Archive for the ‘Mark’s gospel’ Category

Whose side are you on?

February 24, 2018

Lent 2 – 2018

Mark 8:31-39

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. Amen.

Last week I suggested that Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a means of preparing him for what was to come. The hostile environment, the privations and the encounter with Satan could be seen a foretaste of what Jesus could expect as he began his ministry as one who had been named the Son of God. From start to finish, Jesus will encounter misunderstanding, antagonism and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his own disciples. If he could withstand the difficulties that he faced in the desert, he (and God) could be comfortable that he would be able to survive the forces that would oppose him as he attempted to share the good news.

Today’s gospel takes a great leap forward from Jesus’ baptism and temptation. What that means is that we have not been following Mark’s story line and so we have not seen the way in which the tensions between Jesus and his opponents build and develop. We have not been privy to the threats against Jesus’ life that began as early as chapter 3.

To bring you up to speed then: after Jesus’ baptism he is driven into the wilderness where he is tested or tried out by Satan. During the course of his ministry the demons confront him, the leaders of the church challenge and criticize him, his family are concerned that he is mad and now we discover that Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle, is among those who would oppose or even prevent Jesus’ mission. So serious is Peter’s misunderstanding that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan or the adversary.

Today’s passage, with the one that precedes it, is the climax of Mark’s gospel. In the verses immediately preceding those we have just read, Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They respond: “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Peter has spoken the truth, but what follows demonstrates that Peter knows and understands only half the truth. His understanding of the Christ is limited. It has been conditioned by the cultural expectations of his time and, despite the fact that he has been with Jesus since the beginning, his experiences have not impacted on his expectations.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus is very reluctant to make his identity public. Jesus is well aware that he will fail to meet the hopes of many of the people. He knows that those who were expecting God to send someone to restore the glory of Israel – politically, economically, spiritually – will be seriously disappointed. Jesus does not reveal who he is because he knows that he will be misunderstood. Contrary to the popular thought, Jesus will not be a Christ who will lead the people to a triumphant victory over Rome. He is not a Christ who will restore the purity of the Temple worship. Jesus is neither a warrior nor a high priest.

So, when Peter declares him to be the Christ, Jesus’ qualifies Peter’s declaration with a description of the future that he, as the Christ, can expect. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter has so misunderstood Jesus’ ministry that he is shocked to the core by Jesus’ revelation and so validates Jesus’ belief that he will be misunderstood. In fact, Peter is so shocked that he immediately tries to convince Jesus that he is mistaken.

If Peter’s declaration that Jesus’ is the Christ is the climax of the gospel, then Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction is the other side of that fulcrum. The stakes are high – as is demonstrated by the strong language that is used in this passage. “Epitimaō” the word that is translated as “rebuke” in our versions of the New Testament, means “to overcome with a powerful word”. It can be used to demonstrate the way in which Jesus exercises power over the demons and over the natural elements. In other words it is used in the context of the fierce battle between the demons and the divine. On Peter’s lips it could be translated, “Shut up! Don’t say such things!” On Jesus’ lips, as the text makes clear, it suggests that Jesus understood Peter to be taking the side of the demonic forces that opposed Jesus. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to go away. A better translation of “Get behind me, Satan,” is: “Depart behind me Satan” (in other words, “Get out of my sight, you have no place alongside the divine”). Not surprisingly, this is the same language used by Matthew when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus banishes Peter not only because he so spectacularly fails to understand but also because he has the arrogance to presume that he knows better than God what lies ahead. In that moment Peter has shown himself to be on the side of Jesus’ opponents who want to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.

The language of this passage tells us that this is not a simple disagreement between Peter and Jesus but “a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical”.[1]

This brief interchange between Jesus and Peter shows how much is at stake if we fail to truly grasp who and what Jesus is, if we try to contain Jesus through simple and well-worn categories or if we think that we know better than God. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof-positive that God acts in ways that we do not expect and that we cannot comprehend. The cross throws into relief all our false ideas, our hopes and expectations. Jesus is not all-powerful and all-knowing, but vulnerable and subject to misunderstanding. Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimately Jesus’ death forces us to continually rethink our ideas about God – who is not triumphant, who does not exert God’s will over us and who shows in high relief the distinction between the divine and its opposite.

Jesus is not and will not be who or what we expect. So let us not make Peter’s mistake of assuming that we know and understand, but rather suspend our certainty so that we can learn from Christ who and what he is.





[1] C. Clifton Black, Lent 2 2018.


Children of God, beloved and special

February 17, 2018

Lent 1 – 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free


In the name of God who strengthens us and equips us for all the good and the bad that we might be asked to face. Amen.

Did you notice something missing from today’s gospel? You might have been expecting to hear the details of the three temptations – turning stones into bread, jumping off a cliff and worshipping Satan. These specific details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness (listed by both Luke and Matthew) are missing in Mark’s gospel. They are apparently of little consequence for Mark as he pushes on to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. Probably because Mark’s account is so stark, the lectionary writers have included Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. This creates an interesting juxtaposition: baptism followed by temptation, public repentance followed by private battles within, a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, followed by Jesus being driven into the wilderness.

If we read the account of the baptism on its own without understanding the consequences it becomes a wonderful affirmation of Jesus. Though Jesus alone sees and hears, the events that accompany Jesus’ baptism are quite extraordinary. The heavens are literally torn apart, the Spirit descends as if a dove and Jesus hears the voice of God from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been both an inspiring and terrifying moment. Jesus heard God assuring him that he was doing the right thing and that his relationship with God was of the highest order, Father and Son.

Why then does the Spirit (note: not the devil) immediately drive Jesus out into the wilderness – that godless, inhospitable and unforgiving place – to be tempted by Satan and threatened by wild animals? To experience both physical and spiritual adversity? At first sight, it seems to be back-to-front. Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus would want to repent after a time of reflection and temptation? Doesn’t make more sense for Jesus to be tested before God tears apart the heavens and sends the Spirit upon him? Doesn’t it seem that it would be more prudent for God to have been certain that Jesus was ready the task before he took the radical step of affirming him as God’s Son? I wonder, what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could God take the Son thing back?

Two things help us to make sense of the order of events as they are presented. The first is the parallel between Jesus’ experience and that of Israel. Before God led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God declared that Israel was God’s Son. God thus affirmed the status of Israel and, through the cloud and the fiery pillar, God provided proof that God would provide for them and would never desert them. Yet, despite such assurance, Israel grumbled against God and relied on their own resources to the extent of making their own gods thus demonstrating that they had little to no faith in God’s promises.

When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and led into the wilderness he places his trust entirely in God, he refuses to rely on his own resources or to put God to the test. As a result Jesus is able to withstand the privations of the desert and as a result is “ministered to by the angels”. Jesus did what Israel could not – he believed not that God would spare him from trouble, but that when trouble came his way he could rely on God to provide the strength to see him through.

We better understand the order of events when we remember that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will face hostility and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his disciples. Jesus’ journey, once begun, will lead only to suffering and the cross. At Jesus’ baptism then, God gives Jesus the resources that he will need for whatever lies ahead – the absolute assurance that he is God’s Son and the implied assurance that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with him. The wilderness is a sign of what is to come. Jesus begins his ministry with the endorsement of God’s love and approval ringing in his ears – an endorsement that sustains him in the wilderness and throughout the challenges and threats that dog his ministry.

At our Baptism we are told: “the promises of God are signed and sealed for us.” And we are assured of the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are not empty words, but gifts to sustain us through thick and thin. They are gifts that assure us that God will be with us every step of the way: sustaining us, encouraging us and equipping us to face whatever dangers, griefs or hardships that might come our way.

Lent, our time in the wilderness, need not be a time of self-flagellation, a time of reminding ourselves how far we fall short or a time of stressing about what we need to do to be holier or kinder, more loving or more patient. Lent can be a time of letting go, a time for reminding ourselves that we can place our trust completely in God, that we can rely on God to be there in our times of need and that we can trust God to hold us up when we feel that we can go no further.

No one can predict what life will throw at us. The question is not whether we will have wilderness experiences, but whether our confidence in God is sufficient to see us through. May this Lent be for us all a time to renew our trust in God, to make peace with the lives that we have and to believe that whatever happens God has, waiting for us, an eternity that is beyond our capacity to imagine.

In Jesus, heaven and earth meet

February 10, 2018

Transfiguration – 2018

Mark 9:2-9

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose presence is revealed in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Amen.

“Thin places” are those places that were identified by the ancient Celts as sites where the barriers between humans and gods were particularly porous. Such sites were believed to be endowed with a particular sort of energy that was strong enough to be felt. In the United Kingdom such thin places were/are often associated with geographic boundaries or crossing places of one kind or another. Islands such as the Island of Iona – cut off from the land and sometimes invisible thanks to fog – were considered thin places. Fog itself and low hanging clouds which mysteriously hide a place from view give an air of mystery to glens and mountain peaks which in turn led to their being seen as places where the boundaries between heaven and earth were not only thin, but could on occasions be broken to allow passage between one world and the next.

The notion of ‘thin places’ is responsible for the practices that are associated with Halloween. It was believed that at that time of the year the barriers between this world and the next were opened up and that at that time the dead rose to trouble the living. Hugh bonfires were built to scare off the spirits and food and drink were prepared so that the spirits would be appeased and would not spoil the crops.

A Google search reveals that the idea “thin places” has been popularised in recent times by those seeking (or indeed having) spiritual experiences in “thin places” – old and new. An article in the New York Times offers travel advice regarding the author’s concept of places in which one might have encounters that unsettle and that challenge a person’s view of the world and of themselves. A blog entitled “Thin Places” offers tours of the “thin places” in Ireland.

When Augustine arrived in England he noticed that particular sites were popular with the locals. He wrote to Pope Gregory seeking guidance. The Pope responded that rather than abandoning such sites Augustine should capitalise on their popularity. Glastonbury Abbey being one such place. The “thin places” of the Celts became places of worship for the Christians in Britain.

While the terminology of “thin places” had its origin among pre-Christian religions, the notion of there being times and places in which God might be encountered has its roots deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Genesis for example Adam and Eve are said to walk and talk with God, Abraham argues with God and Jacob wrestles all night with God. Later, Moses speaks to God face-to-face and Elijah sees God pass by. In the tradition of Israel, mountaintops shrouded in cloud were particularly significant as it was on Mount Sinai that Moses spoke directly to God.

Jesus’ Incarnation represents God breaking into the world in a dramatic and novel way, tearing down the barriers between sacred and mundane, bringing together in Jesus’ own self the human and divine. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke reveal Jesus’ nature through their accounts of Jesus’ birth, but Mark reveals this mystery only gradually – first to Jesus’ disciples and then to all.

The readers of the Gospel know the secret of Jesus’ identity because they are exposed to the new reality from the very start of Mark’s account. At Jesus’ baptism, Mark tells us, the heavens were torn asunder and a voice spoke from heaven. The tearing of the heavens and the voice of God are, in this instance, for Jesus alone (and in time for those reading Mark’s gospel). Mark suggests that though the disciples are in the presence of the divine (Jesus), they don’t seem to be aware of Jesus’ true nature. On many occasions they reveal that they do not understand, they are afraid even when Jesus is present with them and Jesus has reason to chide them for their lack of faith.

At the climax of the gospel, Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ (8:29) but his refusal to accept that Jesus will suffer demonstrates that he really doesn’t get it, he cannot yet see beyond the material and physical to the spiritual and immaterial. Six days after Peter’s declaration about Jesus he is taken, with James and John: “up a high mountain apart, by themselves”. Here once more heaven is opened, but this time there are witnesses. The figures of Moses and Elijah are seen not only by Jesus, but by the three disciples who not only witness Jesus’ heavenly transformation, but who also are enveloped in a cloud in which they hear the voice of God speaking directly to them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It is as if Jesus recognises that the disciples need to be shaken out of their old ways of thinking, they need to be confronted with something amazing and inexplicable that will challenge their certainties and open them to the presence of God in their midst.

Just as Moses had a direct experience of God on the mountaintop so now, centuries later, do these three tentative, timid disciples encounter God and hear God’s voice. The veil between heaven and earth has been drawn aside for this one moment in time revealing to them the nature of Jesus and the nature of Jesus’ relationship with God. The divine and the human met together in one person, the eternal breaking through into the temporary changing forever the nature of our existence.

In Jesus, God is always with us. Talking about “thin places” is just one way to express the truth that throughout our lives we meet God in extraordinary places and in extraordinary ways, in the sacred and in the profane, in the natural world and in the people who cross our paths. Such experiences might take place in a Cathedral or on a busy street, when we are transfixed by an amazing view or moved by extraordinary poverty, when we are uplifted by a piece of beautiful music or the laughter of a child. If we are open to the presence of God in the world around us we will recognise these moments as in time and place where heaven and earth meet. If we allow God to meet us in this way our lives will be richer, our joy fuller and our faith deeper. Like Jesus, we will be transformed into what we are really meant to be.



Praying for a miracle

February 3, 2018

Epiphany 5 – 2018

Mark 1:29-39

Marian Free

In the name of God who brings us to newness of life and calls us into service. Amen.

For the last eighteen months or so, I have been praying for a miracle. A young woman of my acquaintance has terminal cancer. The best that the medical community can do is to delay the inevitable. To that end Mary, who gave birth to her child shortly before the cancer was diagnosed, is enduring endless surgery and chemotherapy in the hope that she might live long enough to see her child go to school. I have been praying for a miracle – hoping against hope and against all evidence to the contrary that somehow the cancer can be reversed, that the damage to this Mary’s body can be sufficiently healed that she can watch her child grow to adulthood, that her child can have a mother and her husband a wife. I am praying for a miracle because I believe in miracles not because I expect a miracle or understand what a miracle is or when a miracle happens. I am certain that God acts in this world in ways that we cannot begin to understand, but I am equally certain that we cannot control or manipulate God or force God to do our will. So I am praying for a miracle, but I am also praying that my friend will know the presence of God in her life as she faces whatever future lies ahead of her.

It is true that the gospels record instances of Jesus’ healing all kinds of injury and ailments. There is even evidence that Jesus raises the dead. Jesus quite clearly responds with compassion to those in need and we can be confident that he was able to perform miracles. In reporting Jesus’ miracles the intention of the gospel writers is more complex than simply presenting Jesus as one miracle worker among many. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ healing are multi-layered and are intended to expose more than the surface event. Today’s gospel reading, in particular the account of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, is an example of the complexity of Mark’s story-telling and an indication that his intention is not so much to reveal Jesus as a healer but to point to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.

Reading the story in isolation fails to do it justice. Mark skillfully works into this account for example, that the occasion is a Sabbath day (Jesus has just been in the synagogue where he has cast out a demon). In these verses, we see that Jesus moves between public and private spaces – synagogue, house, crowds, wilderness and towns in Galilee. At the same time Jesus’ fame is spreading and this serves to increase the tension not only between Jesus and the sources of evil, but also between Jesus and the authorities.

At the heart of today’s reading is the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. All the elements of this story are important. The one healed is a family member. She has a fever – something that in the first century could lead to death. As a result of her illness the woman is no longer able to function in the way that she normally would. She is unable to play her role in society. The woman is at risk of dying, restricted in what she can do and her social interactions have been significantly curtailed.

Jesus responds by taking her hand (as he does in many other healing stories) and raising her up. The Greek word translated as ‘lifted’ is in fact the word for ‘raised’. This word appears in a number of healing stories and, of course, points forward to Jesus own resurrection. As a result of Jesus’ actions the fever leaves the woman (as the demon left the man in the previous story). Restored to health and life, the woman ‘serves’ those who are present.

It is this last that is most misunderstood. Some have tried to theologise or explain away this part of the story. Others are concerned that the woman is being returned to the domestic sphere (being kept in her place as it were). What we see however is that Mark’s account of the healing conforms to the pattern that is generally used for miracle stories: the healer touches the person – who is cured instantly and who then acts in such a way that it is clear that they have been healed. The woman’s service then is an indication that she has been cured – she is doing what women do – it is also more than that. The Greek word ‘diakonos’ means to serve food or to wait on tables. (It is from Acts 6 and the choice of Gentiles to serve at tables that our ministry of the diaconate has emerged.) Mark then may be intending to suggest that Peter’s mother-in-law is exercising a form of ministry or discipleship. The word ‘diakonos’ is used for discipleship in Mark 9:33-37 and 10:43-45 and of the women who followed Jesus in Mark 15:41. Jesus’ own ministry is described in terms of service. It is possible then, that rather than confining Peter’s mother-in-law to the domestic sphere, Mark is opening up possibilities for ministry and discipleship.

For the author of Mark’s gospel miracles have a significance in and of themselves but more important is their significance for our understanding of Jesus’ mission and of our response to that mission.

I will continue to pray for a miracle, but I will do so as I have: aware that Mark reports on the miracles of Jesus, not so much as events of themselves but as a sign that Jesus can raise people from lives that are deadening into lives that are fulfilling, that Jesus restores the lost to their families and their communities and gives meaning to their existence and that those who have been raised from death to life respond through discipleship and service. Above all when Jesus raises the sick to wholeness, he is pointing forward to his own resurrection and to the assurance that no matter whether we are healed or not in this life we will all, with Jesus, be raised to life eternal.

(I am indebted to Cynthia Briggs Kettridge for some of these ideas and to Ben Witherington III for the reminder about the structure of miracle stories The Gospel of Mark a Social-Rhetorical Commentary.)

Free to follow

January 20, 2018

Epiphany 3 – 2018
Mark 1:14-20
Marian Free

In the name of God who redeems and liberates us, but who always allows us to chose our own way. Amen.

I don’t need to tell you that by their very nature cults are insidious, abusive, controlling and soul destroying. In most cases they are established by individuals who are seeking to somehow empower or prove themselves by gaining control over others, usually under the guise of having some deep wisdom or spirituality to impart. Followers are often drawn in by a leader’s charisma or their own insecurities. These insecurities are then played upon to the extent that the followers will do whatever the leader suggests – abuse their children, engage in sexual acts with minors, murder the innocent or take their own life. Once they have fully embraced the “values” of the cult, members will try to convince others to join the group – the group grows and the cycle continues.

The Moonies for example, seem to target the lonely and the vulnerable (often young people traveling alone) and then use forms of mind-control (lack of sleep, suggestion, manipulation, drugs) to convince them that the cult has the answers to all life’s problems. They make it clear that if a member questions the teaching or the methods used to persuade others to belong that their own salvation is at risk.

It can become very hard to leave a cult. Those who have previously subscribed to the teaching can find it extremely hard to admit that they were wrong. If they leave the group they will almost certainly lose contact with their families and their friends. They will hav no form of social support and very likely, as a result of their time out of the world, will have no means of economic support. In some instances cult members are become so convinced of the rightness of the cult, or made to feel that outside the cult they are damned that no amount of rational argument will persuade them that they are better out than in.

In Australia, the cult known simply as The Family administered LSD in its purest form to teenagers in order both to subdue them and also to gain information from them that made it easy to manipulate them. It also allowed cult leaders to bend the youngsters to their will. With the collusion of doctors, nurses, social workers and lawyers, its founder Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to “adopt” new born children and to whisk them away from hospitals without going through the proper channels. These children grew up believing that Anne was their biological mother.

What was it that made educated, professionals follow? What was it about Anne and her husband that led such people to behave in ways that were not only illegal, but that were also contrary to the ideals and codes of their professions? What hold did Anne have over educated professionals that they could justify to themselves their collusion in child abduction and in the shocking abuse of the children in their care?

What is it that makes people follow? What draws them to a particular person or set of beliefs? What leads them to forsake the norms of their society, to abandon friends and family and to accept as normal behaviors that are controlling and abusive? I’ll leave the psychologists to answer that.

It is interesting to note just how different Jesus’ approach is to that of those who establish cults. To begin with, Jesus has no intention of forming a cult (or even a sect within Judaism). Jesus’ goal is to proclaim the good news, to announce the Kingdom of God and to encourage people to ‘repent’ (turn their lives around). Jesus does not target the vulnerable, the lonely or the distressed. In fact the opposite is the case. Those whom he heals are free to continue living as they have before. (Neither the Syrophonecian woman nor the Roman centurion are urged to convert though both were in a very distressed state when they sought Jesus help.) Jesus doesn’t need followers to affirm him, to enrich him or to cover up his insecurities. Jesus’ goal is to empower and enrich others, to enable them to live life to the full. Jesus is confident enough and secure enough in his own person that he doesn’t need to resort to manipulation or subterfuge to gather followers or to subject them to his will.

Today’s version of the calling of the first disciples is quite different from that of John’s gospel that we heard last week. The call of the fishermen is the one with which we are more familiar. There was something about Jesus. Whether you take today’s account or John’s account, Jesus appears to have been able to inspire and energize others, to draw them out of themselves to their true calling. Without any attempt to pressure, without resorting to making them feel guilty, Jesus inspires Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave everything and join him in his task. Rather than take anything from them Jesus, as we shall learn, empowers his followers to do what he does. Instead of taking all the glory and power for himself Jesus shares not only his ministry, but with it the ability to teach, to heal, to cast out demons.

Rather than focusing on himself and placing himself at the centre of his movement, Jesus always and continuously points away from himself towards God.

It is true that many have used Jesus and his teaching to engender guilt, to manipulate others and to subject them to their will, but the true Jesus, the one whom we see in today’s gospel, has no need of coercion, does not seek power over others and nor does he induce feelings of worthlessness. The true Jesus recognises the strengths and weaknesses of his disciples, accepts them for who they are and frees them to be his voice in the world. The true Jesus knows us, accepts us and uses us to be his presence in the world.

Temporary happiness or eternal joy?

January 6, 2018

Baptism of Jesus – 2018

Mark 1:4-11

Marian Free


In the name of God who asks us to place our trust in God and to know our true worth. Amen.

There is a great gulf between what we are being promised by the commercial world and what we actually receive. One example is the advertisements for L’Oreal products in which a beautiful and rich woman encourages other women to buy their products because “we are worth it”. I understand that the advertising company is challenging a view held by many women that they shouldn’t put themselves first. The question is – does spending more on beauty products really improve a person’s feelings of self-worth. Or perhaps more important, does the use of beauty products make a person – woman or man – more worthwhile than they were before they used the product?

Another example is an advertisement I saw last week for a (supposedly) impressive four-wheel drive. Apparently, if you own this car you can get away with doing just about anything. In the advertisement the mother of young adult daughters attends a rock concert with them and causes them great mortification by crowd-surfing. The by-line is: “if you have nothing to lose you can do anything.” The connection between owning the car and having nothing to lose escapes me. Presumably, other people will be so impressed by what you drive that they will not think any the less of you if you do something that is immature, crazy or just fun. At the same time, the advertisement suggests, if you own this car you will free to do whatever you like and will never be embarrassed. Both advertisements have sensed – presumably correctly – that most people want to feel good about themselves. People want to know that they have value and credibility in the eyes of others. But does owning a better car, a more powerful car, a more prestigious car really help a person overcome feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt? If underlying feelings of failure and powerlessness are not addressed, no car, not matter how powerful will fill the void.

Advertisements, knowing our insecurities, focus on externals – the image that we can create if we use or buy their product. They suggest that simply by purchasing or applying their product that we can change our state of mind – become more confident, be more respected, have more authority or generally feel better about ourselves.

In the commercial world there is no place for inner strength, inner beauty or the self-confidence that comes from being at peace with yourself. Yet we all know that our identity has nothing to do with externals. Who we are is not defined by what is on the surface – how we look or what we own – but by our character, our relationships with others and by our inner strengths and resources.

What set Jesus apart – as we will see over and over again – was that Jesus did not feel a need to prove himself. He didn’t need external signs of power to make people sit up and take notice of him; he didn’t need to be richer or faster than everyone else to know his true value and worth. He didn’t need to set himself apart from his contemporaries to give the impression that he was better than them. Jesus appears to have had an inner confidence in his abilities and his sense of his own worth such that he did not need to be bolstered by what he owned or by what other people thought. Jesus’ belief in his own self-worth meant that he didn’t to seek affirmation or validation by jumping off cliffs or turning stones into bread. It was Jesus’ self-confidence and inner strength that allowed him to ignore the criticisms of the authorities of his day – not the fact that he owned the latest chariot. It was Jesus’ compassion and understanding that drew the crowds to him – not the fact that he was wearing designer clothes. It was Jesus’ personal resilience and inner resources that enabled him to make the journey to the cross – not the way in which his beard was trimmed. Jesus didn’t need any external prop to make him feel strong and invincible.

It was because Jesus knew who he was and where he was going that he felt free to seek John’s baptism of repentance. Having nothing to prove and nothing hide, Jesus didn’t have to feel self-conscious or embarrassed when he lined up with everyone else to repent. Jesus was happy in his now body and comfortably with his humanity. Another person might have been too proud or too independent to submit to such a ritual, but not so Jesus whose humility came from a sense of self that was sufficiently strong to ignore the games of power and outward appearance and to resist the social pressure to conform to the expectations of others.

The commercial world offers us products that promise to make us feel stronger, better, brighter, richer, more attractive or in some way better than our neighbour. The gospel gives us assurances of inner peace, joy and security, assurances of our own worth and our worth in God’s eyes – riches beyond our wildest desires. The gospel remind us that we are all of equal value before God. If we choose to buy into the values of the world in which case we will never feel that we have enough. If we choose the values of the kingdom we will have all that we need and more. The choice is ours – temporary fixes or lasting change, external signs of worth or inner certainty, temporary happiness or eternal joy.







Who are you??

December 16, 2017

Advent 3 – 2017

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Marian Free


In the name of God who cannot and will not be contained on constrained by our limited understanding. Amen.


Renae [1] and I have had an interesting week. I have been introducing her to people whom I visit. Among other things we discovered that not everyone is clear about the role of a curate or a Deacon. For example, one person asked Renae if she was going to be ordained, and another, despite our protestations to the contrary, continued to believe that Renae was my daughter. At one point this person commented how much Renae looked like me; at which point I realised that it was foolish to argue any longer!

Two of today’s readings are about identity – the identity of the prophetic voice in Isaiah and the identity of John the Witness. In relation to John the Witness, those who came to ask who he was, already had made up some guesses as to who he was. If those whom Rosemary and I visited were not troubled by dementia, a conversation between Rosemary and someone who knows a little about her might go like this:

Your maiden name is Solomon. That’s an unusual name, are you related to Peter Solomon? (No, I’m not.)

Solomon is a Jewish sounding name – do you have a Jewish ancestry? (No not at all!)

I guess that if you are a Deacon that you are expecting to become a priest. (Comment)

(If we already know some details about Renae – that she is a woman, a wife and a mother, that she has a Bachelor degrees in Arts and Theology, we might use our preconceptions and stereotypes about these roles and qualifications to fill out our picture of her. In the end, we might have a reasonable amount of information, but we wouldn’t really know her at all.)

It is all too easy to make mistakes or to draw conclusions about a person’s identity on the basis of very little information. Most of us are guilty of drawing conclusions about someone based on first impressions and most of us at some time, uses stereotypes to categorise someone because it saves time and makes life easier than trying to process a lot of information.

The conversation between the priests and Levites and John bears some similarities to that which I have just had with Renae in that it tries to fill out some very limited details by asking simplistic, stereotypical questions. That John is baptizing people in the river Jordan has become known in Jerusalem. In order to maintain their relationship with the Roman occupiers, the Jewish authorities have some responsibility for keeping the peace. They are keen to know whether John poses a threat to the stability of the region or whether his popularity threatens to unsettle their place and their status among the Jews. In short they want to know if John was simply calling the people to repentance or whether he was using his charisma to de-stabilise Temple worship and the priesthood. Was he stirring up the people to call for change or was he simply urging them to repent and to deepen their relationship with God. The former was dangerous but the latter was harmless.

The authorities didn’t go out to the Jordan themselves; they delegated the task to priests and Levites. John’s interrogators are stumped, they want him to fit into a preexisting category: the anointed one, Elijah or a prophet. John is none of these, but because his interrogators can only see the world through one lens, they ask the same question three times: “Who are you? What then? and Who are you?”

John does not fit into any of their boxes. His responses are all negative. He is not the anointed one, he is not Elijah and he is not the prophet. John knows that in and of himself he is nothing; his role is simply to point the way to someone else. He points to Jesus, to the light, to the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for another. In the end we only learn what John is not, however his responses have reassured his questioners, they return to Jerusalem confident that he is not going to form a revolutionary movement that will upset the delicate balance of power.

John’s gospel is not interested in John the Baptist. The author of John is more interested in John who bears Witness to Jesus. John the Baptist is the wild man of the Synoptic gospels who preaches repentance, addresses the crowds as vipers and warns that Jesus will come with a winnowing fork in his hand and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John the Witness is a peaceable, mild-mannered holy man whose spirituality draws people to him and leads them to seek baptism, John the Witness points forward to Jesus. He does not draw attention to himself.

The readings during Advent challenge us to pay attention – to the presence of God in and around us, in people and in creation and in the unexpected surprises in our day. Paying attention demands that we take time to focus, to notice details that would usually escape us and to celebrate God in our lives.

This week we are challenged to pay more attention to people whom we know or whom we think we know. Who are they really? What are their hopes and dreams? We are encouraged to ask ourselves: Do we allow the people around us to really be themselves or do we expect them to conform to our preconceived ideas? Have we boxed them in, restricted them to particular roles or fitted them into pre-existing stereotypes that are limiting and confusing? John didn’t fit the categories into which the priests and Levites tried to place him but so long as he didn’t cause trouble they were content to let him be.

There are no images or types that are able to contain Jesus the Christ. We must be careful to pay attention and try to adjust focus so that when Jesus is right in front of us we will not make the mistake of thinking that he is something or someone else.

This Advent, pay attention, keep awake, be alert. Allow God to stretch and challenge your way of thinking about God. Open yourself to new and different possibilities and experiences of the divine, because only then will you be ready when God in Jesus catches you by surprise.


[1] Renae was ordained as a Deacon two weeks ago and has begun working with us as a Curate.

Promise and threat

December 9, 2017

Advent 2 – 2017

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free


In the name of God who comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Amen.

Isaiah calls out to those in exile:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God has charged Isaiah with a message of assurance for the Israelites. The time of their banishment has ended. Soon they will be able to return to their homes. What is more, a road will be prepared for them so that they do not encounter too many obstacles on their way. Isaiah declared that despite all that their forebears have done, despite their present anxieties and fears, God has not forgotten them. During their exile the Israelites have recognised their dependence on God and God, who observed their remorse had sent the prophet with words of comfort and hope.

Centuries later, the author of Mark’s gospel used these same words more as a threat than a promise. John the Baptist did not offer words of assurance but rather insisted that the people: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Instead of offering comfort to a suffering people, John demanded that the people admit and repent of their sins, that they turn their lives around in order to make the path clear for the coming of God.

Isaiah reassured the people that God had forgiven their transgressions and would come to them and will comfort them. In contrast John the Baptist warned the people to seek forgiveness for their transgressions because God was coming among them.

In Mark the words of Isaiah are applied to a different time and place. Whereas the Israelites in exile needed to hear words of comfort and reassurance, the people of the first century needed to be confronted and challenged. The exile had given the Israelites plenty of time to think about the past and to long for their relationship with God to be restored, whereas the situation of the 1st century had allowed them to once again become complacent. It was true that the Romans had occupied the land, but the Temple still stood and the people were free to worship and offer sacrifices without too much interference. Such freedoms however had come at a cost. The priests and leaders of the Israelites had accommodated themselves to the Roman occupation. They had made themselves comfortable with the present situation and they had made compromises that meant that they had lost the trust of the people and led others to believe that the Temple and its worship had become corrupted. They had lost sight of their need to trust in and depend on God to take care of all their needs. They felt that they were comfortable enough. They did not need a prophet to speak words of comfort. They needed to be challenged and confronted. They needed to be forced to consider what was really important – their own comfort or their relationship with God.

Isaiah offered comfort. John demanded repentance. Our scriptures are full of these kinds of contradictions: comfort and judgement, reassurance and challenge, compassion and rage. The different voices of our scriptures reflect the different situations into which they speak. There are times when the prophets need to censure the people of Israel, to remind them of their true calling and to bring them back to God. At other times, often when the people of Israel have been humbled and humiliated – the prophets need to speak words of reassurance and comfort, to reassure the people that God has seen their suffering and has not abandoned them.

The different voices of scripture speak to our own situations. There are times in our lives when we need to know God’s loving presence: when a loved one is dying, when we have lost our job or when our child comes up against an obstacle. At such times it is easy to recognise our dependence on God and to seek the comfort of God’s presence. There are times in our lives when everything seems to be going along smoothly, when we are at peace with the world around us. At such times it is easy to take God for granted, to lose sight of our dependence on God and to go our own way.

The contradictions that we find in scripture help us to seek the right balance between anxiety and complacency. Threats of judgement remind us that we cannot take our relationship with God for granted. Like any other relationship, our relationship with God can be damaged by neglect, by carelessness and disregard and when it is damaged we will experience the pain and heartache of being separated from God as if we really were in exile. Words of comfort provide us with hope in our moments of darkness and despair. They remind us that no matter how far we have strayed, God is constant and will never abandon us.

The tensions and contradictions in our scriptures serve to heighten our awareness of our relationship with God and encourage us to take stock of our lives. Words of judgement and calls to repentance remind us that there are consequences to pay for going our own way. Words of comfort provide strength and encouragement in those times when we are tempted to feel lost and alone.

This Advent, may the contradictions and tensions of our scriptures keep us on our toes, help us to focus on what is really important and prevent us from falling into the sort of complacency that allows us to neglect God and to forget how much God has done for us. May words of comfort not blind us to the need to be on the alert so that we are ready when Christ should come again.

Are you ready or will you be caught by surprise?

December 2, 2017

Advent 1 – 2017

Mark 13:24-37

Marian Free


In the name of God who is always present and always coming to us. Amen.


Loud noise (cymbals, child crying). Bach’s Toccata

That got your attention didn’t it?

I love Advent. I love the sense of anticipation, the build up towards the coming of Jesus, the assurance of God’s love and the time to reflect on whether or not my relationship with God is such that I would know Jesus when he comes again. That said I always experience a sense of disquiet as we come to the end of the church year and the first Sunday of Advent. Instead of eager expectation, we might find ourselves experiencing a sense of dread and trepidation. Like me, you may have noticed that for the last few weeks we have been bombarded by Matthew’s parables of the end times. There was the parable of the foolish maidens whose lack of preparedness saw them locked out of the banquet, the parable of the servant who hid the money with which he was entrusted and who, as a result was cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and finally the parable of the sheep and the goats which concluded with the sheep being admitted to eternal life whereas the goats were sent to eternal punishment.

If that wasn’t enough, prior to that Matthew had warned his readers (and therefore us) about the suffering that would precede the end of the age and the need for watchfulness so that we would not be caught out when the Son of Man returned unexpectedly. We are constantly warned to be alert, awake and prepared so that the coming of Jesus will not catch us by surprise (1 Thess 5) and we are expected to live in such a way that we will be counted among the sheep and not the goats.

In today’s readings, Isaiah expresses a longing that God will rend the heavens and come down so violently that the mountains would quake at God’s presence. He begs God not to be exceedingly angry and not to remember our iniquity forever. Mark, quoting Zephaniah, tells us that at the coming of the Son of Man, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. When you add to these warnings and dire predictions the descriptions of the end found in Jeremiah and Joel and worst of all in Revelation, it is a wonder that we do not spend our days cowering in terror, desperately hoping that Jesus will not return anytime soon.

Such predictions of cosmic realignment, destruction, judgement and punishment are so vivid and dramatic that they have the potential to strike terror into our heart and to cause us to live in such a constant state of anxiety that we would never do or achieve anything. This in itself creates a problem because the parable of the talents warns us that being so fearful that we do nothing is not the solution. So where do we go from here? It seems that we cannot afford to be complacent or relaxed, but neither can we afford to live in a state of heightened anticipation or anxiety.

I wonder if the colorful and terrifying pictures of the end are designed not so much to cause us apprehension, but are intended to gain our attention, to keep us on our toes and to get us to focus on what is important. Through the writers of scripture God is trying to shake us out of our complacency, encourage us to think about the way we live and to ask ourselves whether we are really prepared for the experience of engaging with God face-to-face. Stars falling out of heaven and fire-breathing armies (Joel) are much more likely to penetrate our awareness and capture our imagination than God’s simply turning up unannounced.

The irony is, that despite the posturing and the ominous threats, despite the lurid and violent images that were associated with God’s coming, God defied all expectation and entered the world silently, anonymously and unobtrusively. Instead of wreaking utter destruction, God made Godself totally vulnerable and came among us as a new-born child. Instead of our finding ourselves at the mercy of God, we discovered that God had placed Godself entirely at our mercy. Instead of wreaking vengeance and destroying humanity, God placed Godself in a situation in which humanity could destroy God.

The contradiction between our expectations and the actual event of God’s coming among us gives us cause for thought, challenges us to pay more attention and encourages us to be more ready and more alert so that we are better equipped to notice and to recognise God’s presence in the world.

This Advent, take some time to look around you, to notice God in unexpected places, in surprising events and unusual people. In the next few weeks, try to be more aware of the world around you so that you are able to recognise God in God’s creation. Above all be alert, keep awake and be expectant so that God’s coming will not catch you unawares, but however subtle, however unusual God’s coming may be, it will not be beyond your capacity to see.








Reading the signs

November 14, 2015

Pentecost 25 – 2015

Mark 13:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who remains beyond our knowing and beyond our ability to control. Amen.

“Red sky at night, shepherds delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning,” goes the saying. Reading the weather is an essential part of a farmer’s life, whether the farmer is a herder or an agriculturalist. Lambs have to be brought in if it looks as if it is going to snow, grapes have to be covered if a frost is likely, seed is best planted if rain is imminent and so on.

Signs and signals are an integral part of all of our lives. Signs help us to order our lives and to navigate our way through what can be a complex and confusing world. Signs can be natural or constructed, simple or complex, obvious or subtle and our ability to read them can make a difference to our day-to-day lives and to our relationships with others.

Signs warn us of danger, create order and provide direction. Signals at a level crossing tell us when a train is imminent, green lights indicate that it is safe to continue driving, traffic signs warn us that a road might be steep or windy, slippery or gravelly. Signs enable us to drive in a way that is appropriate to the conditions and to avoid accidents at busy intersections.

Some signs warn us of unseen perils – telling us that we are close to an edge of a cliff, that we are approaching crocodile infested waters, or that kangaroos are likely to jump out onto the road in front of us. Others provide helpful information – which train to catch, which road to take to get to a certain place, which gate our plane is leaving from and so on.

There are signs are relatively easy to read. If the clouds are low and black we can presume that there will be a storm somewhere close. If the clouds are low and green then we can be sure that hail will accompany the storm. Other signs are much more subtle and complex and require a certain amount of knowledge or skill to interpret. Symbols don’t always mean the same thing to all people and pictures can have more than one meaning that can lead to misinterpretation. The subtle signals that make up inter-personal relations can be particularly confusing. People can say the most malevolent words while at the same time keep their facial expressions absolutely bland or even friendly and others can make a joke while keeping an absolutely straight face.

A failure to properly interpret signs can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings – between people and sometimes between nations. Missing an important cue in another person’s facial expression or stance or giving off the wrong cues by one’s own expression or bearing can lead to embarrassment or even cause affront. A misplaced look or gesture can leave another person (or nation) feeling denigrated, insulted or humiliated.

From a human point of view then, the proper interpretation of signs is absolutely vital to the smooth running of society and even of international relations.

Reading heavenly signs is another thing altogether. Indeed, it can be a foolish and dangerous occupation – foolish, because behind such reading is an assumption that God is able to be interpreted and dangerous, because it leads to rash and sometimes deadly actions[1]. A belief that we know what God will do and can predict when God will do it can on the one hand lead to the sort of complacency that Jesus’ return is not to be feared because it belongs in a distant and irrelevant future and on the other lead to a state of constant terror that God will return at any moment and catch us unawares.

In today’s gospel Jesus warns the disciples to be careful how they read the signs lest they make the mistake of believing that they are able to discern when the end is near. He tells them that there will be times when the world seems to be collapsing in on itself, times when violence prevails or when natural disasters wreak untold destruction. These things will happen he says, but they do not herald the end of all things[2]. The planet on which we live is unstable, the weather patterns are essentially outside of our control, and we seem unable to be able to leave peaceably with one another. None of these factors mean that God is behind the heartache and devastation that we witness on a daily basis.

In fact, if we read to the end of the chapter, Jesus reminds us that even he does not know when the end will come. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

Two things are essential. The first is to remember that in good times and in bad we need never fear for we are never alone, God is always with us and in the event that it is necessary God through the Holy Spirit will even speak for us. The second is to live in joyful expectation of Jesus’ return – whenever that might be.

We might not be able to read the heavenly signs, but that does not prevent us recognising God’s presence with us, and living lives that allow that presence to be a reality in the world.

[1] The Jonestown massacre comes to mind, as do other apocalyptic cults that persuade members to take their own lives in the belief that the end is near or that their deaths will bring on the end.

[2] I write this within twenty four hours of the terrible violence in Paris, and in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying itself through terror and war and through a careless disregard for the environment but I am not sure that these signs of human failings are evidence that Jesus is about to come and rescue us from ourselves.

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