From the last verse of the first reading (Isaiah 35:1-6a,10) it seems clear that this passage is referring to the return from exile in Babylon. We have to realise the symbolic significance of the desert; we still use the word today in our language and culture for a situation or a time of apparent hopelessness – when our world seems ‘barren’ (a similar word to desert). In the history of the Jews it begins with their escape from Egypt and their difficulties for a whole generation (as the story implies) of wandering in the desert – where God through Moses has led them. The period of exile in Babylon was a similar set-back for them as a nation but with a feeling of abandonment by God. So when the return to their own land is described it is envisioned as the blossoming of the desert. After the centuries of the editing of this book of Isaiah, we can only assume that our passage originated as a word of hope (perhaps when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, with his policy of repatriation). The figurative blossoming of the desert is followed with the hope of miraculous cure for disadvantaged individuals. But then, as now for us, it is a poem of the wonderful and good things that God does and will do – an appropriate reading in preparation for celebrating the birth of Christ and all that means for us.
In the second reading (James 5:7-10) we have a letter that has not always been easily accepted as of much value. It seems to be one of those books of which there were many in those days, that was attributed to a prestigious person so as to give it more weight and authority. There are a number of men called James in the early years of Christianity, the most famous being the “brother of the Lord” (could be an actual brother of just a close relative). But the contents of the book seem to be from and for the Jewish community of the Diaspora, i.e. those living away from their ethnic homeland. The image of desert which we had in the first reading is replaced by that of farming. But the overall message is appropriate for us during advent: we must be patient but while waiting must be improving the way we live, particularly in our relationships with each other.
The gospel reading begins a new attitude in Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus (chapter 11:2-11). The public life of Jesus has been progressing successfully and miracles have been performed, but now begins a more questioning and antagonistic phase of Jesus’ life. To introduce this, John the Baptist who still has some disciples though he is imprisoned by Herod Antipas, sends his disciples, with whom he still has contact, to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. John has preached that a greater one than himself is coming and he has baptised Jesus but the revelation at that time from God saying “This is my beloved son” doesn’t seem to have registered with John according to Matthew’s gospel. In addition, in our passage Jesus doesn’t exactly reply with a straightforward acceptance of the title Messiah (the Hebrew for the Greek word Christ); it is likely that Matthew wants to leave this definite recognition for Peter, whom Matthew sees as the leader of the early Christian community. So instead Jesus says, look at the evidence of the miracles you have witnessed. The list of miracles is drawn from the Old Testament (Isaiah 29:18, 61:1 and others) but mostly from the passage we had in our first reading. Then Jesus speaks about the Baptist; when crowds went out into the desert to hear him, they didn’t find a fickle person changing his attitude according to outside pressure like a reed in the wind; and they didn’t find someone elated by the popularity they had like any court official in fine clothes. But they looked for and found a prophet – and Matthew now uses the passage used of John at the beginning of Mark’s gospel – more than a prophet, the one spoken of as my messenger making a way ahead (a quote related to Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1)
See Jeffs Jottings – Vagaries
Back in the 8th century BC this first reading is for Isaiah a vision and a hope based on his understanding of God and His relationship with this world. It is expressed by the prophet as best as he can as being like a dream for an ideal king, a descendant of David (son of Jesse), with wonderful gifts of spirit, like wisdom, empathy, understanding and respect for God. But also a dream of an unimaginable peace, even in nature and between humans and animals – in our eyes an impossible world. In addition, again “on that day” it is written, this peace will extend even to the Gentiles – more asily imaginable to most of us here and now, with in our understanding of God’s universal love.
The second reading (Rom 15:4-9) is part of the conclusion of Paul’s long letter to the Romans. It is calling for harmony, a lesson that can be learnt from Scripture (which for Paul means what we call the Old Testament) but we can learn from the New Testament. God not only became one of us, but also, for the sake of the Jews, was under their Law and all that entailed; but this self-abasement was so as to live (and die) for all people and thus give glory to God. However, Paul quotes the end of a song of king David (2 Sam 22:47-50) who ruled over many nations whom he had conquered by force.
Before today’s gospel reading from Matthew (Mt 3:1-12) he has written about the genealogy, the birth with its announcement to the shepherds and the incidents surrounding the magi with their gifts. But now the preaching of the kingdom begins with John the Baptist; it is a topic found also in the other gospels; but unlike Luke and Mark, Matthew has John straight away preaching the very message of Jesus “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” A significant word for us is ‘repent;’ it means in the Greek a change of mind, and for us a change of our way of life. Most noticeable also is the vituperative language used against both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the suggestion that physical descent from Abraham is not an assurance of acceptance by God; so we too, if we live aright, will be within the reign of God. Then we hear John announce the coming of Jesus into public life, and who will sort things out; a process like harvesting grain – removing and burning the chaff. And it is a baptism that is the sign of this commitment, even needed for Jews; though this is not the same as Christian Baptism, but is a washing symbolic of the change of life preached with the word “repent!” It may be that the phrase “In those days” which begins the gospel reading, rather than just meaning something like ‘then,’ actually means this new time of the kingdom in which we, today, live.
See Jeffs Jottings – Change
The book of Isaiah as it is called in the Bible, is an extensive edited collection of writings that are drawn from at least three different time periods. Using the division of chapters and verses introduced in the 13th and 16th centuries, the first 39 chapters are from the earliest period when the prophet Isaiah lived, namely the last half of the 8th century BC. From this section our first reading (Isaiah 2:1-5) expresses in its own way the vision of the glorious future that it was believed God had planned for His creation. The significant political situation at this time is that Judah and its capital city Jerusalem were under threat from other nations. Isaiah, as a court prophet, must have been aware of this as well as of the religious situation. His religious belief was that God (that is to say their god) had chosen them to be the greatest nation of all, expressed at this time as the expectation that Jerusalem would eventually be the focus for all the nations. And so the visionary poem that is our text, is an expression of hope that all the nations will submit to the Law (in the first section of the bible) and together rejoice under Jerusalem’s supremacy in the worship of God. The climax of the vision is that there will be peace among all nations expressed poetically as “turning swords into ploughs and spears into pruning hooks.”
In the second reading (Rom 13:11-14) it seems clear that things are not too good for the Christians in Rome, to whom the letter is addressed. Chapter 12 starts a section dealing with the End Time, and there was enough persecution under emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and also under Nero (54-68 AD) to give the impression to Christians that the end of this world was at hand. Paul’s letter is his exposition of the good news that others were later to express in narrative form as Gospels. The message is “Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed” (Rom 12:2). In some way, for Paul the time is already with us, especially since we have been baptised – when we first believed; so now we must live in a changed way. A good example of this transformation is found in the Confessions of St Augustine, who was very much attached to the ‘secular’ world and couldn’t tear himself away. But then came the turning point in his life when he read the last two verses of our text.
In today’s gospel reading from (Mt 24:37-44) we have a section of what is written about the second coming of the Son of Man. Parts of it appear to be taken from Mark and other parts from another document (sometimes called Q) that Luke also used. Matthew’s well-structured gospel has five extended discourses attributed to Jesus and this is part of the last one. It seems that the people at the time of Noah are said to be just going about their daily business and not thinking of anything else; yet according to the Genesis story, the people at the time were wicked, so much so that God regretted having created them. So the message for us is simply about being aware of the world of God in our ordinary day to day living; and so to live upright lives, and hence be ready when the expected judgment comes. Two people can appear to both be living ordinary lives, but one can be aware of the proximity of God in his world – hence it says “one will be taken, one will be left.”
See Jeffs Jottings – Carpe diem
Throughout most of the history of the Jewish people they developed a grand idea of their kingdom and of an ideal king; they projected this vision back onto king David and consequently a lot of the time looked forward to a new king who would be a true successor to him, or rather to their idea of him. So we read this brief extract of their history, as we celebrate Christ as our own king, with probably a different understanding from them of what the ideal is. David was thought of like a shepherd and as their commander.
In the second reading Paul writes to the Colossians because some of them are seeing this world and material things as evil and to be shunned. He wants to affirm that the Christian truth is that all of creation is God’s, and that creation is the expression of God’s reality. After a powerful reminder how God has delivered them from darkness and redeemed them with forgiveness of their sins, he quotes what almost looks like a creed in poetic form, with two stanzas. The first stanza is about Christ, who is God’s image expressed in each item and in the whole of creation, which exists in Him and for Him; the second is about His presence in the Church as His body, which is made up of those who are conscious of Christ and try to live in a Christ-like way within and together with the sacredness of the material world.
We might find it strange that the gospel reading for today is of Christ on the cross. But His kingship is not a superior and glorious dominance over people, it is a universal kingship, over all and across all time, which is manifest at the climax and completion of His life. Most of those around the cross cannot grasp this notion of kingship nor even accept the idea of life beyond death. The reference to the two other criminals is only found in Luke’s gospel and it is one of the criminals that has the idea of a kingdom after death. The word Paradise is an import from Persian into Greek, Hebrew and now many other languages. This key and distinctive saying of Jesus’ reply to this criminal begins solemnly with “Amen” and expresses the belief , even at this stage, of a life immediately after death gained by Jesus and for others – he says, “Amen. I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”
See Jeffs Jottings – The king of…
The first reading is from the last section of the book of Malachi. In the Hebrew this is Chapter 3, but in the Greek version it is Chapter 4. Cyrus, the king of Persia who became the ruler of Babylon in the 6th century BC, had high ideals for society and a policy of returning deportees back to their homelands. We know of this from the Cyrus cylinder which was discovered in 1869 in the ruins of the city of Babylon and is in the British Museum; in the Bible, the book of Isaiah the prophet interpreted this return to their own land as brought about by their God through Cyrus. But those who returned were not all as good living as they should be and so, in the book of Malachi, we hear today of God’s punishment upon them, but for those who are good or repent, God will come “with healing in his wings.”
In Thessalonica, although Paul had never given this impression, there were those who acted as though the end of the world was on their door-step; we have heard before that some of them even idled away their time and relied on the generosity of fellow Christians for their livelihood. So in this reading for today, Paul reminds them of his activity and self-sufficiency when he was with them and that they should imitate him and not be a burden to others. He was a tent-maker and could ply this trade as well as preach the Good News, wherever he went.
Luke tells us about Jesus in the form of a journey that He makes towards Jerusalem and towards the climax and end of His life. In today’s reading Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with its great Temple and central administration, and where there will be disaster. The reading parallels what was already written by Mark (in chapter 13), but the questions “when will this happen” and “what sign will there be” which are not really answered in Mark’s account, are used by Luke to give a lesson for life. He is writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and when Christians have already suffered persecution. The traumas of life are not a sign of the end of the world and the final reckoning, but are part of the pattern of life; a pattern going as far back as the time of the slavery of the people of the Bible in Egypt and of the Exodus brought about by God; a pattern repeated in the Exile in Babylon and their return under Cyrus to the promised land; and a pattern in Jesus’ life through trial and execution to new Risen life.
See Jeffs Jottings – a work in progess
The first reading is from the second book called Maccabees named after Judas Maccabeus and written during the second century BC. It begins with letters to the Jews in Egypt, followed by a preface stating that this is a summary of a five volume work written about the experiences of the Jews in Egypt under foreign rulers. The Jews stood out with their distinctive religion and its practices, so the pagan rulers tried to force them to conform to their pagan rituals and diet (especially eating pork). The chapter we read from, relates the martyrdom of seven sons and their mother, but our reading (to avoid too horrific material perhaps) only tells us of three of them. The passage is of interest because of what it shows of the belief these Jews had at that time. They clearly believed in there being only one God, but also, and as a new idea, God’s creating everything out of nothing; also they believed in heaven as a reward for the righteous – who obeyed the Law – and that their suffering in this life would make up for their many faults. And this is a development of Jewish thinking that also shows up at the time and in the place where Jesus grew up and lived. The expectation of an afterlife with God appears also in the response to the Psalm that follows the reading. But calling someone an accursed wretch is not really appropriate.
We read from the ending of a Letter from Paul to the Thessalonians. About the year 50 AD (when the Emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome), Paul, together with Silvanus and Timothy went to Thessalonica to preach about Jesus; that is the Timothy to whom letters were addressed which are in the New Testament. The Jews there were not interested and so they preached to ‘God-fearing’ non-Jews, and were welcomed into the house of one called Jason. But because of trouble from the Jews these first missionaries had to leave. Later Timothy had revisited the Thessalonian converts but they were still troubled by the Jews. However, Paul had heard that they thought the End of the world was coming (after all the troubles they were in) and some had even given up on caring about this life, and this prompted him to write this second letter to them from which we read today, though in our extract he is just encouraging them to follow what he previously taught them.
In today’s gospel the Sadducees try to make fun of the belief in life after death. They don’t have this belief and they only recognise the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) as sacred scripture. They argue from the rule in Deuteronomy that if a married brother dies, his brother must marry the wife so as to produce an heir for the dead brother. Jesus, like the Pharisees, believes in the afterlife and the reward of the just. In the reply He contrasts this life with the risen life in which the higher state of immortality, marriage does not apply for all are children of God and inheritance of this life is gained for them; Luke elaborates this reply more than Matthew and Mark who have the same story.
See Jeffs Jottings – Life in heaven
The first reading is from the book Wisdom (11:22-12:3). This book was written less than a century before the birth of Jesus. It came from someone in the Jewish community in Alexandria in Egypt. Jews at the time where not just in the promised land and we’re quite aware of the ways of thinking in the wider community about life, gods and associated mysteries. The book of Wisdom is in Greek and its ideas are a development of earlier Jewish ideas, absorbing more contemporary notions from this wider community in which they lived. And so wisdom is very important; it is used by them to refer God. Himself and their idea of life now extended to even life after death which is not certainly previously by Jews. Our reading exemplifies the literary quality of the thoughts poetically expressed in a theology of the relationship of God with the failings of humanity and the development of creation.
The second reading is from 2 Thess 1:11-2:2. The two letters to the Thessalonians are the first surviving documents about Jesus that we have – the oldest writings in the New Testament – prior to the gospels that tell of the life of Jesus. Paul was a learned Rabbi in the Jewish community living away from the Jewish enclave in the Roman empire. The story in Acts of him being quite against Jews becoming followers of Jesus is quite reliable. However, this learned man later became a Christian and worked mostly in Roman communities making converts of Jews but especially of Gentiles. He had established a community in Thessalonica but the Jewish synagogue there was not receptive of his message that God was happy with Gentiles, so a mainly Gentile community of followers of Jesus was established away from the synagogue. However after he moved on from his short stay there, he wants and needs to writes to them from prison. It seems from the text we have that he may have given them a wrong idea of God’s present to them even now and this being the time of the fulfilment of God’s plan for creation. Some of them had given up their regular work and way of life and were just waiting for the End-time to come. And someone may have encouraged them with this view. So Paul has to tell them to get back to regular life – as good followers of Jesus – the final End has not yet come. We are reminded by this that Christianity is constantly developing an understanding of life and creation, and we should be warned not to be so certain of what are basically mysteries – a danger the church has always suffered from.
The gospel of Luke that we have been hearing from over many weeks, has a distinctive focus on the reach of Jesus’ concern and dealings – most noticeably Jesus dealings with women. In today’s reading (19:1-10) Luke has this story not elsewhere in the NT, of Jesus’ attitude to a local taxman, who, the story tells us, was small but curious about Jesus. Luke portrays Jesus’ attitude to this man as nothing short of pro-active – “hurry down for I must come to your house tonight.” This tale, assuming it was not purely fiction, would have come to Luke indirectly from some such tale that may have be told again and again, but which either had not come to the attention of the earlier gospel writers or they didn’t consider it worth re-telling. We have to think what it tells us about Jesus that should affect us in some way – as gospel (good news).
See Jeffs Jottings – Why, why, why