Lent 4 – struggling to “get it” on Thursday of Holy Week

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, when we were seeing art in galleries one of the most effective things was when the frame and the art worked together But there were other times when the frame was an obvious clash  A mis match.

Times when the brilliant colour and vibrancy of the art  was surrounded by a stark, solid black frame. That’s what we have in Mark’s gospel on the Wednesday.

After the long section of the gospel dedicated to Tuesday, Wednesday is very brief Just 11 verses.

And in those 11 verses there is the main section of verses 3-9 – the anointing which is surrounded by a frame of vv 1-2 and 10-11 This is a solid black frame, contrasting with the vibrancy of the art in the middle.

Just before we get to the actual events of the crucifixion and resurrection Mark’s gospel has a very simple and striking contrasting summary of what Jesus has been on about throughout the gospel. What does it mean to be a follower, a disciple, of Jesus.

And the contrasting summary comes with the worst and the best.

One of the things about Mark’s gospel is that it treats “the 12” with low respect. In Mark, the 12 disciples simply don’t get it. They are confused, they misunderstand, they squabble and they are power hungry.

And unlike some of the other gospels that focus on Judas as the failed one,  Mark spreads the blame pretty broadly. Judas comes out of the Wednesday looking pretty poor,  but Mark makes it plain – “Judas was one of the 12 disciples”

So Judas gives us the worst of discipleship,  but in failing, he is actually just following the lead of Peter, James, John & the others Remember Peter is the one to whom Jesus has said “Get behind me Satan” James and John are the ones who have squabbled and demanded the places of glory In one real sense, Judas is just “one of the 12” Judas may give us the worst example of discipleship, but in Mark it is the worst example of a whole series of examples of failed discipleship.

But if Mark is painting Judas’ betrayal as the worst example,  why is it that he portrays the woman’s anointing of Jesus head as the best.

Why not the generosity of the widow, or the insight of the young scribe? Why not the persistency of the mother seeking healing for her daughter?

Throughout the gospel of Mark, there are hardly ANY actions of other people which are fundamentally important.   It is a very Jesus-centred gospel.

And, not surprisingly, we discover that what other people say and do is used by Mark to reinforce the central point of Jesus’s teaching and actions. In the context of Mark’s gospel, people are seen as good illustrations of discipleship if they get what Jesus is on about. And they are portrayed as illustrations of poor discipleship if they don’t.

In that sense Mark is pretty straight forward

And over and over again in Mark when we come back to what Jesus is on about we have his central teaching that he will lose his life and he will rise again. Three times in the gospel there is very clear and detailed narration of this. Three times in the gospel the disciples simply don’t get it Three times in the gospel Jesus responds to the disciples with disbelief and anger.

Sometimes scholars have talked about Jesus in Mark’s gospel  having a “Messianic secret”

It is as if when the disciples recognise that Jesus is the glorious Son of God who has come into the world as the one chosen by God to save the world Jesus winks and says “shhhhh”.   As if they’ve got it, but they shouldn’t tell.

But that may not actually be the best understanding of what Jesus is doing. Jesus isn’t secretive about who he is.   Mark says “he taught these things openly.”

What things?   That the Son of Man will be killed And that his followers must take up their cross. What whoever wants to be the first must be the last.

When Jesus is at other times commanding the disciples to be quiet about the “Messiah” maybe the better understanding of Jesus’ teaching is that he is not winking and saying “shhhh” but instead he is frowning and saying “down talk rubbish”

For Mark, Jesus has come with a very clear understanding of his life purpose He is to speak and live out what the now-present Kingdom of God is all about And there is an inevitability  that to do that in contrast to the now present Kingdom of Caesar means death.

And to be a follower of Jesus, means that we will accept this death is truly inevitable and that we will be willing to walk the same road.

The disciples don’t want to hear that. But the woman in Mark 14 gets it. She has anointed my body for its burial. But why anoint now and not after the death as is customary?

Because she has believed and truly taken on board what Jesus has been saying: I am going to die and I am going to rise again.

There will not be a body to anoint afterwards. The obvious love of and devotion to Jesus is striking. But it is not the reason that this story is to be told in memory of her. In a gospel that is filled with stories of the followers of Jesus getting it wrong and even so wrong that they conspired with the collaborating powers to betray Jesus in a gospel that was probably written for a community of people who were struggling to work out and live out what it meant to be a follower of Jesus this woman understood and lived it out.

She is the first true disciple for Mark.   The first Christian, if you will The first to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus.


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Lent 3 – the conflicts of the Tuesday of Holy Week

When you are working through the events of the final week of Jesus’s life one day at a time it works quite nicely when there is one event on the day – like the Sunday and the Monday

When you get to the Tuesday it is another story altogether.

Almost 3 chapters in Mark are devoted to the events of Tuesday – more than any other day

So we aren’t going to work through all of the events of the Tuesday –  though I really encourage you to read all of them

Instead, we are looking at a few sections that give an insight and a feel into the day.

The vast majority of Tuesday is a series of conflicts with the Temple authorities. It is a series of debates and arguments – much around Jesus’ authority.

Clearly the event of Sunday and Monday have had an impact. When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the 3rd time in 3 days  there is anticipation as to what is next.   The crowd is there as are the Temple leaders

and straight away they challenge him about his authority Early in the conversation Jesus takes the initiative: he tells a story about a vineyard and its tenants, and way the tenants kills the owner’s heir

Within the gospel of Mark’s purpose the reason for the story is quite clear. In fact Mark has the authorities own it – “they realised that he had told this against them”.

The battle lines are clear now:    Jesus is openly confronting the leaders he has prophetically and symbolically denounced. But just as much as they want to arrest him, the crowd do not.   The crowd is on Jesus side.

And so now if the Temple authorities are going to get their way, they need to turn the crowd. “Then they sent to him some Pharisees and Herodians to trap him in what he said”

And we have the confrontation about taxes and the coin.

Not surprisingly, Jesus isn’t looking to make a statement  about the separation of Church and state in 21st century democratic systems.

He is not trying to lay a foundation for how the church can back dictators or monarchs He is not trying to set a principle for Christians to obey a government no matter what

The conversation is around a volatile question trying to trap Jesus and discredit him. The trap is very skilfully set:  if says ‘no’ to the taxes he is open to a charge of sedition          if that’s the case, the Romans will get him!

If he says yes to taxes, he is alienated from the crowd,           who are the reason why the Temple authorities cant arrest him.

But his response is better. He gets the authorities to produce a coin.   And as soon as they do, they are trapped.

While many good Jews would not carry a coin which state that Caesar is the Son of God, they do.

They have alienated themselves.

And then his response – give to Caesar things that are Caesar’s & to God things that are God’s asks that his listeners – and Mark’s readers – what is Caesar’s and what is God’s

Seeing we’ve just had a parable of the vineyard, the question is raised about the very land:  And Scripture affirms that the land of Israel belongs to God

And to go further, Psalm 24 makes it clearer “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”

What belongs to Caesar?    Well by implication out of scripture – nothing!

The conversation / debate continues –  realistically with passages that don’t really make a lot of sense to us We need to understand much of the conversations of the Tuesday as being about who Jesus is and not really about the detailed topic of each element

And so by the time it gets to the climax of the debate – Mark 12:28-34 –  we may have the feeling that all f the religious elite are hard hearted and unthinking.

But the climax conversation is without confrontation or conflict. Which commandment is the first of all?   What is central?

And Jesus obliges with an answer. We know the answer well – love God and love neighbour.   (2 for the price of 1!) But it is a radical statement.

If The Lord is ONE and we are to love God with EVERYTHING we are,  then what does that mean for the powers that proclaim Caesar is God or those who are collaborating, and so giving part of themselves to God and part to Caesar.

And to tie in the concept of loving neighbour as yourself  means that distinctions between people and their inherent worth or value must disappear

The scribe affirms Jesus teaching and adds a striking comment: “This is much more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices” .

The scribe himself reinforces Mark’s point from the previous two days –  the way that we live matters much more than the religiousity of the Temple.

And so it is in this context and setting that we have one more bit of confrontation Jesus now takes the initiative to warn against the authorities. “Beware the scribes – who like to walk around getting respect and honour. They devour widows houses and then say long prayers”

And right on the back of that he watches the offering taking place – and sees a widow. Scripture continually places widows as special objects of God’s compassion: they were the most vulnerable of people in that society,  and therefore the way they are treated was a measure of the society’s justice

There certainly is an element in the story of affirming the deep devotion of the widow. She is the positive image of discipleship. She has rendered unto God the things that are God’s – everything.

But there is also a condemnation of the wealthy.

Those who have given out of their abundance – and therefore held plenty back –  must sit awkwardly in our minds with the earlier stories from Tuesday still fresh.

It’s an interesting passage  given the confrontations in our own public sphere over the past fortnight about what and how some of Australia’s most wealthy are contributing at the moment.

The conversations, debates and confrontations of Tuesday invite us this Lent to think about priorities and authority.

How seriously do we take the way of Jesus? How is it that we juggle the demands of Caesar and the demands of God? Tuesday is a confronting day – for us as much as the scribes and Pharisees.

It is a day which does not invite compromise in living.   It is an awkward day for us.

I encourage us to wrestle with these thoughts this day and throughout Lent

God, forgive me for whenever we  limit your influence in our lives to personal spiritual matters and separate them from the rest of life. Help us to infuse the compassion of Jesus  in our character, politics, business, consumption, and relationships. May we honestly affirm that everything is yours and nothing belongs to the empire.

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Lent 2 – Framing the Monday of Holy Week

While we were wandering (a lot!) around Prague and Vienna and Venice and Florence and Rome over the past month, we saw one or two art galleries. One thing that Lyndelle and I commented on several times were the frames.

On many occasions the frames themselves were a work of art. But when they were at their best was when the frame and the main artwork worked together as one In some cases, with frescoes on ceilings there is effectively an architectural frame  painted into the main work itself, so that the frame truly was part of the main artwork.

That’s our image for this week’s reading. Mark regularly uses “frames” for his gospel stories – a piece either side of the “main” story that are meant to become part of the same message. The stories aren’t separate, but woven together.

That’s the case with the events of Holy Week Monday. There are two parts to the (strange) event round the fig tree, and in the middle is the chaos in the Temple They are all part of the one thing for Mark.   All pointing to the one message Both are about a lack of fruit, despite there being ‘leaves’.    Both involve a symbolic and powerful “shut down”.

On the following day (Jesus set out to return to the Temple) they came from Bethany. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

It seems pretty strange doesn’t it.  Jesus was not an idiot. He knew like everyone else alive on the planet at the time also knew that fig trees do not have fruit on them in Spring.   It is fig season here not there! 

But the frame isn’t about the frame. The frame is about adding wonder to the main picture  And the main picture is about the 4 actions in the temple. Sometimes we call it the ‘cleansing’ of the temple, but that may not paint the picture properly.

 The gospel says that Jesus does 4 things:

1. drives out the buyers and sellers

2. overturns the tables of the money changers

3. overturns the seats of the dove sellers

4. doesn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple

The activities themselves are the normal and NEEDED activities for the operation of the Temple They were long-standing practices that were all necessary in order for the Temple to properly function as a place of worship and sacrifice. The money exchangers were needed to allow exchanging Roman coins with for coins that could be used to pay the annual Temple tax.  And doves were needed for the ritual sacrifices that were offered at the Temple.

Without these things happening, the Temple cant operate.   Jesus is effectively staging a “shut down” of the Temple.   A “occupy Temple” if you will

Why?  Well, quite nicely, Jesus gives us an explanation. That’s pretty helpful. And as is often the case, Jesus quotes scripture to explain what is going on: ” You have made it a DEN of robbers.” – a quote directly from Jeremiah 7:11

And what is going on in Jeremiah? Jeremiah condemns the people for failing to follow God’s ways in their daily lives, for living without a sense of justice, and then coming to the Temple for safety,  counting on God to protect them from being conquered by the latest Empire of the day.

Neither Jeremiah or Jesus as saying what is happening at the Temple is the problem but that the Temple is being used as a safety hiding place for people who are living unjustly.

Robbers don’t rob in their den. They rob in other places and hide in the den.

So the money exchanging and selling of doves, etc. is not the problem.  The problem is that the Temple has become a hiding place for robbers.

Over and over again in the scriptures we hear of God’s condemnation of his people because of their lack of justice.

We hear God saying regularly “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice” but never do we hear God say “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship”

Amos 5: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 

Hosea 6: I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings

Isaiah 1: What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?  says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams  and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats … learn to do good; seek justice,  rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan,  plead for the widow.

The trouble was that by the time of Jesus,  the Romans have been appointing the chief priest to act as their local agent in Jerusalem.  the Annas/Caiaphas family are recorded in annals of history – not just in scripture –  as an incredibly powerful family appointed by the Roman occupying force,  to collaborate as the go between and keep the peace.

This means that the Temple has become not only the location of the Ark of the Covenant;  the Holy of Holies; the single, central, pinnacle of worship;  it has also become the headquarters of Roman Collaboration Mark’s gospel does not suggest that Jesus is a sacrifice for sin Mark’s gospel does not suggest that Jesus is trying to do away with the Temple itself or the priesthood In Mark, Jesus death is a result of his proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand –  and thereby being an alternative to the already present Roman Empire.

Jesus’ shut down of the Temple is making the same point as Jeremiah, whom he quotes: Those who worship are robbing the poor and denying justice for the needy;  and God rejects worship when there is no justice.

So what does the fig tree say? What point is the frame making about the picture?

There is nothing abnormal about the tree; it is just doing its usual thing.  There is nothing abnormal about the Temple; it is just doing its usual thing.  But unlike a fig tree, there is no “season” for justice. Justice is always in season.  The Temple has leaves (people worshiping) but no fruit (people doing justice).  And Jesus shuts it down.

The event of the Sunday – last week’s reading – and the event of the Monday – today’s are both planned by Jesus.   They aren’t just reactions on the spur of the moment.

On the Sunday Jesus prophetically and symbolically states that God’s kingdom is here in a peace-filled movement.   That is the kingdom of God

On the Monday, Jesus prophetically we cannot hide in our religion from lives of injustice and collaboration with oppression.

For us in Lent, and for our reflections, we are asked to see how our lives can be peace-filled and justice based. I commend that to our prayers, our conversations and our actions this week.


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A Typical Day in Jesus’ Ministry

Mark 1: 21-31

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Psalm  111

 1. Introduction

Mark goal was to establish that Jesus was Messiah

Mark wanted to show that Jesus was the ‘Son of God’. So he emphasises how the crowds and the *disciples were very often astonished at Jesus’ actions. Jesus made the storm on the lake become calm (4:41). Then the disciples asked, ‘Who is this?’ Evil spirits recognised who Jesus was.

Today I want to explore two outcomes with you.

  • Ø       What happened in the story and
  • Ø       What the story means for you and me in our lives.

 People of faith believe in Jesus because of who we believe he was and is; but what about people who do not believe in him, or who wonder about his true nature, or even for ourselves when our faith weakens: what then can be made of his teaching with authority?

When he is heard as one who teaches with authority, as one who knows what he is talking about, and he expects people to accept it and to obey his commands

  • Ø       What are people to make of it;
  • Ø       How are they to judge? How well founded is that authority?
  • Ø       You might then say, ‘Who is he?’, or even, ‘Who does he think he is?’

When we ask that sort of question, we are in much the same position as those who first heard him teach in the small village synagogue at Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as told in our story from Mark.

I wonder if you can imagine yourself in that position…

  • Ø       What authority does Jesus have and on what grounds does he have that authority from your perspective

Today I want to explore two outcomes with you.

  • Ø       What happened in the story and
  • Ø       What the story means for you and me in our lives. For Jesus to have authority and significance in our lives what do we look for and need that gives Jesus any authority or significance in our lives.

 2. Teaching with authority

There was no doubt in their experience that he was no ordinary teacher. They were amazed at how different his teaching was:

  • ·        (Mark 1:22) They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

The people are amazed not that he teaches, but at the authority with which he teaches. What did they mean?

  • Ø       Did he rant and rave? Did he shout?
  • Ø       Was he ‘so sincere’, a quaint blessing bestowed on earnestness by people baffled by intensity?
  • Ø       Was he clever with rhetoric,
  • Ø       an adept story teller?

Our best guess is to look back at 1:14-15. He taught about the kingdom.

I doubt if Jesus engaged in elegant intellectual analysis of the scripture competing with lawyers and priests.

‘And not as the scribes’ in 1:22 is an important clue.

How did they teach? From Mark’s gospel we would have to conclude that much of the teaching by lawyers, priests and scribes was concerned with fine points of interpretation of the Law.

How did Jesus teach?

Well …we don’t know but we do know from Mark that people were impressed and could see the meaning he gave….it made a difference to their thinking and action

And from the rest of the gospel we would have to conclude that Jesus’ teaching must have focused on central themes like God’s compassion and interest in our liberation.

Jesus taught about …what does it mean for living…Jesus cut to the essence…His parables were direct, hard hitting, exposing the practical truths.

Often where the truth was laid bare for us to draw our own conclusions…Jesus said “who do you see as your neighbour?”

In Mark and elsewhere we find Jesus often teaching with a directness which drew on common life experience rather than derivatively by interpreting scripture. This had the effect of shifting the power base of knowledge from the experts (in scripture, lawyers/scribes/priests) to the common people, who all knew about common life experience.

It was a different way of doing theology, which democratised the process. This may have been in Mark’s mind.

From the perspective of the New Testament as a whole it makes a lot of sense.

3. Casting out Demons…

Then they saw the strange encounter with the evil spirit. The point of the story is not anything about whether we should believe that such demons exist as the people of his day understood the world; but about the way that Jesus dealt with a power of evil.

In this village Jewish meeting place where the people gathered, for them the existence of evil as a spirit which possessed, or influenced a person from within, was simply assumed.

What excited the people who saw it was his authority in that confrontation.

The way Jesus dealt with evil, was the same as his teaching: They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority!

  • Ø       The confrontation is described simply but powerfully. ‘What on Earth (the hell?) are you doing here?’ could translate the first sentence.
  • Ø       It is desperately confrontational, because the demon recognised that Jesus could destroy its power.
  • Ø       ‘The holy one of God’ says what it means.
  • Ø       Jesus silences the demon and demands he depart. The demon does so, but not without yelling at the top of his voice.
  • Ø       The exorcism is achieved. The demoniac has been liberated.

 Yes we can worry about Demons and Evil Spirits…what was happening in terms of our science…our modern understanding of psychology and mental illness.

For those of us brought up with strict scientific methods such accounts of exorcism call for more informed explanations.

We feel so strange that we may want to avoid them altogether.

It is then very hard to appreciate Mark who has made them so central. There are ways of slipping past the awkwardness we feel.

The trouble is we may end up slipping past the message of Mark.


However we understand exorcisms, those reported from the ancient world or from present day cultures unlike our own, something real is happening. People are being set free. Physical contortions and hugely dramatic moments will occur in many different therapies, whether the frame of thought is demonology or modern psychotherapy.

Does it require the breaking of known biophysical laws of creation that govern behavior of the universe as we know it? Do we expect God’s intervention to suspend the operation of the laws established in the creation? Thus a huge set of questions is exposed and we need to examine them…but not now.

Sufficient to say is that a great deal plays around what we mean by miracles. Miracles for me are something that is beyond experience and explanation by what we know.

For me I can see space in God’s creation for what is described here in Mark to have happened. 

  • Ø       Does it matter how it happened if we lose sight of what it means… in seeing who the man Jesus is and what authority Jesus has for you and me.?
  • Ø       What is the higher level meaning which Mark sought to give us?

 What are some of the meanings here?

  • Ø       The important thing is liberation, setting people free. This is an essential component of the “good news” of God’s reign.
  • Ø       This is what Jesus demonstrated with authority. He was clear in what he said and the way he acted that God’s compassion and love for us sought our liberation in person and in community.
  • Ø       It is a demonstration of what is meant when John predicts that Jesus will baptise with the Spirit. For Mark exorcising unclean spirits is a primary function of the Holy Spirit and the key element one should recognise in what Jesus is doing.
  • Ø       His actions was evidence that Jesus was the Messiah
  • Ø       Jesus had authority…ring of truth that convinced. “He spoke with authority”, “the common people heard him gladly”, “never man spake like this man”…JB Phillips

4. If Jesus has that “ring of truth”

  • Ø       ….authority as Son of God…what does he call us to attend to?
  • Ø       Identify and deal with evil…deal with it with integrity
  • Ø       Liberation and transformation …renewal is possible

God seeks wholeness and health in a universe that God created in which death illness pain and suffering is an essential part of that creation…the dark side without which the beauty, grandeur, diversity, wonder, joy and ecstasy of life and the creation would not be possible. The evolutionary process is indifferent…geological and hydrological process is indifferent…So the suffering pain disease mental and physical I see evidence that in this painful dark-side God wears the pain (Bill Woolcock).

Let me quote from a paper by our own Bill Woolcock.

“I conclude that God created knowing the suffering that would ensure for the creation and for God….So the suffering which is outside human control appears to be the cost of freedomness….So I conclude that God thought it was worth all the pain to make free creatures, in whom there would be intellectual achievement, imaginative creation, deep emotions, contemplation of beauty, virtues like courage and compassion and profound experiences of relating to other humans and to God. God wears the pain. God is present in all our human pain.”

My experience and evidence allows me to join with Bill in that God is present with us in all our human pain. God takes responsibility.. is with us in that pain and seeks wholeness and healing.

This story in Mark has the ring of truth for it tells that Jesus had authority and that God seeks wholeness.

  • Ø       In the synagogue was a man whose mind was unbalanced. In Peter’s house was a sick woman…both of whom Jesus healed. In both cases we get the impression that the cure was instantaneous, and that to bring wholeness of mind and body was regarded by Jesus as of equal importance with teaching as the mission of the Messiah.
  • Ø       Now we know that Mark is writing about the kind of teaching which liberates, which discerns the demonic powers which oppress people (whatever the intellectual framework used to identify them) and seeks to bring about new beginnings.

We are sometimes closer to Mark’s account of the exorcism when we are doing pastoral care, although wisdom teaches us that we are mostly not competent to handle such situations and should seek appropriate resources. The kingdom of God in Mark is good news because it brings liberation at a number of levels. The central thing is enabling people to be how God made them to be. That must involve addressing powers and gods that enslave. The more we understand how they work, the richer our understanding of redemption.

Mark leaves us in no doubt about what constituted good news in his world, what the kingdom means, what happens when the Spirit ‘baptises’ people. The last thing Mark wants is for us or our congregations to be left behind when we encounter his opening scene. One of the skills of the pastor is to create the space, the ‘synagogue’, where our madness can come face to face with the holiness of Jesus. As Bill loader suggests “That also means coming to terms with our own madness.”

5. Conclusion

Jesus confronts the demonic spirit head on, silencing it and breaking its power over the one it had spoken through. And the people marvelled all the more. “What is this?” they asked one another. “A new teaching, and with authority!

He stands firm against even the most devilish powers, and they back down before him.” And “at once”, Mark tells us, “his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”

But for us, we gather here this morning because we have put our hope in Jesus, in the leader whose actions have consistently backed up his words and whose integrity and courage have continued to cause us to marvel for two thousand years.

We gather here because we have found in him the leader who can enable us to see how we too are enmeshed in the demonic ways of darkness and give us the hope and the courage to follow him in breaking free and finding new life and hope.

As we gather here words are prayed and lives are offered. Evil is confronted and brokenness is embraced that wholeness might be known.  Jesus and we give ourselves to one another that salvation might be tasted and the tormented might be set free.

And we gather here because it is here that we are fed and nourished for what lies ahead, for the journey of turning our words into actions.

And that our covenant might be lived out and that we might be the people Jesus has called us to be.

This story of a typical day in Jesus’ ministry in which he teaches and acts with authority, challenges evil and delivers wholeness…does it have the authenticity, the ring of truth to convince us to go into the world as his ambassadors, representing and promoting Christ’s values of life, wholeness, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, and sustainable stewardship in the places where we live, work and play?

If you were sitting in that Jewish meeting house and had seen what Mark describes would you be convinced that Jesus had authority to challenge, change and empower your life.

 That is the questions you and I must ask this morning.

By  John Williams 

Acknowledge use of material from:

Professor Bill Loader at: http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkEpiphany4.htm

Rev Nathan Nettleton at:  http://laughingbird.net/ComingWeeks.html

Professor Bill Woolcock (1999) “God and Purpose (Chance and Freedom )”,  drafted 12.04.1999. Personal Copy.

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Following our Star…bringing our gifts

Matthew 2:1-12, with Isaiah 60:1-6 and Micah 5: 1-5

1. Background

The magi appear on the Christmas cards alongside the shepherds, but only Matthew has the magi and only Luke has the shepherds.

A closer look at Matthew’s story reveals that the story is more like a symbolic painting than a verbal photograph of historical events.

Let’s look for the learning and insights set up by Matthew.

First it is not difficult to recognise the distinctive contours and plots:

  • Israel went down to Egypt and returned; so did Jesus.
  • Moses could have died when an evil Pharoah sought to kill all Hebrew infants; Jesus escaped Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

But then Who came to Jerusalem? Who were the Magi?

The description of people as Magi could have had at least two meanings, but none of them would endear them to a devout Jew.

  • The wise man’s special knowledge comes from reading the stars or from other mystical means of divination that are inaccessible to ordinary people. The use of any form of divination, astrological or otherwise had long been forbidden to the Israelites, as a thing abhorrent to the Lord.
  • The more specific meaning of the word “mago” referred to a member of the Persian priestly caste, the rulers and practitioners of the distinctive religions of Babylon. They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices and the interpreters of special signs associated with the pagan cult. The Jewish attitude to the priests of pagan religious cults was very negative. The term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver.

Whichever of these meanings they were well understood by Matthew’s readers and particularly the high Priests. It would have aroused immediate suspicion and deep distrust in their minds.

In short Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were complete anathema to the people of Israel.

Yet here is the rub from Matthew…it was these very Magi from the East who brought to the Jewish authority news of Jesus’ birth!

The birth was noticed…expected by outsiders… they had read Isaiah 60 and awaited its advent.

The outsider is bearing witness to God’s actions and God’s calling.

We see it many times in the Bible where it is the outsider…the least expected who bears wit ness to the truth that God has for us….

Perhaps finally the message can hardly be missed:

…the best of the world’s wisdom came and acknowledged the Christ.

2. A new angle on the Three Wise Men

Like Matthew, the wise men know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod (the current king in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order. ( Walter Brueggemann  “Off by Nine Miles”) 

Then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them, “Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?” The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the centre of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change. 

Herod does not like that verdict and asks, defiantly, “Well, do you have a better text?” The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4: 

But you, O Bethlehem, David’s country, the runt of the litter – From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.  He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.  His family tree is ancient and distinguished.”(The Message). 

This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground. 

Herod tells the Eastern intellectuals the truth, and the rest is history. They head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unnoticed and unpretentious. It is, however, the proper milieu for the birth of the One who will offer an alternative to the arrogant learning of intellectuals and the arrogant power of urban rulers.  

The story of the Three Wise Men sets up our options.

  • We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction.
  • ·         Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. A life lived around a baby with no credentials.

 Unpacking the story offers us the opportunity to let the vulnerability of Micah 5   and the truths of Micah 6:8 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency. The first day of this New Year is a good time to take the journey. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, justice, compassion, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning-hooks and swords into plough-shears.

This old story of the Three Wise Men has connections also to those passages in the Old Testament which speak of the nations coming together in peace, to beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning-hooks and to share in a great feast and learn the law of God. 

The wise men, and the eager nations ready for an alternative, made the trip. It would be ironic if the “outsiders” among us made that move and we who are God’s own people resisted.

3. So what star are we following…?

What story do we expect to find under the star we are following?

  • What is our guiding star for 2012?
  • How do we come as we follow our star ?
  • What gifts do we bring …?
  • ·         ….that depends
    • On the star we are following!
    • On what are we seeking…?
    • On what we expect…?


If we can see ourselves in an image of us following a star…what is the story of God in our world, nation, city, community, our life, that we seek or we expect to find.

If you can imagine and feel yourself in a dream or in this story… what sits under the star you are following?

What is your hope for?

Is it…

  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Career
  • Education
  • Relationship wellbeing
  • Family
  • Healing
  • Social Justice
  • Compassionate society
  • Prosperous nation


What the wise men found was a child in a manger in a dusty, unimportant village 14kms outside the Jewish capital. Not perhaps what they were looking for…perhaps they had been looking for the birth of a leader of the new powerful reconstructed Jerusalem…the future influence in the region…maybe to rise up against the Romans…but instead they found a stable, a manger, and a child.

When we seek out God in our lives what are we looking for?

If we see Christ in the child we will surely find Emmanuel …God with us. God pitching tent with us.

In that we can expect to find a way to be in an enduring relationship with the living God.

The way beyond is for some of us not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, justice, compassion, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning-hooks and swords into plough-shears.

In ways that will hold our life together in rich and unexpected ways…

…In ways where God travels with us and lives with us though all of life.

As Charles Ringma writes: our spirituality does not embrace only an aspect of life…but all of it, all of life’s experiences become the testing ground for linking faith and practice. Thus, in being, living, doing, praying, serving, risking, loving, and participating, we are weaving a pattern for understanding our spirituality…our relationship with the living God.

4. What gifts do we bring?

So as we come before the crib…as did the Wise Men..

What gifts do we bring.

What gifts do we bring to draw near the Living, loving God visited by the Three Wise Men?

A clue from our first hymn:

Fear not to enter his courts  
 in the slenderness

of the poor wealth  
 you would reckon as thine:

Truth in its beauty  
 and love
in its tenderness,

These are the offerings  
  to lay on his shrine.

So think what gifts you bring…self, talents, time, money, possessions…that’s just too simple and maybe just too trite…but what else do we have?

But I wonder…in giving gifts most of us think about what the other person might enjoy and need and may hint or tell us…

I wonder if as we enter the new year and ponder our relationship with God that we might listen, think, imagine what God might want, need, in fact enjoy of the gifts we could bring this year….

We have evidence that God seeks a loving relationship with us. One of trust , honesty, healthy dependence, willingness to wait and to listen.

Each of us will be different, but the gift I believe God seeks most of all is our whole self.

The image of the wise men from the east, kneeling before the Christ child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations.

When we, as it were, kneel upon it, we place ourselves in the story. It becomes our story.

So let it be that for us, as we sing…

Come as you are, That’s how I want you

Come as you are, Feel quite at home.

Close to my heart, Loved and forgiven

Come as you are, Why stand alone.


Posted in Sermons