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Showing posts from February, 2017

Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38–42 It’s easy to forget that ‘a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home’. It was Martha’s home and Jesus was her guest. And when it’s your home, you’re in charge and you expect your guests to be grateful for your hospitality. Was Martha the older of the two sisters—or the younger one who was left behind to look after her parents in their old age? Almost certainly, she wa the keepers of the house, even if she had a younger brother, Lazarus, waiting to inherit when he came of age, and that makes her the dominant player in our story, as she is also in the story about her in John chapter 11? Was Mary there by Martha’s invitation? Had she perhaps come over from her marital home to help with the catering for this special occasion, or so that she too could meet Jesus? Whereas Simon the Pharisee simply 'invited’ Jesus into his home but did not offer to wash his feet, we’re told that Martha ‘welcomed’ Jesus. Luke doesn’t go into details, but presumably a welcome to a special…

Have you heard the one about the rich farmer and the pension plan?

Luke 12.13-34 At Christmas we played a board game called The Game of Life. The game is about planning for your retirement. For most of the game you make decisions about your career and your family but, as you progress round the board, retirement looms larger and larger, and you can buy a portfolio of investments to fall back on when that day arrives. Then, for the last section of the game, you are actually retired and have to make it to the finish line where you will hand on whatever is left as your inheritance to your family. The player with the largest inheritance is the winner. As one of the players put it very aptly, during this retirement phase the game rinses you; what seemed at first like a generous pension can soon be frittered away as you are hit by a series of horrendous disasters. Factories burn down, taxes have to be paid, storms wreak havoc, and so on. It probably sounds terribly boring - a financial adviser’s idea of how to have fun, but actually it’s not. Let me give you …

Samson

Judges 16.4-30 Samson is a most unlikely holy man. His story reminds us that God works through all kinds of people, not just the stereotypical saints who are - as the writer of Hebrews puts it - too good for a world like this. There is a pattern running through Samson’s complicated love life. Although he’s dedicated to God he genuinely believes in multiculturalism. His isn't the kind of faith which refuses to meet and mix with people who hold different beliefs. Nor is he the kind of person who will contemplate a fling with someone from a different cultural community but only gets serious with a partner from their own kind. His rebellion against the Philistines begins quite by chance, when he meets and marries a Philistine woman, only to be betrayed by her. During the wedding feast she nags him into revealing the solution to a riddle that he’s posed as a bet with some of the wedding guests: ‘Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.’ It's diff…

Gideon

Judges 6:11–27, 36–40
When Gideon is introduced to us he is described by God’s messenger as a ‘mighty warrior’ who is going to deliver Israel from oppression by the people of Midian. This isn’t a statement of fact; it’s a prophecy. It’s what Gideon is meant to become, what he could become if he trusted in God. But for now he is the very essence of timidity. He’s hiding in a wine press so that he can thresh some wheat and keep it concealed from the enemy. He’s not  a leader; he’s the very opposite of a man of action. The hallmark of Gideon is that he’s ‘too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do [as the Lord has told him] by day,’ so ‘he does it by night.’ The Lord tells him not to fear but he goes on being afraid. He’s a very ordinary hero. Normally, holy people put their trust in God, but Gideon is famous for ‘laying a fleece’, that is for demanding a sign that he really can rely on God’s power. What’s less well remembered is that he demands not one sign, but two, what one comme…

The Good Samaritan and The Kindness of Strangers

We often read the parable of the Good Samaritan in isolation, as if it were a self-contained story. But it isn’t. It belongs in a specific context in St Luke’s Gospel. We know this from the way it begins: ‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.’ Just when exactly does the lawyer stand up, though? Just after Jesus has said, ‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’ In private to his disciples he has also said, ‘Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’ Just then up pops the lawyer. Granted that he would not have been party to the private aside to Jesus’ disciples about important people desiring to see and yet not seeing what is now being revealed to little children, it would still be pretty brazen for anyone to try to test Jesus about his understandi…

Building on tradition

Exodus 30.1-10, 22-33 The rituals surrounding incense may seem irrelevant to Methodist worship in the Twenty-first Century, and yet they raise intriguing questions which are still highly relevant. Originally a special altar for offering incense was more closely associated with paganism than with the worship cult of Israel and Judah. The whole idea was treated with some caution, as though it were alien to worship of the one true God. As late as time of the Prophet Ezekiel, who lived during the exile in Babylon, it is not included in his vision of what reconstructed Temple worship should be like when his people return from exile. But, of course, people were bound to ask, ‘Why not?’ There were some aspects of pagan worship which were clearly abhorrent to all right thinking people, such as Temple prostitutes taking part in fertility rites or the offering of child sacrifices to appease the gods. But what could be wrong with a bit of nice sweet smelling incense? Even if people no longer beli…

Keeping the Sabbath

Exodus 31.12-17 It’s difficult to know how far back in time the keeping of the sabbath day as a holy day, different from all others, can be traced back in the Old Testament. It probably doesn’t pre-date the exile in Babylon. Perhaps it was while they were living in a foreign land, and desperately trying to remain distinctive from the people and cultures around them, that Jewish people started keeping the sabbath and formulating the sort of traditions which come down to us in this passage. Even after the return from exile, and the publication of the Book of Exodus in its current form, keeping the sabbath was clearly not a universally popular idea. The two harsh warnings about putting people to death for breaking the sabbath commandment show that many of them must have been seriously tempted! In Jesus’ time the struggle between sabbath observers and sabbath breakers was clearly still going on, with the scribes and pharisees seeking to enforce it in the face of a lot of indifference and out…

The golden calf of Christmas

Exodus 32.1-6, 15-20 The golden calf is a much maligned feature of Israel’s story. Originally a golden calf stood at each of the two shrines in the ancient northern kingdom of Israel. Together they may have formed the feet of God’s footstool, which was seen as looming over the whole kingdom - making it the point of contact between God, seated in majesty on his heavenly throne, and the world below. The people of the southern kingdom of Judah still had the Temple in Jerusalem, which was their capital city.  They imagined the Temple or the Holy of Holies, its innermost shrine, as God’s footstool, but the people of the northern kingdom had to make do with the golden calves. The whole story of the golden calves is set out in the First Book of Kings Chapter 12, where we are given an account of the origins of the northern kingdom. Its first king, Jeroboam, set up one golden calf on a hilltop at Bethel and the other on a hilltop at Dan, and he and his priests offered incense and sacrifices to G…

A homecoming celebration

Jude 24-25 The benediction at the end of Jude is its most celebrated section. It is a celebration of our life in Jesus. He alone can keep us from falling into error and that’s a good thing because only a perfect sacrifice is good enough to be offered to God, and perfect sacrifices is what Jesus intends us to become, just as he once made himself a perfect sacrifice upon the Cross. Even if faith in jesus has made us perfect and without blemish, entering God’s presence, and seeing his glory, is likely to provoke some anxiety and being made a sacrifice to God sounds positively daunting, if not terrifying. In the Inca Empire children from well-to-do families were sometimes selected for sacrifice. They were paraded through the country and then taken to a mountaintop, drugged and sacrificed. It was supposedly a very great honour, but there’s good evidence that they weren’t entirely happy about it when the time came to make the sacrifice, and that is hardly surprising. On a less morbid note, as…

An object lesson in humility

Jude 1.1-2 The letter of Jude is an object lesson in humility. Some people would see it as a letter written by one of the brothers of Jesus himself, in which case it must have been written within about thirty years of his death. Others would see it as written by someone posing as Jesus’ brother to add weight to their own opinions and give their letter a wider circulation. Who wouldn’t want to have a copy of something written by Jesus’ own brother, whereas the same opinions, when expressed by Joe Bloggs, might attract little interest? In a sense, the question of who actually wrote Jude is unimportant. The striking thing is that the author makes such an amazingly small claim to prestige and honour within the Christian community. He is, or claims to be, no less a person than the brother of Jesus, and yet he is content to think of himself as Jesus’ servant. Perhaps that’s because the letter of James - which also purports to have been written by a brother of Jesus - also begins by stating th…