Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 3 – Isaiah 35

A couple of weeks ago our vicar asked during a sermon how one might sum up the message of the whole Bible in five words. He suggested just two ‘But God’. This would certainly have resonated with the early Acts speeches, where the phrase comes again and again: You crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. Our God is a God who reverses human sin and evil, folly and mischief, who rescues us from the consequences of our sin and stupidity and brings order again out of the chaos we have created. This is a major theme of Advent, as we rekindle hope in dark times, and await and pray for the return of Jesus as judge and general sorter-out of our world. But what might that actually look like? I have often referred to a kind of summary passage from Rev 21: a new heavens and a new earth will mean that death or mourning or crying or pain will be over and done with. But this chapter of Isaiah puts a bit more flesh on the bones, and talks about five different spheres of healing which will come about with the return of Jesus, although of course Isaiah was not prophesying about Jesus, but almost certainly about the return of the people from exile in Babylon and the restoration of their fortunes in a world of international oppression. As we have said before, Isaiah’s hopes for the people did not work out as he might have expected, and we are still waiting for our return from exile to the home where we really belong. But let’s look at the text through the lens of our Advent season, and see what hope it might engender in us.

1)       The Environment

You don’t have to be a Christian to be concerned about the deforestation of our planet, climate change, and all the other fears which have almost become a religion in our times. Activists glue themselves to motorways or hang up in bridges, and environmentalism is taught in our schools with all the fervour with which Christianity was taught in the past. I’m not a climate-change sceptic, but I am a bit sceptical about our human attempts to reverse anything much. The city of Jerusalem was naturally pretty well-watered, but you can imagine the exiles in the desert of Babylon thinking of their torn down and abandoned homeland as parched and dead. Promises of crocuses and cedar trees can be a powerful image of restoration, but for us the image has passed from being a metaphor into an ecological reality. Of course we must all do what we can, but the passage reminds us that our world is ultimately in the control of God, and is his to restore, a truth often underplayed by Christians today.

2)       The Fearful

Isaiah’s second promise is for those who have become fearful, and for whom the events of life have taken their debilitating toll. We are living through a mental health pandemic every bit as real as the Covid one, and any who have suffered from mental illness will know just how physically it can affect us. But there is something else here, I think. God will deal with their fear by vengeance and retribution. This speaks of physical, human enemies, not just psychological ones. The exiles will have known more than their fair share of bullying and oppression, and God promises healing through the removal of their enemies.

3)       The Sick

Healing will be physical as well as emotional, and I note with interest that the kinds of issues which are the subject of God’s healing intervention are what nowadays we would call disabilities. Again Isaiah is probably using these terms as metaphors for the political health of the nation, and the disabling sense of powerlessness which comes from captivity, but in our days when the Western Church has all but lost its Spirit-given ability to heal, and in which disability is celebrated, we may need to remind ourselves of God’s deeper agenda for wholeness.

4)       Nature

Verses 6b and 7 may be a reprise of v.1-2, but they may also take us somewhere deeper, in fact back to the creation itself. As a result of human disobedience nature became hostile to the human race: anything from weeds to wasps became a nuisance or worse to us. Isaiah holds out before his readers a vision of a renewed creation where humans, animals and plants live harmoniously together. This motif lifts the story out of being merely a prediction of rescue from exile, and places it within the eschatological tradition of a perfect world.

5)       The Lost and Sorrowing

Finally Isaiah takes his readers to a highway which again is more than just the desert road back to Jerusalem. Those who choose to walk in the way of holiness and obedience to God will find their way home, and will return with great joy to the place where they really have belonged all along. They will be untouched by the ravages of hostile nature and wicked people, and their bliss will be an eternal one.

Isaiah, and his hearers, could not really see much beyond the joy of their homecoming to the city of Jerusalem, but Advent gives us a longer perspective, as we reread his words in the light of our eternal home. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 2 – Isaiah 11:1-10

One of the things I use in my teaching is the klaxon sound from the ‘General  Ignorance’ section of TV quiz QI. Contestants are asked questions to which the answers seem obvious, but when they (invariably) get them wrong the screen flashes with their wrong answers and a loud klaxon announces their stupidity, to the audience’s collective delight. I often use this device in my lecturing work, and today’s passage provides a classic example of its application. If I were to ask you to whom the prophet is referring in talking about the shoot from Jesse’s stump, I suspect you would immediately answer ‘Jesus!’  Well at that point the klaxon would go mad!

Last week we thought about the situation into which Isaiah was writing. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians who had to all intents and purposes wiped the nation out. Now they  had turned their attention southwards, and Jerusalem had been besieged. It was a desperately scary time in Judah’s history, yet the prophet could speak out a vision of what lay beyond the present troubles. He paints what we might be tempted to call a somewhat fanciful picture of the peace and harmony which was to come, when even the natural enemies of the animal kingdom would live together without feeling the need to eat one another. And, as we mentioned last week, the foreign nations of the world would stream to Jerusalem to learn from the God of the Jews. All this was going to come through a new king, from the Davidic line, who, as a Spirit-filled leader would rule with wisdom, justice and equity. So as Christians today we naturally think ‘Jesus’. Isaiah’s contemporaries, however, would hear him very differently.

A new king, Hezekiah, had recently come to the throne, and the nation’s hopes lay in him. He had set out on a series of reforms, attempting to rid the nation of idolatry, renewing the worship through the priestly and Levitical ministries, calling the rich influencers back to the true worship of God, and restoring the welcome to outsiders at Judah’s worship festivals. These policies appeared to be going down well, and the more spiritually-minded Jews welcomed even more of the same, which would help them to achieve Isaiah’s dream. His words must have been heard as a prediction for the continuation of Hezekiah’s just reign.

Yet ultimately this was not to happen, and Hezekiah failed to provide the magic bullet which would bring in this idyllic existence. His reign ended not in total disaster, but in some less that helpful ways, and the nation’s decline was not ultimately halted. Rather than the remaining stragglers from the North finding a home in Judah,  Jerusalem was destroyed and the people went into exile in Babylon. Whatever good he might have achieved, Hezekiah did not turn out to be the Saviour of the Universe for whom the people had hoped. Still today we are waiting for this glorious state of affairs to become reality, but with the benefit of hindsight we now do believe that only king Jesus, when his reign is fully manifested. So maybe no klaxon after all.

During Advent we focus on that future reign of Jesus, and the glorious life of the world to come, but this passage gives us a profound and vital message as we too live through a period of great threat and crisis. In particular it warns us against pinning our hopes onto any human leader, a trait which has been common in our culture since the 17th century. Now that we have scientists, we can easily believe that in their hands lies the healthy future of our planet. Or we can pin our hopes onto the next leader, whether red, yellow or green, who will get rid of this evil lot and turn our fortunes. The more a nation lets go of God, the more human solutions are the only options. Yet like Hezekiah all of them will ultimately fail, because like all of us they have feet of clay.

Advent, then, provides for us a healthy reminder that no human being is up to the job of being Saviour of the Universe. It reminds us of our need of a Saviour with more than merely human power and authority. It reminds us to look not to human resources, but to God’s throne in heaven from where he will ultimately come and reign in the new heavens and new earth. Yes, we pray for our human leaders, but above all we pray for the reign of God to be manifest among us. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus. Our hope is in nothing less.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 1 – Isaiah 2:1-5

I don’t know whether my readers are great fans of Myers-Briggs stuff, but I certainly am. For those who haven’t come across it, it’s a way of classifying different personality types according to how they prefer to think and act. I can remember going on a retreat in Bristol where we were ‘done’ and then taught the implications of what we had discovered in a variety of areas, including spirituality, marriage and relationships, work, preaching and so on. It was one of the most helpful experiences of my life, but the culmination was when we were put into groups of people with exactly the same personality type and asked two questions: What would you most like to say to the world, and what would you most like to hear the world saying to you? It took us all of 10 seconds to come up with our answers: ‘We know what we’re doing: please trust us!’ and ‘You were right all along!’ Any other INTPs reading this might resonate with these answers.

Isaiah 2 begins with people saying to the Jews, and to their God, ‘You were right all along’. Isaiah was writing at a time of great uncertainty, when human leaders had failed them and evil nations had captured the people of the Northern kingdom in war, and were now encroaching on the Southern territory. He looked beyond the present troubles to an age when those who had been hostile to Yahweh and his people would finally come to recognise and acknowledge his lordship and his wisdom. Rather than doing all they could to harm Judah, they would come streaming to the Temple, the place where God was available, desperately seeking his wisdom. As they learnt from him, disputes would be settled and war would be destroyed. Therefore, says the prophet, we as God’s people have the responsibility of learning from him, so that we can be teachers of his ways to the nations.

This motif is one which occurs a few times in the OT, and obviously it is one which I love. But it also makes me question the degree to which God’s people today are seen as possessing the wisdom needed to live life well and harmoniously. Of course I believe that to be true. If everyone lived generously, and gave away anything they didn’t really need, the world would be a much more equitable place, with much less poverty. If everyone followed biblical sexual ethics, imagine the difference in the world of health. No STIs, no teenage pregnancies, no sexual violence, many fewer divorces … the list goes on. If people really did forgive those who had hurt them, feuding and vendettas, and the ensuing violence, would simply not exist. Humour me for a moment: if these were more than just pipe dreams, wouldn’t the world be so much better to live in? Christians can of course see all this very clearly, but the world thinks we are just mad, and dreaming up such a cloud-cuckoo land is just not realistic. In any case, where would be the fun in that? Religion of any sort only serves to restrict my freedom to do just what I want to do, and stuff everyone else. It’s just laughable.

Into a world like that comes Advent, a season when Christians celebrate the fact that far from being a silly dream, this kind of world is not just possible, but actually certain. Advent celebrates the streaming of the nations to God to submit to and to learn from his wisdom. It celebrates the day when all those who have thought themselves much wiser than the Christian tradition will come to say ‘You were right all along!’ And of course it reminds us that even at that point there will still be others who refuse to submit and learn, and their stupidity will be exposed for all to see.

So how do we live through this season? It’s a paradoxical time, with different motifs held in tension. We prepare for Jesus’ coming as a baby into our world, but we also look beyond that to his return in triumph. We celebrate the ultimate salvation of his people from the evils of this world, but we also are made sharply aware of the theme of judgement. Those who have not already come to the judgement-seat and submitted to Christ in this life will have to do so after this life has ended, and tragically many who have rejected Christ will reject him once and for all. So our task is to prepare for all of these events, but, according to Isaiah, first and foremost to ‘walk in the light of the Lord’ in the context of a dark and lost world.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christ the King – Jeremiah 23:1-6

First a bit of housekeeping: if you’re a follower of the revjohnleachblog OT Lectionary blog, you’ll be used to seeing them on Saturday mornings. From now on I’m going to aim to get the posts up on Tuesdays (no promises!) just in case any preachers would like a bit of inspiration earlier in the week. When I have been in parish ministry it was my habit to use Tuesdays to prepare for the following Sundays, so in the unlikely event that anyone uses my ideas, you might want a bit more notice than Saturday mornings. So here goes.

There is an interesting dynamic between the two readings for Christ the King (my favourite festival of all, by the way). Jeremiah tells Israel that a new king is coming, and Colossians says that we already have one. Israel had been suffering for years under corrupt kings: Jeremiah’s previous chapter gives clear details. Kings who ought to have cared for their people like good shepherds, leading them to prosper and flourish, are neglecting the most vulnerable and needy, refusing fair pay for workers, and shedding innocent blood, and all the while accumulating riches for themselves and rejoicing in their opulent lifestyles (sound familiar?). Jer 22 contains oracles of judgement against such rulers, but that is only half the solution. Sometimes even a bad king is better than no king at all. So God’s plan is revealed in Jer 23, our passage. The false leaders are cursed (‘Woe!’) and will be removed and replaced with a new king, who will rule in equity and justice, and under whom the people will thrive. Christians know, of course, that God himself coming to reign is a promise fulfilled in Jesus, although Jeremiah didn’t understand that: he could only refer back to great David’s greater son. But the fact remains that 2500 years later we still live in a world where the picture painted in Jer 22 seems pretty accurate, and that is without the aggression and bullying of some countries towards others. The fact that Colossians tells us that Jesus is the supreme monarch doesn’t actually help much when you’re the one being oppressed. So what exactly was Jeremiah prophesying and hoping for?

There are four characteristics of the reign of God himself to come which are spelt out in v.5-6.

A reign of Righteousness

We use that word a lot, and not always positively, as for example in ‘self-righteousness’, a most unattractive characteristic in anyone’s book. So it’s worth reminding ourselves what that actually means. A righteous God is one who is completely incapable of doing anything wrong, or of ‘tolerating’ evil in any shape or form. A righteous reign, therefore, will be one from which anything at all evil will be banished. This is the kind of era pictured in the famous passage from Rev 21.

A reign of Wisdom

The new Davidic king, Jeremiah tells us, will rule wisely. Sometimes evil comes not because people are bad, but because they are stupid. Like the city of Jerusalem which Jesus criticises, they simply don’t understand what’s good for them, what will lead to peace. Evil does not always come from a conspiracy: cock-ups happen too!

A reign of Salvation

Again, as Christians we think of salvation in terms of individual salvation from the judgement of God, which guarantees us a place in heaven. The OT usage of the term, though, is much more prosaic. Ukraine needs saving from Russia, and any power which dares to come and fight with them or for them is their saviour. This is about national rescue and security, not a place in heaven because our sins have been atoned for.

A reign of Safety

Finally, living under our new king will bring safety as well as rescue, like a confidence in Ukraine that never again will Russia, or anyone else, be allowed to come against them or harm them. If rescue or salvation is the immediate benefit, then safety is the ongoing assurance of security.

Quite a promise, then, all in all. But like the Jews under Babylonian reign because of their own corrupt Jewish rulers, like the early Christians living under Roman and Jewish persecution, we today in our own difficult times can ask the question ‘But when?’ Where is this new King? What guarantee is there that these promises are anything other than wishful thinking? Doesn’t every society living through hard times invent a hope of a better world to come? Just look at the black slave spirituality which gave us songs like ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’. The worse things get, the more Christians have hung onto the hope of heaven. But is it just that, a hope, which, like the hope that we’ll have nicer weather next week, is probably not going to come true?

Christ the King Sunday reminds us that in fact that hope has already come true. Christ is reigning already, and although righteousness, wisdom, salvation and security seem far away, they are already in place in God’s plan, and one day will be manifested here on the new earth. What does it mean that Christ is king? It is the assurance that all these promises will one day be seen to have come true. There is nothing going on in our world which takes God by surprise, and which he is not capable of changing. It is that hope of the coming kingdom which has kept Christians faithful down the centuries. Today may it bring us the same certainty.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 3 / 2 before Advent / Remembrance Sunday – Malachi 4:1-2

As daily breadcrumbs go, this lectionary passage takes the biscuit at just two verses (actually one and a half, as the lectionary doesn’t want us to read the bit about frolicking calves). So we might be justified in expanding it a little to explore the book of Malachi as a whole, not least since it gets little attention elsewhere in our lectionary. But the occasion of Remembrance Sunday will complicate things further, so let’s see what Malachi might have to say to us.

Malachi, the last of the minor prophets, lived in the period when Israel had returned from exile in Babylon, and when Ezra and Nehemiah were busy rebuilding Jerusalem. Having come through the trauma of captivity, destruction and deportation, the people have resumed normal service, but of course that kind of a national trauma never leaves you the same. If Ukraine does ever get rebuilt, you can’t imagine those who watched the destruction and ran for their lives merely picking up where they left off. Malachi was concerned that although the people were avidly rebuilding their homes and cities, their relationship with God had taken a battering which urgently needed renovation too. So the book is a series of short sermons which address what he saw as some of the key issues in post-war society. The people had stopped believing that God loved them (understandably!) in 1:2-5. Because of that they were, perhaps passive-aggressively, offering sacrifices which, rather than being the animals without blemish, were the manky or crippled ones which were fit for nothing else (1:6-14). Then their family life was in a mess, with intermarriage which so often led people to compromise their worship of Yahweh alone, and divorce which left women particularly without any visible means of support (2:10-16). Of course there was also the perennial injustice against the poor by the rich and powerful (when hasn’t there been?) (2:17 – 3:5), and finally the purple passage from Malachi on tithing, which the people were refusing to do. Then comes our passage, in which the prophet talks about the great separation which is to come on the Day of the Lord, when the faithful remnant will know the love of God bestowed on them like the warmth of the sun’s rays, while warmth of a different kind will consume the evildoers, burning away their impurities as a farmer burns off useless stubble or a metalworker burns the impurities out of his precious metals in a crucible.

So a bit of a sorry picture, all in all, for the nation. War does that to people, but in particular the aftermath of war can be as injurious to faith as the war itself, if not more so. The churches of our land began to empty most quickly in the post-war period when on one level we had emerged from the trauma to a time when we had ‘never had it so good’. So although we live in a world where war is as common as it has always been, and the daily pictures of Ukraine haunt our TV screens, we might remember this weekend what war does to us long-term, because the hurt and pain do not stop once the final guns have been silenced. Yes, of course we remember those who paid with their lives for living at the wrong time and in the wrong place, and of course we salute the bravery and courage which was shown in the defence of our land and the halt of the evil of Nazism (not that soldiers had much choice, of course). But maybe we can remember too the damage that the trauma of war has done to the spiritual life of our nation, where greed, injustice, family breakdown and ignoring of God are rife. The Book of Malachi (and the OT) ends with two promises from God to his people: that judgement will surely come, but that it will not come without warning and time for amendment of life. The reappearance of ‘Elijah’, whom is identified with John the Baptist in the NT, will prepare the way for that judgement when Jesus himself will reappear on our earth. We can’t say we haven’t been warned!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 2 / 3rd before Advent – Job 19:23-27a

This short extract from Job is perhaps the purplest of passages from the book, and you probably didn’t read it without the Air from Handel’s Messiah ringing in your brain. In the context of Jesus it is a great affirmation of faith, but, as I constantly tell my students, a text cannot mean something which the original writer did not intend the original readers to understand it as saying. The whole point of this blog is to read the OT for itself, and not how the gospel, or the Gospel, tells us to read it. Sadly it has nothing to do with Jesus, and is not an early version of ‘I believe in the resurrection of the dead’. Our job is to uncover what Job meant by it, and what that may say to us today.

We can get into this by asking an important question: what does Job want from God? the answer is vindication. We’re used to the idea that even the best of us are miserable sinners, and we need to begin every meeting with God by apologising and having a priest tell us it’s OK again. But Job isn’t like that. Several times throughout the book he is declared completely innocent. Under the Jewish Law that was theoretically possible. In Psalm 17:3-5 the author tells God that however hard he probes he will find no sin in him. All that was before Jesus came along and complicated things by telling us that it wasn’t just doing bad things which is wrong: even thinking them is enough. So Job is innocent, and knows himself to be. Why then has God punished him so cruelly? What he needs above all is his day in court. He needs to stand before God and tell him how nasty and unjust he has been. All his friends can do is to tell him he’s mistaken, and that by definition God must be right and he must be a sinner. But Job knows that he isn’t, so God must be wrong.

But how do you get to tell God that? In a Law Court if the Judge and the accused are the same person, you know it isn’t going to end well for the prosecution. And even before that, will he be too overwhelmed at standing face to face with God that he won’t be able to set out his case coherently, or even at all? The book considers some alternative possibilities for Job: he might descend to Sheol and wait until God’s anger blows over (Job 14), or maybe a figure, either earthly or heavenly, will stand between them as arbiter (Job 9, 16). But in our passage there is another possibility, that a go’el or redeemer, often a close relative as in the Book of Ruth, will stand up for him, even after his death, and vindicate him.  And just in case his plight is forgotten, to have the case written down, not just on paper but carved in rock too, will make sure that future generations will know that he was innocent. But the best option is for him to see God face to face while he is still alive, so that the ranting against God’s injustice can be heard not through an intermediary but directly.

In the event, as we know, God does appear to him, and after a talking to Job withdraws his case. But the meaning so often given to this passage, that we can only expect vindication after death and through Jesus, could not be further from the original meaning, and can easily lead to the kind of quietism which tells suffering people that everything will be fine once they’ve died. Many people need redeemers now, and they need human ones, not pie in the sky when they die. Part of our sharing in the ministry of Christ is to stand alongside the broken, who may well feel that they have been broken unjustly, and argue their case against those with power and influence. This is not a text of quiet assurance: it is a call to action on behalf of those who simply have no other way of being heard or obtaining justice.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 1 / 4 before Advent – Isaiah 1:10-18

Remember the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Thanksgiving service? Remember the then almost totally disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson being booed by the crowds as he arrived? And remember the irony of him having to read from Philippians during the service ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable …’? One letter afterwards in a newspaper said that ‘Whoever was responsible for this deserves to be top of the Queen’s next honours list’, but went on to suggest that ‘Even God must have chuckled.’ Isaiah would disagree. The first chapter of his book is in the form of an introductory statement by the prosecuting barrister in a trial, setting out the case for the accused’s guilt. It hinges around a very clever piece of Hebrew writing in v.15: ‘You spread out your hands in prayer … Your hands are full of blood.’ There is a detailed account of how tiresome and wearying God finds their worship, which is echoed in other OT passages such as Amos 5. But the problem isn’t the worship being offered, but the people offering the worship.  To use the right words while living the opposite is the great crime of Israel, and God was certainly not chuckling: he was outraged.

The crime is all too familiar: as a nation they were not seeking justice, and they were not caring for the most vulnerable in society. In the parallel book of Amos the problem was that the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. And in both cases this was being done (or not done) by people who turned up to worship. This, in God’s eyes, was not a cause for chuckling, but rather for turning his back on those who so failed to understand what he wanted of them. It wasn’t about impeccable music and liturgy: it was about 24/7 behaviour which reflected his character as a God of righteousness and justice.

God doesn’t quite pronounce sentence in this passage, but he does hint at what it could be. The references to Sodom and Gomorrah in v.10 is obviously to two cities which were totally destroyed by God because of their wickedness. If this passage was written around 701 BC when Jerusalem was being besieged by Sennacherib of Assyria the threat of total destruction must have seemed a distinct possibility. There is real menace in the prophet’s allusion to this part of their history, with the suggestion that it could well happen again, which of course it did around 100 years later.

And yet there is still hope. v.19-20 set out a choice which confronts the nation. Let’s talk about this, says God. If you want, the red stains on your hands can be washed clean, and you’ll eat again and prosper, a great possibility when you’re under siege. But if not, that’s it. The swords of the enemies will get you. And that’s that.

What amazes me is that this seems like a no-brainer. And yet people consistently chose, and continue to choose, death rather than life, cursing rather than blessing. History shows that it was usually only a remnant of the nation of Israel which remained faithful to God, while the majority pursued false worship and the evil behaviour which flowed inevitably from it. And of course we live in a nation which has almost dispensed with God altogether and is bearing the consequences. We have neither the will nor the humility to turn to him for forgiveness. And yet through this passage shines the light from a God of supreme patience. We have a God who looks at sinners and says ‘Can we have a chat about this?’

Whilst all this refers to a corporate situation, a nation which has lost its way, and whilst this application of the passage seems particularly apposite to Britain in 2022, it is worth remembering that God deals in a similar way with individuals. It provides, therefore, an invitation for us to examine our hands, both as they are stretched out in prayer, but also as they conduct our business in the world. Is there anything there about which God might like to have a chat with us?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Last after Trinity Joel 2:23-32 (Related)

I wonder how you felt as you read today’s passage, and heard God’s flowing promises of prosperity, as you prepare to face a winter of fuel and food shortages, power cuts and no doubt more governmental chaos? If, like me, you have something of a cynical streak, you might have been thinking ‘O yeah? Fat chance of that happening!’ Or maybe you just separated the two out: that’s the Bible, and it’s all very nice, but I’ve got to survive in real life. If you are feeling any of that, then you’ve got an idea of how the people who first heard those words probably reacted.

It’s not easy to date the book of Joel, but we do know that the nation had suffered a devastating attack from a plague of locusts. That of course was not uncommon in the Middle East, as in parts of the world today. But if you’ve seen them on TV you’ll know how completely devastating locust attacks can be. Literally anything green goes. It isn’t just that there are no crops to eat now: there will also be no seeds for next year. It really is a major disaster. We don’t know when exactly this happened in Israel, but the prophet seems to be using the very real physical invasion of the land as a warning about a different invasion, probably from one of the great empires round the borders of Israel, empires which were constantly looking to expand, and to devour any little nation which got in the way. Whether Assyria to the north east, Babylon to the east, or Egypt to the south west, they were a constant threat to God’s people. If they get you, then mere locusts are a minor irritation in comparison.

So we can’t read our passage, where God promises future abundance, in a vacuum. This isn’t some nice promise to stick on your fridge. These are words spoken to nation on its knees, and scared of much worse to come. So what’s Joel’s message, to them and to us? There are two motifs which stand out, two links which the Bible makes plain are important, but which we humans have so often forgotten and broken.

The first is the link between the created world, the human world and the spiritual world. We do know this, of course: in fact we hear of little else but climate change, which has become the new religion, taught with great fervency in our schools, with his Holiness David Attenborough as the new Pope, and all sorts of observances which we have to follow religiously, like recycling, shunning plastic and so on. Joel knew about this link this too. A couple of verses before our passage, God promises restoration, but not just to humans. Both animals, and the land itself, are told not to fear, because food is growing (v.21-22). The physical land on which we live is an important part of Jewish religion, and its fortunes are controlled by God as ours are. But it is also dependent on us for keeping and nurturing, according to Genesis 2. Break that link, forget to care for the land and the animals who live on it, and disaster will follow. We’re seeing that all around our world today! But Joel knew also about the link between the physical and the spiritual worlds. At the end of our text is the purple passage about the outpouring of Spirit, the passage from which Peter quotes on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, a passage much beloved of charismatics. But it is interesting that spiritual renewal comes in the context of physical restoration. It isn’t just food we need, but we also need to be in touch with God, hearing from him through prophets, and seeing his action in healing, restoring, and other miraculous works. If we believe that what we most need is for inflation to go down, we’re missing the point. What our world needs is the Spirit of God. Of course bad times can help us to break that link, as we focus on the immediate, but ultimately less important things like petrol. But getting inflation down isn’t the be all and end all of life, however that feels to us at the moment. It’s our broken link to God which is the real issue. The rest are just the consequences.

Which leads us on to the second broken link, that between Penitence and Restoration. How do we actually turn things round? The answer to that is hinted at in the final verse of our passage, but expounded clearly in earlier parts of Joel. It rings out loud and clear: we repent! It’s an emotional repentance, one we really feel, as our hearts are torn open and tears flow. I see a lot of anger about the state of our nation, but very few tears, suggesting that we are nowhere near as deeply upset as we should be. It’s a corporate repentance, led by the priests. The trumpet call was like an air-raid siren, which gathered people to shelter, or which roused them up to fight for their lives. And this repentance had to be the highest priority. Even newly-weds are to leave their bedrooms to join in the penitence, so vital is it for the survival of the nation. Whatever you think is more important, drop it. It is those who call on the name of Lord who will be saved, and who will save the nation.

If a leader wants to ‘tear up economic orthodoxy’ one great way to do that would be to call the nation to days of national prayer and fasting.  We have done that in the past, and seen God respond, so it might be a good time to do it again, repenting of the corruption, lying, cheating and greed which have become the norm in government, and which, unlike economics, does trickle down throughout society.

How are we to pray for our country and our government, as the Bible tells us to? My prayer is simple: Lord, bring us to our knees.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 18 – Genesis 32:22-32 (Related)

Let me introduce you to a chap called Arnold van Gennep. He lived from 1873 to 1957, had a great moustache, and was a French folklorist (what a brilliant job!). He was responsible for the idea of ‘liminality’. Limen is apparently the Latin word for a door or doorway, and van Gennep suggested that all of us go through ‘doorways’ in life, where things change for us. That journey, he suggested, happens in three phases, the pre-liminal, where we’re preparing for change, the liminal, where we actually do change, and the post-liminal, which is about readjustment now that life is different. Last June our daughter got married, and we lived with her through that liminal experience. Pre-liminally she had to sort out a house to live in, get a wedding dress, organise cake and all the rest of it. The liminal part was the Wedding day: when the priest said ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ everything changed. Now she’s living through the post-liminal phase, readjusting to married life. Other liminal experiences would include having a baby, starting a new job, moving house, and, or course, dying. All involve those three phases.

Poor old Jacob goes through a liminal experience in today’s reading. You’ll remember that he cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, and they had been separated for years. But now Esau is coming to get him, with small army of 400 men. Jacob knows that this is going to be decisive, a liminal experience, where he will either end up reconciled or dead. So he enters the pre-liminal phase by preparing. He divides his family and possessions into two groups, so if Esau gets one lot, the others might escape. Then he prays, a prayer for survival (v.9-12), and then he gets practical again, preparing and sending gifts to pacify Esau, in the hope he might buy him off. And then it’s the fateful liminal night. He sends his wives and family and all his possessions away. He is alone by the River Jabbok. Whatever this night brings, he’s never going to be the same again.

Then he meets – who? A man who turns out to be God? Or maybe an angel? It’s hard to tell, but the result is that they spend all night wrestling. Jacob wants his name and  his blessing. Instead he gets a new name, and a disability. Although he does feel blessed – to see God and still to be alive is about as blessed as it gets! But he is left physically different by the encounter, and he enters the post-liminal phase as the sun dawns on a new day.

This is such a rich story, with so much to say about the changes and chances of our lives, and those liminal experiences which leave us different. This story teaches us, I believe, about

Something for us to do

Something for us to pray, and

Something for us to understand.

1)         Something for us to do

I love the balance between practical preparation and heartfelt prayer. If I can buy Esau off, O Lord, all well and good, but if not, can you save me? All liminal experiences require practical preparation in the pre-liminal stage, and Jacob shows us the relation between prayer and practice. There is stuff we can do – to just ‘leave it all in God’s hands’ sounds superspiritual but is ultimately a bit silly. Those bridesmaids’ dresses are not going to make themselves. And yet there’s fervent prayer too. Whatever we do without God’s blessing is not going to get very far.

2)         Something for us to pray

But there’s something beyond a mere prayer for survival. Jacob wanted to know God’s name. He wanted to know God better, to be on more intimate terms with him. To give someone your name is a bit like giving them your mobile number nowadays. It puts you in new, closer relationship. How can we let the changes in our lives help us understand God better, and draw us closer to him?

3)         Something for us to understand

Jacob was left different as a result of his liminal night of wrestling, and  part of that was his limp. He becomes aware of his vulnerability, and has a physical visual aid to remind him. Post-liminally he has to learn to walk with that limp, as well as living in a new relationship with his brother, with whom there is reconciliation a few verses later. When we meet God in some life-changing ways, it isn’t the case that everything changes for the better, and we need to know that. Many would testify to some kind of a ‘limp’ after a profound encounter with God. The art is to understand that ‘limp’ as part and parcel of God’s blessing.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – 2 Kings 5:1-17 (Related)

Last week in the church I attend we restarted the invitation to prayer ministry at the Eucharist, a practice which here, and I suspect in many churches, has gone by the board during the Covid lockdown, and which is either being forgotten or reinstated with some hesitancy. Our readings today consider two incidents of healing, both of people with leprosy, one by the prophet Elisha and the other by Jesus. I’d like to consider the first under the guiding question ‘How do I get what I want?’

The answer in our world is, of course, by buying it. The more money we have, the greater our ability to buy everything from food and fuel to education and healthcare. Whilst I feel sorry for all those poor £150,000+ per year earners who had the promise of a pay increase dangled before them only to have it cruelly snatched away within a few days, the fact is that the important people in our society are those with enough money to buy influence. Naaman was such a person, and he was used to the kind of power and authority described in Mt 8:9: he tells people to do something, and they do it. But the one thing he couldn’t command was his own body, which had become infected with leprosy. How was he going to get what he wanted?

He found the route to healing, somewhat unexpectedly, through a servant girl, a real nobody, but a nobody with a story to tell about a somebody. And not just through a servant girl, but also via his wife, another relatively unimportant person in that culture. Nevertheless Naaman hasn’t got the message yet, and he sets off laden with riches with which to buy his healing. He goes, quite naturally given his status, to the King. Elisha hears and intervenes before warfare breaks out, but again Naaman is disappointed at the offhand reception he gets from Elisha, and the undramatic and seemingly unhygienic method of his healing. At this point his pride almost costs him his healing, but it is another group of servants who persuade him to suck it up and do what he has been told (for a change). The healing ensues, and again his mindset leads him to try and pay for it. Finally he gets it, and asks for a gift instead, which will enable him to worship the God he has come to see is the true God. he has received not just a new body, but a new Lord into the bargain.

Throughout this story there is a thread about power and humility, a thread which we do well to consider. In a world where power, money and influence are believed to get us what we want, and where humility is seen as weakness, the gospel reminds us that humble submission to God is the route to his heart and favour. It has been interesting to consider the contrasts between our late Queen and our former Prime Minister, and to notice which one is held in the higher regard by the greatest number of people. Perhaps the one word-group used most frequently of Her late Majesty during the mourning period was ‘service/servant/serving’. In our story, in spite of her royal status, she has lived far more like the various servants who were able to speak wisdom with humility than the two quarrelling Kings. And people have noticed. Like Matthew’s centurion she knew that she only had authority because she was under authority from a higher King.

I’m guessing that most of those who get to read this blog are not the kind of people to pay higher rate income tax, but this story reminds us of who will eventually get what they want, inheriting the earth and entering with joy into the Kingdom of Heaven. Once again, the Bible invites us to live differently, to act counter-culturally, and not to fall for the lies that earthly power is worth everything. As Neader’s hymn reminds us:

Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.