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.


Having a laugh.

Signpost for Sunday 18th June 2017 (11th in Ordinary Time): Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35 – 10:23.

How good it is to get back to the Genesis narratives. Today we have the Yahwist’s account of the announcement of Isaac’s birth, which in some respects is similar to the Priestly writer’s version in chapter 17. Both emphasise the tension between God’s promise of an heir and its fulfilment, in that both Abraham and Sarah are well beyond the age for child-bearing.

Today Sarah overhears the promise made to Abraham and laughs. She laughs to herself but God is not too pleased and chides her (through Abraham, not directly) for not understanding that there is nothing too wonderful for the Lord.

In the preceding chapter it is Abraham who laughs. The incredibly learned 17th century commentator, Matthew Henry, has it that Abraham’s laughter arises from great humility (he falls on his face) and great joy, but Sarah’s laughter is from doubt and mistrust. Although God does not rebuke Abraham as he does Sarah, the context in each version seems to allow the presumption that both of them had their “Yeah, right!” moment. However, Paul, using Abraham as the example in his dissertation on righteousness through faith in Romans 4, tells us that “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead… No distrust made him waiver concerning the promise of God …”

Isaac, the second of the great patriarchs, is born and Sarah laughs again (21:6-7), this time in great joy and wonderment for herself and for “everyone who hears”. His name, given to him by God (17:19), means “He Laughs”. Joy is the proper response to the beginning of the creation of that great Nation of which we are now part.


Pneumatology – Read all about it.

Signpost for Sunday 11th. June, Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a; Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20.

I have been reading some essays by Rowan Williams, and one of them reminded me of a word I have not seen for some time: pneumatology: (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “2. Theol. The, or a, doctrine of the Holy Spirit 1881”).

One essay that I read set me off on a line of thought, so I will try to formulate it in the context of the readings. The two short readings both include the Three-in-One form: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and are effectively an invitation to attempt to find out more about the Three-in-One from the rest of the New Testament.

There appears to be more than one way that the work of the Spirit is described. Luke seems to describe the Spirit as a sort of conduit, bringing sporadic and powerful interventions. In Acts, he uses phrases like Paul, filled with the Spirit, … and, Peter, filled with the Spirit… almost as if this was an abnormal event. Of course, since Luke is such a good story-teller, and takes care that what he records is accurate, his presentation may represent what those witnessing the events could actually perceive. Sometimes the people of God pick up this view and regard one or two things as the primary, or possibly the only, evidence of the work of the Spirit.

Ideas like this led the Corinthian congregation to ask questions, and Paul could respond in more depth and detail than could be provided in a book like Acts. In his letter to the Corinthians he gives an extended view of the gifts, given by the Spirit, for the common good of the people of God, but he adds: I will show you a more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, and have not love, I am a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal. This love enables the congregation to work together, and provides the framework in which the gifts can work for the common good.

In his letter to the Romans he writes: You did not receive a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if in fact we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him.

Here Paul explains that we are being drawn by the Spirit into the family of the Three-in-One. Here is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit brings us to new birth in the everlasting family: she gives us new life, we are born in the Spirit. (She seems to me to be the appropriate pronoun.)

But the family into which we are born is not a risk-free environment: The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, so we, as brothers and sisters also face risks. This is how the Three-in-One works as a unity.

Finally, John, in a letter sums things up for the redeemed part of the family: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not been revealed. What we know is this: we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.