A few weeks ago I asked a local rabbi what was the Jewish ‘take’ on Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known to Christian as St Paul. The rabbi said that there really wasn’t a view. Now he may not have quite understood what I was asking, or perhaps he was simply trying to be diplomatic and avoid controversy. For surely, over the centuries, Jews have had something to say about Paul, particularly when he has been regarded, in some Christian quarters, as an archetypal model of Jewish conversion. The rabbi’s response however was also suitably chastening. Christians may rightly hold Paul in high regard, even some awe. Why though would Jews have much consideration for him? He left the faith and, in doing so, no longer belonged to Jewish history. Judaism essentially simply moved on. Christians must therefore be careful not to read into our understanding of Jewish-Christian relationships particular aspects of St Paul which are precious to us. This is certainly something to be borne in mind when we hear biblical passages like this one from Acts chapter 13 today. Jewish-Christian relationships have always been much more complex than many people have often wanted them to be, and this is clear from the history of the first Christian centuries…
Jesus has come to his hometown. And of course everyone wants to see him and to hear their local hero speak. Next week we will hear how what he had to say next got him into trouble. But today we hear how he announces himself with words that must have been music to their ears - indeed the very next verse reads, 'and all spoke well of him'.
Jesus reads the words of Isaiah and takes them as his own mission statement - 'today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing " he says. It is a scripture that talks about good news for the poor, release to the captive, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.' Now most of his listeners would have counted themselves among the poor and oppressed, so no wonder they were pleased...
How do you picture peace? I wonder if your vision is quite the same as that of the prophet Isaiah in the John the Baptist story in our Gospel reading today? Isaiah says this: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Well, that definitely doesn’t work for me if it were taken at all literally. For I was born in the North Pennine hill country of England, which owes so much of its life, history, wildness and picturesque beauty to the variety of its landscape, its hills and valleys. I certainly know that the folk of the Durham Dales would do all they possibly could to avoid every valley being filled, every hill being made low, and the winding paths and rough ways being made smooth. I suspect too that few people in Toowoomba would take kindly to such an environmental transformation of our own Range, valleys, hills and landscape. No. On this second Sunday in Advent, as we centre on the theme of peace, we need to look deeper if we are to find fuller meaning in today’s Gospel reading. Perhaps we are helped by re-casting Isaiah’s words a little. To that end, I offer some words of the great El Salvadorean archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero: words which I believe catch up the spirit of the Advent prophets, that “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.” Let me return to that, and to John the Baptist in our Gospel, again, in a moment…
This week a powerful warning was given to our world. For the people who operate what is called ‘The Doomsday Clock’ moved the hands two minutes nearer to midnight, to three minutes to midnight: that is, in their view, three minutes before the end of human time. The Doomsday Clock is one aspect of the work of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: a group which looks into the global security and public policy issues related to the dangers posed by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, climate change, merging technologies and diseases. They began the Clock in 1947, deeply concerned about the nuclear arms race and tensions between the then Soviet Union and the Western bloc of nations. At that time the hands of the Clock were set at seven minutes before midnight and they have been moved up and down, every January, ever since. The best time it ever registered was 17 minutes before midnight, in January 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the superpowers reached agreement on nuclear arms reductions. Since then the hands have steadily moved nearer to midnight. Three minutes to midnight has only been reached twice before, and only in 1953, at two minutes to midnight, was there a worse assessment of our world’s situation.
Is the Doomsday Clock right do you think? Are these Atomic Scientists correct in saying that: ‘World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.’ ‘In 2015,’ the group says, ‘unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.’ Recent concerns might include the growing dislocation of Russia; the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers; struggles in the Middle East and the unprecedented levels of terrorism alert across the world. Not a very happy situation is it? So is the end of the world near?
Our lectionary readings today all reflect a similar urgency and challenge to human beings to respond to the signs of their times. They remind us that we are called to recognise God and to participate actively in the work of God’s Kingdom, God’s shalom, God’s longing for peace and love, and justice. So how will we respond to the signs and challenge of our times?...
by Penny Jones for Advent 2 year B
It gave me great joy yesterday to see everything so green after the rain. I am sure we are all taking delight in the clean fresh scent and the signs of new life. It would not be too fanciful I think to say that our bit of the world has been ‘baptised’ over the last few days.
The great medieval Christian mystic Hildegaard of Bingen coined a particular word for such ‘greening ‘ of the earth. She called it ‘veriditas’, from the Latin word for green. For her it best described the first shoots of green leaves poking through the white snow after a long winter in her native Europe. It was the sign of new life. And so too for us, as rain restores life to our parched land we see fresh potential for life in the renewed greenness of our land.
When we think about baptism and the ministry of John the Baptist which we recall today, veriditas, the ‘greening’, is a good picture to have in our minds. It is a picture that works at many levels. It describes the ‘greening’ of the outer world, the created order on which we rely for daily life. It describes the ‘greening’ of our inner world, the work of God in our individual souls. And it describes as well the transformative work of the Holy Spirit within our society and wider political systems...