O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
God for whom we watch and wait,
you sent John the Baptist
to prepare the way of your Son:
give us courage to speak the truth,
to hunger for justice,
and to suffer for the cause of right,
with Jesus Christ our Lord.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
and teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you have I hoped all the day long.
Remember, Lord, your compassion and love,
for they are from everlasting.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions,
but think on me in your goodness, O Lord,
according to your steadfast love.
Gracious and upright is the Lord;
therefore shall he teach sinners in the way.
He will guide the humble in doing right
and teach his way to the lowly.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now and shall be for ever. Amen.
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Today’s reading centres around a word that has been particularly relevant this year. That word is authority. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic people have struggled with the decisions made and imposed by those in authority. Before the pandemic (if you can remember those days) our own government tried to avoid the authority of parliament, or so it was ruled by the Supreme Court, by attempting to impose, on its own authority, a prolonged suspension of the parliamentary process. At this end of the year we are witnessing almost unbelievable attempts to undermine the authority of a national election in America. Jesus’ response to the questioning of his authority by the chief priests and elders is as apposite as ever.
In our modern Western world we have developed complex political systems through which we choose representatives who are charged with the task of making and enacting decisions on our behalf. The systems we have evolved are broadly based on those of the ancient world, and especially those of ancient Greece and Rome. Down the centuries those systems have been refined. The New Testament principles of love and service have influenced our law-making, although the Old Testament principle of vengeance is still in the background. There is also a greater fairness in the way the whole population is now allowed and encouraged to take part in the process. We are all engaged in the system that invests authority in our representative and decision-making bodies. And yet we all, from time to time, struggle with the concept of authority.
When decisions are made that we, personally, dislike we rail against the decision made and those who made the decision. This is where the chief priests and elders are in today’s reading. Those religious leaders were at the end of centuries of tradition. It was their role to lead their community in the hopeful expectation of the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Unfortunately, as the ages had passed, they had carved out a comfortable and self-serving version of their religious tradition and teaching, a version that could not recognize the Messiah who was standing before them in the Temple.
So often we are like those chief priests and elders. We are better informed than ever, we have easy access to information on a scale that has never been the case before. We absorb that information and create a ‘future’ for ourselves based on our incomplete and mistaken ‘knowledge’. We struggle and sometimes rebel against authority. We form a version of life for ourselves and we quickly convince ourselves that our version is the only correct way forward. Sadly, this places us in exactly the same position as the chief priests and the elders in today’s reading! We are all called to hear and respect the authority of God. As Christmas gets nearer we are, of course, having to respect the decisions made by our government in respect to keeping ourselves and others safe. However, we are also called to prepare ourselves for the celebration of God coming into the human story in the form of a humble baby in a lowly stable in a small hilltop town in the Middle East. We are called to set aside our self-opinionated ways of living and listen for the authority of God’s word. Then we are charged with the responsibility of living out that word every moment of every day.
Prayers of Intercession
By the authority of Christ, given to his Church, let us pray to the Lord.
Give to the Church the spirit of service and humility by the power of Jesus Christ who became man for our sake. Keep your people obedient in all things, even to the death of the body.
Dispel the pride that holds people apart from people and nation from nation. Make your power acknowledged and your will accomplished through all the world.
Visit and heal with your love those whose lives come close to ours but are divided by pride and self-will. May the mind of Jesus direct us in all our relationships.
Help those whose suffering is the result of their own selfishness. Bring them out of their darkness into the freedom of obedience to your service.
We remember those who have followed Jesus until death. As he is highly exalted, raise them with him into your eternal presence.
Strengthened in our weakness by the divine humility of Christ, we make our prayers in his name.
Prayer for the week
Father in heaven, the day draws near
when the glory of your Son will make radiant
the night of the waiting world.
May the lure of greed not impede us from the joy
which moves the hearts of those who seek him.
May the darkness not blind us to the vision of wisdom
which fills the minds of those who find him.
The Lord’s Prayer
Let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore. Amen.
Earth was waiting, spent and restless,
with a mingled hope and fear,
faithful men and women praying,
‘Surely, Lord, the day is near:
the Desire of all the nations —
it is time he should appear!’
Earth has groaned and laboured for him
since the ages first began,
for in him was hid the secret
which through all the ages ran —
Son of Mary, Son of David,
Son of God, and Son of Man.
Walter Chalmers Smith (1824–1908)