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Advent officially begins on Sunday 3rd December. Starting on Friday 1st December, and running through to Christmas Eve, join us on a daily Advent journey!
Day 4: Monday 4th December – Luke 1:5-17 ‘Your prayer has been heard’
Most modern tellings of the nativity story begin with the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. But that’s not quite the beginning of the story – not even in Luke’s gospel itself. Six months before that historic encounter, Gabriel has another divine errand, to an old priest performing his duties at the temple in Jerusalem.
Zechariah was a righteous and blameless man, as was his wife Elizabeth (v6), and their lives were similarly about to be turned upside down, almost as much as Mary’s. It was another miraculous birth – only this time because of age. They had never been able to have children, and presumably had long since given up hope. But they remained faithful, and got on with the day-to-day business of living, and serving their Lord.
And into this pair of quiet lives comes the angel, with an extraordinary promise: ‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John’ (v13).
You see, there was one other prophecy in the bible that had to be fulfilled before the Messiah could come. It was one of the very last words in the Old Testament, given to the prophet Malachi: that Elijah would return first, preparing the way for the Messiah.
This is the divinely-appointed task that John – later known as The Baptist – would come to do. That’s why it’s so important that he comes ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (v17), ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. John is that ‘voice calling in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40:3): the herald announcing that the Messiah has come!
So there’s no time to waste – if Angel Gabriel is going to visit Mary, he has to visit John’s would-be parents first. So he does.
Yesterday we dwelt on the idea that God keeps his promises – which he does again here. But today let’s feast on this short but profound phrase in v13: ‘Your prayer has been heard.’
What a glorious thought! That Almighty God, the creator and sustainer of the universal, all- powerful and all-knowing – this God hears our prayers. He listens, his faced turned towards us, full of love: he knows who we are, and what we’re asking.
Many of us will have prayers we’ve prayed for a long time, just like Zechariah and Elizabeth. Let’s take heart today and seize this promise with renewed faith: God hears our prayers. Yes, yours! And let’s have courage to keep praying them. God has not forgotten you.
Day 3: Sunday 3rd December – Matthew 1:1-17 ‘The divine promise-keeper’
Admit it – you skipped a few lines of today’s reading, didn’t you? Most people do. In fact, if I was able to secretly watch your reading time, I might find it was more than a few lines!
The bible is full of genealogies. Long lists of who begat who, to use the old language – and I’m sure most of you have often wondered what the point of them is. If the bible is first and foremost a book about God, what can we possibly learn from human family trees? Those of you who are family history fans might derive a modest interest from this kind of thing, and others of you – you know who you are – are mostly having a chuckle at the funny names, or trying to pronounce some yourself as a personal challenge. But otherwise, what is the point?
To answer that question you need to go back to the third chapter of the bible – to verse 15 of Genesis chapter 3. It had all started so well. A perfect world, and humans in perfect relationship with their Creator…. and then disaster. The bond broken, the innocence shattered. A fallen world.
But in the midst of this catastrophe God promises that one day Eve’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head. You might say that the rest of the bible is The Search for the Serpent Crusher.
And as we read these long lists throughout the Old Testament, generation after generation, we can detect a voice echoing down the ages: ‘where is he? Is he here yet?’ Waiting, waiting.
And the promises keep growing. As God speaks and blesses one family in particular, we see a line from Abraham – through Isaac, Jacob and Judah – which carries special hope. King David came and went, and the promise escalated: one of his descendants would inherit an eternal throne. Then the prophets weigh in, too: this new king would outstrip anything which had gone before – a new era of peace and justice, a global reach. Way more than just the serpent’s head! But still the waiting…
And so we get to the first chapter of the New Testament – Matthew’s gospel. And now the voice changes – a divine voice answering all those echoes of longing, of faith and perhaps also of doubt: ‘the serpent crusher is here. I keep my promises.’
Jesus is the Anointed One (i.e. the Messiah or Christ of v1). Jesus fulfils the promises of global blessing given to Abraham (v2). Jesus inherits the eternal throne promised to David (v6). The serpent crusher has come!
It’s big stuff. Perhaps take a moment to breathe in the enormity of a ‘boring’ family tree. And more than that, remind yourself of something very simple but incredibly profound: God keeps his promises. He keeps them to the world, to his people, and also to you. God keeps his promises to you. And may that awesome thought lift your heart, and also your faith, today.
Day 2: Saturday 2nd December – Micah 5:2-5a ‘A surprising Shepherd?’
The Advent story is full of surprises. In many ways we’re so familiar with it, that often those surprises pass us by. We think of shepherds and angels and wise men and it all seems so… normal. Which is odd, when you think about it!
Today’s passage from the prophet Micah likewise has its share of surprises. Any of us who’ve attended traditional carol services over the years will recognise it – the promise that the new king would come from Bethlehem.
That the town of King David should feature is, we might think, not unexpected. The great shepherd king would prove the ancestor to an even greater Shepherd who would ‘stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord’ (v3). This ruler would transcend even the boundaries of the nation: ‘his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth’ (v4).
But there are hidden surprises here. The first is that prophecies of the new king’s birth refer both to God honouring Galilee in the north of the country (in Isaiah), and also Bethlehem in the south (here in Micah). Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries – one was of noble rank and lived at the court, one lived in relative poverty and obscurity away from the corridors of power. How would this conundrum be resolved?
God’s solution is simple, but beautiful: Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth (in Galilee), but had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral hometown (Bethlehem) to pay Caesar’s poll tax. Galilee and Bethlehem – both prophecies fulfilled without contradiction.
The second surprise is that Bethlehem was chosen at all. It may have been linked to King David, but in other respects it was a small, insignificant place. Its name means ‘house of bread’, and its main business was to live up to its name – it provided the capital city of nearby Jerusalem with corn, and also lambs for sacrifice.
Centuries later, the new ruler prophesied by Micah – the one born in ‘the house of bread’ – would stand up and declare to the world: ‘I am the bread of life.’ This Great Shepherd would himself become the ‘lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.’ You never really get away from the place of your birth.
God knew what he was doing when Bethlehem was chosen. As we spend the next three weeks on our annual pilgrimage to the stable situated in ‘the house of bread’, may we too be fed daily by the Bread of Life, and fall in adoration before the Lamb of God. Bethlehem is just the beginning…
Day 1: Friday 1st December – Isaiah 7:14 ‘God with us’
God with us. That’s really the whole ball game, isn’t it? Over the next 24 days, as we prepare ourselves in this season of Advent, we’ll tell the ageless story afresh, and we’ll marvel again at the wonder of it all: the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the journey to Bethlehem, a young carpenter and his pregnant wife, the stable and that glorious Christmas night.
But, in all the beauty and mystery of what is to come, nothing really summarises it better than this one word which begins our journey: Emmanuel. God with us.
It was always the plan. God is not a distant deity, who winds the clock up and observes passively while it runs. God is a ‘with’ kind of God at the very core of his being. It begins as God with himself: ‘the Word was with God’ (John 1:1) as the Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2) – a Trinity of love.
Then God with humanity, as originally intended. Humans made in his image, knowing true intimacy with each other, and with their Creator. And the Lord comes walking into Eden in the cool of the day to spend time with Adam and Eve, only to find the barriers up, and the pattern dislocated.
After that time, we are no longer with God – but even so, not everyone gets the memo. King David, among others down the centuries, knew what it was like to experience God’s presence: ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ (Psalm 23:4)
Somehow the promise never goes away, never disappears for good. God would be with us – in a new way, for all time. It would take a miracle – the Virgin birth – but it would surely come to pass.
And seven centuries later, it does. God comes down to earth. God with us as never before. And this divine Son grows up to utter this great promise: ‘My Spirit will be with you…. Abide in me.’ God with us for all time.
There so much we can say about what the Christmas story means. But let’s start here – and maybe let’s finish here, too. God is with us. May this beautiful, intimate, faithful God be with you today, and throughout this season. And may this stir all of our hearts to joy and adoration. O come, o come Emmanuel.
Thursday 30th November – Genesis 49:8-12 ‘The Lion of Judah’
‘When Herod had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied.’
When we read this text from Matthew’s gospel (as we will later in our Advent series, and no doubt once or twice at other times in Advent), we immediately think of the famous passage in Micah chapter 5, the one we often use at carol services. And that would be right: not least because it’s the passage the chief priests and teachers of the law quote back to Herod in this conversation.
But, whilst Micah might be the moment when Bethlehem takes centre stage in the prophetic record, it’s not the first time Judea is given a significant role. Indeed, the central role of the clan of Judah – one of Joseph’s eleven brothers, from which the region of Judea takes its name – goes all the way back to Genesis, the very first book of the bible. On his deathbed, Patriarch Jacob speaks a prophetic word over all his twelve sons. Surprisingly, the pre-eminent place is not given to Reuben, the firstborn; or to Joseph, the most talented and his favourite; or to Benjamin, the baby of the family and most loved; it goes to Judah – fourth son of Leah, the wife he was forced to marry.
As so often in scripture, we can’t immediately see the obvious reason why Judah would be ‘the chosen line’. We look at the outward appearances – but the Lord looks at the heart. And, in the Lord’s wisdom, Judah is the line through which God’s great promises are fulfilled – via Boaz, David, Hezekiah, all the way down to another Joseph.
Judah is described as a lion – in the popular imagination, the greatest and fiercest creature of them all – and Jacob prophecies that one day, a descendant of Judah would carry the sceptre (i.e. royal authority) for the nations of the world, who would ultimately bow in obedience before him.
From that moment, God’s people were waiting for the Lion of Judah, who would fulfil this prophecy. And, whilst the images relating to the donkey and the blood of grapes were symbols of pre-eminence and prosperity in this particular passage, they also hint at darker meanings: the humble king riding on a donkey, the one whose blood was shed in victory, and whose blood we commemorate in wine – the one who made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; yet who was exalted to the highest place and before whom one day every knee will bow, and every tongue confess is Lord (see Philippians 2:7-11)
The Lion of Judah is Jesus Christ. As we begin our Advent series in earnest tomorrow, may the roar of this divine lion ring through all of our reflections, as we wait in hope for the coming King, and in faith for the obedience of the nations to be his.
Wednesday 29th November – Genesis 3:8-15 ‘The Serpent Crusher’
When our kids were at primary school, we were fortunate that there was a playground directly opposite their school. Most days, within thirty seconds of the bell, they would career out (with Alise or myself trailing in their wake) and find their way within a couple of minutes to the swings or the slide, along with most of their friends. I do still remember the time, though, that our son Isaac got lost. It’s not a big park and the sightlines are good throughout, but those of you who’ve been parents will know how it is – you look away for a moment, and….
For several minutes we got increasingly frantic, circling round the park: ‘Where are you?’ We were just starting to feel sick with anxiety when Isaac’s head popped out of the hedge. He and friend had found a small gap and crawled through, playing some sort of ‘hide and seek’ game. He was never more than twenty yards away the whole time – and we could breathe again!
‘Where are you?’ Possibly the most heart-rending cry in all Scripture (v9). The Lord is walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and longs to spend time with his best friends. But they are hiding – only this time not in joyful play, but in shame. They have disobeyed God and now the brutal reality has dawned: the serpent has lied to them, and paradise is lost. Indeed, you could argue that God’s cry in this passage is the divine cry to humanity throughout history – a loving Father calling to his hiding children, longing for them to return home.
The story of Advent does not start on page 1 of the New Testament, at Matthew chapter 1; or at the great prophecies of Micah 5, or even Isaiah 7. It starts here, in Genesis 3, on the third page of the bible. The first reading at a traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols is this passage, and rightly so. It is here that humanity first begins to need a rescuer. It may be many thousands of years before the quest begins in earnest – but this is where it starts.
And in this chapter which, in many ways, is the most chilling of all Scripture, God also gives us a hint, a clue, a little jewel in the dust which enables us to dare to dream. Although judgement is pronounced, God tells the serpent that one day a human being would come – ‘seed of the woman’ – who would crush his head. In crushing the serpent’s head (once and for all) he would suffer – his heel would be bruised, to use the language of the text – but he would prevail.
The rest of Scripture could be titled ‘The Search for the Serpent Crusher.’ As we prepare for the start of Advent, we fix our attention again in earnest on this search, the greatest of all quests. When would the Serpent Crusher come? What would he do? How would he do it? Praise God, we know the answers to those questions – but may these glorious answers lift our hearts afresh with renewed joy, increased peace and flourishing hope. Thanks to the Serpent Crusher, the Lord no longer needs to call out to us: Where are you?’ By his grace, we have been found by him.
Good News – The Gospel of Mark
After our season of Remembrance, we return to Mark’s gospel until Advent…
Tuesday 28th November – Mark 9:42-50 ‘Stumbling blocks’
The great Christian leader and writer John Stott once wrote a book called ‘Christ the Controversialist’. The basic point of the book is that Jesus said many hard things. Much as we like to picture him as ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’, we also have to acknowledge that Jesus upset a lot of people, and challenged ungodly attitudes – even among his own disciples – very directly at times.
Today’s passage is a prime example. You won’t find this text appear in anyone’s ‘favourite passages’ list! Its message appears uncompromising and overly harsh. But, before we consign it to the ‘not one to read again’ pile, let’s look more closely. People make two big mistakes when reading this passage – the first, historic one is to take the bit about self-mutilation literally. Jesus used figures of speech all the time: what he’s talking about is a mindset – thankfully! But what is the origin of that mindset?
Here’s where the second mistake comes in – and this is one of those places where all the little headings and breaks we put into the biblical text are sometimes unhelpful. Verse 42 does not begin a new conversation, or new section of Jesus’ teaching; we are still in the same conversation Jesus began with his disciples back in v33. This is clear from the fact that Jesus refers to ‘one of these little ones’ in v42 – he still has the child in his arms (which he refers to in very similar terms) from v37!
What Jesus is primarily addressing from v33 onwards are the twin evils of pride and the spiritual ‘club mentality’ – the sort of us-and-them, in-or-out, with-us-or-against-us thinking that cripples so much of the witness of the kingdom of God. And Jesus warns that if people are blocked from entering the kingdom because of either of these mentalities, exhibited precisely by those claiming to be part of God’s kingdom, then God will take that very seriously indeed. If you consign people to the spiritual rubbish dump, Jesus warns, (and the word for hell is ‘gehenna’, which was the dump outside Jerusalem where rubbish was continually burned), then a perfectly righteous God might just do the same to you. It would only be fair, wouldn’t it?
Tragically, we only have to look at church history to see that there have been many occasions when this warning of Jesus has been ignored – and the damage it has done to the credibility and impact of the gospel has been incalculable.
As Jesus talks about how important it is to rid ourselves of these kinds of attitudes, he then goes on to make the more general point about how determined we should be to address anything in our inner lives that stops us from following him. ‘Whatever it is, cut it off,’ he says – but the primary thrust of this teaching is about all forms of ‘spiritual superiority’ thinking which shut people out from the good news of God’s love.
He finishes by taking them back to their argument about who was the greatest: ‘have salt among yourselves and be at peace with each other’ – in other words, don’t start dumb conversations! Our relationships with each other should be about mutual encouragement (‘salting’) and promoting unity and togetherness. As we reflect on this tough passage today, may the Lord grant us all grace to examine ourselves honestly – and may he heal all that holds us back from running our race with freedom, humility and joy.
Monday 27th November – Mark 9:38-41 ‘Not one of us’
This might sound a bit obscure, but let me begin today by talking about ‘Bounded Sets’ and ‘Centred Sets’. What are those, you may be thinking? A bounded set defines clearly who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. A certain set of beliefs or behaviour draws a clear line around the set to determine who gets to be ‘in’. Fans of a sports team would be a great example of a bounded set: you have to prove your devotion to be counted as ‘in’, and only these true fans have the right, for example, to criticise the team – which most fans then do, endlessly!
A centred set is different. There is no line which marks who’s in and who’s out, the only measurement is how near or far you are from the centre. So, everybody is welcome, and the ‘set’ remains open and fluid.
So, what sort of ‘set’ is a church community? Is it a bounded one or a centred one? Are people ‘in’ or ‘out’, and if so, who gets to decide? Questions like this have dominated much church thinking over the centuries, in one shape or another. Sadly, many churches have created whole systems to define who is ‘in’ or ‘out’. It might be conformity to a set of extra beliefs (beyond the creed), or more likely of behaviours – attendance this often, actively doing this thing or actively avoiding that thing, and so on.
Bounded sets do give us a sense of security, of who is ‘one of us’. We humans generally like them: but the problem is that this is not how Jesus sees it. Jesus worked with a ‘centred set’ mentality – in other words, his only concern is how close you are to him. You can move closer, or further away, but this side of the grave you’re never ‘out’, never beyond his love and grace.
So, when the disciples tell him about someone doing work in his name, whom they stopped because ‘he was not one of us’, Jesus challenges them. Let it go, he tells them, because ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ The kingdom of God is always bigger than we think: God is always at work in surprising ways, and in even more surprising individuals. Sometimes people we didn’t expect become great allies for the Christian community – what are often called ‘people of peace’.
Today, let’s pray for God to continue that work in surprising places and people. Perhaps you know one or two you might especially commend to God. And let’s give thanks that the kingdom of God is always bigger than we think!
Saturday 25th November – Mark 9:33-37 ‘Meeting Jesus unexpectedly’
The Christian writer and activist Shane Claiborne – whose book ‘The Irresistible Revolution’ is a great read, and highly recommended – tells the story of his time working with Mother Teresa’s charity in India. He used to help regularly with the lunchtime food project which provided a hot meal for the destitute of the city, and was struck by the behaviour of one of the other helpers, who regularly gave an extra generous portion of the curry that was usually offered. When Shane queried whether it was right to load up the plates when so many were coming to be fed, the helper replied: ‘Of course I give out an extra helping – after all, Jesus will be coming to eat it today.’
Claiborne was profoundly moved by this reply, and the truth of this helper’s remark is borne out by today’s passage. We pick up where we left off yesterday, as Jesus gently challenges the disciples about what true devotion to their Lord consists of – not prestige or privilege, but humility and service.
To make his point, he gives them an example: calling a child to him, he declares: ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.’ This might seem innocuous enough to our modern ears: children now have a special role in our culture, a place which is furthermore protected by law. But this is very far from the situation in first century Israel. Children had no such place, no such protection; they were seen as the property of their parents, so for Jesus to give them special honour was, quite simply, a radical notion. In effect, he took ‘the least’ in his culture and said: if you welcome them, you welcome me.
In the following chapter of Mark, Jesus took this idea even further, commending child-like faith as the only way we can enter his kingdom. But today, let’s marvel at this quiet revolution Jesus begins with this seemingly small gesture. Future generations of Christians came to understand that Jesus was, by this simple act, declaring that all people were equally valuable to God; and that, whenever we give our time, attention and blessing to anyone considered to be on the margins, we are, in some marvellous way, meeting Jesus himself.
I, too, had such an encounter in Bristol ten or so years ago. Helping on a soup run I had the same experience as Claiborne, that profound sense that I was meeting Jesus in the homeless men and women I served that day. Perhaps you have, too. And may today’s lovely story encourage us all to keep reaching out to those in need: for it is there that we might, miraculously, meet Jesus himself.
Friday 24th November – Mark 9:30-34 ‘Get the message?’
‘For those of you watching in black and white, the yellow is just behind the blue.’ That famous piece of commentary usually finds its way into TV blooper shows, and highlights how easy it is for something that is clear to the speaker to be veiled to the listener.
Today, Jesus tells the disciples a second time what is going to happen to him. The first time had not gone very well, as you’ll remember: Peter got cross and told Jesus off for not being the sort of Messiah he was supposed to be. In reply, Jesus had challenged Peter’s preconceptions. Clearly this was a conversation Jesus needed to re-visit; so, after the recent encounter with the father and his son, he takes the opportunity to say it again.
This is very sensible: research has shown that any piece of communication needs to be heard at least three times to stick; similarly, I was taught at college that, when writing an essay, you should say what you’re going to say, then say it, then summarise what you’ve just said. We’ll see in a few days that Jesus also needs to say this vital message three times.
So here, today, is Big Conversation Number 2. Sadly, the disciples are still none the wiser – worse, they are now afraid to ask; worse yet, they were caught arguing about who is the greatest, which betrays a total misunderstanding of what Jesus said to them last time!
Again, we must marvel at how like us the disciples are; but we are also encouraged at Jesus’ wonderful patience with weak, slow, unsteady people – in other words, with almost all of his followers. Tomorrow we’ll see how this time he deals with their confusion much more gently. Today, though, let’s admire not only Jesus’ patience, but what he was willing to do for us – and that, despite knowing all that this would cost him, he went ahead anyway. Truly we worship an amazing Saviour.
Thursday 23rd November – Mark 9:14-29 ‘I do believe – help my unbelief!’
‘There are moments, sure, when you think: is there a God? Where is God? …I love the psalms, if you look at Psalm 88, that’s full of doubt.’ It may come as something of a relief to know that this quote comes direct from the Archbishop of Canterbury, at an interview in Bristol Cathedral in 2014. At the time, the media got into a bit of a lather about it, as the media usually does; all the Archbishop was really saying was that none of us has a perfect faith, and doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather a part of the process.
Today’s passage is a beautiful illustration of this. It’s a much-debated story, and this brief reflection is not the place to dwell on the finer points: whether the boy had some form of spiritual oppression, or epilepsy, or both; whether Jesus’ indication that healing in this case could only be effected by ‘prayer’ means a fundamentally different approach to healing for specific issues, and so on. These are all important questions, but today I want to focus on the personal aspect of the story: the meeting of the boy’s father with Jesus.
You can imagine the desperation this man feels. He carries the chronic grief and worry of seeing his son afflicted with a serious condition, and at the point he meets Jesus, the additional acute pain of seeing the disciples fail to achieve any measure of healing. Everything looked hopeless… but there was still a mustard seed of faith there: ‘If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’
Jesus’ reply is both a rebuke and an encouragement: ‘everything is possible for one who believes.’ This prompts one of the great cries of scripture, and one which encapsulates the human condition: ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’
We humans are all a fragile mixture of faith and doubt. We do believe: and yet we also find so many reasons to question, so many obstacles getting in the way. In one sentence, the father in this story beautifully expresses the spiritual journey we all experience. And the good news is that this is enough for Jesus: he responds immediately, heals the boy and teaches the disciples afterwards.
We would all love to possess great faith – and that’s a good thing to aspire to. But sometimes it’s good to remember that Jesus receives us as we are, with our blend of faith and doubt; Jesus answers our half-baked prayers, makes his home with us anyway and gently beckons us on. We rest, not on our great faith, but on his great faithfulness.
A propos of which, I’ll leave the last word to the Archbishop – in that same interview – and may God give us grace to face our doubts and trust his faithfulness: ‘It is not about feelings, it is about the fact that God is faithful, and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful when we are not.’ Amen to that!
Wednesday 22nd November – Mark 9:9-13 ‘The prophetic pacemaker’
In the sport of cycling, one of the strangest – but most enjoyable – events is the Keirin. This is effectively a multi-lap sprint on the track, but what makes it unusual is the ‘derny’: a motorised bicycle which sets the pace at the front of the race. For the first few laps all the competitors have to follow the derny, which increases its speed gradually until the official start of the sprint, when it quietly steers off the track, allowing the sprinters to race each other.
Today’s passage is really about another pacesetter: in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament – especially the prophet Malachi – the Messiah is promised a ‘derny’, if you like: one who will come and set the pace for his ministry and prepare the people for the race to come. This person is Elijah – one of the greatest prophets, who is promised to return before the Messiah arrives.
The supposed wait for Elijah to return became one of sticking points among those who did not wish to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. As they saw it, how could he be, as Elijah had not appeared yet? It’s not surprising, then, that, after seeing Jesus meet with Elijah, Peter, James and John felt moved to ask Jesus about it. Did this mean that this prophecy was fulfilled?
Jesus’ answer is effectively ‘yes, and no’. Yes, Elijah has come; but not on the mountain just now – rather, John the Baptist is the ‘Elijah who was to come’. Although Mark does not refer explicitly to John here – Matthew does in 11:14 of his gospel, quoting Jesus directly – Jesus does talk about John’s treatment at the hands of his opponents: ‘Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished’ (v13). For the detail of that story, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago, head back to chapter 6.
In what sense does John the Baptist ‘restore all things’? My sense is that what Jesus means here is that he paves the way for Jesus: John exercised a powerful ministry of repentance, during which thousands of people dedicated themselves back to God. This ‘set the pace’ for Jesus himself.
Today’s passage might seem more of a theological ‘box-tick’ – another prophecy fulfilled! But Jesus’ fulfilment of prophecy is a powerful testimony of who he was and what he came to do. It validates all the great prophecies which rightly stir our hearts: salvation, freedom, justice, peace and the coming kingdom of God. Give thanks that Jesus is everything he claims to be; and may this Jesus refresh your heart and walk beside you this day.
Tuesday 21st November – Mark 9:1-8 ‘A glimpse of glory’
I wonder how you picture Jesus? Most of have a mental image of a chap with a beard and long hair, oatmeal-coloured tunic and deeply compassionate eyes. Perhaps not too far wide of the mark – but even if your image is different, it is probably a very human Jesus.
And that’s a good thing: God became one of us, and Jesus’ humanity lies at the heart of our good news. It helps us relate to Jesus as a friend, and also to follow him, because we can visualise him as a human who was wholly obedient to God.
But there is another side to the story. Jesus is also the Son of God, who carries the glory of heaven. When St John saw him in heaven, in the famous vision which begins the book of Revelation, Jesus’ appearance was so glorious, so dazzling, John could do nothing else but fall on his face in awe and worship.
This is the Jesus we will all one day meet, and I hope that we will all experience that same sense of joyful awe at the experience. But a few human beings were fortunate to see it when Jesus was on earth – and the story of that experience is our passage for today. Peter, James and John were taken by Jesus up a high mountain, and there Jesus gave them a glimpse of glory: ‘there he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white… Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”’
Wow! It must have been overwhelming; in fact we know it was, because Peter starts gibbering about shelters for Jesus’ heavenly guests. For a few minutes they got a vision of the divine Son, of Jesus as he really is, carrying the majesty of God himself.
It is good to imagine a human Jesus. But there are times when we need to remember how glorious Jesus is. A human Jesus helps us to pray for ourselves. A divine, glorious Jesus helps us to pray for the world, inspired by the knowledge that we worship an awesome God. May the glory of Jesus fill your heart today, and increase your faith to pray, in the precious name of the Divine Son.
Monday 20th November – Mark 8:34-38 ‘The upside-down kingdom’
Growing up, one of my absolute favourite sets of books was the Mr Men series. I’m sure many of you love these books too! There were so many great characters: Mr Happy, Mr Tickle, Mr Bump – I wonder what’s your favourite? I also liked Mr Topsy-Turvy. As the book begins: ‘Everything about Mr. Topsy-Turvy is upside down, or inside out, or back to front. He’s a funny sort of fellow.’ His front door is upside-down, as are his curtains… and so it goes on.
Whilst we can laugh at the absurdity of the world in which Mr Topsy-Turvy lives, there are times in our lives when things feel turned upside down – and it’s a lot less comfortable. For many of us, the years of pandemic may have felt like that, and every time our news screens are filled with images of a devastating earthquake, we see horrifyingly literal images of life turned inside-out.
All of which lends an uncomfortable context to these words of Jesus. For in this short but challenging passage, Jesus indicates that living in the kingdom of God turns everything topsy-turvy. In essence, we lose our lives to save them. How? By following the upside-down Messiah.
Just as Jesus proves he is God’s chosen one, not through power and success but through the opposite – apparent weakness, betrayal and death – so we prove we belong to Jesus through leading a life of humility and service. We may not carry a literal cross, as he did, but, through a life of humble service, we imitate our Lord’s example.
To coin a phrase: it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. And yet, it is the path to eternity. We only keep what we give away: in other words, it is in this upside-down approach to living that we find true life. It sounds crazy – but, through the centuries, millions of followers of Jesus have discovered that it really is true, it really works. For the Christ who died was also the Christ who was raised to life. It is not ‘death’ for its own sake, but in order that Jesus’ new life might truly flourish in us!
Whatever cross you feel that you carry today, pray for grace to bear it. Jesus carries it with you, and his ultimate purpose for you is life, and life in all its fullness.
Saturday 18th November – Mark 8:27-33 ‘What kind of Messiah?’
‘The wrong kind of leaves on the line.’ As a London commuter I used to get the train into work every day. When you use a train several hundred times a year, you get used to delays! This quote is one of the best known reasons given for a train being held up; to be honest it wasn’t announced to the passengers on a train I was sat on, but was reported in the local paper as the best excuse of the year – it’s become something of an urban myth or legend!
We might laugh at the wrong kind of leaves – but I’m sure all of us can relate to the frustration of finding that we’ve got the wrong thing for the job. A bayonet light bulb when we needed a screw-in; a flat head screwdriver when we needed a Phillips, and so on.
Sometimes, having the wrong thing for the job is more serious, especially when it comes to people in positions of influence. Perhaps the most important job in all of human history is on the line in today’s reading. God’s people had been waiting hundreds of years for a special, anointed rescuer, called ‘Messiah’. Many prophets had testified, and periodically the people got into a frenzy of excitement over a potential contender.
Jesus’ ministry had got everyone talking: could this be The One? The real Messiah, come to set God’s people free? We saw in our last reflection how Jesus was starting to wonder if anyone around him would finally see… and here, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter has his moment of inspiration, and, at last, utters those famous words: ‘You are the Messiah.’
In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus praises Peter at this point for sharing what Jesus considers to be a moment of divine revelation. He then goes on to say what Mark also records here, to give the Messiah’s job description: to suffer unjustly, be executed, and then rise from the dead.
To which Peter immediately interrupts: but Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong. This isn’t the Messiah’s job description: the Messiah is a great military leader who’ll defeat our oppressors and liberate the land. This is the Messiah we need for the job!
We know the end of the story. It turns out Jesus was just the right Messiah for the job, a job far bigger than Peter imagined – that of liberating the human race from our universal oppressors: sin, evil, Satan and death. But today, let’s not lose sight of just how radical a message this was; and also to receive this healthy reminder that we can all be tempted to make Jesus fit our expectations. Sometimes, the message of the gospel is not always what we want: but it is always what we need! And may the living Christ be all you need today.
Friday 17th November – Mark 8:22-26 ‘Seeing clearly’
This passage initially reminds me of an event we run for older children at Easter, called Easter Cracked. It’s great fun, and a brilliant way of introducing the Easter story – as part of this event, I usually have to dress up as ‘Mr Easter Egghead’, which involves donning a ridiculous costume, complete with super-thick specs. The children all shout and laugh as I stagger up the aisle to ask them lots of questions – but truthfully I can’t do much else but stagger: the specs are so thick I can barely see! I feel like the chap in the middle of today’s passage: everyone just looks like trees wandering around. Less egghead, more egg-eyes – get the yolk?
Today’s miracle follows hot on the heels of several others, and bears closest comparison with Jesus’ healing of a deaf and mute man at the end of chapter 7. There’s more saliva involved: but before we get caught up with the yucky details, Mark has a deeper purpose here. This miracle is more than just a wonderful story of transformation, though it is that: it is a parable in itself. What happens to the blind man in Bethsaida mirrors what is happening in the disciples’ consciousness.
Like a good game of football, Mark is a gospel of two halves. In the first half, Mark encourages us to ask: who is Jesus? In the second half, the underlying question changes to: why did Jesus come? As we near the end of the first half, questions of identity have come to the fore. Jesus is rejected at Nazareth, demonstrates his divinely royal authority feeding the 5,000 and declares the Jewish food laws fulfilled (though we don’t know why yet). The pointers are all there….
….but still the disciples don’t get it. This is clear from the episode in the boat in the previous reflection. Jesus’ conversation with the disciples bears a whiff of exasperation: ‘Do you still not understand?’ (v21)
So, we come to today’s miracle: this is one of the very few miracles of Jesus which takes place in stages: the man’s sight is partially restored first, before being fully restored. Why is that? It’s not because Jesus was having an off day, and certainly not because his technique was ‘wrong’. No – this is really a parable of the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ identity: they are starting to perceive, albeit a bit fuzzily… and then in the next passage (tomorrow) one of them finally gets it! ‘You are the Messiah.’ Bingo! Finally….
Let’s not be too hard on the disciples: they are so like us! For many of us, our understanding of who Jesus is came equally slowly, perhaps even more so. But let’s thank God that we (finally) got there – and let’s also pray to keep growing in understanding: for the more we know, the more we will love; and the more we love, the more we will live.
Thursday 16th November – Mark 8:14-21 ‘Use your loaf’
I must confess I love a good pun! Thankfully, Jesus does, too. Squeezing through eyes of needles, having ears to hear, finding planks in eyes… set in context, these are all meant to bring a smile to our faces. And we saw a few days ago how Jesus responded positively to a witty riposte from the Syro-Phoenician woman. Jesus has a great sense of humour, and I think that’s a lovely facet of who he is.
And, today, getting into the boat at the start of our passage and watching the disciples fretting about their lack of bread, Jesus – still thinking about the most recent encounter – decides to make a bread-based contribution, which was part joke and part serious contribution: ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees.’
Yeast is a powerful substance. A little goes a long way, and transforms what it is mixed with. This can go in one of two directions: here, a small number of powerful people have acted as a corrosive influence on a whole culture. But it can work the other way, too; elsewhere Jesus suggests that we can have a similar influence: a little yeast changing a culture for the better.
Either way, as the disciples scratch their heads at Jesus’ sharp wit, Jesus prods them to think more deeply about what they’ve just seen and experienced. In the spirit of pun-ning, you could say he tells them to ‘use their loaf’.
There’s no substitute for experience – in the spiritual life, as in all other elements of life. But experience needs to be reflected upon, absorbed, internalised. As Plato observed: ‘The unreflected life is the unlived life.’ We are all called to use our loaves: to keep growing in wisdom as we journey with Jesus.
What has God been showing you recently? Take a few moments to reflect on this: and pray for grace to learn and grow through it. Nothing is ever wasted!
Wednesday 15th November – Mark 8:1-13 ‘Groundhog Day?’
I don’t know if you’ve seen Bill Murray’s classic film, which is the title of today’s reflection. It details the story of a chap whose life is on endless repeat. Whatever happens on any day, the next one begins exactly as before. It’s very funny, and perhaps a bit unsettling, too.
With Jesus, of course, every day is different – but this passage has a ‘groundhog day’ feel about it. It feels like we’ve seen both episodes (vv1-10, vv11-13) before. First there’s the miracle – it reads very much like the feeding of the 5,000 a couple of chapters previously. If so, why is it here? The answer, I believe, is in verses 11-13.
This episode, too, is all too familiar – opposition and unbelief from the Pharisees. It’s bizarre, isn’t it, how Jesus is asked for a sign just after he’s demonstrated one of the greatest ‘signs’ you could imagine – the miraculous feeding of thousands of people from practically nothing. If that sign wasn’t enough, would anything be enough?
…which is the point, really. The Pharisees were determined not to believe in Jesus because he threatened their privileged position. It doesn’t matter that what he represented had been demonstrated time and again to be both true and real – Power loves to find a way to hold on to power, as is sadly only too evident in the world at present.
But it reminds us why Jesus appears to ‘repeat’ miracles. We are slow learners! I certainly am – and we’ll see tomorrow that the disciples were, too. It’s the human condition. Ultimately, though, I’m so grateful that we worship a patient Saviour. Today’s miracle reassures me that Jesus is not just compassionate, but wonderfully patient with us.
May that thought comfort our hearts today, and give us grace to pray with renewed hope in Jesus’ transforming love and wisdom, both in our lives and in the lives of those we pray for.
Tuesday 14th November – Mark 7:31-37 ‘Everything well’
A minister friend of mine who spent some time in America loved to tell the story of a preacher he knew who had a healing ministry. Whenever he gathered people for an evening meeting which offered prayer for healing, this preacher would turn up on stage (and yes, there was a stage) wearing a brilliant white suit and carrying a huge black leather bible under his arm. At the point of offering prayer for any who sought healing, he would throw the bible dramatically down on the stage, stand on it (a literal interpretation of ‘standing on the word of God’, I think), and in a loud voice declare healing for whatever ailments were being addressed.
It takes all sorts, doesn’t it? But whilst we might feel a little uncomfortable with this particular expression of ‘kingdom ministry’, it is true that when it comes to healing prayer we often rely on methods. The modern church loves novelty, and also loves technique – two dominant themes of the culture around us, which we’ve adopted perhaps a little too uncritically into our worshipping life.
What I find amazing about Jesus’ healing ministry – alongside the very fact of the marvellous miracles themselves – is that with Jesus there is no ‘method’. He does it a different way every time: sometimes he touches people, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he’s right there with the person, sometimes he prays remotely. Sometimes there’s a large crowd, sometimes it’s only for a few to witness. Sometimes he’s in a synagogue, sometimes a house, sometimes the open air. And on this occasion, he sticks his fingers in the man’s ears and then puts spit on his tongue! (Just to reassure you, if you approach me with an ear problem, I will probably stop short of jamming my fingers into your lugholes! Though don’t rule anything out…)
And yet… ‘People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said.’ (v37) This wonderful acclamation at the end of the passage makes it clear that what Jesus does well is the fruit of what happens, not the method or technique. The method varies every time: there’s no obvious pattern, just a heart open to the Lord’s leading and a life willing to be used by God.
Jesus does everything well. It’s a remarkable thought, isn’t it? It’s not often the way we talk about Jesus – but it’s true. We don’t always understand the how and the why, but we can marvel at the outcome. Today, let’s seize faith to believe that Jesus continues to do all things well. And let’s pray for healing for any who need it, taking heart from the fact that what we say and how we do it doesn’t matter – what matters is the One to whom we offer it, the One who does everything well.
Monday 13th November – Mark 7:24-30 ‘Heavenly leftovers’
Growing up in a family of six, mealtimes were always a bit of a scrum. First to finish got first dibs on the leftovers, so the three teenagers tended to eat quickly! It was rare for there to be anything left, but if that ever happened, what found its way into the fridge was sure to be gone by the morning.
Looking further back into my childhood, my dad – following the example of my nan – was a great one for ‘bubble and squeak’ i.e. frying up leftover veg the following day into a sort of patty. We all loved it: I suspect we often looked forward to bubble and squeak more than the original meal! These were leftovers which were every bit as good as the first offering.
Today’s passage is perhaps the theological equivalent of ‘bubble and squeak’. Jesus meets a gentile (non-Jewish) woman, who comes to him seeking healing for her daughter. Jesus replies that God’s blessings are meant primarily for the Jews: and I like to think that, here, he says what he says with a wry smile on his face. ‘Dogs’ was a derogatory term for non-Jews: it’s hard to imagine Jesus using this in a prejudicial way – more likely he was testing her to see what she said.
And her reply was brilliant: ‘even the dogs get the crumbs from under the table.’ Jesus loves both her faith and her quick wit: ‘For such a reply you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’
There are several examples in the gospels where Jesus blesses or heals people who were not Jews – demonstrating not just that the gospel is for everyone, but, even more wonderfully, that non-Jews can receive the same blessings as Jews, the historic chosen people of God. Or, to put it another way, the ‘bubble and squeak’ enjoyed by the Syro-Phoenician woman was now every bit as good as the original meal!
This is good news for all of us reading this reflection today. Thanks to Christ, we share in the same inheritance – good news for the whole world. Indeed, with the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all people, what we get is not just ‘crumbs’, but the fullness of God’s blessing – the indwelling presence of God and what St Paul calls ‘every spiritual blessing in Christ.’
And may that glorious truth raise our faith to approach Jesus confidently: to seek him for all that we need today, and to trust that he gives us, not just crumbs, but the fullness of his blessings.