Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 3 – Isaiah 66:10-14

Since retiring two years ago I have recently started taking funerals again, something I loved about parish ministry but which, due to a Diocesan job and then the pandemic I haven’t really done for about 8 years. As you might imagine I was nervous at first, but very quickly I got back into the saddle as though it was only yesterday. I was reminded of a previous funeral where, as is my custom, I used a prayer to reflect on the fact that no relationship is ever perfect, and that we might just have some regrets in our relationship to the deceased, some things we would have liked the time to have said, or maybe some things we wish we hadn’t said or done. Despite the fact that the person whose funeral I was taking was an absolutely lovely old saint, I was thanked warmly after the service for my honesty in acknowledging that things hadn’t always been perfect, and my avoidance of the sentimental hagiography so often present at funerals.

Today’s reading is almost the final paragraph of the corporate work we call the book of Isaiah, and thematically it is like closing the bracket which was opened at 40:1 with God’s words to comfort his people. In 66:13 God himself has become the comforter, in a climax to three themes which appear in this short passage. They are positive themes, a call to joy and celebration, the image of Jerusalem as a nurturing mother, and finally the comfort of God. But each of them carries echoes of something less positive. Just like my funeral ministrations, the prophet wants to acknowledge the pain and hurt which so often exist alongside joy. He doesn’t go overboard and negate the joy and comfort, as I hope I don’t at funerals, but the mere echo of a mention gives the listeners the opportunity and the permission to be real rather than sentimental, or, as in another common funeral habit, not to try to suppress sadness altogether (‘We don’t want anyone to wear black …’, ‘I am not there, I did not die.’)

So the call to rejoice is made, in v.10, to those who mourn. We have watched the chequered history of God’s holy city, and we know that it is going to continue into the NT, where it is known as the city which slaughters prophets, until the Temple’s final destruction in 70 AD. We rejoice not by forgetting the more negative aspects, but in spite of them.

Similarly the picture of Jerusalem as the nurturing mother in v.11 echoes with other passages where the city is seen as an adulterous whore. In Lamentations the city weeps because her children have been taken away from her. So her current status as a nurturing mother has to be seen against the backdrop of less favourable times.

And finally the image of God as comforter in v.13-14 has a rather jarring conclusion with the reminder that those who are God’s enemies will see not his comfort but his wrath. In fact, when you think about it there are very few unremittingly positive passages in the whole of the Bible: there is always the lurking reminder, sometimes hiding in the shadows, but sometimes centre stage, that God is not a God of universal unconditional love, but that we have a choice, and he responds to us in the light of how we respond to him.

I wonder if this passage, then, is a reminder to God’s people never to sink into sentimentality, but to retain a realistically balanced and biblical understanding of who he is, and of how we relate to him. There is something in the human mind which wants to avoid pain and make everything nice, rewriting history if necessary. Have you noticed that anyone who tragically loses their life in some catastrophe or other was always lively, loving, bright and intelligent, caring etc? It seems that no-one who dies was ever nasty, or even just ordinary as we are. But when, as in my funeral ministry, I simply allow people to acknowledge the obvious, that real life, and real people, are both good and bad, sometimes at the same time, they are grateful for it. This allows them both to grieve appropriately and rejoice realistically. Perhaps whoever wrote this passage had the same aim in mind.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 1 – Isaiah 65

One commentator on today’s passage likens it to a game of divine Hide and Seek. As always reading around the passage is important, as chapter 65 is a direct response to the questions raised in the previous chapter. Much more well known, Isaiah 64 is a complaint about the silence of God. Almost certainly dating from the period after the Exile, when the national life is gradually being rebuilt, it recollects times in the past when God was clearly at work. But now he has vanished and his voice has become silent. He has allowed the destruction of the Holy City and the enslavement of the people far from home. The really big question is this: will he ever speak to us or do anything ever again? The following chapter, our passage for this week, seeks to address these questions.

The main problem, it appears, are some strange and unorthodox worship practices. We don’t know exactly what the activities in v.3-4 are all about, but when linked with the more familiar eating of forbidden meat such as pork, it becomes clear that God is not pleased with this kind of behaviour, and particularly with the belief that engaging in such worship makes people super holy. And yet the earlier verses suggest a God who has not exactly been silent – it is rather that the people haven’t been listening. It isn’t that God has hidden, it’s just that the people have been seeking him in the wrong places, and in wrong ways.

In the next paragraph, God certainly does speak. He assures the people that the fruit of their corrupt worship will be bitter, and that they will be punished for their seeking of him in inappropriate ways. The interesting phrase ‘into their laps’ in v.7 suggests something very physical which is to be repaid to them. God has come out of hiding, and perhaps the people wish he hadn’t!

But then in the final paragraph, there is a promise to balance out the threat. The picture is of a bunch of grapes ready for the harvest. Whilst harvest is often a violently negative image elsewhere in Scripture, here it is used positively. These grapes still have some juice left in them, which can be squeezed out and fermented into the blessing of wine, a difficult text for those who believe that the Bible teaches teetolalism. So there is still enough potential in Israel that they might yet be the blessing to all nations which has been God’s purpose for them ever since he called Abraham in Genesis 12.

But not only do we have to read ahead of this passage in order fully to understand it: we also have to read on a bit to discover the real meaning. There is a contrast in v.10-11 which makes sense of the whole passage. The contrast is between ‘my people who seek me’ and ‘you who forsake the Lord’ and forget his holy mountain. As is the case throughout Scripture, God gives us a choice, and his giving or withholding of blessing depends on which way we go. The people complain that God has been hiding from them, but it is they who have been hiding from him, behind their own perverted styles of worship and  no doubt the resulting wrong behaviour. The solution is clear – to find him, they simply have to seek him, but in places and ways where he is to be found, not in the false rituals of man-made worship. The fearsome and fateful phrase in v,8 ‘I will not destroy them all’ suggests that some of them may well be destroyed, no doubt those who are unrepentant and refuse to obey even once God has come out of hiding. This passage, therefore, speaks to us of God-centred religion, and not the human attempts to manipulate God through our own created rituals. Compromise might cause God to hide from us, or at least to appear to do so, whilst a whole-hearted search for him, on his own terms, will lead to us becoming that blessing to the world which has always been his will for us, as we enjoy a renewed relationship with him based on true worship. The passage invites us to search out within ourselves anything which is false, of human origin, compromised or plain corrupt in our devotion to him. Only then will we enjoy his blessings for ours

Culture and the Mind of Christ

Part 9 – Pluralism

Glossary:

Pluralism – the belief that there is no universal ‘true’ truth but that whatever we choose to belive in is true for us.

Particularism – the belief that our faith is the right one, and others’ are just wrong.

Unsophisticated Pluralism – all religions are equally true – you just piek the one you like best.

Sophisticated Pluralism – all religions are equally wrong – we’re all groping in our own ways but will ultimately lead us to the truth, by whatever name we call it.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity Sunday – Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

If you’ve ever engaged in doorstep arguments with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you’ll no doubt have heard the contention that the Bible doesn’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity, along with all the other stuff about Jesus not being killed on a cross and all that. I love to disarm JWs by agreeing with them. They’re perfectly right. In fact the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t settled finally until 4th century, while Christians continued to affirm the truth of the Jewish Shema prayer ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’. It took nearly 300 years for the Church to agree that the best and only way to describe their experience of God as Creator, Saviour and Sustainer was in what we now call the doctrine of the Trinity. So no, you can’t find the 4th century doctrine set out clearly in the Bible. But you can find hints towards it, staging posts on the way to that later full agreement of orthodox belief. You find it in formulae such as that in Matthew 28 about how people are baptised, of in the greeting at the end of 2 Corinthians 13 which we now liturgically call ‘The Grace’. And you can find it in Proverbs 8, which is presumably why this reading is set for Trinity Sunday. Not, of course in a 4th century fully developed way, but hinted at.

First of all, we see God as Creator. He brings forth oceans, springs, mountains, skies and the horizon and all the rest of this vast and beautiful world. But, somewhat surprisingly, he was not alone in this flurry in creation. There was someone else there beside him, whom he ‘brought forth’ before anything else, and who stood by and admired his handiwork. The Hebrew word there is ambiguous, and different English translations treat it in different ways, but usually we affirm, with the Nicene Creed and the Christmas carol, that God’s Son was ‘begotten, not created. So in this mysterious figure, whom OT scholars call ‘Lady Wisdom’, we clearly have a picture of Jesus, interestingly in female form. That might also explain why God says in Gen 1:26 ‘Let us make human beings …’

But what of the Third Person, the Holy Spirit? Is the Spirit pictured in Lady Wisdom too? Maybe. In v.1-4 she is everywhere. On the hilltops, at road junctions, beside the city gates, in the doorways, she calls out to everyone. The Spirit, according to Jesus, was to make his home in all Jesus’ followers, so that the physically located Jesus of Nazareth could become the omnipresent Risen Lord. Another hint lies in the parallel use of the word ‘wisdom’ with ‘understanding’ in a way which suggests that Lady Wisdom is the one who brings understanding, in other words the teacher who will lead us into all the truth. We don’t know how much of John’s write-up of Jesus farewell words to his disciples may have had roots in Proverbs 8, but it isn’t stretching things too much to suggest that they might well have had.

But the eternal question about the doctrine of the Trinity is ‘So what?’ What difference does it actually make to me and my discipleship that God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Maybe we can, as it were, learn backwards. What might Prov 8, read through the lens of trinitarian theology, say to encourage us?

The first thing is the sheer sense of joy, enthusiasm and delight which shines through the passage. As God creates, Lady Wisdom looks on with unadulterated wonder and adoration. You might expect wisdom to be associated with sorting out the problems of the world, or the fight for justice and peace. But no. To say that Wisdom views things through rose-coloured spectacle would be an understatement. Some of the early Fathers used the Greek term perichoresis to suggest that the relationships within the Trinity were like a joyous dance together. In the midst of a continuing threat from Covid, the Ukrainian war and a corrupt but unrepentant government, what would it mean for us to focus, at least for a while, on the sheer joy and beauty of God’s created world?

The second is the delight which comes over in wisdom. The Bible uses the term not to mean intellectual prowess, but like the French savoir-faire, knowing what to do. This gift is highly desirable, and free to all who ask. Imagine if you had even one millionth the combined wisdom of Father, Son and Spirit! We could change the world with that!

But maybe the best thing which comes over through the Trinity is that depicted so clearly in the famous Rublev icon: the space which is there for you and me. We’re invited in, not to the being of God. obviously, but into the relationship of love with the persons share. There is room at the table for us! Lady Wisdom lifts her voice and welcomes us all. She delights in the human race (v.31).

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Pentecost – Gen 11:1-9

Although this is meant to be a blog on the OT, I want to begin in another great Pentecost chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. I wonder how you read that passage? Most of the time, we emphasise the motif of unity. It’s the same Spirit who gives gifts to the Church, for the glory of the same Lord and for the benefit of the one body. Since we already know that the Corinthians could be a disunited lot, it’s easy to believe that this is the point Paul is making here. But can we read it in a different way, as a call for diversity, not uniformity? We know also that the church was somewhat hung up on the gift of tongues, so might Paul be saying that there are loads of different gifts, not just the one, given by the same Spirit? There are different kinds of service and activity, all given by the same Spirit. The body isn’t just one great big toenail: there are all sorts of bits and pieces belonging to the one body. So don’t get hung up on and limited by the one thing you feel familiar with. Diversify!

The same principle is often applied to the Babel story in Gen 11. The fact that it is set in our lectionaries for Pentecost Sunday suggests that we read it in one particular way, as a contrast to the events on the Day of Pentecost. In Gen 11 God made it impossible for people to understand one another, but in Acts 2 they can do so again. The ‘problem’ of Gen 11 is ‘solved’ by Acts 2. I’m not so sure.

First of all, Pentecost doesn’t ‘undo’ Babel. It’s different. There isn’t the restoration of a single language: there’s the ability for all languages to be understood. But secondly, like 1 Cor 12, the problem might not be unity, but rather lack of diversity, a diversity which is celebrated at Pentecost, not negated. Now of course a first reading of Gen 11 does seem to give the impression that God is cross with the people and needs to do something about it. The language of ‘scattering’ and ‘confusion’ sound more like a telling off than a blessing. But with what, exactly, might he be cross? Might it be their uniformity? They all speak one language, and they all want to live together in one huge city. Maybe this isn’t what God wants for his creation. Only a few chapters earlier he has made an astounding variety of plants, trees, animals, fish and birds. Could it be that the human race wants to turn this gorgeous kaleidoscope of colour into a dull grey monochrome monotony? That God has to step in and enforce variety in the face of human lack of imagination? If that is so, what might this passage more helpfully be saying to the Church today at Pentecost? What huge variety of gifts and graces does the Holy Spirit want to pour out on Christ’s Body this year?

In a previous existence my job was to promote charismatic renewal within the C of E, through an organisation called Anglican Renewal Ministries, which I headed up for five years. As an apologist for Renewal I was very well aware of the image that charismatics had in the Church as a whole, and I often addressed it head on when speaking and teaching, particularly to those who would not self-identify as charismatics. I would collect from the audience such terms as ‘happy clappy’, ‘mindless’, ‘superspiritual’ and so on, and then go on to suggest that what those terms were describing was a culture, not a spirituality. The jury is out as to whether the charismatic movement has come to an end or not, but one thing that I am grateful for is the fact that the Holy Spirit seems to have permeated the Church far and wide since the 1980s, and I have detected in conversation with all kinds of Anglicans a much greater awareness of the work and power of the Holy Spirit now that the charismatic culture has certainly waned. We seem to have got the message that you can be open to the Holy Spirit without being a particular kind of Christian who likes guitars, arms in the air and mindless songs. In the past I heard many people saying, in effect’ ‘If the Spirit will make me behave like that, then no thanks!’ Now I hear all kinds of people open to the power and influence of the Spirit within their own cultures, whether Catholic, Liberal or whatever.

So maybe this Pentecost what we need is openness to diversity, not a conforming to a particular monochrome culture. The Spirit, Jesus told us, blows where he wills. Maybe, without fear and with genuine expectation we can invite him to blow through us.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 7 – Ps 97

Those who are unfortunate enough to be my students will be absolutely sick of me telling them that God isn’t a God of love, he is a God of righteousness. In fact readers of my blog might be too. But the older I get the more I realise the importance of this idea, and the dreadful wrong turns the Church has taken by preaching a God of love more fervently than it has a God of righteousness. Of course the Bible does talk about God loving people, but only ever his people, the Jewish nation in the OT and Christians in the NT. This Psalm is yet another piece of proof that for God, right is more important than love. The assertion in v.2 that ‘righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne’ is the key idea in this Psalm, and makes sense of all the rest of it. In fact the only reference to love in the Psalm, in v.10, is about our love for God, not his for us. Yet we have lived and preached as though love was the foundation of his throne, and weakened ourselves as a result.

The text falls neatly into three parts, once we have understood its main message. In v.1-5 we see a display the splendour and glory of God, matchless in all the universe. V.6-9 describe the response of the created world to the power of God, and v.10-12 call forth individual response from those who have encountered this God.

The pictures in the opening section are powerful and striking. He lives in cloud and darkness. He isn’t our chum: there’s something about him which is mysterious and hidden. He wears darkness as a King wears royal robes. They mark out his transcendence, his ‘otherness’ from the world he has created. A king might have a herald going before him. Our God has fire and lightning. The created world trembles and melts back in the light of this display of his ultimate power and glory.

We are then invited to consider the contrast with the kinds of gods people actually worship. The only fire an idol might produce is when, as in Isaiah 44, some of it is burnt for fuel. Those who worship created things have no hope, no future. Even those false gods of wood and metal are called to join in with the true worship of created things for their Creator.

So what do we, his people, do in response to this magnificent and awesome display of God’s power? Interestingly, the first thing we are called to is not to love him, nor to be jolly impressed by the fireworks, but rather to cultivate a profound hatred of all that is evil. In an age where ‘tolerance’ is the highest virtue this is deeply counter-cultural. Like our God, enthroned on righteousness and justice, we are called to recognise what is wrong, call it out, and stay as far away from it as we can. In that way we will be saved from the wicked influences around us. It stands to reason: if we have been taught from childhood that, for example, drugs are bad, we will be much less likely to drift into their use than children who have been brought up with a tolerant attitude, and who have never bee forewarned.

There is no command here to love God. Rather there is the assumption that we do, and therefore we need to know how important it is that our lives are built on the same foundations as his throne. We are called to praise him and to rejoice in him, and thus to experience his joy.