OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 16 – Proverbs 31:10-31 (Related)

One year on Mothering Sunday my wife received a card from our highly creative elder son, which marked her out of 13 as a good Mum, according to the criteria of Proverbs 31. Sadly she failed miserably when it came to buying fields and selling clothes, but she did pretty well on the rest, if you translate for example the Hebrew for ‘from afar’ in v.14 as ‘from Tesco’s’. It’s a lovely picture, and as someone once said, about as realistic as Snow White. And of course nowadays, in these days of ‘househusbands’ it’s a notoriously difficult passage to read because it can be seen as politically incorrect, and about keeping the little wifey at home while the men go and do the important stuff. So what positives might we gain from this text?

The first thing to look at is the context, and if this passage is linked, as many think, to the first nine verses of chapter 31, it puts a new slant on it. King Lemuel (no idea who he was!) has been taught wisdom by his mother, including the kind of characteristics he might find in a good wife. As both Queen Mother and Mother-in-Law she clearly values the kind of characteristics listed in this passage. In fact it’s an acrostic poem, with each verse beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so it is literally an A to Z of good character (according, of course, to the culture of the time). I wonder what words we would use if we were to construct such a poem today?

But what constitutes good character? The word translated ‘noble’ in v.10 and 29 is a Hebrew word from the context of battle: great warriors are described in the same way. This is far from the shrinking violet ‘little woman at home’ persona which our culture has been rejecting for decades. So a better translation then ‘noble’ might be ‘courageous’. She is an entrepreneur, a diligent worker, a carer and a provider for the family, and her contributions to the stability of society are obviously valued highly here. But not just the family: in v.20 her care for the poor is held up as a virtue, and she is clearly not so wrapped up in her family group that she turns a blind eye to the needs of others. Charity might begin at home, but it doesn’t stay there.

But to get even more deeply into the text, we need to note two changes within the passage as a whole. The first is a move from what she does to who she is. Before v.25 there is a list of her achievements and actions, but after that it is much more about her strength, wisdom and efficiency. Both her husband and her children praise her, and are clearly proud of her. But above all she fears the Lord (v.31), an assertion which provides the climax to the passage. All that she does, the text implies, flows not just from her devotion to her family, but also to her God. No wonder her husband has full confidence in her (v.11).

The second change is more subtle, though, but even more profound. In v.10 the question is asked (by the Queen Mother?) ‘Who can find such a great woman?’ Then through most of the text such a find is described – she does this, that and the other. But then there is an abrupt change in v.29. Instead of talking about the good wife, the writer suddenly talks to her: ‘… you surpass them all.’ Apparently many Jewish husbands, as part of their Sabbath rituals each Friday evening, recite these words to their wives. There are loads of great women about, but you beat the lot of them! I’m guessing those wives really look forward to that weekly affirmation of who they are, and I wonder whether the rest of us might have something to learn from those Jewish men.

So I wonder whether a more constructive approach to this text, rather than avoiding it as portraying stereotypes which are just not acceptable in the 21st century, might be to learn from the intentions behind it: to affirm the tremendous value of women in our society, and to bring regular personal praise to the one God has given to us.

OT Lectionary</strong

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 15 – Isaiah 50:4-9a (Related)

The Penny Drops!

The Gospel reading for today, which guides the choice of the related OT passage, is about a penny dropping for Peter. Through a series of clever questions Jesus helps Peter to articulate just who he thinks his master is, and, in Matthew’s version of this incident, to give Peter his commission as the rock on which the Church is to be built. If we get this penny-dropping moment, then we’ll be able better to understand the parallel dynamics in Isaiah 50.

The middle chapters of Isaiah (40 – 56), known as ‘Deutero’ – or Second – Isaiah contain four ‘Servant Songs’, and todays passage is the third, and least well-known of these songs. We’re particularly familiar with the fourth, from Is 53, the ‘lamb to the slaughter/by his stripes we are healed’ one which is used extensively during Holy Week. Ever since Philip encountered the Ethiopian official in Acts 8, people have been asking questions about who this ‘servant’ is, and the consensus is that the prophet is referring to the nation of Israel, rather than any particular individual. Of course the NT Christians saw in these words with hindsight a picture of what had happened to Jesus, the perfect Jew, but that isn’t what Isaiah meant by them. To understand what is going on here, we will have to look into the context of Deutero-Isaiah’s writing.

For maybe 70 years the nation had been in exile in Babylon, which they understood was a punishment for their false worship and unjust living. They had gone in spite of many warnings from the prophets, including Isaiah of Jerusalem, who wrote the first 39 chapters of the book we call Isaiah. But in chapter 40 a profound change of mood comes, and rather than a warning, the prophet’s message is ‘Comfort my people’. Their punishment is coming to an end, and they are soon to be returning home. So what are these servant songs doing in this context, with all their talk about torture, mocking and spitting? Perhaps it is to help the people experience a penny-dropping moment.

They can’t help but have been asking the question ‘Why?’ What has all this exile been about? The prophet’s words are to do two things: to reassure them that actually God has been with them all through their ordeal, and that it has not been purposeless, as he has been forming and shaping the people for their future ministry.

It is God who has enabled them to make it through, to get out of bed each morning and carry on. He has been teaching them and instructing them, however little it felt like that, and putting backbone and resilience into them, they have survived the beatings and the racist abuse of the Babylonian slave-masters, and been enabled to become stronger and more resilient. Above all, God has been building their confidence in him, in the face of the Babylonian competition of local gods.

Of course none of it felt like that at the time: it just felt as though they were a broken, guilty and enslaved people who were getting beaten up far from home, a home they never thought they would see again. But that is the point of the story: when we think things can’t get any worse, God is at work unseen, building strength into us and preparing us for the calling he has given us.

So what was the calling of the Jewish nation? The same as it had always been, and the same as Peter’s was to be: to teach others about God. Out of their own distress had come an understanding of suffering, but also an understanding of the faithfulness of God. Those who have learnt important lessons are to become teachers for others: those who have been through desperate times are those who have learnt how to sustain others weary of their own suffering. Once you get that, it might just begin to make sense of what you have been allowed to go through. This passage is about the point of hard times, words to a nation tempted to believe it had all been completely pointless. And once the penny drops, it might just be possible to begin to co-operate with God as he shapes you in the crucible, rather than merely wondering in a agonised way what it’s all about.

As we emerge cautiously from the Coronavirus pandemic, we too might be asking what it has all been about, and as churches begin to plan for their future ministry we may be wondering what lessons have been learnt from it all. This passage encourages us to give thanks to God that he has never left us, and that even though we may have been to hell and back he has enabled us to keep going, and has been building into us good things which only in the future we may come to appreciate fully. That’s a good penny to have dropped.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 13 – Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Many times during my career I have left jobs, and have had to preach final sermons. Two in particular stand out in my memory. The first was a parish which had seen dramatic growth and a new planted congregation of relatively recent converts. We were obviously keen that things continued, that people grew to maturity and that new people would find faith, so the final sermon was a kind of encouraging pep talk about keeping going and keeping growing. The second was in a church which had effectively bullied me out, and which had a paralysing tendency to brush difficult things under the carpet and not deal with the more harsh realities of life. That farewell sermon was very different: I basically said that if they didn’t address what had happened, history would repeat itself. I recently heard that my successor had, like me, only lasted a few years.

The book of Deuteronomy purports to be the farewell sermon given by Moses just before his death, and, like my two farewells, it contains elements both of encouragement and warning. Chapter 4 raises some important questions, so let’s ask them and see what we can discover.

When? The date would be around 1250 BC, but more significant is the answer that this came towards the end of a very difficult period, when the people had seen hardship, food shortages, corrupt leadership, plague, death and uncertainty. They were coming to the end, though, of this harsh period, and therefore had the opportunity to look back and learn, to remember the past as sadder but wiser people. Even more significantly, it came at the end of the life of Moses, God’s prophet who had led and guided them through the wilderness period, but who would not go any further with them.

Where? Moses had led the people to a mountaintop in Moab from which they could see the promised land across the Jordan Valley, even though he himself was never going to enter it. They were on the threshold of a new normal, although there would be difficult readjustments to be made, not least in the loss of their charismatic leader. The future was literally in sight, but they still had much to do to get there.

What? So what was the content of Moses final pep-talk? When I teach my theological students different sessions, I always begin with what Higher Educationalists call ‘Learning Outcomes’: ‘by the end of this session we will have …’

Moses is very clear about the learning outcomes from this lecture: he wants them to listen and learn from what he’s about to say for the next 32 chapters. The Hebrew word for ‘hear’ in v.1 doesn’t just mean listen: it means actually take notice and live it out. What he has to say will literally change their lives. Teaching forges action. So he’s going to cover all sorts of things: how to worship, how to run the political, prophetic, and religious life of the nation. He’s going to teach them about national holy days, festivals, and times of rest. He tells them how to fight fairly, how to limit war and vendettas, how to run an economy with justice, and how to care for widows, orphans, and the poor, and how to protect the vulnerable. Mundane things like work, family life and eating together are all covered. 

How much? So he’s got a lot to say to the people – how much of it should they take note of and put into action? As a preacher I know that there may be odd nuggets among all I say which will connect with different people in different ways. But Moses isn’t working like that: everything he is about to say is vitally important. So in v.2 the people are told not to add or subtract anything from his teaching. They have to absorb all of it. You often hear Christians saying stuff like ‘I can’t believe in a God who…’ or ‘I know the Bible says that, but I don’t believe that bit’. Moses doesn’t allow them that pick’n’mix option: the whole counsel of God is non-negotiable and vital.

But then comes the most important question, Why? Why is all this so important? Of course, for the smooth running of society, although that isn’t the emphasis here. Actually it’s all about witness, or evangelism as we might call it nowadays. They are to order the life of their nation well so that the other nations will look at them and say ‘Goodness, these people are wise! They really know how to live well!’ and that will reflect back on their God as the one behind such wisdom – surely a great God to follow and serve. There is a theme running through the OT about Gentiles seeking God because they can see such positive lives lived out by his chosen people. This is an incredibly challenging motif in an age when the Christian Church is increasingly being marginalised as outdated and irrelevant, exactly the opposite of what God intends. So what are we doing wrong?

Finally comes the How? question. This is all very well, but how are they actually to make it work, and be that evangelistic picture of God for the pagans around them? There are two hints towards this in the final verse of our passage – remember and teach. Don’t let what you have known and experienced of God drift out of your memory. And secondly see it as your role to pass it on down the generations. It’s always difficult when personal experience becomes folk memory, so keeping faith alive for the next generation becomes vital, and actually helps with the remembering too. In an age when we feel it’s OK to sit lightly to God’s words, and to allow our children to ‘make up their own minds’, we maybe need to hear Moses’ teaching again. As we too emerge from a difficult and uncertain period, maybe it’s time to rededicate ourselves to living wholeheartedly for God, and making him known in an uncaring world.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

We still mean it …

If I had been brought up as a Methodist rather than as a Baptist, I would have attended an annual Covenant Renewal service, probably on the first Sunday of each New Year, at which I would have pledged myself to God’s service and worship for the year ahead, and I would have joined in the famous prayer, now adopted into the Anglican Common Worship corpus, the prayer that begins ‘I am no longer my own, but yours …’ (you can find the words here). Anglicans do a similar thing at Easter each year, when we are invited to renew our baptism promises. In today’s OT reading the Israelite community, having settled in the land and about to lose the leader who helped to get them there, are invited in a similar way to renew the covenant they have made with God.

History demonstrates, of course, how fickle the were as a nation, and in the verses beyond our reading Joshua himself recognised this, but at the time they no doubt really meant it. While covenant renewal repeated too often can become an annual ritual with little meaning behind it, there are of course important liminal occasions, like conquering a new land and moving from a nomadic to a settled existence, when it seems highly appropriate. I wonder if the emergence from a pandemic, which means that we have been unable to meet together as usual, might be an occasion for renewing our relationship with God, and with one another, and reminding ourselves on what it is based.

What is interesting here, though, is the set of alternatives offered. Joshua clearly wants the people to remain faithful to the God who has brought them this far, out of slavery and into a land of their own, but he recognises the possibility that serving the Lord might seem undesirable to them (v.15). So he offers them some alternatives.

It is worth noting first that one alternative which he doesn’t offer is to worship nothing or no-one. He takes it for granted that they will worship something, because, well … we all do. It might not seem like a god in the conventional sense of the word, but anything which, in the famous definition of an idol,

rivets my attention,

centres my activity,

preoccupies my mind, and

motivates my action

is in fact a god which we worship. We just can’t help it, because we were created to worship, and if we don’t worship the true God, we’ll worship something else.

So what are the alternatives which Joshua offers them? First of all, they might like to worship the gods of their ancestors. This is about the hankering for the past, a kind of nostalgic, rosy-spectacled view of how things were (or at least how we romantically remember them to be). This might be a desire for Church as it used to be, when we used the proper Prayer Book and the right hymns, or even for Church as it used to be a few months ago when we had that nice vicar. In my experience this desire to worship the gods of the past is perhaps the single greatest issue facing the C of E today, and leaders trying to drag their churches kicking and screaming into the 20th  century (or even the 18th) know what fierce opposition and personal vindictiveness this can engender. The Israelites would soon face the temptation to cease being pilgrim people, on the way to somewhere and dependent on God for all they needed for that journey, and become settled and self-sufficient people who liked things exactly as they are (or were). The church I attended for six years had suddenly, a few days before Christmas, to leave its building as it was declared unsafe, and this began a three year pilgrimage towards a meeting place of our own, which they settled in just after we had moved to another city. We were led brilliantly through that process by an excellent vicar, which engendered in the church a sense of journey, pilgrimage and purpose which few churches have managed to achieve. Beware of settling down: beware of the gods of the past.

But the other option is to serve the gods of the people around, in this case the Amorites or Canaanites, those who were living alongside Israel. This too has become a great temptation among Christians, some of whom have become infected by the consumerism and pluralism of our culture, and have compromised their faith in the living God with various distortions of the gospel, such as the Prosperity Gospel or the Therapy Gospel. I have just been reading a fascinating book which charts the rise of ‘MTD’, or moralistic therapeutic deism as the main religion of young people. In other words young people worship a God who will stop them from being too stupid, will satisfy all their needs, but will never intervene in any meaningful way in their lives, for example by challenging their sin or subverting their ambitions. Each generation will have similar distortions of the biblical gospel to which they are particularly prone.

In v.16 the people proudly (but somewhat short-sightedly) declare their complete devotion to Yahweh, but even if they are going to prove incapable of keeping their promises, they nevertheless have a sound basis from which to start: they remember what God has done. Verses 17-18 sound like a mini-creed, as the people remind themselves of their past relationship with God, and that is a really good thing to do regularly. The problem is that we soon forget.

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