Apocalypse now.

Signpost for Sunday 2 December 2018 (first Sunday of Advent): Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25:1-10; 1 Thess 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36.

It’s Advent. The coming, the beginning, and yet from this week’s gospel reading you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the beginning of the end. That’s what the author of Luke seems to be showing his readers and listeners in this apocalyptic piece.

The end times as some people call them, when we will “see the son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  Only that’s not Luke, that’s Daniel 7:13.

In Daniel the son of man is literally the “human one”, and he will have the power of a king.

And Luke seems to agree with that idea in verse 31:  “…when you see these things coming to pass, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Then everything gets a bit wonky for me. We know now that Luke can’t be taken literally when he writes “this generation” will not pass away “until all might be fulfilled.”

I begin to wonder how come the author of Luke has slipped into this apocalyptic genre when not long before he has Jesus say,  the kingdom of God is “among you” or “within you” (Luke 17:20). In which case Luke has already told us that the prophesy has actually already been fulfilled.

Looking at it that way, I find myself agreeing with John Petty who thinks this a may be a life lesson, rather than being a life warning. He suggests that the apocalypse is not some future event, but it’s right now for each of us in different ways

None of us knows what will happen tomorrow. Misfortunes occur for someone every day.  And the day will inevitably come when that someone is me.

Perhaps this is, after all, a good way to begin Advent – the coming of one who shows us how to live life on Earth.

Paul

P.S. Advent is the beginning of a new church year and traditionally the end of the Signpost year. Signposts will be back in February 2019, if you want them.

Until then, may you be blessed with the spirit of the season, which is peace, the gladness of the season, which is hope, and the heart of the season, which is love.

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Famous last words.

Signpost for Sunday 25 November 2018 (feast of Christ the King): 2 Sam 23:1-7; Ps 132:1-12,(13-18); Rev 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

I spotted a theme running through this week’s lectionary readings. You could say they are all famous last words.

2 Samuel 23 begins, “Now these are the last words of David.” Revelation contains the final words of every authorised version of the Bible. John 18:33-37 records Jesus’ last conversation before his crucifixion.

And that got me thinking. Are these really the last words or are they just famous? Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Judeans?”  (It’s the same question he asks in all four gospels: Mark 15:2, Matthew 27:11, Luke 23:3, John 18:33.) Does that mean that this is what he actually said? I don’t think so. If this conversation happened at all, it’s reported as if no one else was in the room apart from Pilate and Jesus.

It’s an incredibly poignant scene from one of the greatest works of literature ever written, but there is no way we can verify whether this is the actual conversation that took place. Yes, it gives us a picture of Pilate who appears to be trying very hard to avoid anything to do with spirituality. He keeps coming back to the point of whether Jesus is a threat to Roman rule or not. Some scholars say it’s clear that Pilate didn’t want to execute Jesus but he gave in to the wishes of the Jews. I can’t see it myself. He may or may not have believed Jesus was a threat to Rome, but executing one more troublesome Jew would have been no skin off his nose. This is surely great writing, or it’s what was accepted as the story by the time the author of John came to write his version of events.

What really matters is that we have a picture of a room where two men are face to face. One of them we know held all the power on that bit of earth that was first century Palestine. The other is the man of whom each of the gospel writers is trying to convey an enduring sense of “a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood only after his death to have revealed the way of God toward humanity”.

My thanks to Marilynne Robinson for that particular quote.

Did Pilate recognise who Jesus really was? And how do we recognise him? Is it when we hear his still small voice? Is it when we admire his handiwork in the wonders of the universe? Or is it when we realise that when things go wrong, he weeps with us?

Paul

Big stones to stumble over.

Signpost for Sunday 18 November 2018: 1 Sam 1:4-20; 1 Sam 2:1-10; Heb 10:11-14,(15-18),19-25; Mark 13:1-8.

Big stones, big buildings, big trouble. All three are at the centre of this week’s strange, short Gospel reading.

It’s strange because many people might think this is Jesus prophesying about the end of the world. And these eight verses are often described as being in the apocalyptic tradition of writing. Hebrew apocalyptic literature had its heyday from about 300 BC to 100 AD. It starts with Daniel and ends with Revelation. But is it really about the end of the world, or does it more reflect the fact that apocalyptic writings usually came about whenever the Jewish people were having a particularly tough time?

This passage was most probably written some time between 66–70 AD. We don’t know for sure whether it was written just before or just after the Romans destroyed the opulent Temple in 70AD, and that of course was when verse 2’s prediction came true. Or did it? The Temple was destroyed by the Romans, that’s for sure. But they didn’t so much smash it up, as set fire to it.

I think the words that the author of Mark puts into Jesus mouth are more dramatic than specific, and more relevant to the time he wrote them than they are prophetic. Times were very tough in first century Palestine. It wasn’t just that the Romans were in charge, it was also that thousands of people were driven into poverty by them.  The Roman taxes demanded half most people’s income no matter how meager that was.  If you refused or tried to dodge your taxes, the Roman IRD didn’t take you to court, instead roads were lined with people hanging on crosses.

It’s little wonder the Jews rebelled in 66AD, and it was no surprise that during that final rebellion people fervently hoped, and proclaimed, that the Messiah would appear to save the Temple.  Some rebel leaders proclaimed that they themselves were the Messiah.

In that context, I see verses 3 to 8 as less prophetic than historic; though not history as we would understand it these days. This is a historical note that reminds Mark’s gentile readers and listeners that they were not the first to be in deep trouble with the Roman government.

Having said all of which, it’s easy to overlook the literary skill of the author of Mark. The thing we so often miss if we just read the lectionary in chunks is the superb irony of the fact that the disciple’s awe at the sight of the Temple with its opulent walls of gold and marble comes immediately after we’ve just heard about a dirt-poor widow who donated her last two small copper coins to the Temple coffers (Matt 12:42-44).

Paul

 

Church on Sunday, particularly this Sunday.

Signpost for Sunday 11 November 2018: Ruth 3:1-5;4:13-17; Ps 127; Heb 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44.

I wrote about Mark 12:38-44 three years ago and I haven’t got much more to say about that famous passage.

Instead I’m thinking about the fact that this Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war.

What will they say in your church about Armistice Day or the war itself this Sunday? It was the war to end all wars. And obviously it hasn’t. But it definitely was a war that changed much of the world irrevocably. It was also one of those wars that organised religion condoned. Commandment number six says, ‘Thou shalt not murder.” Not, ”Thou shalt not kill”. That’s how churches have managed to condone war throughout the ages, by pointing out the difference between killing in battle and murdering.

All I would like to say is that 100 years after the world’s first publicly acknowledged pitiless war, there are too many untold stories still to be told of those who fought, died, survived, nursed, grieved, didn’t realise-till-later, never were the same again, or just simply staggered on into the future that was not the one they were promised.

If you would like to read some of those untold stories, then please go to this website and plough your way through the 100 pieces that are being published each day until November 11th to tell us something of those we may or may not remember.

On Sunday night I am going to walk around the Field of Remembrance in front of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and say some prayers around the 18,000 white crosses, each of which bears the name of a someone who lost their life in WWI.

Then I am going to ask God a few questions.

Paul

Words, words, words.

Signpost for Sunday 4 November 2018: Ruth 1:1-18; Ps 146; Heb 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34.

I was struck by the old testament reading, the epistle and the gospel reading this week.

I think Ruth I:16-17 is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the whole Bible. Maybe that’s why it’s quoted in isolation so often and used so wrongly in some wedding ceremonies. All of which simply attests to the power of poetry to move people. These verses are about loyalty, that’s true, arguably about true love, though not at all about romantic love, maybe devotional love. And because they are so beautiful here they are again in the King James translation (also the most poetic in my opinion):

“… whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people…”

I found Leonard Cohen singing these words at the end of the first of the last of his live tours in 2009 astonishingly moving. And I didn’t care at all that they were being quoted out of context.

Of course, the real point for the Jews was that the next thing Ruth says is, “and thy God my God.” The first gentile conversion? I’ve no idea.

The Epistle to the Hebrews 9:11 tells us that ‘Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come’ (NSRV) or ‘as an high priest of good things to come’ (KJV). Very different things to my mind. Unfortunately I’m not a classical Greek scholar so I can’t tell you which is closer to the original.

Then I came to the first of the gospels to be written, (author of Mark), and the words that struck me this week were, “One of the scribes…”

The interesting thing is that the author of Mark would have us think that the scribes were in cahoots with the Pharisees. But actually every village had a scribe. They were the local lawyers. They drafted legal documents: loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, etc.

The other job a scribe had was to copy old testament scripture. They spent their entire lives studying of the law of Moses, and then determining how it applied to daily life.

But in the new testament the scribes are implicated in Jesus’s arrest and eventual sentence to death (Matthew 26:57; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:1–2). Probably because well-known scribes sometimes had had their own ‘disciples’, and many of them were on the Jewish council.

If you look carefully, it seems to me that most of the tricky questions asked of Jesus by the scribes hover around the distinction between the Jewish tradition (man-made) and the Jewish law (God-given).

That’s why the scribe here is shockingly honest – he is sticking to the letter of the God-given law, and as Jesus says many times, if you can do that, you’re amazing. If you can’t (which most of us can’t) you’d be lost if you were a first century Jew. Jesus comes along and shows us all a way or rather ‘the way’ round this problem, as it was known in the first century AD.

Paul

Hopelessy keen.

Signpost for Sunday 28 October 2018 (St Simon and St Jude): Isa 28:14-16 Ps 119:89-96 Eph 2:19-22 John 15:17-27.

We’re not on the same page this week, if you’re not in New Zealand. But the feast of, or just the Sunday of, St Simon and St Jude does happen in the lectionary for most people some time during the year. So just save this one until then, if you’re not with us down under this week.

Meanwhile, I was completely confused as to why this is the Sunday of St Simon and St Jude and yet we have the reading from John chapter 15 to mark it. So I’ll come to that later. But first, these two saintly fellows.

St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. St Simon is only a saint because he was an apostle and as far as I know he’s not the patron saint of anything, apart from maybe extreme enthusiasm.

That could be the case because the author of Luke calls him “Simon the Zealot” (Luke 6.15, Acts 1.13). The authors of Matthew and Mark call him “the zealous one” (Matthew 10.4, Mark 3.18).

What are they talking about? Not necessarily someone who belonged to one of the terrorist groups committed to violently overthrowing the Romans. He was probably called “the zealot” simply because he was really keen. Or maybe the apostles had a sense of humour and that was his nickname because he was, in fact, the most relaxed and laid-back of them all. What do I know? But anyway, he’s not famous for much else, apart from the almost certainly untrue story that he was martyred by being cut in half with a saw.

That leaves us with Jude of the completely hopeless. How on earth did he get that reputation, I wondered. All anyone really knows about Jude is that he wasn’t Judas Iscariot” (John 14.22). He is, “Judas of James” (Luke 6.16, Acts 1.13). That means he is “Judas, the son of James”.

Unfortunately, because Jude sounds so much like Judas, early Christians of the Roman church only prayed to him as a last resort. So he became “the saint of last resort”. Eventually “the saint of last resort” became “the patron saint of lost causes”.

I heard of St Jude as that very same patron saint of lost causes because my mum used to pray to St Jude. She felt she was a lost cause, or a hopeless one at least for the last ten years of her life. She was riddled with arthritis and finally gave up the ghost just after her 75th birthday.

But why is this week’s gospel reading John 15:17-27? Where’s the lost cause there? Once again, it’s no use you and I looking for them. This gospel was written for first century followers of ‘the way’ who were feeling helpless and alone. Or to put it as the author of John does, the Church was suffering the hatred of “the world”.

When we read Acts and the letters of Paul in the 21st century we get the impression that the new faith spread like wild-fire around the Mediterranean. But, surely not. I bet lots of early Christians felt like their situation was as desperate as any that people pray to St Jude about.

Paul

No Booker prize for the author of Mark.

Signpost for Sunday 21 October 2018: Job 38:1-7,(34-41); Ps 104:1-9,24,35c; Heb 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-4.

Can you believe Mark 10:35? James and John, who have been with Jesus since he picked them up from the fisherman’s gutter of life, as it were, have the gall to say they want him to do whatever they ask.

Excuse me, has Jesus done whatever people ask of him, ever, so far? No, he does something different or completely evades mad requests, like ‘show us a sign’. Who the fruit to these guys think they are?

The whole things seems nuts to me. Or more precisely, the author of Mark just isn’t that good a writer, at least not as we would judge a good writer, these days. He has no idea about character; although he’s a bit better with plot.

By that I mean that if we look at the reading this week in context of the whole ‘book’ then this chapter comes straight after the third time Jesus has made it clear what his fate will be. (10:32-34).

The first time (8:27-38), Jesus is speaking to both the crowds and the disciples.  The second time (9:30-37), he is speaking only to his disciples. His disciples include people that have been following him around. But this third time (10:32-35), he’s is specifically talking to the twelve.

Think about that. He’s already told them that anyone “who wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:37). But they don’t get it, as usual.

So how come Jesus responds to James and John so patiently? It won’t long be before he calls Peter, Satan when he doesn’t get it (Matt 16:23). See what I mean? The author of Mark doesn’t seem to understand ‘the character’ of Jesus. No, instead he needs to make a point and that means, who cares about character? No Booker prize for this guy.

But then it’s interesting that most translations make a literary link: ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them’ (Mark 10:41). Would the early Christians have spotted that “Lording over” could refer to not following the Lord? I doubt it, but we could see it that way.

If you’ve never really understood how radical Jesus’s ideas were and are, just look around, nearly every society in the world has always been subjected to the will of the strong, the powerful, the rich.

We’re still stuck in that swamp, sadly.

Paul