few verses before our reading Paul asks the church leaders there to help two females to make peace between themselves.  He wants them to be at peace and tells them how to move towards it; “the peace of God” is a phrase that surprisingly only occurs here in the whole of the Bible (the name for such a single occurrence is hapax legomenon).  There has also been a problem in Philippi with some Christians disdaining non-Jewish and pagan (secular) values for living.  Paul, of course, as a Roman citizen, has had a good Roman as well as a Jewish education; and his attitude to non-Jews shows in the list of the six attitudes he recommends, all of which are those of contemporary philosophy (mostly Stoic).  Many of the values that others hold, we would do well to aim for ourselves!  Put this into practice and you will have peace; it is indeed the very peace that God Himself has, and that is why it is beyond human understanding and our unaided ability.

A parable is a story with a strong and telling overall meaning; there are many stories from Jesus in the Gospels that draw on the experiences of the listeners, but some of them are allegories rather than parables; an allegory is a story in which the people (or other elements) refer to people or things in the real world and often to the listeners themselves.  The well-known Jewish story of the vineyard has additional bits added to it in Matthew’s gospel which we read today.  The owner hands over the care of the crop and the business to tenants, but they are negligent and reject those servants sent by the master to see how they are progressing.  It is an allegory about the rulers and priests responsible for the good of the people; the servants are the prophets sent by God and finally His own Son.  It is difficult for us to hear this allegory, because the temptation is to relate the wicked tenants to our leaders, especially the ones in our worldwide church.  Accusing others in this way might make us feel we are in the right, and then the story just inflates our pride and encourages our condemnation of others.  Yet we too have responsibilities from God, and there are people who try to keep us on track whom we disregard.  The allegory must be about us else it does no good at all for us to read or hear it when it should be challenging us to improve ourselves, that’s what today’s sermon should do.

see Jeffs Jottings – Development of Christianity

26th Sunday A

Reading Ezekiel we must remember that the Jews believed that they were the chosen people of the one and only God, Yahweh; they had laws and rules to live by and a covenant which they often thought of as ‘if we keep your laws, God, you will see that we prosper.’ Yet this arrangement didn’t seem to be working out in their history, especially when they were being taken over by a neighbouring empire. So much so that they began to think that they were being punished by God or even would die because of the sins of their ancestors; indeed they attributed all the difficulties and hardships of life to the original disobedience of the first humans (Genesis 3), and they had a saying: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Ezekiel was trying to replace this idea with the fairness and mercy of God. Not only was God punishing the wrongdoer for his own sins and blessing the good, but saying that there would be forgiveness and blessing if the sinner repented and turned away from sin.

In today’s second reading we have Paul’s full introduction to the quoted hymn included in the longer reading which was used for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Paul expresses his deep concern for the Christian community in Rome. He wants there to be no disagreements among themselves, this is what would please him most; and writing this confirms our view that there were some problems in the community in Rome. But he places before them a huge challenge; huge, but just the challenge of acting in a genuine Christian way. It is this that we should feel addressed to ourselves as we are presented with his words – treat others as more important than yourselves! After such an introduction the example of Christ’s life is drawn to our attention with the famous hymn of Jesus’ self-sacrifice for us and his elevation to be glorified by all.

The gospel gives us another radical message like ‘the last shall be first and the first last,’ presenting fearfully the contrast between those despised in society and the upright important citizens. For us it might seem slightly less radical if we are not important citizens of society, for the present passage is addressed not to all but to the chief priests and elders of the community – those who consider themselves to be worthy of God’s reward. However, we faithful, can easily come to believe that we are worthy of some reward from God, for we can reckon that we are living the way God would want us to. Jesus’ parable of the two sons, tells of the one who says ‘yes’ to the master’s request, but doesn’t follow this through in practice and vice versa. But we should know from the second reading that God’s challenge to us is to do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory; but to regard all others as more important than ourselves. it would surely be a lie if any one of us felt, yes, this is what I am doing with my life. Better to admit our failures but still try our best, like the second son in the parable, to say we wont, but then really do our very best to please God

see Jeffs Jottings – Demonstration is better than instructions