Friday, December 23, 2016
MATTHEW 3: 13-17
Matthew in the Margins…Baptism of Our Lord / 1st S. after Epiphany…Revised for 2017
Jesus comes out to John deliberately seeking baptism. It's not a matter of Jesus going out, liking what he hears, & responding by asking to be baptised. The Divine Initiative is foremost. Is this still the case for today’s baptisms, or, for that matter, our Faith as a whole? Jesus' demand that John baptise Him, & it is a demand, is bad theology, as both know. Theologically speaking, John is right to refuse Jesus, & Jesus knows it. By insisting he demonstrates that there's more going on here than meets the human eye. Faith is not captive to anyone's rules, even theological ones. Only God’s! Dogmatics need to be understood in the light of discernment, inspiration, imagination, & obedience. Not just by Jordan back then! Here. In our country. Now.
In the end, John defers to Jesus. One doesn’t expect John to defer to anyone. But, true to his calling as Prophet, he knows, or is at least pretty sure, Who this really is! John has met his match! MT highlights the dilemma baptising Jesus raises. This bothers the early church a bit, too. The Gospel of the Ebionites1 for instance, pictures John actually kneeling before Jesus, a bit like an extra Magus late on the scene, offering recognition! MT’s account invites us to discern, explore & evaluate our theological stances, rather than accepting them as ‘givens’. Ask instead, ‘Where is God in this? Where am I in this?’ There is also a pastoral question: When do we dig in about some-thing, & when let go & let be, for the sake of God's longer term plan for someone? Even ourself?
Right at the outset of Jesus' ministry MT foreshadows what an enigma He’s going to be, & not only for John. Is Jesus as Messiah still an enigma to some of us? What of those we deal with who still can’t get their head or their heart round Jesus any more than John canna at this point?
The theophany that follows is right up there with the great theophanies of the Hebrew Bible. An instalment of what will happen on the Mount of Transfiguration, on the Cross, in the Temple. Flat-earth type language will always be inadequate to describe what’s really going on by & in Jordan, on the Holy Mount, on the Cross, in the Resurrection Garden, & beyond.
Like MK, MT tells us Jesus sees the Spirit coming upon himself after the heavens open. MK uses the term ‘torn open’, as MT does later of the Temple veil. Christian Faith is no spectator sport. It’s a Spirited participation in the things of God! Have we yet found our personal point of entry - even an unusual one - to become a participant? In GN, the Divine Wind hovers over the waters as the Word calls Creation into being. Now, the same Word, but in flesh this time, has the Dove 'land' this time - on the Word. Calling into being a new chapter of God's eternal, ongoing plan for the restoration of a ‘fallen’ people. Dusting off the ‘old, old story’ & telling it on a crucial stage further. Stop, & the story stops with us.
The voice of God acknowledges Jesus as the Beloved Son [PS 2:7], & Servant [IS 42:1, etc.] The connectedness is life-giving for Jesus as He accepts the role of the Anointed One, for the early church, & for us. There’s no ‘either-or’. Not for Jesus. Not for us. As beloved daughters & sons of God, we are also to be servants, suffering ones if necessary. God’s approval is still "I'm delighted!” How are we responding to God's loving enthusiasm for us? His delight in us?’ A relationship with Jesus that lacks enthusiasm is to damn Him with faint praise - or praise him with faint damns. Is there a hymn in that somewhere?
1 4:7, Complete Gospels, Polebridge, SanFrancisco, '94
Saturday, December 17, 2016
MATTHEW 2: 1-12
Matthew in the Margins…The Epiphany…Revised for 2017
No wonder it shocks Herod - the ‘Pits’ rather than the ‘Great’ - to the core that strangers turn up asking how to find the real king! God sees through him even if everyone else has to kow-tow to him! These astrologers who don't fit the Hebrew faith-mould, briefly take centre stage in history. What we make of the story depends on whether we're open to God's kind of Magi-c, that isn’t bound by limits we set, or try to. MT probably wants us to connect with the magi-cians of Egypt & their battles with Moses. Now a new & greater Moses is on the scene, & it's a no-contest. These magi-cians submit. As a common car sticker reminds us, 'Magic Happens’. Don’t let’s leave God out of the wonder of life. Magi-c pays homage & invites us, too, to pay homage to the one who's Lord of every sense, even the inexplicable.
The Magi see the star, comet, or whatever it is because they're searchers after truth, looking in the right place at the right time. So may we all be looking through our spiritual telescopes! The story’s not about the 'follow your star' syndrome which has become part of our culture. The star of Bethlehem leads these astrologers & us to God come among us. We may use all sorts of theological terms to describe the Epiphany, but ‘magi-c’ gets as close as anything else to explaining the inexplicable. Stars made in our own image are simply black holes sucking us in (& spitting us out?). The God-Star, on the other hand always leads us to journey away from ourselves to seek & find the Most High God.
Are we ready to set out on the journey we need to make to find & enjoy God? Prepared to find God in some pretty unexpected & unpromising places? Beware, though, of carrying too much gold, frankincense, myrrh, stocks & shares, or other baggage.
'King of the Jews' - not simply ‘Judeans’ - isn't a foray into Jewish religious politics on the part of the Magi. Instead, it’s a feeling for, and entering into, the mysterious ways of God. Something HUGE is on the go. An EVENT of Cosmic Magnitude. That star, real or, ‘magi-cal’ still throws light on God's ways. If the Magi had not followed the God-Star, what might we all have missed out on seeing with the inner eyes of Faith!
When Herod's disturbed, everyone takes cover. This is life & death business for anyone who gets in his way! The consultants he calls in, his own ‘wise men’, are doubtless smart enough to know they themselves are in danger, along with this new born King. But what can they do except ‘dob the Holy Family in’? Does fear of someone or something ever affect the quality of decisions we make about ourselves & others & God?
To the disgrace of the Church as a whole, for a long while now we’ve shut our eyes to the abuse of children
by today’s Herods. People pretending to be little kings. Hard as it may be to tackle this, how to address & redress what’s been going on, would be a proper focus for us on a day that marks Herod’s later abuse of the young boys of Bethlehem. Remember, Jesus would have been among them if one of God’s blessed angels hadn’t warned Joseph to flee with Mary & young Jesus!
When God opens our eyes to the Messiah, & we pay homage in whatever our way is today, & when we dare to address the issues of abuse, can we as churches do anything other than what the Magi, & the Holy Family do: go home a different way. Feeling our way. Step by risky step!
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Matthew in the Margins…Christmas Day…Revised 2016
Matthew isn’t set among the eucharistic readings for Christmas Day. However, the Genealogy has some interesting margins of its own. Read on. Or, go to jottingsonjohn.blogspot.com
The genealogy may be a bit wobbly, but make the most of it. Everyone in it once had a name, a face, & lived, once, as we live now. If they are Jesus' family then they have to be is some sense our ancestors, our family, too. Can we see any of them mirrored in our own souls? Recognize any of their faces in our own? Some don't get into the story. Then, or now! Forage in the margins for those who are left out. It hurts to be left out. Those pushed out & left to lurk in the background can tell us a lot about those who do the leaving out, too.
The apostolic church connects to Jesus' resurrection, not his birth. The birth stories crystalise later. Some think they're a beat up! Even if you sense beat up, don't use that to beat someone else's faith down! The genealogy wobbles its way along to 'prove' Jesus' royal line & Messiahship, & give him, via these ancestors, standing in a society described as revolving round poles of honour and shame.1 Both poles are evident in Jesus' line. What about in our own? Are we ashamed of someone, or love to bask in someone's honour? Does one pole colour our story more than the other?
If we could summarise our own genealogy as MT summarises Jesus' in this one verse, would anyone stand out as MT tags David & Abraham here? Do we have a source, an Abraham? A ‘king’, a David? Can we identify inheriting anything in our make-up from either the original David & Abraham, or their ‘successors’ in the margins of our personal lineage? Abraham stands for a faith that dares adventure & journey for God beyond the margins of his day. David for a faith with warts on it, that should put him outside the margins of God's Rule if that Rule had limits. If we don't have an Abraham or a David, not to worry. What's at stake for us is our faith journey, not theirs. The ancestor we become is more important than the kind we inherit.
1 Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina & Rohrbaugh, Fortress, Minneapolis.,’92
Thursday, December 1, 2016
MATTHEW 1: 18-25
Matthew in the Margins…4th Sunday in Advent…Revised 2016
The genealogy has staked claim for Jesus’ Messiahship. He is son of Abraham, of David, of Joseph, &, almost as an after-thought, of Mary. The emphasis is on Jesus being born of the Holy Spirit rather than of a virgin. This is God’s doing before it’s either Mary’s or Joseph’s. But we must gaze deeply into this to discern what’s going on, as Mary and Joseph both have to do. After all, they’re not exactly chanting 'conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary' down in the synagogue, are they? Imagine the stage-whispers at the well, across the roof tops, down the alleys of Bethlehem and Nazareth. Shame and blame are no respecters of Mary’s, Joseph’s, or anyone else’s privacy! Any more than social media is today! Joseph’s good name comes tumbling down with Mary's. They are both the butt of innuendo. But he stands by her. Faithfully. As she does by him. And, Him!
What will make Jesus Messiah for most early Christians is neither royal descent, nor virgin birth, but Resurrection. The truth in the Christmas events depends upon our receiving them in faith. (As do the Resurrection events.) What is the faith-truth of the Joseph, Mary, & baby Jesus story for us? If we haven’t discerned that, what we preach may be as unconvincing as most crib scenes.1
Today much of the world is muckier than a stable for new-borns and their parents. Are we focussing on a manger in Bethlehem of old to the exclusion of those for whom there is no room in the inns of today’s hearts? Prayerful, emotional, practical support, ‘all meanly wrapped’ in love, not swaddling bands, is what today's parents & new-borns need, whoever or wherever they are. Oughtn’t it be the destiny of every child to be 'conceived by the Holy Spirit’, if not, 'born of the Virgin Mary’? How can we help bring somebody to birth for God from the world's Marys & Josephs, out of many kinds of muck in today’s ‘stables’? How can we help those in difficult, unpromising, real nativity scenes as distinct from make-believe ones?
Joseph's heart is in love with God. Before Mary, even. He lies awake trying to make sense of what's engulfed him. PS 130 no doubt gets a right going over! Then an angel appears. That doesn't always solve our problems either. Even if our angel appears in some form, we still have to do the going-through-it bit. Joseph's angel telling him, "Don't be afraid" is an encouragement to all of us who have to enter into scary territory to take that next hesitant step. Mary is in love with God, too, before Joseph, even. This has to be true of them both in times when family honour and property rate more highly than love in marriage arrangements. Luke [1:26-31] reports the angel of God tells Mary, “Rejoice” before telling her, too, “Fear not”. Fear, as much as hate, can be the enemy of love. Rejoicing in God is the triumph of Love over any fear or hatred we have about anybody, anything.
Mary & Joseph, are in a Catch 22 predicament. They must withstand Law, Society, & Gossip to bring Someone to birth for God. Can we find the compassion to be present to people in today's family predicaments? Might we be the human angels God is sending in time of someone’s deep need? Do we not catch on because we're too busily listening for the flapping of wings? Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi is said never to have given his angels wings ‘because they'd never be able to fly with the wings artists insist on drawing on them’! Can we fly with ours, flimsy and human though they be, to the side of vulnerable little ones? Today’s Mary, Joseph, and Jesus? To help bring someone, somewhere, to birth for God?
1 p.168 of John Irving’s ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ features an amazing crib scene. Ponder it.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
MATTHEW 11 : 2-11
Matthew in the Margins…3rd Sunday in Advent…Revised 2016
Josephus puts the Baptiser’s imprisonment down to Herod's fear his influence over people could lead to rebellion, rather than his fulminating against Herod's marriage.1 Would we had that kind of influence! Or would that simply make us vulnerable as John is? As Jesus Himself becomes? Does John muse: “Jesus, if you're whom You were revealed to me as when I baptised you, what am I doing in prison here? Why don’t you get me out!”? What about when the One Who Has Come doesn't seem to be taking up our cause either? If we’re imprisoned in darkness of some kind, what questions are we asking God as we hang in there? It’s no sin to wrestle with un-belief, but we need to ask the right questions. Lose faith in God and the bad news is that there’s no Good News!
Jesus’ answer to John builds on Isaiah [35: 5-6 & 26:19, cf. LK 4:18+]. Jesus often value-adds to what’s been said by Prophets of old. Now, it’s our turn to value-add. Build on what Jesus Himself says and does. Jesus doesn't talk much about mighty acts (signs); He brings them into being. Today God mostly works through gifted human beings to heal people. They may not acknowledge this, but they’re surely value-adding in their turn to free us from at least some of our ‘darknesses’.
Years ago a member of the congregation plucked up the courage to tell me how boring my sermons were! Not because he had to sit and listen to them! Because he couldn't hear them! C was totally deaf! He could pick up the ‘rhythm’, as he put it, of much of the Eucharist, but sermons were a black hole. So I undertook to give him printed sermon notes each Sunday. (When C later died, I was moved to say in the eulogy that I hoped this first sermon of mine he was hearing wasn't as bad as some of those other ones he didn't hear!) Preaching is just a black hole if people can't hear it. With their hearts, as well as their ears. Gospel needs to be heart stuff as well as head stuff if we’re to re-connect with those who need to be let out from their various ‘prisons’.
Strange as it may sound, there’ll also be times when we need to hear God pleading, “Let Me out of here!” from somewhere we’ve shut Him in. Coming even from the pages of the ‘Good Book’! Or, even, “Let me in” if we’re shutting Him out from some situation. In v.11 Jesus makes a cryptic comment about the Baptiser being the greatest human being up to that stage of history, but at this point, ‘little ones’ with their simple faith have it over John, who’s wavering. The Gospel of Thomas2 has Jesus saying, “Whoever among you becomes a child will recognize God's Rule and become greater than John”. This may make this a little clearer. Hopefully, John dies full of faith, but at this point he’s struggling as many of us do from time to time. Take heart! ’Little ones’ may struggle to get there, but get there they do. Get there we do if we’re one of them!
The list in v.5 is challenging. To recognize God’s rule in our lives, we all need to be helped to see, be cleansed, hear, be raised from the dead, be fed and clothed, cared for in some meaningful way. We’re not just some ‘client’ to be handed over to some agency. Only the God Jesus is in Person can set us free by loving us back to fullness of life. And He mainly does it through us and each other. Reeds, fancy dress shows, prophets and bending this way and that…congregations have them. Are there genuine, loving, freeing, healers in our church today? Can others discern us as one of them?
1 Antiquities, 18:5:2 2 46:2, Polebridge, 1992,
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
MATTHEW 3: 1-12
(The Second Sunday of Advent)
I once saw a Rodin bronze of John the Baptist. He had a wildness about him, but I thought I also detected a disappointment, a pathos, an agonising. The bust focussed me on John, reminding me John’s purpose is to focus us on Jesus. John & then Jesus emerge from their wilderness experiences as the nation eventually does long before. True wilderness can be a powerful symbol of our inner-space, our inner geography. And it calls us, too, outside establishments and centres of power, as it calls John, then Jesus. John Dominic Crossan [Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Harper Collins 1994, p.43] suggests John calls people across Jordan and outside Israel, the ‘Promised Land’, so that when they turn to God and are baptised, they must cross back over again to return home and invade the Promised Land anew for God. By changed lives this time, rather than force of arms. Would our land benefit if we were to make some similar kind of ‘re-entrance’, a humbler one this time, wherever we live? Taking and sharing new spiritual insights that lead us to baptism, or, more likely, to grow into and let a baptism of long ago really happen to us! Change like this will threaten control systems, even church ones. Note it’s only LK who reports John's stress on the social & political outcomes of true religion [3: 10-14] that will cost us, too, if we challenge systems.
Broadly, Pharisees are the pious and orthodox, and Sadducees those who run with the establishment. John lashes both. We're not made right with God by observance of minutiae, or piety. Bogging down on our ancestry.somethingorother won’t help us enter into the fulness of God's Rule of love. It’s being a child of God that counts.
Jesus take us way beyond the kind of God John’s imagery conjures up. Jesus leaves all that kind of stuff way behind. Hopefully we don’t sing 'Gentle Jesus meek and mild' anymore, but imagine, ‘Redneck Jesus, victims piled, slash and burn each wicked child'! Would anyone notice if we slipped it in?
Only LK - again - spells out what we're to turn to when we turn from being snakes, etc. [3:10+]. Turning from something without as a consequence turning to something is an invitation to a vacuum to possess us. Jesus himself warns against this, strongly [MT 12:43-45]. We need not so much to turn from something, as turn to Somebody!
As Spirit and Fire are One, so are humility & genuine discipleship one. Chaff pretending to be wheat is shown up for what it is when Jesus can't make Bread of Life from it.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
MATTHEW 24 : 36 - 44
(First Sunday in Advent)
If it's any comfort, that some texts omit "nor the Son" suggests our forbears in faith were groping with the implications of Trinitarianism even back then. We are not alone!
I take ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’ as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem & its Temple, when earth and sky collapse on its inhabitants & all their hopes. Astro-physicists & the like hold to theories of a universe continuing to expand forever rather than one that collapses into itself when some pre-determined (by what, or by Whom?) point is reached. We need to explore such exciting ideas in the light of Faith rather than be scared off them by fundamentalism or personal insecurity. What kinds of things have happened / are happening to us & ours that make our personal heaven & earth teeter on the brink? How are we to respond?
Early disciples under persecution quite understandably opt for an Intervening Supernatural Figure over a ‘Son of Humanity’, a fellow Suffering Servant. You can take just so much of this suffering business, can't you? But can we escape it any more than our earlier sisters & brothers managed to do? Ever walked the beam of a see-saw, or watched children doing so? Go too far towards either end & we come down to earth with a shuddering jar! A coming glorified Son of Humanity is not to be played off against the already glorified Crucified One. Both ‘sides', all ‘sides’ of God need to be balanced lest we end up as incomplete humans with a less than complete God. OK, says Jesus (or a later follower?): some kind of cosmic intervention's going to happen. Are we letting the Spirit keep our theological see-saw well balanced?
The flood story from pre-history grasps me as a myth or parable. Not nearly so much about God’s anger or water as our failure to read the signs of the times & respond as YHWH God intends us to. Without Law or Prophet yet, let alone Saviour to guide them, their earth is drowned under their failure to be the best they can be. After all, who wants to ship out from the high life? But Noah represents those who have the wisdom, the discernment, to read the truth in what's happening round them, on earth & in the skies, better than anyone else. When we feel sodden to the eyeballs & the flood is still rising, wringing ourself out is no help. Better build a new ark to God’s plan. Not out of timbers this time. There's no mileage for us or for God in our watching for some Cosmic Christ to drop from heaven in a last desperate aerial rescue attempt to snatch us from the jaws of death. What we really need to do is take up whatever sail or oars God provides to keep our heads & the rest of us above water. Don’t let’s go looking in any sense for an ark that never existed except in story on Mt. Ararat or anywhere else!
The Noah tale is a great and valuable religious myth or parable, but, as Ian Plimer (Professor of Geology, University of Melbourne) puts it in his Telling Lies For God [Random House, Australia, '94, p.73] 'Despite ingenious efforts by creationists to salvage a credible ark & flood story, the story just doesn't hold water.' Yet the truth of the story still does until we nonsensify it.
We tend to read into the next bit that it's bad news for the one from the field, & one of the grain grinders to be chosen or taken. But if our God's making the choice, doing the taking, & these folk are ready, isn't this an or maybe the experience of Good News for them? OK, as long as it's them and not us, we're still thinking! Staying awake, being prepared is key imagery in Jesus' teaching, & preparing for his coming - however & whenever - includes coming to terms with our own mortality.
When Jesus talks of a thief in the night, rather than countering with cries for more law & order, or putting another gun under our pillow, His idea of preparedness isn't having an alarm that rings in the nearest police station or security firm, but find safety in being constantly faithful to God.