Archive for the ‘John the Baptist’ Tag

Saturday 24th December “Walking in the way of peace”   Leave a comment

Well I have made it. We have reached the eve of Christ’s mass and I have managed to read the set scriptures and commentary in the booklet by Redemptorist Publications and post some thoughts on this blog every day through Advent. I have valued the exercise and want to spend time in the coming weeks reflecting on what I have written, seeing what it might say about where my faith/spiritual journey now is and maybe glean some pointers as to what the next few steps might be. However for today I will reflect on the set passages as I have done throughout this period.

The Bible passages set for today are 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14; and Luke 1: 67-79.

In 2 Samuel we have King David stating he wants to build a temple for God and then Nathan being given the prophecy that is was not to be David but David’s son who would build the temple. In the passage in Luke we come to Zachariah’s prophetic song at the birth of John the Baptist. 

There are lots of echos here in my personal life.  I have long identified with David, he mucks up big time over and over again but then comes back to God with deep passion. I have often mused that he was probably bipolar (manic-depressive) as I am. He certainly portrays in some of his psalms a personal knowledge of what it is like to be depressed (e.g. Ps 32). Then here he is trying to make a grandiose gesture of building a temple – very hypomanic.  And in this story it is Nathan the prophet again who is his spiritual counsellor. My firstborn son, who is 18 next month, is called Nathan. We did not name him after the Old Testament prophet but because the name means “gift”. However my attention is always alerted when I hear passages about him read out or the amazing anthem by Handel “Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet …” about the coronation of King Solomon, David’s son who was going to go on to build the temple.

There is thus for me in today’s readings a strong theme of “fathers and sons”. This is timely for me with my own son reaching the age that in our culture we think of as adulthood. Many a musing there about what I might have been able to pass on to him for his future life. One thing I value in Nathan is he seems to have inherited from both me and his mother an independence of thought and spirit. Looking forward to watching his life unfold with the ups and downs we all face. However as any loving father would be I am a little fearful for the immediate future with all its transition and uncertainty. I have hopes but no divine prophecies for his future. 

Then tomorrow we celebrate the birth of “The Son of God”.  Intellectually I can not say what I mean by that phrase as it relates to Jesus. For decades I wrestled with that but it has become less important in my spirituality now. However at midnight communion/mass tonight I will in awe and wonder give thanks for Emmanuel … God with us!

Friday 23 December 2011 – “Preparing the way”   Leave a comment

Today I have finished my Christmas present shopping and done the big food shop for the “feast” so have been enacting my own preparations for what is to come.

The Bible passages set for today are Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; and Luke 1: 57-66.

In Malachi we have more prophesies of the one who will prepare the way. Again I hear the words so clearly as set in Handel’s Messiah:

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.

But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He
appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.
[Handel’s Messiah Recetive Part I]

Or from a modern version of the Bible:

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the LORD Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness,
[Malachi 3: 1-3 NIV]

It is interesting to take a sceptical position about prophecy and muse on these words. Malachi is difficult to date because it contains few historical references but it was probably written about 450 years before Christ.  It here talks of a messenger – a quite universal theme in scripture and in many religious experiences. The messenger precedes the arrival of something longed for and seen as a significant intervention of God in the lives of humankind. So what could have stirred Malachi to write these things and then their subsequent interpretation of them hundreds of years later to refer to John the Baptist and Jesus?

I have no problem with prophecies being poetic generalities that find their meaning in the sense making of later generations.  Look at it from God’s perspective – how would He/She communicate with humankind? Although hearing a voice and interpreting it as God speaking are reported throughout history and across religions most religious people would probably talk along the lines of sensing what God is saying. Believing God to be entwined with every sub-atomic particle in the universe He/She is there then within the workings of our brains, our thoughts and our emotions. However as said in previous posts we are not puppets of the creator. We can make choices to recognise or not the existence of the divine and to seek to relate to Him/Her. So it seems reasonable to me that in deeply spiritual people, and I would put prophets among those, they can experience times of being well attuned to the divine. At times I believe this may come out as prophetic words. I definitely see this as sensing God’s purpose and expressing it in ways familiar to the individual concerned not in being a scribe for divine dictation.

I would like to go on and make some “learned” points based on Jung’s writings on the collective unconscious and symbolism in religion but it is over 20 years since I struggled to read and understand that stuff.  Suffice it to say there seems to be common themes ideas that repeat in religious experience. Many a sermon has been constructed based on that, e.g comapring Jesus to various Old Testament characters e.g Melkizedak, Abraham, David, … There is something that speaks to me about the way prophecy might work. Our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines (neural networks). An example of this is that we are so good at recognising the faces of individuals we know but we also get triggered false recognitions when we think someone is somebody else or even when we say “they look a bit like so and so”.  So to me in the bigger patterns of life, in the narrative we construct of the events that surround us it seems to me that we should recognise strong echos in the writings from the past that are familiar to us. That not fully worked out mechanistic view of prophecy is important to me as a way of seeing that prophecy has a plausible basis, that brings in scientific perspectives, where is can’t just be dismissed as bunkum; as impossible therefore I won’t think about it further.

Even with a sceptical view the sheer number of links between Old Testament prophecies and the stories around Jesus needs answering. It seems improbable to me that these were merely constructs of the Gospel writers to cynically creating a new mythology; i.e. deliberate deceptions. Many of those writers went on to die for what they believed. People die for their convictions not usually for something they know to be a construction of lies. 

This all begs the question why do I warm to these Biblical prophecies and reject say those of Nostradamus?  Where people see fulfillment of these I understand it to be triggering pattern recognitions in the brain too. I don’t think researching the precision of fulfilment in terms of minutia of facts is a fruitful investigation partly because of what I describe as the poetic nature of prophecy. The real answer is I think that I value prophecy as a tool in sense making of subsequent but still past events not as a predictor of the future. The prophecies of the Old Testament have helped me construct meaning out of the New Testament but they are not for me points of blind faith. I am sure I will go on questioning them and the notion of what prophecy is on and off for the rest of my life.

I have gone on to long on this theme and not said anything of the story from Luke of Zechariah being struck mute until he named John the Baptist as instructed. However I will sign off this post now (my wife wants to sleep).

[Note I discovered that Malachi 3: 23-24 are not included in the King James Version or the New International Version of the Bible but were in the Jerusalem Bible. I have not looked into the reasons for this but it seems a non-contriversal point given that the verses relate to the prophecy of Elijah coming back before the Messiah which occurs at various other points.]

Monday 19 December – “Nothing is impossible”   1 comment

The Bible passages for today were Judges 13: 2-7, 24-25, and Luke 1: 5-25.

Two stories today of elderly couples seemingly sadly resigned to being childless who were unexpectedly promised children who were to have significant roles in the stories that have come down to us about God’s interaction with humanity.  These were Manoah and his wife who became the parents of Samson and Zechariah and Elizabeth who became the parents of John the Baptist.

The title for today’s reflection “Nothing is impossible (with God)” comes from later in the first Chapter in Luke (v. 37)  when the angel promising the birth of Jesus to Mary tells her that Elizabeth in old age is expecting.  I don’t actually literally believe in nothing being impossible for God although I accept from the human perspective he is seemingly all-powerful. I believe the God in His/Her interactions with physical world constrains himself by the laws which He/She proscribed, even defined, the universe. However within that at any place in time there are a near infinite number of futures possible. In some miraculous way I can only wonder at and not explain, the God of possibilities, the great creative force, takes the risk of leaving some of the things that influence that future to the conscious parts of his creation.

Some people from what they claim as a scientific perspective argue the biological imperative to the extent that it seems to remove any moral influence from the individual or humanity collectively.  Some from a theological perspective argue that God’s purposes will happen whatever we as individuals think we decide.  My own perspective is that God, in enabling the biology to develop to the point of consciousness and moral agency has created the possibility for loving relationship between created and creator.  However this comes at great risk.  If God was a power mad autocrat he would not have chosen to enable this path.

Now this perspective turned onto the minutiae of our lives highlights our role in being willing to accept even expect the seemingly impossible in our lives as we seek to unfold them with God.  In different words this theme was brought out in the notes for today’s reflection and I close with the prayer from there that seems to fit it well:

O God, give me the courage today to set aside limitation and see differently, so that the “impossible” becomes possible through my trust and cooperation.
Amen.
[Your Journey to Christmas, Redemptorist Publications, p. 32]

Thursday 15 December – “Expecting Renewal”   Leave a comment

[Note I am devoting less time to these reflections today than has been my habit – perhaps I am in need of renewal!]

The Bible passages for today are Isaiah 54: 1-10 and Luke 7: 24-30.

The passage from Isaiah uses an analogy of God the husband and his people the wife.  Some of it challenges my own images of God, e.g.:

In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says the LORD your Redeemer.
[Isaiah 54:8 NIV]

I can see myself turning my back on God, although it is not thankfully a prevalent tendency; I have known Him being hard to find, but I can not see Him as deliberately hiding from me.  Again this is my image of God’s love dominating over any image of his sense of justice, which Isaiah states in the second part of that verse.

Then final verse of today’s selection reasserts the dominance of his love:

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
[Isaiah 54:10 NIV]

 *********

In the reading from Luke Jesus describes John the Baptists’ role, quoting from the Old Testament as the ” one who will prepare your way before you”. Restating the Advent theme of preparing for God.

Wednesday 14 December 2011 – “When God is in charge”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages for today were: Isaiah 45: 6-8, 18, 21-26 and Luke 7: 19-23.

The title for today’s reflection and the passage from Isaiah brought to mind a song popular, especially during the 1980s, in what some might disparagingly call the “happy clappy” end of the church spectrum. The opening line and title is “How lovely on the mountain are the feet of Him …” and it is by Leonard E. Smith Junior. It is commonly known as “Our God Reigns” because its chorus between the verses based on Isaiah 52: 7-10 is a simple repetition:

Our God reigns!
Our God reigns!
Our God reigns!
Our God reigns!

I have known it sung with great emotion; indeed have sung it so.  It sometimes causes me to question though is this an expression of a deeply held faith or an emotional way of trying to induce, or convince oneself of such a faith?    As the notes for today’s reflection point out, and as the stories of men/women of faith down the centuries has testified it is sometimes hard to look around the world with all its horrors and struggles and see God in charge.

I can only come back to the ground of my own faith in God the creator and sustainer of the universe here.  Indeed Isaiah does the same:

For this is what the LORD says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited— he says: I am the LORD, and there is no other.
[Isaiah 45: 18 NIV]

The story from Luke is where John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to question if Jesus if he is “the one who is to come”.  And Jesus sends them back to report what they see of his ministry which appears to be fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah. Then there is a little verse at the end of today’s suggested reading which caught my eye, which I do not remember noticing before:

And blessed is he who takes no offence at me.
[Luke 7:23 RSV]

I have checked back to the original Greek (I am not a trained biblical scholar but have a few tools to hand) and found the word translated offended here is in Latin script form: “Skandalizo” meaning to put a stumbling block or impediment in the way.

So is what Jesus is saying here really something like: blessed is the person who does not find me a stumbling block to faith?

I think that is something I need to ponder on further before making further comment.

 

Monday 12 December 2011 – “Heaven on Earth”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today are: Numbers 24: 2-7, 15-17 and Matthew 21: 23-27.

If I am honest I find the prophecies of Balaam harder to relate to than those of Isaiah that have been the fodder of these meditations up to now.  Maybe it’s because they are less familiar (although I remember well the story of Balaam and his talking ass from my childhood/youth); or maybe it’s because they come from an earlier time in history (possibly around 1200 BC compared to Isaiah around 700 BC).  The notes for today, doubtless like many other commentators, interpret them as pointing to the future messiah and asking the question will he come from heaven or earth? (I can’t see this question in the reading in several versions I looked at).

In the passage in Matthew the religious leaders are questioning Jesus again, trying to trap him.  “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” [Matthew 21: 23], Jesus throws the question back to them asking about John the Baptist.  The leaders discuss it among themselves: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” [Matthew 21: 25-26]. So the question here boils down to: from earth or from heaven? (of human origin or divine?).

This reminds me of the nature vs. nurture debates that have raged over diverse aspects of human character.  The answer is almost always of both.  Here too the answer, as suggested in the notes, and maintained by me, is that Jesus (and John the Baptist) were of both the human and the divine; the earthy and the heavenly.

Quoting from the prayer from the notes:

God of earth and heaven …
Help us to recognise you in the places where heaven and earth meet.
Amen.
[Your Journey to Christmas, Redemptorist Publications, 2011, p.24]

3rd Sunday of Advent 2011 – “Shoots of righteousness”   Leave a comment

Theme for week 2: “Signs of God’s coming”

The Bible passages set for today are: Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; and John 1: 6-8, 19-28.

The Lectionary has taken us back to the story of John the Baptist again.  The words from John’s Gospel this time:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
[John 1: 6-8 NIV]

in some way echoing those from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. … to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.
[Isaiah 61: 1-2 NIV]

When John the Baptist is quizzed by the religious leaders of the day as to who he was he replies: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” [John 1: 23] apparently citing the words from Isaiah 40: 3 that we met on the reflections of Sunday 4 December and Tuesday 6 December.

The notes for today’s reflections open with the question: “How can you tell when God is at work?” My immediate reaction to that was He/She is always at work; we just might not be always aware of it.  While accepting that as true there do seem to be times in history and in our individual life’s journey when the separation between the divine and the temporal or earthy seems particularly thin.  The notes suggest the signs from Isaiah of this include: oppressed people becoming free; those who are sad are comforted and in the wilderness of life shoots of righteousness and praise begin to grow.

While not disbelieving that as a pattern of God’s working both in the leading up to what some Christians would describe as the focal point of history, the coming of Christ, and in the transformations that happen in personal spiritual journeys, it is not something recognise as a current or recent experience in my life.  I am neither aware of being in a spiritual desert nor of particular or new stirrings of God in my life.

There is another echo from Old to New Testaments in today’s readings:

I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. … For as the soil makes the young plant come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up
[Isaiah 61: 10-11 NIV]

And:

Rejoice evermore.

Pray without ceasing.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
[1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18 KJV]

In Isaiah the rejoicing is at seeing the new shoots of God’s work; in Thessalonians Paul is urging us to rejoice in whatever circumstances recognising that it is the will of God.  Now there is a challenge.  Turning it into a personal challenge how do I find joy in what seems like a bland spiritual state?