From Lent to Easter

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Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Exodus 20.1-17; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22

Jesus and the temple

Those of you who consider such matters will realise that the lectionary readings are in a three-year cycle and use the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as the primary source for the gospel readings with John being used more at specific seasons, such as Easter, Lent and Advent or at times to supplement the synoptic gospel or indeed to bring forward ideas not mentioned in the basic gospel of that year.  The reason for this is fairly easy to identify in that the synoptics follow a chronological pattern, admittedly with variations and differing emphasis to the events of this pattern, whilst John’s reflective style has variations unique to his gospel. Indeed, there are only six miracles recorded in John’s gospel, two of which are recorded in the synoptics, and John refers to them as signs not miracles. Miracles can be regarded as things which are easily recognised and identified by all whereas signs are based upon similar, but not so evident, events from which their true meaning emerges to those who reflect upon them.  Being generally a different set of ideas recorded in the various gospels has led to the charge of inconsistency from those wishing to challenge the Christian faith, whilst in effect they are probably all true but the specific writers have highlighted the specific ones which bring out the meaning they wish to communicate.  The first sign in John, and not recorded in the synoptics, is the wedding at Cana of Galilee, and indicates what John’s whole thesis is about.  It is changing water into wine, and refers to the way in Jesus, God is changing the water of humanity back into the wine of His kingdom.

These differences of approach don’t come without their difficulties and today’s gospel reading is no exception.  This cleansing of the temple is recorded in all four gospels and as such must have significance and meaning for all of them.  But that is where the similarity ends, indeed extending to the whole idea of Jesus in Jerusalem at all. The synoptics only record Jesus as visiting Jerusalem, and thus the temple, once (Luke introduces a further visit when Jesus is twelve years old).  John, on the other hand, has Jesus in Jerusalem at least seven times, three of which are at Passover meals on various occasions.  In addition, the focus for the synoptics is the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, whilst the focus for John is Jerusalem, with only a very limited number of his events relating to Galilee.  A source of confusion certainly, and a possible charge of inconsistency.  Yet they are probably both correct, just focussing their story on parts which were more familiar to each writer, and illustrated what they wanted to pass on.  Indeed, there are some who think that there were two groups of followers of Jesus, one based in Galilee whom we know much most about, and one based in or around Jerusalem of whom we know much less.  Regardless of it being a passing acquaintance to us, the closeness of Jesus to Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and the familiarity Jesus appears to have with Jerusalem and its surrounds, provide reasonably strong evidence of this idea. The idea of Jesus being familiar with Jerusalem is further enhanced by the event where he weeps over Jerusalem and vows to gather her children together (Matthew 23.37)

The account of the cleansing of the Temple is similarly quite difficult to place in time.  John has this taking place early on in Jesus’ ministry, whilst the synoptics have it at the end, as part of the finale of his challenge to the religious leaders.  Who is right?  In this instance probably the synoptics.  If this confrontation had taken place, as John suggests, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus would have been a marked man as far as the temple was concerned, and probably Jerusalem per se.  If that had been his opening challenge it would seem to be highly unlikely that the temple authorities would have tolerated him there on future occasions.

The most interesting matter for these four accounts, however, is their remarkable similarity in detail.  It is not just in the detail of what Jesus did, but what lay behind his anger.  It is Mark’s account which really brings it to light, in remarkable brevity. In chapter 11, verse 17 he records these words of Jesus, “My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations”.  Those six words that I have put in italics were probably the source of Jesus’ anger.  To understand we need to know something of the Temple ground plan.  It was a series of courts around, and leading to the Holy of Holies.  Without going into too much detail there were several such outer courts including the Court of the Women, and the Court of the Gentiles.  This latter court indicates that the Temple had a place for all people who were seeking after truth, it was not limited to those who had superior knowledge or experience. There was a place for all in the Temple, with increasing knowledge being needed only as they got closer and closer to its heart.  The anger towards the traders and money changers was two-fold.  Firstly, it took place in the court of the Gentiles, and thus they had been excluded for this practice to take place.  Secondly, even poor Jewish people were being excluded because they could not pay the exorbitant price for the acceptable sacrifices, or indeed to change their money into currency which was acceptable to the authorities.  Here then is the heart of this passage, exclusion of people who wanted, for whatever reason, to be there.  Exclusivity fermented Jesus’ anger.

Over the centuries it has remained an area where the Christian Church has also had its difficulties. Perhaps because of the nature of its development as a universal faith,exclusivity has often not been far from its structure. Our most recent history shows attempts to rectify this, from the introduction of nave altars and font placements to all-age services, but it is still an issue facing our churches.  The single most important issue still facing them us is how to make them more inclusive. Indeed, it could be that unless the issue is solved in the near future many of our smaller churches will disappear.

Being inclusive one of the issues at stake in Jerusalem, it remains very much at the heart of present day survival. That is where the supporting readings come into the reckoning for today.  On one hand we have the clearly defined path to God as indicated by the Ten Commandments with the idea that if we stick rigidly to that approach we will be alright.  On the other hand, we have Paul advocating that people need come to God through their own situations and experiences of life.  Which is correct?  Well both probably, we must approach Him as the people that we are, not the people we try to make ourselves into.

I would end by saying that I have certainly not covered all the ideas that this gospel reading opens up.  The concluding remark of John’s gospel sums it up, “If everything were written down the whole world could not hold everything that is written”.  I hope my emphasis on the Temple and what it can still teach us will not exclude your own wider thoughts. Yet for me the development of a church for all is the heart of the future of the church.  Its ability to touch our whole community, regardless if they share our story or not, will be the significant factor. By so doing God’s story will become their story.

City of God, how broad and far
outstretch thy walls sublime!
Thy free and loyal people are.
of every age and clime. 

In vain the surge, angry shock,
in vain the drifting sands;
unharmed upon the eternal Rock
the eternal city stands.

Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 17, 1-7 and 15-16; Romans 4, 13-25; Mark 8, 31-38 

One of the cartoon character, Charlie Brown sayings is, “Winning may not be everything but losing is nothing!” Something many of us have thought from time to time, and it sums up Peter’s response in our gospel reading today.  There is often a struggle to get to an understanding of the Sunday Lectionary readings, as some people found with last week’s reading.  This week’s gospel reading is no different and to get a grip on it we probably need to refer to a few paragraphs before if we are to understand today’s reading.

From verse 27 Jesus has been discussing with the disciples who the people think he is.  They respond with ideas from John the Baptist to Elijah and the prophets, but Jesus wants to know more.  But you, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  What is your understanding of what I am doing, what is your understanding of what I will be doing, is really the question he is asking.  It is Peter who steps forward with an answer, “You are the Lord’s Anointed one, the Messiah”.  In a blink, no doubt, he probably regretted that response.  Jesus was not content to leave it there, and he proceeded to tell them of the way things were going to pan out which certainly didn’t help Peter at all.  In fact it was far from what Peter, or any of the disciples, could understand about Jesus or the Messiah in general, it totally confounded them. 

To begin to understand we must first get some idea of what the Messiah meant to the Jewish people.  This cannot simply be done from the Bible alone, for the Jewish ideas began long before any written record could be made, a faith steeped in a powerful oral tradition.  Even when their civilisation had reached a stage where records could be written they weren’t, because it was deemed unlawful to record them.  It was much later before such written records could be kept and the Mishnah, written in the 3rd century B.C., is the full comprehensive record, “The Oral Torah” as it is sometimes referred to.  There are a few references to the ideas in the Book of Isaiah and that of Jeremiah, with others in the Apocrypha, but it is only the Mishnah where that true picture of the Jewish Messiah emerges.

It emerges as Israel begins to move into a time when its memories of being a free state had almost disappeared. Over numerous centuries they have been over-run by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans.  Their memory and their story were fast disappearing which led to a change of heart regarding the writing down of such memories.  It was here the Jewish ideal of the Messiah emerged as a vengeful concept returning Israel to what they pictured as their rightful place, far from anything like the concept of the Messiah that we hold now.  When Peter referred to Jesus as the Messiah he would have been influenced by much of  that thought as someone to return Israel to its rightful place  whatever the cost. It was an aggressive, nationalistic, vengeful, violent even, concept which perpetrated the Jewish thinking of the time.  In the other three gospels, we see this idea returning in the person of Barabbas, a person who displayed all these characteristics, and whose release the crowd clamoured for.

The continued times of subservience had limited any idea of the real Messiah beyond this thinking, it was natural that someone was needed who would break their continued subjection. Far indeed from where Jesus himself was,  I guess even Peter’s response of the Messiah made Jesus angry, so angry that he spelt out in very graphic detail of what his Messiahship would mean.  Here was the first real human/divine conflict for Jesus, and one that the disciples just could not understand, ideas which were both incredible and incomprehensible.

We can perhaps understand something of the dismay facing the disciples which gave rise to such an anger in Peter that he even chose to rebuke Jesus.  But what of Jesus’ response to Peter’s anger?  We certainly aren’t expecting it, so how can it be explained.

 Firstly, it is worth noting that Mark’s writing can be very critical of the disciples,” they were close enough to see everything and yet understood nothing” often being the source of his criticism.  Mark was never reticent when the disciples were found wanting, and here was a particularly bold example.  Why, after all the time you have followed him do you not see what Jesus is all about, he seems to be asking.  Have you seen all those things he has done, and you still want to control what he is and does to suit your own needs?  Certainly, the anger was partly used by Mark to make his point. Mark choses to ignore the obvious and very vulnerable feelings of the disciples at this time. so soon after the beheading of John the Baptist.

The anger of Jesus, towards Peter in particular, goes much further.  This is a difficult time for Jesus also.  Whether as a result of the death of the Baptist or not, Jesus has just made the decision to turn his eyes towards his challenge to the religious hierarchy and the ultimate cost there will be.  As we discussed last week the vulnerable side of Jesus came to the fore and here the exchange led to anger. This anger probably went much deeper as he saw in their response an attempt to control God, just indeed as the Jewish hierarchy were doing, and against which his final battle would be. Yet despite this anger something good came out of it, for as we see Jesus speaking to the crowd following him, by emphasising their part in this new covenant which God was making with them.  In all covenants it is easy to assume the effort coming solely from God and mostly it does, but here we see the part we have to play by genuinely following where he leads.  The Old Testament reading this week is about the covenant Abraham had with God, again looking one sided until we see how that covenant depended on Abraham’s new loyalty and faith, his trust and obedience.  The covenants with Noah and Moses were similar. Today’s New Testament reading follows this up with Paul explaining that human commitment to the covenant in his letter to the Romans.

Out of this difficult moment comes a powerful universal message, our part in the covenant. The promise God gives us in Jesus Christ is enhanced or reduced by the measure our loyalty and our faith towards Him.  Fullness can only come when we let go of ourselves, when we refrain from using God for what we want of him or where we want him to go.  It is simply about “letting go and letting God”, or as the hymn says, “Trust and obey, there is no other way…”. That is the faith which leads to the deep peace that we seek.

The Gift of a Cross
by Pat Marsh (published by Inspire)

Lord, I simply desire
that my life should reflect your love,
my feet
walk in your footprints
and my lips
speak your praise.
I only desire
that my strength
should come from the cross
and above all else
that my will
should be in alignment
with your will   

First Sunday of Lent

21 February 2021

Readings: Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

We return to the baptism of Jesus by John.  Two things happen which are significant.  Firstly, we see the affirmation of God and signifies the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, followed by (according to Mark) Jesus being led out to the wilderness.  During our last week’s zoom Sunday Worship we thought about the word love, and in particular what love is, and for most of us it was easier to recognise than define.  For my part it seems there are two quite distinct aspects, one which encourages and one which challenges, and these are held together in a spirit of affirmation.  We see these two diverse aspects held closely together in our gospel reading today.

A first reaction may well be to see these two aspects as quite distinct and of quite different origin, the one coming from God and the other from Satan.  However, if we look closely it isn’t the origin that is important but is more about seeing God in both.  The difficulty encountered is in the understanding of the concept of Satan or Devil.

In our present time we have come to understand Satan as the enemy or adversary of God, and this colours our understanding of what is going on in this initial part of Mark’s gospel.  In the time that it was written, and throughout Jewish history, Satan was not seen in that wider, universal sense but more as an individual adversary within each one.  As an example we see Solomon finding peace because he has overcome his own adversary (1 Kings 5.4) and the reading of the Old Testament where we see this understanding emerging time and again.  Indeed, it is the heart of the Book of Job, which is an account of Job coming to an understanding of his own adversary and eventually emerging from it. Even his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are part of his inner turmoil.  This view was certainly prevalent at the time of Jesus and the writing of the gospels, since Jesus in his healings is seen as attacking the inner adversaries of each individual in a unique and individualistic way.  Being able to see this as a struggle withing the individual, rather than a cosmic battle between good and evil, enables us to begin to consider God’s presence and love within it. Significantly the action of Judas Iscariot can be more easily understood in this way.  A Jewish Zealot very much opposed to the taking of Elijah’s cup as abhorrent, this emerged as the ultimate breaking point in his relationship with Jesus. In a small way these “inner demons” are reflected in our own actions with our own children as they grow up, or with someone for whom we have love.  We might desperately wish to protect them from all the struggles and difficulties which will impinge upon them, but in the end all that we can really do is to support them through it.

This original understanding of devil or Satan makes it somewhat easier to get a handle on the events following the baptism of Jesus. Following this magnificent moment when God refers to Jesus as his son, we immediately then see Jesus in the wilderness.  But it was the manner of Jesus getting there which seems to be more incongruous with our present idea of a universal devil. The varying Bible translations describe this in various ways, from the more recent translations of being led into the desert, to the older and more accurate translation from the original Greek of being driven or thrust into it.  It is hard to see the instigator being God who has just proclaimed or affirmed Jesus, but neither is Jesus likely to be led or seduced by the devil at this life-changing moment.  Much more likely is the concept of the inner struggles and uncertainties within each one of us, and probably within Jesus himself as he is overwhelmed by the task that faces him.

Jesus needed seclusion to sort it out in his own mind, the wilderness was the only place he could find that seclusion after such a dramatic moment. We only have to move on two chapters in Mark’s gospel  to realise that those close to Jesus realised this inner turmoil going on. In Mark 3.31-35 we read of his mother and his brothers coming to try to take him away from this way of life. Sadly, we see this episode being obscured by Jesus’ question of who are his mother and his brothers, which we will no doubt come to in due time.  Sufficient at this time is to try to understand what Jesus is actually going through, now we see the glory but at the time he must have been very conscious of the personal cost of it all.  Would he be able to bear it, would certainly have been his human consideration as he contemplated it.

Unlike the other gospels which embellish the situation by the actual temptations that Jesus faced, Mark is content to simply describe the harshness of the place and the threats that it, and the ultimate decision, place upon him. Mark confines himself to the human Jesus.  The wild animals, the threats awaiting him on every side, are very evident and Mark uses them to define the hostility of the situation in which Jesus finds himself. (see footnote)

What we see emerging is  the increasing realisation of Jesus that he will not face this on his own.  Mark is no doubt mindful of the story of when Elisha and his servant are under siege from their enemies, and Elisha enables the young servant to see that they are not alone but surrounded by the ‘the angel army’ of God, (2 Kings 6).  Jesus emerges from the wilderness and the struggle stronger and ready to face the task ahead of him.  It is an account which is mirrored in our own lives.  Many of us face desperate setbacks and daunting ways forward where it is so much easier to want to hand it over to God to sort it all out for us, or to hide behind the great hope that God will put it all right in the end.  He will, but perhaps it would have been better to play our own part in it, realising that we are never on our own but recognising God is always in the struggle with us – not least in the present world worries and situations, let alone in our individual ones.

Mark gives us a picture of the human Jesus and he doesn’t clutter it with theology or other agenda.  He simply tells us the story of Jesus and from it we can gain so many messages and inspirations for our own lives.  Jesus knew it too, and tried so hard to ensure that the miraculous didn’t get in the way.  The trouble is, then and now, the desire for the easy and the miraculous is so great that we fail to see that miracle exists in every step of creation’s journey, in every aspect of our life.

Throughout the Old Testament it is recognised that our relationship with God has broken down and a sign of its restoration is that creation can live in harmony.  That search for creational harmony emerges in several places starting with Noah and finding places in the words of the Prophets, especially in the words of “the lion will lie down with the lamb”.  Others may well interpret this account of the ‘temptation’ in the light of this suggesting this has already begun in the wilderness where Jesus was able to do just that.

Divine dynamic
from Whispers of Love by Pat Marsh 

Gracious Lord,
when you called me to follow
I little thought
that it would be this painful,
lonely, hard.
Would I have restrained my “yes”
had I but known
where it would lead?
Could I have withheld
acceptance to your call?
I know
That I could not.
No ordinary invitation that,
when you came knocking,
in my dreams,
but rather some divine dynamic
calling into being
the beginnings of my destiny,
Could I have withheld my “yes”?
I know that I could not.             


O Lord, in Jesus you took on our humanity,
He was the fullness of your love for us.
The greatest love that there could be,
yet we set it aside so easily
seduced by the glimpses of his divinity.
Help us to see the humanity of Jesus,
the reality of our lives in his.
Help us to see the struggles that he had,
and the joys, in following you.
A pattern for humanity, a pattern for me.
Help me to know his feelings,
and realise that they are my own.
As I try to hide from his struggles,
help me to realise that it is there
He has set a pattern for my journey home.

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