Luke gets high with Peter, James and John.

Signpost for Sunday 6th August 2017 (The Transfiguration): Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps 97; 2 Pet 1:16-19; Luke 9:28b-36.

It does seem somewhat absurd to me that the Gospel read out in churches this week begins with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings…” and yet we have not actually heard any of these sayings as part of the service. I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t know the Bible well enough to immediately recall what those sayings are. And let’s face it, how many people bother to go home and look them up? Which leaves most people listening to a story they struggle to believe in literally and can’t quite work out metaphorically.

So, as a special treat, here are three sayings from the ‘eight days before’:

Luke 9:7-9 Now Herod the ruler* heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. 9Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.

Luke 9:18-19 Once when Jesus* was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ 19They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’

Luke 9:20 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’

Is it just me, or does this remind you of those endless trailers that appear on TV telling us what programme is coming up next, so stay tuned for a really exciting episode?

Well, it is an exciting episode in the story Luke is telling his largely gentile audience. Pardon? Yes, here we have an episode that Luke has taken from Mark and slightly altered. The main difference between the two versions being that Peter, James and John see Moses and Elijah actually talking with Jesus, says Luke. It’s all just a vision in Mark’s version.

Most commentators suggest that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. And their appearance has certainly been signposted in the previous ‘sayings’. But would a mainly gentile audience be quite so aware of the significance of Moses and Elijah, I wonder. Surely, they wouldn’t have been particularly familiar with the Torah.

The key for that audience must have been, as it probably is for us, that we hear God’s voice from heaven saying “Listen to Him!” and don’t worry too much about reading your Bible cover to cover.


Dangers in the text.

Signpost for Sunday, July 30th, 2017: Gen 29: 15-28.  Ps 105: 1-11, 45b. Rom 8; 26-39.  Matt 13: 31-33, 44-52.

A couple of years ago, Marjorie and I inherited a few hundred books from her brother. I have been finding things in our library that I should have read years ago, and am catching up. The one I am on now is “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. It was filmed some time back and is now being issued as a TV series.

Laban asks what Jacob’s wages should be and he ends up married to the two sisters and gets a flock as a bonus. We have usually venerated Jacob as a Patriarch. But we know that Patriarchy is one of the greatest unresolved issues of our times. It is behind the oppression of women, and closely related to racism, colonialism and other oppressions.

We have also to remember that such passages as this from Genesis, and the Psalm which is its response today, are used to justify the last throes of European colonialism  –  Zionism. There was even a Hawke’s Bay Church that protested recently at New Zealand’s efforts in the UN to make Israel be fair to its Arab citizens!

.           .           .           .           .

I was a Methodist from the age of eleven to twenty-five, so it is not surprising that my reaction to Romans 8; 29-30 is very Arminianist.  (I recently found that a nasty war took place in the Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century over this doctrine.)  Not even Karl Barth has reconciled me to the narrower Calvinism. So I have problems with those two verses. Verses 38 and 39 are the real heart of the matter.

.           .           .           .           .

Then there are five parables and a comment. At least this selection avoids the tendency of the Gospel writers to make Parables into allegory. Jesus here is represented as part of the Rabbinic tradition of parable purveyors. We probably go too far if we claim that all the parables in the Gospels are original to Jesus, just as we would probably be wrong to attribute the allegories to him.

If I had to preach on these lections, I would centre on those two verses from Romans, but expand them with the Pearl of Great Price and the Net Full of Fish, symbol of all the nations of the world. The danger of the Romans text alone is to make our appreciation of the love of God self-centred.  “Us” cannot be restricted to  the in-group. The love of God is aimed at the whole world.



Magic, messages and promises made.

Signpost for Sunday, July 23 2017 (18th Ordinary Sunday): Gen 28:10 – 19a; Ps 139:1-12, 23-24; Rom 8:12-25; Mt 13:24-30, 36-43.

It was once a common belief that if you slept with your head against a sacred stone you would dream oracles. Associative magic was a strong part of early religion. Jacob is about to leave the country. He is leaving at the place where his grandparents entered the land years ago. When they arrived they built an altar there. A place for worship set up by an ancestor is about as sacred as it gets. Try to close a church when the grandchildren of the founders live in the district and you will find that out. The grandchildren may never darken the doors from one Christmas to the next, but they will dominate the congregational meeting when the closure is discussed. Associative magic still exists!

The dream is full of messages for Jacob. He has won his father’s blessing by a trick, and has to flee alone, but he sees many people coming and going on that ladder. In God’s dream he is no longer alone. He has tricked his father, and that is very impious, but the ladder leads to heaven, so he is not cut off from God. Heaven is still “up there” in those days!

Early religion tended to identify God with a certain place, perhaps more widely with a tribe or tribal area (country?). It was hard to think of God as being universal. If two nominally Christian countries are at war, they both expect God to back their side. Islam and Christianity and Judaism all tend to say that they worship the same God, but when one attacks another, that must first be denied, so that the resultant war is not fratricide within God’s family.

So Jacob is seeking comfort as he prepares to leave his land and the sphere of influence of his God. His dream offers a great hope. God will be with him outside that land, and will return him home safely. And he renews the promise made to Abraham (this is probably the main reason for this story!) that his descendants will be like the sands of the desert. No wonder Jacob (as Abraham before him) calls the place Bethel – the House of God.


Not just daily bread, but the daily bread of the soul.

Signpost for Sunday 16th July, 2017: Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

In the Tyndale series of commentaries there is one on the letter to the church in Rome which was written by F. F. Bruce: it was published when I was an engineering undergraduate in the University of Manchester and he was the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis. In his own introduction to the letter he quotes a small part of Tyndale’s introduction. I would like to quote a portion of what Bruce quotes, which was itself a small portion of what Tyndale wrote and published in 1526. (I may have quoted this before in a Signpost, I have certainly quoted it elsewhere.)

Forasmuch as this epistle is the principal and most excellent part of the New Testament, and most pure Euangelion, that is to say glad tidings and that we call gospel, and also a light and a way unto the whole Scripture, I think it meet that every Christian man not only know it by rote and without the book, but also exercise himself therein evermore continually, as with the daily bread of the soul.

Tyndale goes on to say that the letter is an introduction to the Old Testament.

While Tyndale’s suggestion that every Christian should know the whole of the epistle by rote might not fit with modern ideas about learning it does seem to fit with modern ideas about acting: without knowing exactly what the author wrote it is not possible to produce a proper interpretation, in action or the tone of voice, of the character that is to be portrayed. Similarly, with this letter: unless we can grasp it as a whole and discern what is behind it we will be unable to communicate it. Here I am admitting that I have not grasped everything in the letter, and so cannot properly express it. There is something that does tend to confuse me, and within the commentary I found something that helps. There is a use of the word law which differs from the usual meaning of instructions on how to behave. In some places the word law is used to mean principle. The distinction seems to found by context, so that law of may be read as principle of. The second verse of the reading would then become:

For the principle of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the principle of sin and of death.

Being set free brings us into the astonishing situation where we have an affectionate, familial relationship in which we can address God as Abba.

The process that follows from this membership of a family is a change in the way of thinking and acting, very much like the habituation process which Aristotle proposed, but with a significant difference. There is the gift of a life within which can change our being: the resurrection life of Jesus, with the Holy Spirit living within.


It’s no fairy tale.

Signpost for Sunday 9th July 2017 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time): Genesis 24:34-38,42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

The Daily Devotions in our N.Z. Prayer Book contain the phrase “God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel” (p.112). As a not particularly feminist female, I have found this a trifle tiresome, but it is important. These three women were just as much part of God’s plan for the establishment of his Nation as their respective husbands. We are not told much about the romance between Abraham and Sarah. She seems to have been related to him, probably his half-sister (20:12) and accordingly was acceptable. What is certain is that it was her son, Isaac, rather than his older half-brother, Ishmael, who was the first link in the chain that was to become the chosen people of God. We have much more detail about the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac and that of the next generation, Isaac’s son Jacob and Rachel, and both those stories make gripping reading, packed with believable characters, still universally recognisable.

Today we are concerned with Rebekah, the beautiful, amiable, physically strong (think of her drawing water for all those camels) young woman whose life was changed by the arrival of a mysterious stranger bent on finding the right wife for his master’s son. That stranger is not named in the Genesis story, simply referred to as Abraham’s trusted servant, but Jewish tradition is firm that he was Eliezar, the slave whom Abraham once thought might have to become his heir (15:2-3). Eliezar was charged with a very long and tiring journey to seek a bride for Isaac from “back home”, the local Canaanite women not being suitable because they worshipped other gods. He took with him expensive gifts for the prospective bride and her family, and because of his faithfulness, prayerfulness and obedience his mission was successful; Rebekah agreed to go back with him and marry Isaac. The account of their first setting eyes on each other is touching. We have an older man falling in love with a much younger woman, welcoming her, it seems, as a replacement for his beloved mother whose death he was still mourning – hardly Mills and Boon stuff, but there are all kinds of love, and this marriage started well. According to Rashi, an 11th century Rabbi, the three miracles that characterized Sarah’s tent while she was alive, and that disappeared with her death, reappeared when Rebekah entered the tent. These were: A lamp burned in her tent from Shabbat eve to Shabbat eve, there was a blessing in her dough, and a cloud hovered over her tent (symbolizing the Divine Presence. Thank you Mr Google.) However, fairy tale stuff as it may seem, they did not live happily ever after.

The account of their son Jacob’s marriage to Rebekah’s niece Rachel is an even more page-turning narrative, and further reinforces that these three women were not just people with the right body parts for the continuation of the line. They were each  carefully sought and they were all feisty women, dedicated to their matriarchal role. I wonder why it was part of God’s plan that each of them had to suffer barrenness for many years before God’s intervention granted them sons.

Another puzzle is why Rachel is regarded as the third Matriarch at all. She may have been Jacob’s favourite wife, but she was not his first, she contributed only two out of twelve sons, and it was not from one of them that the Messiah was descended. God of Sarah, Rebekah and Leah? Somebody please point me in the right direction. George?


Don’t tell me the old, old story.

Signpost for Sunday 2nd July 2017: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42.

Three years ago I wrote a Signpost on these very same verses. I was perturbed then and all I could really do was recommend Leonard Cohen’s song The Story of Isaac to you.

This time round I remain perturbed, and I’m not the only one. John C. Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas has this to say about Genesis 22: “Let me make something very clear from the outset of this piece: I deeply dislike and thoroughly distrust this morsel of the sacred text.”

It’s worth reading the rest of his thoughts especially as he now refuses to preach on this text ever again.

Fortunately, I don’t have to preach on anything but I do have to write this Signpost. Which is why I’m glad that I happen to be reading a book by Brian D. McLaren at the moment. The title hooked me straight away: ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.’ As a book that makes you think about things you may not have questioned, that many people just don’t question, I can thoroughly recommend it.

And what it has to do with the Abraham and Isaac story is that it suggests another way to look at the First and Second Testaments.

McLaren writes: ‘For most of us, I suspect, our concept of Christianity, follows a similar pattern to this: What is true of God is true of Jesus; Jesus is equal to God. Also, we would say that Jesus is the revelation of God to us, or that if we want to understand God, Jesus is the ‘human’ version of God.’

I think he’s right about that and it’s probably what I would have said before reading his book. But, he points out, there is another way of looking at things, one that McLaren suggests actually makes more sense of the notion of ‘New’ Testament and ‘Gospel’, and even the whole point of Jesus’ ministry on earth.

It’s not something new; the alternative concept of Christianity is in fact how Franciscans, the Celts and Quakers see things: First seek to understand or know Christ. Then apply this understanding to God. Enrich, challenge, adjust, affirm or correct all previous understandings of God in the light of Christ.

Personally, I’d never thought about Christianity in exactly those terms. And then I thought, if I take this approach, the story of Abraham and Isaac is less of a problem for me. Or to put it another way – this is not a story about the God I believe in, because Jesus shows me a different understanding of who God is.


Politics, psalms and a bit of a puzzle

Signpost for Sunday 25 June 2017 (12th Ordinary Sunday): Gen 21; 8-21; Ps 86; 1-10,16-17: Rom 6; 1b-11: Matt 10; 24-39.

Our Signpost writer, Paul, gave us a really good reading of the Genesis story three years ago, so all I can do here is suggest that this is really about the politics of the “Middle East”. (I have put that in quotes because it is a very Eurocentric description of the Mesopotamia/Egypt region – we might better call it “the Arab World”.) And the heart of the Old Testament is really about tribal politics up the Exile.

I am puzzled by the Psalm selection. I applaud the custom in the New Zealand Prayer Book of omitting the horrible verses such as Psalm 137, verses 7 – 9.  So I don’t understand why verses 11-15 are omitted in favour of verse 17b.

As I get older, I am more and more puzzled by the emphasis on sin in the writings of Paul. He was brought up in a much more rigorous legalism than most of us are today. Anyone preaching with that heavy emphasis would be suspected of taking the mickey. Nowadays we see that Paul’s other theme of love is much more central to the Gospel, so the best part of this lection has to do with connecting with God, living with and in God. Can we say that if we are totally loving in all our relationships under God, we do not come near to ‘sin’?

The Gospel reading is simply a collection of sayings. They may well have all been attributed to Jesus by the time Matthew included them, but they do not connect up at all.   There is no background, no context. I suppose that emphasis on rewards is better than emphasis on the results of sin, but I cannot help feeling that such are older rabbinical sayings than is suggested here.

We only get to see these particular readings because Easter was a little earlier than it is most years. They are no less difficult to tackle than last week’s (Trinity, anyone?), so I won’t miss not having to preach.