Jeremiah is one of the most favourite prophets in part because he is so transparent about his call and its consequences. He certainly didn’t go out of his way to be a prophet. You couldn’t really blame him. At the time of his call, during the reign of King Josiah, the southern kingdom of Judah was not at the peak of its historical greatness. The ten tribes from the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrian invasion some ninety years earlier, and although Josiah was one of the better southern kings, his reforms were not far-reaching enough to have much of an impact. Not only that, but the call that Jeremiah receives is very unusual. Unlike almost every other Jewish prophet, Jeremiah is called to not only be a prophet for the people of Israel, but also for all the nations. All the nations at that time means all those kingdoms that surrounded the kingdom of Judah, and which were larger, mightier, better resourced, and likely to continue to kick their butt in any conflict. So it is little wonder that young Jeremiah is not having a great day in answering this call.
In the Gospel today we continue the reading from Luke 4, beginning with the last line that we heard last Sunday: “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.” (Luke 4:21) And even though Jesus is taking a very Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6 and applying it very specifically to himself, the townsfolk of the hamlet of Nazareth (pictured above – the hamlet, not the people!) initially are taken in by his ‘gracious words’ – perhaps hoping that there little village will make it onto the tourist map and attract pilgrims as a passing trade. But when he begins to give examples of what his ministry is going to look like, quoting from the actions of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, the situation quickly turns ugly. It is clear that he doesn’t intend staying comfortably in the safe zone of Jewish piety, but will call his people and us to life on the margins.
Sunday 04, Year C. Luke 4:21-30; Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19.
The scene that is presented to us today from the book of Nehemiah is much more significant than it perhaps at first appears. The people of Israel have recently returned from the devastating period of exile in Babylon, which began with the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BCE, and which was only coming to an end because the Babylonian empire had itself been conquered by the Persians, and their new king Cyrus was favourable to the people of Israel returning to their homeland and resuming their life there. The slow recovery, which included the reconstruction of basic services in the city, including the wall around Jerusalem, was led by Nehemiah and supported by the scribe Ezra. Until this time, most Jewish religious life was centred either in the home or in the temple. But when the temple was destroyed, the place of the home began to increase in prominence. So the action of Ezra gathering the whole nation together in the main square of the city and to read the scriptures to them together was utterly radical. It had never happened in the whole 1500 year history of God’s people before this time. The description of this event is very moving – complete with the strong emotional responses of the people as the word is proclaimed, interpreted and explained in their midst over a six-or-so hour period by Ezra. Most likely he read from the book of Deuteronomy – which usually doesn’t provoke quite as strong a reaction when it is read within the context of the Catholic Mass!
This event is also significant because it allowed an increased focus to the reading and study of the scriptures as a liturgical event – and not just a part of the life of the family. This paved the way for the creation of a synagogue service which we see in part in the Gospel today, as well as the eventual transition from sacrificial Judaism to Rabbinical Judaism after the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 CE. By the time of Jesus, the meeting hall or assembly hall began to take on a specifically religious character, and a corresponding liturgy that would form the basis of Christian worship had developed. The synagogue service (or Beit Knesset in Hebrew) began with the recitation of the Shema (Deut 6) followed by the 18 Benedictions; then there was a reading from the Torah or the Prophets (arranged systematically over a three-year cycle) followed by a short interpretation or sermon, and a benediction concluded the service.
Sunday Three, Season of the Year, Year C.
Nehemiah 8:2-10; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
When you come to reflect on the baptism of Jesus, the first thing that you need to take account of is how odd an event it must have been. The primary significance of the baptism that John was offering was a washing from sin and a ritual of repentance. It was in direct competition to the sacrificial system of the temple which was all about cleansing a person from personal sin and recognising how terrible sin was – to be cleansed involved the death of an animal – that should tell us how seriously people understood sin. And yet Jesus was here, asking John to baptise him. We profess that Jesus was like us in all things – except sin. So why is the sinless one presenting himself alongside all the other riff-raff of the day to be washed clean? There is no universally agreed answer – which is why the early church considered the baptism of Jesus as such a scandal – even if it is attested by all four gospels. Perhaps the best answer is that it was part of his call to be in solidarity with all people – especially those who knew themselves to be far from God.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (10mins)
Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Year C.
In considering the account of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the gospel is already richly told. Even so, many traditions, legends and carols have added all kinds of details to the story, most of which cannot be supported by the text itself.
When the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they would first have to have made their presence known to Herod, the King of Israel and thereby seek an audience with him. They must have presented as guests of some significance in order for their request to be granted. When they finally had the opportunity to make their request to Herod and ask their question of the place of birth of the prophesied king “of the Jews”, no doubt they would have been surprised that this king did not know something so basic in the spiritual and religious law and traditions of the people that Herod was supposed to serve. When the chief priests and scribes are called, they give the obvious answer of the city of David: Bethlehem. When they finally arrive at the house of the holy family, they do the only thing that they can: they kneel in worship before the child Jesus and offer the most previous gifts that they can provide.
The response of the magi stands in stark contrast to that of Herod. Although he talks sweetly and feigns religious allegiance, Herod is insanely threatened by the birth of this child as a potential and likely claimant to the throne that he had worked so hard through political intrigue to achieve. So rather then contemplating worship or blessing, Herod’s response is the one that we see all too commonly around us: to curse the unknown threat and strike against it with hated and violence.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9:30am
Video reflection: Epiphany (Shift Worship)