Shaped by scripture?

hold-bible-resizedListen! Nehemiah 8:1-10 | Luke 4:14-21 We in the Church have, I think it’s fair to say, a complicated, ambiguous, relationship with the scriptures. We know them as the story that shapes our worldview, our perspective on life, but find much in them that jars with our experience: a creation story that bears little relationship to the evidence of science, a set of laws designed for a mono-cultural, religious state almost entirely unlike ours, a history that seems to mix mythical and historical elements without any distinction being made. And we turn to the scriptures for moral and ethical guidance, and find the profound insights of the people of God in the voices of the prophets – ‘what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God’ the words of the law ‘I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me’, and of course, in the sayings of Jesus ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … do not judge, so that you may not be judged’. But alongside these words which challenge and inspire us we also read of God’s command to genocide: ‘When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” We have a complicated relationship with the scriptures. For some believers it seems to be simple – the scriptures are to be read and accepted as given to us, and any difficulties we have are problems with us, not with the text. And while there can be great humility in such an approach, it doesn’t seem to me to do justice to the very human nature of these writings, and to the simple impossibility of encapsulating God in words – a God who could be truly described in human language would not be a God worthy of worship. And yet we cannot escape from these words. For they are the story that has formed us into the people we are, the story that continues to form us. And at crucial points in the history of God’s people, it has been these words that have guided them, defined them, called them to be the people they really were. Read More

Christmas at the Dish

Lots of activities at St. John’s stop over the summer, but the need for the fellowship and food provided by the Dish doesn’t take a break. Alison sent me this report on the great work done by so many members of the wider community who chose to generously give their time at such a busy time of year… For our friends at The Dish preparations for Christmas began some time ago.… Read More... Read More

Whatever is good

gearbrain-resizedListen! Isaiah 62:1-5 | Philippians 4:1-9 Someone – and sadly I haven’t been able to trace down the quote – wrote about the Apostle Paul: “I cannot be the only one to think that, with all the great gifts God showered upon Paul, it is a shame he did not choose to give the gift of clear writing”. Indeed, when a youth group that Sureka and I used to lead studied some of the book of Romans, one of the kids commented “Paul may have been very educated, but he wasn’t educated in the use of the full stop”. Even Peter wrote of Paul: our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand… But I can forgive Paul a lot of hard to understand writing; because he also captured some of the most glorious truths of the gospel; and perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the letter to the Philippians. In this letter we have the humanity, divinity and humility of Jesus: “who, though he was of very nature God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human form”. Here also we have the holding together of God’s grace and our response: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you”. Here, again, we have Paul’s heartfelt cry “whatever gains I had, I count them as loss… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” It’s not a long letter. I’d encourage you to take half an hour, and read it end to end. I’m certain you will find something – many things – in it that will stay with you. Read More

I don’t believe in Christmas

Nativity setToday is the first Sunday after Epiphany and marks the end of the Christmas season.   Last weekend was twelfth night, so I hope you have all removed your Christmas decorations. I’m sorry Christmas is over, because I love Christmas.  I love the carols, decorations, multiple church services, lousy Christmas cracker jokes and ham sandwiches for a week. I love the Christmas story.  My first nativity scene was a little plastic one from a school fete. A brown lean-to with two dimensional figures; baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the middle; two shepherds on the right hand side, one kneeling and one standing with a couple of sheep and a crook; three wise men on the left in exotic robes holding gifts; white snow on the roof with silver sparkles, a kewpie doll angel holding a banner that says “gloria’, and above its head there’s a star.  Lovely. And here’s where I have to say that I don’t believe any of it.  I don’t believe in Christmas. Don’t get me wrong – I believe God came to earth wholly as man and was born and raised in humble conditions.  I just don’t believe the fable that surrounds the birth. Of the four gospels, only two mention Christ’s birth.  The book of Matthew is primarily aimed at proving to a Jewish readership that Jesus’ birth fulfilled the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah.  Matthew tells of Magi following the star to a house in Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents.  No stable, no shepherds.  By the way, although it says three gifts there’s no count of the magi; there could have been a football team of them. The book of Luke was written about twenty years later and addresses a Gentile readership.  Luke has the census and journey, the stable and manger, the shepherds and choirs of angels.  After Jesus is circumcised his family peacefully returns to Nazareth.  No magi, no star, no flight to Egypt. Quite apart from these discrepancies I struggle with all the noise surrounding the Messiah’s birth and then … nothing. Israel just forgets about Him for the next 30 years.  It makes no sense to me. Oh, and as for the snow … the temperature in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve was 11°; warmer than Sydney in winter. Read More


Magi_tissot-resized Listen! Isaiah 60:1-6 | Matthew 2:1-12 So today the season of Christmas has come to an end. Yesterday was the twelfth day of Christmas – I hope you all got a complete set of drummers drumming from your true loves, and remembered to take down all your Christmas decorations – and today we celebrate the festival of Ephiphany. Epiphany is an odd little festival, and one that we really don’t pay much attention to. Partly, of course, it’s because it’s straight after Christmas, and we’re all in the January shut-down – recovering from Christmas, having a well earned break, travelling and all that. Then on top of that, the one thing we mostly do remember about Epiphany is the arrival of the Magi to see Jesus – and those Magi have really been rolled pretty much into the Christmas celebration. Once we’ve merged Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus to put shepherds and Magi into the pageant scene around the manger, what’s left to celebrate at Epiphany? So I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about the festival of Epiphany. But this year, as it happens, the day of Epiphany falls on a Sunday, and, as it happens, in the run up to Christmas we thought about the shepherds but not the Magi. So this year, they get their own slot. You’ll perhaps remember when I spoke about the shepherds in Luke’s gospel that I suggested that the different perspectives taken by the different writers were one of the strengths of the New Testament - indeed, of the whole of the scriptures. So let me ask the same question of Matthew’s narrative that I asked of Luke’s – what is it that Matthew was trying to communicate to his readers when he chose to include this story in his telling of the incarnation? Read More