Bible Study notes for All Saints Sunday, 2012 – Year B

Bible Study Notes for Sunday November 4th

ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9

Psalm 24

Revelation 21:1-6

John 11:32-44

The first reading comes from what we in the Western tradition call ‘The Apocrypha’. The church in the West does not have the high regard for these writings that the Orthodox church has, perhaps to our loss? Certainly these scriptures contain wonderful treasure and reading them throws light on some of the more elusive passages in the New Testament.

For the benefit of those whose Bibles do not contain these writings, here is the Wisdom of Solomon text for Sunday

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,

and no torment will ever touch them.

2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,

and their departure was thought to be a disaster,

3 and their going from us to be their destruction;

but they are at peace.

4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,

their hope is full of immortality.

5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,

because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;

6 like gold in the furnace he tried them,

and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.

7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,

and will run like sparks through the stubble.

8 They will govern nations and rule over peoples,

and the Lord will reign over them for ever.

9 Those who trust in him will understand truth,

and the faithful will abide with him in love,

because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,

and he watches over his elect.

The texts this week are for the feast of All Saints. A day in the churches calendar which has a double apprehension – we consider those who have gone before and now dwell in the presence of God, gazing upon his face (Psalm 24:6), and in that light also consider that we who by virtue of our baptism have been brought form death to life are also ‘called to be saints’ (Romans 1:7)

That feature of gazing upon the face of God, finds a parallel in our lives as we engage in the Spiritual Discipline of Contemplation. We tend to understand contemplation from our side – that we are the ones as it were gazing upon God with the eye of our heart (Matthew 5:8), but the deepest form of contemplation in practice comes about with the understanding that we dwell under the loving gaze of God. [This is one special reason why ikons are so important]

Take time this week to contemplate the word. Read the passages set – Meditate on the word [think about what you hear, what catches your attention, what God is saying to you] – pray in response to what you are shown – Rest in the loving Gaze of God. [This is the fourfold pattern of meditative reading we know as Lectio Divina: Lectio; Meditatio; Oratio; Contemplatio]

All the readings are immeasurably rich and deep, and here we are reminded (as we should be All the time), that we do not study the Scriptures as we would study any other book – we do not ‘murder to dissect’ in the memorable phrase of William Wordsworth (a constant tendency in our technological culture, and all too often in church)[1]. Rather we study as one should enjoy a fine meal with company – savouring, receiving, paying attention to what we are being given in so many different dimensions.

If you are meeting in a group – share some of what you are given from our readings

Here are some brief questions to ponder

  1. From the Wisdom of Solomon – briefly read 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 : the reading uses similar imagery (we remember from our recent readings in Hebrews that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered[2]) –
    1. Suffering is part and parcel of life. How might we use that which comes to us as a means of Grace?
    2. What promises does the scripture hold for those who learn from such discipline? (vs 7-9)
    3. How important has Spiritual growth and formation been in our own lives? Do we pay it sufficient attention in the church?
    4. Think once more about Bartimaeus last week – do we also ‘Want to See?’ – do we want to see Jesus? What is the place of such discipline in learning to See?
    5. Through the ages the church has taught the significance of ascetic practices. By and large these have fallen out of favour in a culture where ‘we have all we need’. Fasting has traditionally been seen as a necessary discipline for spiritual growth. In the light of our reading and our thoughts thus far, what role might it have to play in sharpening our appetite for God?
  2. From the Revelation of St John
    1. The gift of the life of heaven is to the thirsty – see John 7:37-8. Discuss
    2. How does this make sense of Jesus’ words ‘Ask and you shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you’?
  3. From the gospel
    1. First re read and sit in silence before what has happened
    2. We live in an age which refuses to pay any attention to the Fact of death. Jesus is not interested in ‘keeping us from dying’ vs 37 – Discuss
    3. Why is Jesus not interested in keeping us from dying?

[1] Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

 Our meddling intellect

 Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–

 We murder to dissect.  From ‘The Tables Turned’, by William Wordsworth. (I was first apprehended of this phrase in a lecture by Eugene Peterson)

[2] Hebrews 5:8

Sermon for Sunday October 28th

Sermon Sunday October 28th

Sunday October 28th 2012 (AUDIO – different from text)

Job 42: 1-6,10-17
Psalm 24
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

‘So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had to run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it began to cry after him to return: but the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on crying, “Life, life, eternal life!”
So he looked not behind him but fled towards the middle of the plain . . .’
John Bunyan: The Pilgrims Progress

Captivated by Bartimaeus

Every Sunday we publish the readings for the week to come on the news sheet, along with some study questions on my blog, which can be accessed through the church website, and my fervent prayer is that more and more people will join with us in contemplating the readings for the coming Sunday, that we might as it were come HUNGRY for Christ, the living word as we approach his table.

This past week as I have sat with the readings, my attention has been held captive by Bartimaeus, blind Baritmaeus, son of Timaeus, and I was strongly reminded of a friend of mine. I had been witnessing to Paul about Christ for some considerable time. One Sunday there was a visiting preacher at our church, Richard Bewes, and I took Paul along. He preached from Ecclesiastes – For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; etc. you know the passage.
I can’t remember anything about the sermon, it didn’t particularly speak to me, or better I was deaf to the LORD’s word that evening, for he is Always speaking. But my friend, as soon as the service was over leapt from his seat, I have to have that! he said and ran to speak with the preacher.

We have this short, almost unremarkable incident in the life of Jesus from Mark. We are so used to Jesus doing all these things – we come to church one week and we hear of him healing a haemorrhaging woman, another he raises Lazarus from the dead, another he walks on water. We have heard all these stories so often before and this week, well Jesus heals a blind man. And it strikes me that when we hear of these things, we are all too often  like I was listening to that preacher, or like the crowd in the gospel, still milling around Jesus – hey look another miracle! But perhaps waiting to go home, after all the excitement can’t go on for ever. And we go home too, and we pick up our lives as if nothing has changed. Perhaps we can be like the crowd – we’ve seen it all before – but have we?? What Have we Seen??
In our gospel reading, there as in all of Mark’s gospel is ‘the crowd’ following the miracle worker – looking for more signs, but uncommitted. Not mentioned today there are the disciples, those whom Jesus has called, but who don’t get it. And along the way Jesus encounters one individual after another, the woman with the flow of blood, the rich young man, the ruler of the synagogue, the syro phoenecian woman. These individual encounters with Christ are all as it were opportunities for us to step out of the crowd, to be confronted by Christ. And now it is Bartimaeus turn to come face to face with Jesus, and through him, another opportunity for us. And this week I couldn’t take my eyes of Bartimaeus.

There is the crowd, all milling around but Bartimaeus – he’s different . . . and as I contemplated this reading a very strange question came into my head . . .  ‘Why does Bartimaeus want to see . . .’

Exegesis

As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. There are many fascinating contrasts between Bartimaeus and the rich young man of two weeks ago. The man who had many possessions was entirely self sufficient – Bartimaeus was entirely dependent. He survived purely on the generosity of passers by. Indeed his blindness may well have been a help to him. With so many destitute and poor, his affliction would have driven some to pity him more than others. He would have been used to listening to what was going on around him, crying out for help – but this time is special 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus will not back off – like the Syro-Phoeneician woman, he will NOT be put off in his effort to encounter Jesus, and his persistence pays off. 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. His cloak would have been so valuable to him. he needed it to keep warm, he would have spread it on the ground to collect alms1, but it has to go, he Has to get to Jesus

Bunyan’s Pilgrim, runs from his family who would hold him back crying ‘life, Life. eternal life!’ My friend Paul had to have that Life he heard in the preachers words – Bartimaeus Has to get to Jesus. He is the blind man who sees. ‘Jesus, Son of David!!’ ‘Son of David, have mercy on me’ He is the blind man who sees. As Jesus told the pharisees, there are those who can see who are blind, and those who are blind See!
The rich young man doesn’t see who Jesus is – he asks the wrong question. He is So used to doing it for himself, he just wants to know the answer to the final question, what must I do to get eternal life., he says to Jesus. He sees Jesus as a means to his end, a means to fulfill his life. Tell me the answer and I won’t trouble you anymore He can see but is blind, he cannot see that Jesus IS eternal life. Bartimaeus cries out ‘Jesus, have mercy on me!!’  Jesus asks “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” My teacher – Rabbouni! The cry of faith from Mary Magdalene in the garden of the resurrection on the lips of this blind beggar – My teacher – my all – my Life, my death my every waking breath. Bartimaeus Knows that Jesus IS his life

Application

Why does Bartimaeus want to see?? He wants to see Jesus. Wouldn’t we, Do We?? Have we yet awakened to that Burning desire to See Christ, to be with him, to worship him? Are we hungry for Him?

Martin Luther would say to his students, I wish I could get you to pray like my dog goes after meat ! ‘I wish I could get you to pray like my dog goes after meat!’ I don’t know how many folk have got dogs, but if you have one you don’t leave the Sunday joint lying around!! For the dog will go for it!! and it’s no good saying to the dog – don’t do that! be a good dog!! He IS being a good dog.2 That is what dogs do – they cannot contradict their dogginess – but WE can contradict our humanity. The crowd are all milling around Jesus, curious, wondering, perhaps getting a little bored, they will soon cry out CRUCIFY!! Their indifference is their sinfulness, they cannot See who Jesus is – Bartimaeus in contrast is becoming Fully Human – he Springs up – he Comes to Jesus, like a dog after meat is a man pursuing God in Christ – and having been healed he follows him on the way. The most Truthful human response to Jesus, is to go after him like a dog goes after meat.
Jesus called the rich man to follow, but he went. Jesus told Bartimaeus to Go, but he followed . . .

But where, where is he going?? It doesn’t matter, I have to be with him, says Bartimaeus. And where is Jesus going? We come to the end of our reading through Mark. When we return to it in a couple of weeks time we will have skipped the next chapter, where Jesus enters Jerusalem. Jericho which Jesus is leaving is just down the road from Jerusalem. When we imagine the crowds with Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, Bartimaeus is there crying out, Hosanna to the Son of David – giving Glory to God.

This week I have used Psalm 24 in our worship – it is the Psalm of entrance into the Temple – Christ comes to the Temple. The Psalmist Cries out as a herald
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
The cry comes back, we might imagine from high on the ramparts?
Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory.

We may imaging Bartimaeus crying out – ‘The Lord of hosts, He is the king of Glory!’ For as the Psalmist tells us
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Who go after him like a dog after meat.

I began by speaking about how we are invited to prepare each week – to read the scriptures, to study them, that we might come HUNGRY to church – hungry for Him who says ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Bartimaeus was HUNGRY for Jesus – he wanted to SEE! And Seeing Jesus he followed him, his teacher. ‘My teacher, let me see again’

I conclude with some words of an early teacher of the church, Clement of Alexandria

‘Let us open ourselves to the light then, and so to God. Let us open ourselves to the light and become disciples of the Lord . . . Let us, then, shake off the forgetfulness of truth, shake off the darkness that dims our eyes, and contemplate the true God – after first raising this song of Praise to him: ‘All hail, O Light!’ For upon us buried in darkness, imprisoned in the shadow of death, a heavenly light has shone, a light of a clarity surpassing the sun’s, and of a sweetness exceeding any this earhtly life can offer. That light is eternal life, and those who receive it live.’ ‘Let us open ourselves to the light then, and so to God. Let us open ourselves to the light and become disciples of the Lord’3

Life, Life, Eternal Life!

Friendship with God

One of the most difficult aspects of moving to a distant land is leaving behind those deep enriching friendships which you had carefully built and nurtured over the years. Friendships in which often nothing needed to be said – mutual presence and understanding going much further than words ever could.

Difficult that is in terms of Loss. It happened and it had to be born, but in a sense more difficult is to arrive and to establish new friendships. Unlike the Loss of friendships entailed in emigrating, the difficulty in this regard is in the necessary work of friendship building with people whom you do not know. It is a reminder of the deeper aspects of friendship, that it requires commitment and work. Friendships don’t ‘just happen’, rather they are the product of mutual intentionality, committing for example to meeting weekly for a meal or a coffee. To choose to trust a stranger with our lives.

Perhaps more than ever in a world where we are so mobile and faced every moment of the day with a bewildering array of attractive options for spending our time, it is hard to build deep and sustaining friendships. So it was, having just returned from a weekly cup of coffee with one of my new friends that I sat down with the gospel reading in order to prepare for our midweek Eucharist, and was struck by this very thing.

It was the parable of the wedding banquet from Matthew’s gospel (Ch.22 vs 1-14). Recently there has been a trend to try and remove this and other stark gospels from the lips of Jesus – to read them as sociological critiques which we then project back onto Jesus, but it strikes me that when we do this we are as always only trying to see our own reflection in Him. To make a ‘Jesus’ in our own image.

The parable of the wedding banquet is stark. Building on the rejection of the prophets by the children of Israel, those who are otherwise occupied refuse to attend the marriage of the King’s son, and indeed kill those bearing the invitation. The story then moves on to the King’s determination that the wedding feast will go ahead and his servants are sent out once more, this time onto the highways and by-ways to bring in the guests.
Finally when all is set the feast begins, yet the King notices one who is not properly attired, not wearing wedding garments, one who hasn’t made any effort to reciprocate the invitation, one who is thrown into outer darkness.

God in Christ has called us to such a banquet. In Love he has laid down his life for us, he has done Everything. As St Paul has it, he has reconciled the world to himself – he has called us his friends. Every moment of the day he waits for us, waits for our commitment to that friendship, our ‘yes’ to His Yes!

We may well understand the man without wedding robes to be one who has as it were wandered through life, aware at some level of God’s invitation to Know Him, to Love Him, to Be with Him. And yet has not reciprocated, perhaps trusting in some erroneous sense that this friendship required nothing of him (a stumbling block perhaps laid by some kindly preacher?) , that he would ‘go to heaven when he dies’ (a heaven which in popular imagination God, whom we do not know has absented Himself from).

I remember all too well as a youth, having heard so many times that God loved me, abandoning any effort at worship. Why bother? After all, God loved me and worship, prayer and the fellowship of the church were inconvenient. Yet in his mercy God seized hold of me, confronted me with the breathtaking scope of his invitation to me in and through Christ, and I knew I had been careless with that which was of Infinite worth. ( A carelessness of which I am not entirely free, even now some 30 years later)

In another of Jesus’ parables we hear the spine chilling words on His lips ‘Away from me, I never Knew you’. He had kept his appointments, Always been sat waiting for us, but building friendship with him had been too inconvenient for us.
Unlike a key difficulty in making friends with those amongst whom we come to live – that there are often very well established friendship groups into which it is hard if not impossible to break – God in Christ is Always in the business of making friends, it expresses part of the essence of the Triune God. Relating is Who God is. God is Love.

What  do we do to build friendships with others?

What will we do to reciprocate God’s invitation, and thus enjoy the feast of friendship with Him?

He is waiting. When we meet, will it be as strangers or friends?

Bible Study notes – Sunday October 28th – Ordinary 30B

Bible Study Notes

Sunday 28th October, 2012

Ordinary Time 30 B

 

Job 42:1-17

Psalm 34:1-8

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

 

This week’s texts are all relatively brief. Take time to read them out loud in your group. Listen. What catches your attention?

 

We come to the last of our readings in Job this week with the resolution that is in our eyes no resolution at all. Last week we read of how God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, revealing the paucity of Job’s understanding[1] This week we read Job’s response, the LORD’s response to Job’s friends, and of Job’s restoration. It is I suggest a journey to the heart of faith

 

  1. First Job’s response. He says, ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
    1. What do we make of Job’s response? Why should seeing God cause him to despise himself? What is he repenting of?
    2. How might such a humiliating vision of God change the way in which we live before him?
    3. In Chapter 19:26, Job utters the lines, made famous in Handel’s Messiah ‘After my flesh has thus been destroyed, Yet in my flesh shall I see God’ This verse is usually taken to express a hope of bodily resurrection, yet in the light of 42:5 it is given another meaning, that somehow Job has seen God before his physical death. Read the mysterious words of Jesus in John 11:25-6, Also Colossians 3:1-3, and, again John 5:24. ‘To come to faith is so to encounter God that our life changes as if we had died and been born again’ Discuss.
    4. In this light, the story of Job is the story of someone coming to true faith. Discuss
  2. Now we turn to Job’s friends.
    1. What is the LORD’s charge against them? First note that they had with Job engaged in a very serious discussion about God and His ways. How much is such discussion part of our experience?
    2. Yet such discussion is not straightforward ‘We speak too freely of God. We do not take truthful speech about God with due seriousness.’ Discuss
    3. Although it is widely suggested that the Book of Job is one of the most ancient, if not the oldest Scripture in the Old Testament [2], one of the remarkable elements of it is the many resonances with the Psalms, especially the Psalms of David. Reflect on Psalm 32:1-6, and also this week’s Psalm in the light of our readings from Job

 

 

 

  1. Job’s restoration.
    1. It has been suggested that this restoration entirely undoes the whole story[3]. Job Is proved righteous and thus ends up materially more blessed than he was at first. Read vs 11 – note that the writer is not squeamish in attributing ‘blame’, so to speak. The Satan has disappeared from the narrative, only the mysterious one who we are told had brought evil upon Job. What do we make of this?

 

  1. We come from the mysterious book of Job, to the equally mysterious letter to the Hebrews[4]
    1. Read the passage – What if anything do you think any of this has to do with Christian faith?
    2. Again we see the High Priestly ministry of Jesus expressed in different terms to that of the ‘former priests’. What differences are alluded to?
    3. Vs 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. ‘This verse either denies or gives a radically different slant to many popular notions of Jesus’ – Discuss
    4. The Vision of Christ in the book of Hebrews is exceptionally exalted with for example Mark’s portrayal of Jesus. ‘Holding the divinity and the humanity of Christ in proper tension is amongst the most difficult yet crucial aspects of our understanding of God’ Discuss

 

  1. Turning now to Mark’s gospel
    1. First we note the many healing’s of blind people by Jesus. John’s gospel gives over an entire chapter to such an account. What is the significance of the healing of the blind?
    2. Interestingly Timaeus is the name of a work by Plato in which the main character, Timaeus ponders the nature of reality.
      1. In what ways does the healing of Timaeus and indeed Jesus’ strange words to the Pharisees (John 9:39-41) call into question the nature of reality?
      2. What echoes are there here of the LORD’s dialogue with Job, and last week’s gospel reading about James and John?

iii. This being the case, is not Bartimaeus’ request the request of all people of faith?

  1. Bartimaeus calls out ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’. This is the probable foundation of ‘The Jesus Prayer’ –  ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ In what ways is it a prayer of faith?
  2. In John’s gospel, in the resurrection narrative, Mary Magdalene when she recognises Jesus cries out ‘Rabouni!’ Meaning ‘Teacher’? ‘To See who Jesus is is to understand him to be our teacher’ – Discuss. In what ways is he our teacher?
  3. What else do you notice in this brief incident?


[1] We may also remember the question of James and John and Jesus’ revelation that they did not know for what they asked

[2] There is no mention of any of the patriarchs or Israel, however God is referred to as The LORD and also the presence of the mention of Satan (an angelic being) suggests perhaps this might not be so. Certainly it is a text of mysterious origin as well as meaning

[3] The technical term is ‘deconstructs’. In other words this final passage completely contradicts the rest of the story and so renders it useless. In contradiction of that of course one might say that it is the Sovereign Freedom of God which is the true subject of Job and this freedom is revealed in God blessing whom he will. There is no sense in the text of the restoration of Job being a reward. Insofar as there is any hint it seems that Job who has bitterly spoken against his friends’ words, finds restoration through the restoration of their friendship, evidenced in his prayers for them

[4] Regarding the title of the letter. Many people struggle with the constant negative references to The Jews in John’s gospel, yet Judaism was by no means homogenous in the time of Jesus. It is wrong to read this as antisemitic, in the way we would understand the term today. It is quite possible that the early Christians were known as, or understood themselves as Hebrews

Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin. Sunday 21st October, 2012

Sermon for Sunday October 21st, 2012
Genesis 22:1-19
Colossians 1:1-14
Hope

We do not live in an age which speaks much if at all of Virtue. Being Virtuous has a rather Victorian ring to it, and yet for much of Western history, largely under the influence of Greek culture and philosophy, the Virtues were in part understood as something into which the growing child ought to be formed.
In Classical Antiquity, there were the four Cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage, to which the early church being born into this culture swiftly added via St Paul, the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. All seven are deserving of deep consideration, not least because the meaning ascribed to each has changed dramatically from how they were first conceived.
Words of course change their meaning down through the ages, but these are words which are tied to fundamental understandings or aspirations of what it means to be human and in the case of the three theological virtues, what it means to be children of God. Faith, Hope and Love are the looked for fruit of a Life immersed in the life of God.
And this evening we think about hope, and the nature of Christian Hope, something which is utterly different to hope as commonly understood.

Martin Luther is reputed to have said something which gives us a glimpse of the Radical nature of Christian Hope, ‘If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree’. As with so many of such ‘famous sayings’, it is in all likelihood not true that he said it, there being no record of his saying it prior to 1944. But be that as it may, this saying ‘If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow I would plant a tree’ encapsulates Much of this most significant Theological virtue. Staring the End of all things in the face and then calmly expressing another possibility, an impossible possibility. Christian Hope is as Action as much as a thought – it directs us to live in a way that makes no sense amidst the death narratives of the world in which we live, And as such, Hope is as timely today as it ever has been.

Whilst we have no sense that the world might end tomorrow, [although given the propensity for such predictions, no doubt someone somewhere has suggested it will] – we do live in an age in which to say we face an uncertain future is putting as hopeful a spin on it as we can. I don’t mean with regard to the future of the Diocese of Dunedin, but to the future of the whole Created order and humankind’s place within it. The end of the line looms ever larger and the temptation to live for the moment it seems has never been so overwhelming. From Soundbite politics to aimless hedonistic lives – will live not only in a culture which is as ahistoric as any previous, but also one in which the Future is erased from the horizon of consciousness, perhaps because it seems too horrific to think about, or to live into with hope.
Having had an amateur interest in Climate Science since the mid 1980’s when I first became aware of what we now call Climate Change, I have watched as the signs of change have arrived with ever increasing rapidity, until we are now seeing unmistakeable signs of a climate which had passed the ‘tipping point’ and is heading into a period of accelerated warming. And that has not gone totally unnoticed as people think of the future.     There was a very definite anti-echo of Luther’s sentiment very present in the UK in the year or so before I left to come to New Zealand. A sense of hopelessness that was expressed in a form of ‘the world IS ending so we are not planting trees’ Young couples getting married, in itself always something which expresses hope – were increasingly heard to say ‘but we will not be having any children, for we fear for what the future holds for them’. I remember a generation ago telling the youngsters to whom I taught science that Climate Change would have perhaps unthinkably dark ramifications for their children. And so it seems for some of that now grown up generation, they sense that this might indeed be the case – choosing not to have children, a symptom of a deep underlying nihilism increasingly abroad as hopelessness seems to grow in the sometimes unconscious actions of our lives.

Choosing not to have children is to embrace as a choice, as a Good Thing, something which down through the ages has been understood as a curse, that of barrenness. The metaphor of the human as Consumer, just making a choice, picking a lifestyle, undeniably justifies these unconscious hopeless leanings,  but throughout history until this day such a choice would be seem as life denying. We seem to have lost sense of what it is to live.

And that choice brings us to the strange story of Abraham and Isaac – Strange, indeed terrifying, and yet a story which goes Right to the heart of the Christian apprehension of Hope, a strange hope which finds no other reference in the world in which we live. That we should look in this dark tale for hope seems at best counter intuitive, at worst perverse. For it is a story about the erasing of the Future, Yet in that very sense of foolishness lies its extraordinary power.

Our reading is the culmination of that story of human hopefulness, of barreness, overcome. Of Joy of delight, but suddenly darkness –  a story about the investment of that human hope in the birth of a child.
We read a little earlier in Genesis 18 of the visitation to the aged Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a son – ‘Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind Abraham. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’ – and we know the story, Sarah in due time bears a son and names him ‘Laughter’, or Isaac. The son of laughter who is born against all human hope and expectation. Abraham who has no hope for a son, has a son, and yet this earlier part of the narrative does not as yet touch on Hope as conceived in Christian faith.     For Christian faith is in a real sense not a thing of the miraculous. Christian HOpe is not a sense that a miracle will occur – Jesus himself points his followers not to the miracles, not to the signs, but to that which they signify. The birth of Isaac is a sign of the presence of God, but as yet it is not the ground of faith. Christian hope is not about the WOW of the utterly amazing and rationally inexplicable miracles which still occur around us, but something Other. Don’t pin your hope on miracles Jesus says, pin your hope on me, on my life giving word, and so the story goes on to tonights dark text

To begin to understand what this text might possibly mean and how it reveals to us the heart of the Christian virtue of Hope, we need also to have a feel for something else which for better or worse we no longer acknowledge – that is lineage and particulalry patrilinearity, lineage through the male line.

Abraham had his son! Isaac! The sardonic laughter of Sarah converted in this miraculous birth to exultant laughter, full of wonder and joy – hope it seemed was to continue. that desire for continuation, for continued life – the Human triumphant YES! – but then suddenly faced with the NO! The strange and killing word,  Kill your hope, Abraham. Kill YOUR hope. You have invested your entire future in this boy, He is your hope. And this Life giving, Hope giving word of God came to Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
For Abraham the call to sacrifice his son was no more nor less than the call to die. To have children was to have Life – true life, life that had continuation – it was the way in which death could be cheated, it was and indeed Is the continuation of that human sense of hope for something more and better, in and of ourselves. Still even against the backdrop of all that seeks to overwhelm us in so many ways, still people Do desire to have children, to see their Life extended, Life on Our terms. If we don’t have a sense of the significance of lineage we miss the point here – Abraham in sacrificing his son, lays down his own future, his own life. Everything is invested in Isaac. “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, then come follow me.” The Word of Grace is at once an invitation to death, to say no to our own investments, and to Life to discover the treasure of life on God’s terms.
As Abraham and Isaac make this literally ‘terrifying’ walk to Moriah, What lies ahead of Abraham facing this literally terrible call? Nothing. Extinction. Blackness. Eternal night. The end of the line. Death. And it is in confronting that that Abraham discovers Life, a life that is not his own, but one that is Given.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’

And Abraham, acting in faith reveals the true nature of Christian Hope, that it is not something which we can naturally drum up within ourselves, rather like whistling in the dark. No, it is the gift of God given in the moment when we give up on our own lives. When we lay down our own lives, which is the meaning of the words of Jesus, For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. It is only in the knowledge of God as the one named ‘The Lord will provide’, that we turn from all our futile death denying attempts to live for ever. To have faith is to have already got your dying over and done with, and thus to know something far more sure and certain

St Paul says You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. Abraham as we know is to bear much fruit, to be the father of many nations – but first he too must truly comprehend the grace of God, that God will provide! That it is the indestructible life of God which is the world’s True hope.

A few years ago I went with some of my fellow ordinands to visit a mosque in the east end of London. We sat and listened politely to the Imam, who lectured us all on the superiority of Islam over Christianity. Finally he became a little more hospitable and referred to a common ancestry, that of Abraham and mentioned this story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. One of my friends suggested that in that story was the roots of Christian faith. Abraham in the end did not give up his son, but received him back from death. ‘Islam if I understand it correctly,’ he said, ‘teaches God has no son. As you know, we Christians do not believe that to be the case. God as you say did not require Isaac of Abraham. As we Christians believe, that was because he gave his own son for the life of the world’

To be Christian is to live in and through and out of THAT life, for all our hopes and dreams fade like the morning mist. In the end we all like Abraham must come to that place if we are to live a children of Hope, children of the God who provides. We must all come to the blackness of Good Friday, to know all our hopes and dreams extinguished and then with no light at all, to press on in faith to the Glorious hope expressed on Easter morning. For indeed ‘On the mount of the Lord it has been provided.’
And thus as Christians even if we know with certainty the world is ending tomorrow, we do not be joining the rest of the world in the hedonism and despair of nihilism, rather, in our own embracing Christ in his death and resurrection we reveal something which might by its strange light call the curious to a truer and deeper life. We might indeed choose to plant a tree.

Bible Study Notes Sunday October 21st – 2012

Bible Study notes for Sunday 21st October, 2012

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

  1. The Reading from Job is the beginning of God’s ‘answer’ to Job’s complaint
    1. How does its general tenor strike you? What is the thrust of the ‘answer’?
    2. We recall that when Job’s friends first came to him, they sat silently for seven days and seven nights. ‘In the light of God’s response to Job, this was the wisest thing they did’ – Discuss
    3. God’s rebuke of Job is not exactly Pastoral (!!), yet actually God has done precisely what Job asked of him – appeared and responded to him. ‘Be careful what you ask for!’ might well seem to be the ‘Truth’ we learn in this passage and in this week’s gospel. ‘We are too sure of ourselves in our dealings with God’ – Discuss
    4. When we ask something of God, are we ready to hear his answer?
    5. The Scriptures do not have much time for those who are ‘wise in their own eyes’ (Isaiah 5:21, Proverbs 3:7, 26:12 – indeed this is at the heart of much of Jesus’ rebuke of his opponents).
      1. God’s answer to Job is that he lacks true understanding. Are we too ready to rush to answers – are we wise in our own eyes?
      2. We live in an age when seemingly we know everything, except that which is most important. Like the young ruler from last week we need to leave our understanding behind if we are to find Life. Discuss

iii. The church is going through a time when everything we once held dear is being taken away. What does God’s response to Job, who lost Everything, have to say to us?

  1. Our reading from Hebrews carries on one of the central themes of the letter – -Christ the Great High Priest. It is worth re-reading 4:15-16 as background before considering the passage
    1. Read through the passage – in what ways is Jesus like a high priest in the order of Aaron? In what way/s different?
    2. Reading 4:15 – we recognise that Jesus was like us in every way, but without sin. In this light, what do you think 5:8-9 mean?
    3. Read Philippians 2:1-8 – does this throw any light on this?
    4. One theme of the NEw Testament is that our bodies can get in the way of following Jesus. If you try to get out of bed early in the morning to pray you will know Exactly what I am talking about 🙂
      1. We do not take this bodily aspect of our faith with due seriousness – Discuss
      2. The suffering referred to in Hebrews 5:9 is the necessary suffering of a body being trained in faith (1 Corinthians 9:27). Fasting is an ancient discipline – a means of training the body which requires a degree of suffering. Is there a sense in which suffering must be embraced if we are to grow in faith and holiness?

iii. Does this make any sense with regard to ‘learning obedience through suffering’?

iv. The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t pull any punches re his audience (5:11-end) what do we make of his words? How far do we go to try and understand the Scriptures?

  1. High Priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. We met this phrase earlier in the year in our lectionary. Do we remember anything about Melchizedek and what this means? (Read Genesis 14:18-21) [1]
  2. Finally to the Gospel
    1. James and John’s request to Jesus is just like our approach to prayer – Discuss!
    2. In the light of the Job passage, why might this be thought a somewhat foolish way to pray?
    3. There is a difference in this regard from our day to day prayers and prayers ‘in extremis’ – Discuss
    4. Be careful for what you ask! Discuss how James and John’s request and Jesus’ answer to their prayer exemplify this
    5. Reflect again on God’s answer to Job. The gospel reading reminds us that in following Christ we are caught up in something we do not fully understand. The Spirit of the age of modernity with its emphasis on control and right techniques has made Christian faith, following this Strange God profoundly counter cultural – Discuss
    6. Read Jesus’ word to his disciples vs 42-end. Jesus does not do away with heirarchy – he turns it upside down. Discuss

[1] The writer to the Hebrews is setting up a second contrast with the Priesthood of Aaron. This Priesthood is one of bread and wine! He is a

Sermon for Sunday 14th October – The man who had many possessions – Questions of Identity

Mark 10:17-31
Psalm 22:1-15
Job 23:1-9,16-17

For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Over the last few months as we have made our way through the pretty stark territory of Mark’s gospel, Jo has twice helpfully pointed out how Mark tends to put two incidents side by side, that they might illuminate one another. Unfortunately, last weeks gospel reading had two pericopes which did not, I think belong together. If we remember last week’s gospel, we probably remember it for Jesus teaching on the nature of marriage and thus divorce. We may well have forgotten that the second part was the familiar incident of the disciples trying to keep the children from Jesus. This small incident forms a mutually contrasting pair with the story of the young man in our reading today. Jesus’ words ‘whoever does not receive the Kingdom as a little child . . .’ contrasting with the anguished words of the young man ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and Jesus’ declaration ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And, to the the disciples’ perplexity,  “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

So let us first think about the little child and the little child’s perception of the world – and to do that I want to go back to our Psalm and the reading from Job. It might sound an odd place to go, these expressions of desolation and suffering when we are thinking of the perspective of a child, but they are words from the heart of the one who is like a little child. The Psalmist utters the words which will find their True expression on the lips of Jesus as he dies upon the Cross, ‘My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me’. As several commentators have noted, upon the lips of Jesus, the emphasis is upon the YOU – why have YOU forsaken me. Jesus in his life knows the rejection of all, even finally his disciples, but as he hangs upon the cross he knows something which is at once terrible to comprehend, and yet which is also disturbingly familiar. ‘Where have you gone?’

A little child in its early years finds its life centring around its parents and their presence. If for a moment we can begin to imagine, or indeed perhaps remember, there is little as terrifying for a child (and indeed a parent) to discover you are lost. Where have you Gone??? My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?

From everything we know of Jesus, we can not imagine this anguished prayer from the cross as some philosophical musing at the hour of his death. Jesus in all things only did what he saw the father doing – I an the Father are one – he tells his disciples. How much like the life of a small child, their sense of Identity is wound up with that of one or both of their parents. The Father gives his identity to the Son, and now as Jesus’ life ebbs away, the Father is not to be found. ‘O my God, I cry day by day, but you do not answer, and by night but find no rest’

So also Job who in his suffering complains ‘“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; 9on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.’” Where have you gone, God? But there is no sense of ‘there is no God’ For Job, for the Psalmist, for Jesus upon the Cross, God IS!  The very centre of the Universe – the unshakable reality, whose absence is not the cause of some existential angst, but more like a living Death. For Job, for the Psalmist, for Jesus – Their Identity, Who they are is Known to be in God the Father.

So whoever does not receive the Kingdom as a child shall never enter it. To receive the Kingdom as a child is to accept God as the very epicentre – the heart and soul of one’s life – not in some vague philosophical way, not as a tenet of faith, but as such a concrete reality that the most terrifying prospect is that we might find ourselves somehow estranged from Him. To Know Him as Father in the depths of our being. ‘How much more will he clothe you?When Jesus cries out from the cross, this is no collapse of a belief system, it is the realisation that the utterly unbearably thinkable has occurred, His father appears to have forsaken him and he is Utterly alone. Jesus the Son receives the Kingdom like a child, and thus knows the Hell of separation from God. ‘Where have you gone??’!!!

Jesus, the Psalmist and Job all reveal to us what it looks like when someone obeys the first and great commandment, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – that is to hang our entire existence upon Him, to see the world and our existence in his light and that his absence is like the most terrifying thing that could happen to us – for He is our Father and we are his children. Knowing oneself to be the child of God gives us an utter security which nothing can shake . . .

How unlike the young man, who rushes up to Jesus with what can only be described as an anxiety laden request, What must I do to inherit eternal life?’. The man Runs up –  he is in earnest. He flatters Jesus ‘Good teacher!’ There is hardly any mention in the Rabbinic literature of ‘Good teacher’ , it is phrase that is not used because it should not be, and Jesus Rebukes him ‘Why do you call Me good? Only God is good!’ He then tells him it straight – man to man. [Notice that Jesus responds to the little children as children ‘He took them up in his arms and blessed them’ – a sign of receiving the Kingdom, being received by He who embodies the Kingdom – but the man, he treats as a man] You know the commandments – no murder, no adultery, no theft, no lying, honour your parents’ “Teacher this is what I’ve been doing since my youth . . . ever since I left childhood, I have kept all these. I know that as a man I am responsible for my life, I have to do it, I have done it!! ‘All these I have kept from my youth. And here comes the punchline . . .

Why does the man come to Jesus? Except he does not Know he has eternal life. He is uncertain. Yes he has kept the law . . . or at least most of it . . . but he is insecure. Everything Externally seems fine. In his own terms has made a success of life, he has met the goals he set for himself ‘All these I have kept from my youth’ . . . but Deep down inside he is troubled . . . and Jesus looks at him and loves him and tells him the truth. He Loves him, He Sees him as he really is – he speaks Truth to him –  ‘You lack one thing’ The man’s heart Leaps!! Yes, I knew it – deep down I knew there was something missing!! What is the One thing??? ‘Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”
And his heart goes to his boots – the man who lacks one thing is called, as we all are to let go of everything else to lay hold on that one thing – He was shocked and went away grieving . . . for he had many possessions. Contrast the Man with the child, whose Identity is tied up in the Father – the man’s identity is tied up in his Respectable life and his possessions.

There used to be a TV programme called ‘Thru the keyhole’ – in it a camera went into a famous persons house and a panel were asked to guess whose home it was, in the light of their possessions. Thus a Deep truth was revealed, that our possessions are a mark of our sense of self – our Identity. This Man had built up a Huge picture of who he was, he had Many possessions. And Jesus says to him, if you want to discover who you really are, you need to let go of all that stuff, stuff doesn’t tell you who you are, God your Father does. Your Identity is as his child.

Today so many many people are on a journey ‘to discover themselves’, or like the young man ‘to buy an identity they feel comfortable with’ clothes, a home, possessions that express who you are. Advertising plays remorselessly on this unease with ourselves – saying in effect, you haven’t really found yourself until you have these things. As Jesus puts it, whoever wants to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will find it. The one who is prepared to let go of the false picture he has built up for himself and instead receives as a free gift that which was always their own, their identity as a child of God, will not be disappointed. Let go of the life you have made for yourself, sell your stuff, give to the poor, then come, follow me

To all external indicators Religious and material the man is secure, yet inwardly he is insecure – he is now called to reverse that, to be outwardly insecure in things, in order that he might know the security of the child. To let go of his adult security, to be born again, to start over, looking to God for all he needs, for daily bread. It is The Crisis encounter with Jesus. Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus could not have cared more for this man than to tell him the truth – you want eternal life? One thing you lack

And so the Risen Christ speaks to us today through this word. As we are sat here today, I wonder – to whom do we relate here? The child who has nothing yet Knows the unspeakable Joy of security in God their father – or the man, who has everything and yet Knows deep down that something is awry.

The child finds their identity in their relationship with their parent. The childlike find their identity in the love of God. We may well know in our head that God loves us, but do we know the Love of God in our heart, that we are his children, the unshakeable security we can only know as we find ourselves in the Life of the only begotten son? Are we secure in it? It strikes me that the future of the church lies in the hands of those who know that security.
For the future of the church to external senses is most uncertain. The external indicators – those things that give false security, large congregations, money, religious respectablility, charismatic leaders even – – – if we are like the man in the story, putting our faith in these things, then we will go away grieving. As I said a couple of weeks ago and in the parish magazine, I find it troubling that we are not calling out, My God, My God why have you forsaken us – or O God make speed to save us. ‘Where is God in all this?’ is Not some metaphysical conundrum, it should be an anguished cry, Where IS God in all of this?? It seems we are still putting our faith in ourselves, like the man.

But as always following Jesus is the only way – the man turns away. He has so learnt to trust what he has and what he does, that he is frightened to take the risk of faith. But what Jesus then goes on to show is that Yes – he is calling him to radically renounce his security in himself – BUT that something wondrous happens when you do. Peter says ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ And Jesus replies, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions To know HGod as our Father is also to know His provision which is ALWAYS more than we can make for ourselves – the Life he offers makes the life we make for ourselves look infinitely impoverished by comparison, To follow Jesus, is to discover ourselves as part of the community of those who follow Jesus. As we seek to discover what it means to be the people of God here in this place, we will have to let go of a lot of stuff, BUT to do so joyfully to follow Christ, is the door to True community. Whilst we cling onto the old things that always gave us hope, we shall not know the amazing depths of community in Christ. Those who leave behind . . . shall in this age receive an hundredfold. It is as we commit ourselves to Christ wholeheartedly and thus his people, we discover Life, Now.

The man faced a Crisis – eternal life was being offered him – it was a gift, he only had to let go of the life he had built for himself to receive the life Jesus offered him. I wonder if anyone knows that call here and now? I wonder if we hear it as the church here, Jesus speaking to St John’s Roslyn. Some I know do find their true family here, they have discovered the truth of Jesus words, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions’ My prayer is that we all will

I was reminded earlier this week of the words of Tim Smit – Tim is the founder of The Eden Project – a quite stunning Ecological attraction constructed in disused Clay pits in Cornwall, in the South West of England. He recalls his grandmother saying to him – ‘when you die, be sure you can say ‘I am glad I did’, rather than ‘I wish I had’”  And I couldn’t help but think of the young man in our gospel reading, the young man who is offered the Kingdom, for it is always a free gift, but who is unable to accept it, for he had many possessions. There are not just individuals who have many possessions, there are churches too. HOw does this word speak to us as individuals? HOw might it speak to us as a church?

What holds us back? Would we too rather not say “I am glad I did’, than with the man in our gospel say ‘I wish I had’

Let us once more hear in our own hearts those words of St Augustine “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”