Auditioning for an act of God.

Signpost for Sunday 5 February 2023: Isa 58:1-9a,(9b-12); Ps 112:1-9 (10); 1 Cor 2:1-12, (13-16); Matt 5:13-20.

The floods in Auckland have been the big news in New Zealand since last Friday. Such events would once have been called an act of God. Some people might still think they are. Most of us, though, now recognise the causes are a combination of climate change and lack of investment in essential infrastructure.

This week’s readings from Lectionary highlighted or me that there’s nothing new about the confusion that can arise between what to believe and what to do.

In the reading from Isaiah the people believe they need to pray and fast, but they don’t really understand what prayer and fasting requires them to do. It’s not about going without food for a few hours or days in the hope of pleasing YHWH. Isaiah 58:6-8 spells out that a better definition of fasting is to refrain from doing things that harm or constrain others and to actively provide them with the things they go without.

Paul’s letter to the ‘new Judaeans’ in Corinth contains the famous phrase, For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:3)In the 20th and 21st centuries that sentence is one those that can cause division. There are many who think that it prescribes an absolute and literal belief in the resurrection of Yeshua on the third day after he was put to death. Maybe it does, and maybe it is also an invitation for us to examine what Yeshua said and did when he was alive. It was after all, what he did and said when he was alive that led directly to his execution.

The reading from Matthew gives us Yeshua talking about how to go about live on earth rather than worrying about what happened to him after the crucifixion.  Although it does gets a bit confusing when he goes on to talk about the law and the prophets. But I think there’s an explanation for that, as I wrote a couple of years ago.

The what to believe and what to do debate is also about why we do either. I came across this thought from Bruce Epperly that I tend to agree with:

Heaven-oriented religion – and the quest to chart the Second Coming of Jesus – draws us away from the pain of the Earth. What happens to Right Whales, endangered by human artifices, off Cape Cod and the state of polar ice caps is of no consequence if heaven is our destination or at the last trump God will return in destructive force. Yet, though such religious viewpoints scorn conservation and Earth care, they seem to revel in drilling and dumping and money making.

Paul

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If only. Nevertheless.

Signpost for Sunday 27 November 2022 (1st week of Advent): Isa 2:1-5; Ps 122; Rom 13:11-14; Matt 24:36-44. 

There are 31 shopping days left till Christmas. Or rather, this Sunday is the beginning of Advent.  Advent though doesn’t mean much, if anything, to most people these days, I’m sure. Despite that, you can buy wine, whisky, coffee, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lindt chocolate, Playmobil, Play-Doh, Funk (?), Roblox (?), cheese, National Geographic, socks , Pokémon, dog biscuits, tea, candles, beer, Lego, and Barbie Advent calendars in 2022. According to my quick Google search, that is. 

Having said all of which, Advent as any kind of sacred or spiritual celebration did not even exist until the 5th century. And there’s no mention of Advent whatsoever in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

Advent then, is an invention that became a tradition, and it makes sense to ask how relevant it really is to anyone today. Equally, we might ask how relevant are this week’s Lectionary readings to the world we find ourselves living in?

If only Isaiah 2:4-6 was going to come true some day soon: 

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Nevertheless, these words from Psalm 122:6-7 might help us to pray for so many people in the world this Christmas:

May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
    and security within your citadels.

The beginning of Advent is the first week of a new liturgical year and the last week of the Signposts year. Signposts will be back in February 2023, if you still want it, that is.

Whatever kind of Christmas you choose to celebrate and are able to enjoy, I pray that you will you be blessed with the spirit of the coming season, which is peace, experience some joy of the season, which is hope, and feel the essence of the season, which is love.

See you next year,

Paul

A King Hit.

Signpost for Sunday 20 November 2022 (the Feast of Christ the King): Jer 23:1-6; For Ps use Luke 1:68-79; Col 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43.

It’s been just over six week’s since Queen Elizabeth II passed away and King Charles III succeeded to the throne. People are wondering what kind of monarch he’ll be. Articles have already been written pondering the future of the monarchy itself. Meanwhile, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has gone thoroughly modern by stripping four of her grandchildren of their royal titles as “a necessary future-proofing of the monarchy” according to The Guardian.

It’s all about modern monarchy in this week’s Lectionary too, because the Anglican and Catholic churches designate this Sunday as the Feast of Christ the King. I’ve mentioned before that’s something they have only been doing since 1969. Since then, the choice of readings for this Sunday seems to be telling us that Yeshua’s destiny as the King of Kings stretches back at least as far as 598 BC/BCE.

But I think I’ve come to a conclusion about Old Testament prophesy this week. Take this week’s prediction: The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up from David’s line a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour. (Jer 23: 5-6)

Now, if you collected together all such similar statements made by the prophets and wrote them down in a book or on scrolls, what would you have? You’d have ‘a book’ predicting the coming of someone sent by YHWH who would transform your world, if not the world itself. But here’s the problem. Each individual ‘prophesy’ was written in response to a specific situation. 

For example, the book of Jeremiah is primarily a collection of ‘prophetic messages’ written to explain the fate of the Jews in exile in Babylon. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says the book of Jeremiah is the product of a long process of growth, with several redactors responsible for the inclusion and arrangement of materials.

Obviously those exiled Jews were dying (some of them literally) to hear that one day Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And David was the best king they had ever had, so if the person who made it happen was in any way related to the man after YHWH’s own heart he’d be the perfect person; surely he’d be ‘the Lord’s anointed’ one, as was David.

As for this week’s gospel reading, no one knows for sure what Yeshua did or did not say to the two other men crucified on the same day he was. No one even knows for certain if there were two other men crucified on the same day. On the other hand, the Romans and Pilate in particular was pretty keen on crucifying people who caused trouble. So there could easily have been at least three of them dying that day on Golgotha. And we do know that Yeshua was crucified by Pilate.

Mark 15:27 tells us no more than They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Matthew 27:38 that Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.

Only Luke calls the other two men ‘criminals’. And only Luke creates that powerfully haunting scene of a compassionate and merciful Yeshua reassuring a criminal of his future in paradise.

I used to attend a Taizé service on Sunday evenings and the final words that criminal may have spoken were used as what I found to be the most affective of all the simple contemplative Taizé songs. Have a listen and see what you think.

Paul

Back to the Future (with apologies to Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd).

Signpost for Sunday 13 November 2022: Isaiah 65:17-25; Isa 12; 2 Thess 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19.

Luke Verses 12-17 are the most important parts from the gospel reading because he’s talking to his audience about what’s about to or is already happening to them: “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name.  And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.

Luke’s writing ostensibly to Theophilus but really to a bunch of ‘new Judaeans’ who have been evicted from the synagogues and have been abandoned by their families and friends.

The ‘predictions’ he makes about the Temple being thrown down stone by stone and nations rising against nations are not so much predictions as post rationalisations. Luke’s author was writing sometime between 80 and 110 CE/AD; the Temple had already been destroyed and the Jewish – Roman war took place from 66 AD to 73 CE/AD.

Verse 10 from the second letter to the Thessalonians has created a lot of problems: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Politicians over the years right back from the Whig Jeremy Bentham in 19th century Britain (champion of the Poor Laws and instigator of the work houses) to the UK’s Tories, the USA’s Republicans and NZ’s National party have at some time misinterpreted what that verse appears to purport to justify labelling those who live on benefits as bludgers and spongers. I came across this essay this week that very eloquently explains why that is not what it’s about at all.

Paul

Alive, alive, oh (with apologies to sweet Molly Malone).

Signpost for Sunday 6 November 2022: Hagg 1:15b–2:9; Ps 145:1-5,16-20 or Ps 98; 2 Thess 2:1-5,13-17; Luke 20:27-38.

I spotted something I have not noticed before this week. It’s the last verse in this week’s gospel readingfor to him all are alive (Luke 20:38)The ‘Contemporary English Version’ translates it like this: This means that everyone is alive as far as God is concerned.

The earlier gospels that relate the very same story don’t contain this last phrase at all. They both end with this: he is the God only of living people (Mark NIV); He is not the God of the dead but of the living (Matthew NIV).

That set me wondering why did the author of Luke add the words, “to him all are alive”? More importantly, what could he mean by that?

I came up with a couple of possibilities. The first is that if God regards every creature that has ever lived as ‘still alive’ then that might be a way of looking at the idea of life after death (or even heaven). The second is similar. It is as if no one ever really dies because God regards each life as never ending. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas ‘Death has no dominion’. 

Of course it could simply be that because Yeshua’s second coming had not taken place by the time Luke’s author was writing (80-110 CE/AD) some of the gentile followers of the Way might have been having trouble getting their heads around the whole concept of resurrection, and he needed to say something about it to reassure them. I mentioned before  that the idea of resurrection as not new even then. It came about during the time of exile (200-300 BCE) and most of the Jews who were subsequently conquered by the Romans still believed in it. The concept of resurrection at the very least gave ancient Jewish people hope in the face of all their oppressors. Contrary to what many people think, though, it isn’t a Christian invention. Which might also explain why the first followers of the Way were Jews, and that they found it very easy to accept that Yeshua would return in their near future.

Paul

Talking with the tax man (apologies to Billy Bragg’s brilliant song*).

Signpost for Sunday 30 October 2022: Hab 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Ps 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12; Luke 19:1-10.

Tax, tell me about it. Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss couldn’t get it right to save their lives. Christopher Luxon seems to think it’s the key to getting him elected as New Zealand’s next Prime Minister. My accountant is trying to sell me an ‘Audit Shield’ insurance policy in case the Inland Revenue decides to investigate my meagre freelance earnings.

Zacchaeus in this week’s gospel reading is not just a tax man, he’s “a chief tax collector” (Luke 19:2). The King James version even says he was the chief tax man. Worse he’s not even collecting taxes for the Jews he is collecting them for those nasty Romans.

But despite all that, he is desperate to see Yeshua, even if it means climbing a tree. Surely the chief tax man could have had his servants clear a way through the crowds so that he could get up close enough to see Yeshua.

Maybe Zacchaeus wasn’t your average first century Jewish tax collector. Maybe that’s really the point of this story that only the author of Luke recounts. He recounts it to Theophilus his stated recipient of this ‘letter’ and maybe this is what he’s saying: if you are going to become a follower of the Way you are going to find yourself in the company of people you probably would never have thought of associating with before. And guess what, every single one of them will be worth knowing.

Paul

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNKS9OWEOB0

Who am I?

Signpost for Sunday 23 October 2022: Joel 2:23-32; Ps 65; 2 Tim 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14.

If you’re anything like me your first reaction to this week’s reading from Luke is probably a version of Thank god I’m not like the Pharisee in the story.

Which explains why this short parable is one of the cleverest in the New Testament. As soon as any of us has even an inkling of a feeling of being better than the Pharisee haven’t we fallen into the same trap that he did?

Yeshua told the story in Luke 12:9-14 “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on other people.”

The way things are right now I could easily say, “Thank god I’m not a Tory voter.” “Thank god I’m not a Republican.” “Thank god I care about climate change.­­”

But I’d be thanking god for the wrong things. And I suspect that I’d be missing a chance to really connect with my god. Or more importantly, I’d be unable to talk to some of the people who don’t see the world the way I do.

I’m not sure I’m very good at talking to people who don’t see the world the way I do, but isn’t that exactly what Yeshua spent his whole life trying to do?

Paul

“It’s Jesus, Jim, but not as we know him.”

Signpost for Sunday 16 October 2022: Jer 31:27-34; Ps 119:97-104; 2 Tim 3:14–4:5; Luke 18:1-8.

The thing that struck me about this week’s well-known reading from Luke is that it is a widow who constantly petitions the judge and her persistence does the trick. What if it hadn’t been a widow who was so persistent? Would persistence alone be enough to change the judge’s mind?

I ask that question because the author of Luke’s gospel has Yeshua tell the disciples that this is a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

The fact is, though, that any first century Jewish judge knew he had been commanded by YHWH to take care of widows. And I’ve written before about the fact that the widow didn’t just persist, she might well have been threatening to give the judge a black eye if he didn’t rule in her favour.

Anyway, then I Googled ‘does prayer work?’ and this was the first thing that came up. It’s from the Aetherius Society which was “founded in 1955 by the late western Master of yoga, Dr George King, in order to help the Cosmic Masters bring a state of balance back to humanity.” Well, I wasn’t expecting that. And I certainly wasn’t expecting what this society has to say about JesusJesus was not the one and only son of God. He was – and is – an extremely advanced intelligence from the planet Venus, who chose to allow a small part of his vast consciousness to be born into an Earth body.

The saddest thing I discovered about the Aetherius Society is that one of the messages it promotes is that Jesus “came to Earth to teach you how to love – through God. Came I not to teach you to love me – but your brother.”

That’s a bit more like it. Shame about them thinking Yeshua might have had pointy ears though.

Paul

Tears for fears (not the 80s band).

Signpost for Sunday 2 October 2022: Lam 1:1-6; For Ps: Lam 3:19-26 or Ps 137;2 Tim 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10.

Why on earth is the Lectionary making us Lament so much this week? Lamentations comprises five poems about grief and loss (loss of Jerusalem and loss of freedom during the exile in Babylon 586-537 BCE).

One explanation is that the Christian church sees the book of Lamentations as a parallel to grief associated with the death of Jesus/Yeshua.

Let’s go with that for moment. Oh no, sorry, I don’t get that from Lam 1:1-6. It’s definitely a poem about the loss of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem. Oops, hang on a minute. Doesn’t Jesus’/Yeshua’s death bring about the coming of the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:2)? A bit of a stretch for me to spot on a Sunday morning in church though.

Psalm 137 reached number one in the UK charts in 1978, courtesy of Boney M. Well, not quite the whole psalm, but a version of verses 1-3 followed by verse 14 from Psalm 19.  The members of Boney M must have sung the song in church many times, or something like it. No wonder African American slaves took Psalm 137 to heart. It asks a question they must have asked themselves many times: How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? Those are words that anyone ‘in exile’ might ask – slaves, refugees, the Ukrainian people in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk who’ve just been told they now live in Russia.

Luke’s message is a bit deflating – do what the church tells you and all you have done is what you should have done anyway. So no gold stars or special treatment. More importantly, what does ‘the church’ tell us to do? After all, there are quite a lot of Protestant Christian denominations — Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, Wesleyan, United Reform, Dispensational, and Pentecostal. And don’t forget the two ‘original’ Christian churches: Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

Do we have to belong to, or even attend, any particular church to call ourselves Christians? And should we, like the disciples, be worried about the strength of our faith (Luke 17:5)? Yeshua’s answer to them after all is that ‘faith as small as a mustard seed’ is pretty powerful stuff.  On the other hand, doesn’t the second “greatest commandment” tell us what we should try our hardest to do instead of worrying about our faith? And if we concentrate on the second greatest commandment, maybe we get closer to achieving the first.

Paul

Picking up the pieces.

Signpost for Sunday 25 September 2022: Jer 32:1-3a,6-15; Ps 91:1-6,14-16; 1 Tim 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31.

Sometimes I wonder what on earth those who devised the Lectionary were and are up to. This week’s reading from Jeremiah is a case in point – Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 doesn’t add up to much unless you read the whole chapter. (And why chop out just two and a bit verses?)

Read the whole chapter and you discover it’s yet another attempt by ancient Jewish ‘historians’ to explain what had happened to the nation. Read Verse 42 out of that context and you see how YHWH/God/Jesus are often mistakenly held responsible for a lot of things that have happened since those ancient times (As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them.)

Psalm 91 has been savagely sliced up by the Lectionary bods as well. Apart from being a poem with some weird metaphors (YHWH as a great bird that somehow provides a shield and a fortress wall – Psalm 91:4), the bit I think we really shouldn’t take literally these days is the transactional nature of the whole concept (If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.) I think this is really all about making sure ‘the king’ and his people don’t get sucked in by those other gods, like Baal for example.

But lookee here at a couple of verses that have been chopped this week: For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone (Ps 91:11-12)Ring any bells? The writers of Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:11 use that same phrase – so that you will not strike your foot against a stone – when describing how the devil tempts Yeshua in the wilderness and tries to get him to jump off that high place. Of course, they knew very well that they were referencing Psalm 91.

Most of the reading from Timothy echoes the thoughts from last week’s reading from Luke, i.e. that you can’t serve God and money. Interestingly, as we now know that this letter wasn’t written by Saul of Tarsus but by someone else, I spotted this writer having to deal with the fact that the second coming hadn’t occurred as expected by coming up in this clever phrase in verse 15 to explain it which God will bring about in his own time. That’s pretty much the attitude ‘the church’ has adopted ever since, especially by quoting Isaiah 55:8-9.

Andrew wrote the Signpost for September 21, 2016 about the same Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19-31) we have this week. It’s the story of Lazarus who was covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs came and licked his sores.

What Andrew wrote then taught me a few things, so I have taken the liberty of repeating it: The Gospel story is not original to Jesus. It is found in Egyptian and other sources, and at least seven times in Rabbinic literature. And it is not here told by Jesus, but remembered and retold by Luke. Even assuming that the story meant much the same in Egypt and among the Rabbis, those are three different situations, with perhaps three slightly different meanings. And it is hard to tell if the ending is an add-on, and if so, by whom. Now it is in English (perhaps you and I read the same translation, perhaps not) and translation alters the ambiguities of every language.

This Gospel reading has nothing to do with the resurrection. It is cast in pre-Christian forms in this respect. Today we would say it is about social justice. And social justice is formed and deformed by individual attitudes.

Just so you know, I am the least qualified of the Signpost writers I have known to date, all of whom gave me so much to think about. Hopefully, that’s what Signposts continue to do – give you something to think about.

Paul