Lectionary Notes

LECTIONARY NOTES - February 2016 by Richard Clutterbuck

Introduction

Old prayer books had something called ‘A Table of Moveable Feasts’ so that you could work out when the key events in the Christian year would be in any given year. In fact, there’s a version of it at the back of the Methodist Worship Book. It tells us that in 2016 we have an early Easter; it falls on March 27th, the date decided by the first Sunday after the first new moon after the spring equinox. This means that Lent starts mid-February. And that in turn means that there’s very little time between the celebration of ‘Candlemas’ (the traditional name for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, marking the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season) and the beginning of Lent. We step from the glory of Jesus recognised in the temple to the foreboding of his walk towards the cross.  But in between there’s a Sunday that some now call ‘Transfiguration Sunday’. That really is helpful, because the story of the transfiguration brings together the theme of Christ’s glory with the growing awareness that he is heading towards conflict and death. The other side to this is that even as we encourage one another in the renewal of discipleship during Lent, we can keep a sense of the light and glory that is the presence of Jesus in the world and in our lives.

 

7th February: Sunday before Lent or Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 34: 29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3: 12-4:2

In 2010, Durham cathedral installed a new stained-glass window in memory of Michael Ramsey, who had been Bishop of Durham and then Archbishop of Canterbury. Its theme is ‘Transfiguration’ and from a distance all you can really see is a great column of light rising up through the height of the window. Only as you come close can you begin to see the details. Here is the gospel story of Jesus transfigured on the mountain, with sleepy and baffled disciples. But here, too, are present day Christian pilgrims, making their way through the challenges of life yet somehow caught up in the glorious light of Christ. This captures so much that the gospel conveys to us. In Israel’s trek through the wilderness, God’s presence was signalled through the Shekinah - the pillar of fire and cloud that went before them. But it also shone from the face of Moses, whose walk with God was so close that he radiated God’s glory. Jesus, too, shines with divine light. He, like Moses and Elijah, is God’s messenger. But he is much more: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ As the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah signals, what the disciples need to hear is that the Jesus who they recognise as Messiah and Son of God is also the Jesus who walks the path of suffering and death.

                We, as contemporary Christian disciples, need to keep our eyes open to the richness of the reality we meet in Jesus Christ. And we share the privilege of reflecting that glorious richness as (to use St Paul’s words) we ‘are being transformed from one degree of glory into another.’

 

10th February: Ash Wednesday

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51: 1-17; 2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:10; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent. Traditionally, an Ash Wednesday service includes the symbolic imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead. This goes right back to the early Church when Lent was both a time of preparation for those training for baptism, and a time of repentance for Christians who realised that their lives needed to get back on track after a lapse in their discipleship. We, too, need to examine ourselves in the light of the teaching of Jesus.

                The readings for today remind us that it is our standing before God that really matters, not the façade we may want to present to the world.  Psalm 51 is a powerful account of human sinfulness – often associated with the story of King David and his abusive relationship with Bathsheba.  The Psalm does not let any of us off the hook – we all share the human tendency to mess things up in our own lives and in our relationship with God.  But there is good news too: it is when we accept the uncomfortable truth about ourselves that we find that we are closest to the God who wants to forgive us and transform us. ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

 

14th February: First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16; Romans 10: 8b-13; Luke 4: 1-13

On the first Sunday in Lent we are reminded that Jesus shared the temptations that are common to human life – and with a particular intensity.  Luke tells the story in a similar way to Mark and Matthew, but he gives it a special significance by the way he frames it. Just before the temptations of Jesus Luke gives us his version of the genealogy  - he traces Jesus’ human family tree back through Jewish history, through king David and the patriarchs, right back to Adam, the first man to appear in the Bible.  The message is clear: here are very fallible human beings who often succumbed to the most basic temptations.  And here is Jesus, showing us what all these other characters lacked, an unwavering faithfulness to the will of God.  This contrast between Adam’s disobedience and Jesus’s obedience is taken up by St Paul: ‘as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive’.  In fact, the whole temptation story would also remind its hearers of Israel in their desert wanderings, failing time after time to take the path of justice and trust in God. Jesus does both, but he is also a man of his time. There is the temptation to rule the world (Luke uses a word that means ‘the whole inhabited earth’) as a rival to the power of the Roman emperor. That could not be Jesus’ way without deviating from the path of the kingdom. Then, having shared the story of Jesus in the wilderness, Luke takes us straight to the synagogue in Nazareth, with Jesus using the words of the prophet Isaiah to announce the manifesto of the Kingdom of God. This is the true response to demonic temptation, not just avoiding wrongdoing, but actively pursuing what is good. We might want to say that the best answer to the temptation to do the wrong thing is to do the right

 

21st February: Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3: 17-4:1; Luke 13: 31-35 or Luke 9: 28-36, (37-43a)

The recent film Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King at a critical point in the struggle for civil rights in the United States.  He insists on carrying on with marching and speaking in spite of warnings, threats and violence. He can see that he is likely to be killed by those who hate what he stands for, but he knows that he has to keep going on the path God has set him. His passion for God and for his people drives him on. Another great twentieth-century Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, theologian and member of the resistance against Hitler, was tempted to spend WWII in safety in America.  His reading of scripture convinced him to turn back to Germany to suffer – and eventually die – with his people.  Both Luther King and Bonhoeffer illustrate the prophetic passion and determination of Jesus presented here in Luke 13. Jesus is committed to a course of action and he is determined to fulfil that commitment, whatever the cost.  But what lies behind this steely determination?  It is more than obstinate belief; according to Luke’s gospel it is a passionate love for the wayward people of Jerusalem.  Anyone who has seen a hen protect its chick by gathering them under its wings will appreciate what Jesus was saying. He is the answer to the Psalmist’s prayer, ‘Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings’ (Psalm 17: 8).

 

28th February: Third Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 55: 1-9;  Psalm 63: 1-8;  1 Corinthians 10: 1-13; Luke 13: 1-9

Occasionally we hear of misguided preachers who attribute some natural disaster – a flood or earthquake, perhaps – to some sinful action on the part of victims.  Similar thoughts seem to have occurred to some of the people around Jesus.  A number had died when Roman soldiers attacked pilgrims from Galilee; others perished because of the collapse of one of the towers on the Jerusalem city wall. The conclusion that Jesus draws is not that these victims were especially sinful, but that all of us need to repent as we never know when our life will come to an end. The famous Rabbi Eliezer taught that a person should repent the day before their death. The implication was that because any day could be our last, every day should be a day of repentance. The parable of the fig tree underlines this sense of urgency – God has patiently waited for the people to bear fruit, but a barren tree is use to anyone. This echoes the preaching of John the Baptist (Luke 3: 8-9), who urged his hearers to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’.

                This can seem harsh and even threatening. So we need to listen to the words of St Paul in I Corinthians 10.  There he reminds us that God does not ask of us anything that is impossible, nor will God place us in a situation that will overwhelm us.  ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength …’