Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Pentecost – Numbers 11:24-30

Who? Me?

Instead of the expected purple passage from Joel 2 for Pentecost, this year our lectionary gives us a less well-known passage from Numbers. At a basic level it’s about the gift of the Spirit for all, but at another level it’s quite different from Joel. He expresses the promise of the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit on all people: Numbers narrates the pouring out of the Spirit on 70 people, with the hope that everyone else could join in too. So what has this passage to say to us today as we celebrate and pray for Jesus’ gift of the Spirit?

As always, let’s begin by looking at this passage in its wider context. From the moment they left Egypt the people have been grizzling about this that or the other. No water, no food, too much of the same kind of food … They have created the golden calf for worship and debauchery; they have taken a dislike to the colour of Moses’ wife’s skin, they have rebelled against his leadership, and worst of all, they are soon to reject faithlessly God’s gift of the Promised Land, and sentence themselves to death in the desert. And yet right in the middle of all this, God chooses to pour out his Spirit on them. And he even chooses to pour out his Spirit on those who for whatever reason hadn’t been to church.

This is truly a story of inclusion. Many in today’s church feel that the Holy Spirit is for super-Christians, whether ordained or lay. But not for me – I sin sometimes (quite often if I’m honest), so I don’t deserve anything much from God. I’m glad that he somehow puts up with me, because that’s his job, but give me his Spirit? No way! This is a story for you – you have sinned, and you almost certainly will go on sinning, but that doesn’t stop you from receiving the Spirit of God’s power. Of course he would love it if you sinned less: one pastor used to say to his congregation ‘You’re not sinless, but you are sinning less!’ But that of itself does not mean that Pentecost isn’t for you, but only for those really spiritual Christians whom you both admire and possibly find a tiny bit weird too.

This is also a story of welcome. We’re not told why Eldad and Medad had stayed home that day, but clearly the unidentified young man felt it was inappropriate for them to be joining in the fun, and Joshua wanted Moses to shut them down immediately. You can imagine them thinking ‘What if this gets out of hand?’ The Spirit needs controlling, watching over in case He does something unauthorised. But Moses takes a different view – why doesn’t God just pour out his Spirit on everyone and be done with it? It’s the answer to this question, around 1300 years later on, the we’re celebrating today.

Many in today’s church feel that the Holy Spirit is for those who are on the inside, whether leaders in the church or the in-crowd which inevitably develops around them. They may, for a variety of reasons, not always be present in church, even before Corona lockdown. This is a story for you – wherever you are today, whatever you’re doing, however well or not you feel you fit into church: God can still pour out his Spirit on you. Today.

This is also an ongoing story. There’s a fascinating textual variant in the Hebrew at the end of v.25, which could either mean ‘they did not do so again’ or, rather confusingly ‘They did not stop’, continuing to prophesy. You pays your money, although most more modern versions tend to plump for the first reading. But there is something here too, I think, for many Christians today, who may in the past have experienced something of the power of the Holy Spirit, but have not done so again. It may have been a special moment, or it may have been a phase through which you passed, which you now look back on with some embarrassment, like that time you smoked weed at college, and have put behind you. This is a story for you, or at least it is if you read it along with that stuff from the New Testament about eagerly desiring the Spirit’s gifts (1 Cor 14:1) and being filled over and over again with the Spirit (Eph 5:18 – that’s what the Greek means, not just do it once and do not do so again).  The author of 2 Timothy tells his young protégé to ‘fan into flame the gift of God’ (2 Tim 1:6-7). Maybe today for some of us is a good day to ask God again to fill us with his Spirit, to rekindle in us love for him and power for service and mission. Sinner, misfit, jaded ex-charismatic – anyone can join in!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday after Ascension – Ezekiel 36:24-28

For God’s sake!

Once again our lectionary compilers have had their filleting knives out and changed almost beyond recognition the message of Ezekiel, and certainly the message of these few verses, by ripping them out of their context, both in the whole book but also in the immediately surrounding verses. It’s the kind of lovely few verses you’re likely to see on a fridge magnet or in a birthday card from a Christian friend: the reality is quite different.

The first thing to note is that the book as a whole hardly ever mentions God’s love for his people; rather it constantly points the finger of blame – this exile is your fault, and your fault alone. But the second half of the book, which perhaps has these few verses as its epicentre, appears to be about restoration. ‘Don’t worry: I know you’ve been naughty but now I’m going to restore your fortunes, out of my great love for you, and make everything OK again.’ As such it is a lovely purple passage about God’s forgiving love. But in context it’s nothing of the kind.

In giving people new hearts, you see, God is in effect taking away their free will. He himself will make them obey his laws, because otherwise they simply can’t be trusted to live good lives. So the heart transplant will ensure that they have no choice but to chose the right thing, every time. It’s Ezekiel’s way of undoing Genesis 3, taking away the option to sin so that only goodness is available to them. What a screaming condemnation of the human heart, if that’s the only way we can live good lives!

So why does God choose this drastic path? This is where the filleting is at its most destructive, because God makes it perfectly clear in the verses surrounding our passage. In v.23 God explains that when he acts

I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.

He says the same thing in even stronger language in v.32:

 It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and dismayed for your ways, O house of Israel.

The reason that God is going to clean up his people’s act is not for them, but for him, and his reputation. The nations look at Israel and see only corrupt and nasty behaviour, and so God is mocked. But if his people have no choice but to live good and attractive lives, his honour will be magnified among the pagan nations.

These are hard words indeed, particularly from such an apparently lovely passage. This side of the cross we do know, of course, that a heart-transplant is possible, although we also know only too well that we still retain the option of living sinfully. But what the passage does challenge is our 21st century consumerist, therapeutic gospel, that Jesus came to make us all have a lovely time, to take away our burdens and troubles, and to sail us gently to heaven. If I behave badly, I may feel that I have let myself down. But what I often lose sight of is the way in which I have let the Church, and ultimately Jesus, down. From being a trusted institution in the past, the church has allowed public confidence in it and its ministers to become eroded, and much of this has to do the high-visibility child abuse accusations. It would be great if God were to remove from our hearts the ability to choose to harm or abuse others more vulnerable than ourselves, but the evidence is that he has not. Rather the NT paints Christian discipleship as an ongoing, life-long struggle against sin, as our unredeemed nature constantly tries to assert itself. When we let it, it is not just our victims who are harmed: it is God’s name, his reputation.

In these days of waiting and praying for the Spirit, perhaps joining in with the Thy Kingdom Come initiative, Ezekiel invites us to consider why we think we need the Holy Spirit. To make our worship-times feel even better? To see the world evangelised? To end poverty? Very laudable aims, but perhaps Ezekiel would remind us that the Spirit also comes to strengthen our resolve in that daily fight against sin. For God’s sake.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Gen 8:20 – 9:17

The New Normal

The flood story, of which we have our final thrilling instalment this week, is a story full of paradoxes. It is clearly presented as a new creation, a fresh start for the earth and the human race, but it isn’t really a case of washing everything nasty away and starting again from scratch, and certainly not of God washing his hands of us. As with the Corona pandemic, there is no doubt at all that when this is over things are going to be different – we will have to discover the ‘new normal’, and we don’t yet really know what that will look like.

So after the flood, things didn’t just go back to the way they were, they were different – indeed it almost seems that the unchanging God is different. Consider these paradoxes as we link the Flood narrative to the Creation stories:

  • The God who told the waters of chaos ‘So far but no further!’ and separated them has allowed them to return again, but has then got rid of them a second time.
  • The God who created the world and called it ‘very good’ now declares that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil’. And yet he commits himself to it.
  • The God who has saved the lives of animals now allows them to be sacrificed and eaten.
  • The God who has destroyed almost all human life now calls for the death penalty.
  • Once again, all creation is commanded to be fruitful and to multiply.

What are we to make of this paradoxical God? It would, of course, be complete heresy to describe the post-flood God as ‘sadder but wiser’ even though this passage has a bit of that feel to it. After all, he does regret having made the human race in the first place. But maybe the key here is to see the story less as a description of God, and more of a ‘Just so’ story for the human race. Theologians calls this kind of material ‘aetiological’ which simply means a story which explains a present reality. You can easily spot them in the OT when you read the phrase ‘to this day’. Why is there a pile of stones on this particular hill? Because that’s where something or other happened, and the stones are still her today to remind us about it. It’s helpful to think of a child asking you questions.

So what does this story, and in particular these paradoxes, tell us about the world today? You might not like some of these.

Evil is real. Don’t we just know that today? Well God’s known that for a very long time, and it doesn’t take him by surprise, as it did some of the OT prophets like Habakkuk. When we say ‘I never thought people could sink that low!’ God knows only too well just how low we can sink. And of course even Noah is going to take a tumble in the next section, which sadly the lectionary spares us. In spite of the Enlightenment stuff about man (sic) coming of age and all that, we’re all basically nasty unless we try hard not to be. It doesn’t come naturally. Why is it like that? It always has been, and God ‘found that out’ shortly after the creation.

Human life is sacred. It’s very non-PC nowadays, but God gives a clear mandate for capital punishment, and there are still those who think we have ignored this at our peril, and devalued the lives of those who have been murdered. Why do we put people to death (or, in our era, why did we?)? Because human life can’t be taken away with impunity – we’re all far too valuable for that to happen.

Animals don’t have ‘rights’ as humans do. Better not say any more about this one!

Nevertheless God remains committed to us. The word ‘covenant’ in v.9 and elsewhere is misleading – it’s a promise, because, unlike a traditional covenant, nothing is required from us. It’s all grace – God freely giving us what we don’t deserve. How can he do this, in spite of the above? Because we’re worth it!

God has hung up his bow. There are many pictures from the ancient world of warlike gods with bows and arrows, smiting their human subjects. God’s bow isn’t in his hands, it’s in the sky as both a reminder of the past and a promise for the future. Never again will he destroy the earth with a flood. The story portrays the rainbow as a reminder for God, just in case he ever feels tempted, but of course it’s actually for us. Why are there those colours in the sky? Because God is good, gracious, and always wants to restore relationship and give us a second chance, if we’re willing.

We now, of course, have a new covenant through the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. But how much of the above does that invalidate or make redundant? Discuss! What do you think?

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 Genesis 8:1-19

How’s the lockdown going for you? It appears that the worst might be over, and now the government are beginning to think towards re-entry, and how we can get things at least as near back to normal as we can.

No doubt Noah and his family were climbing the walls too, and if you think it’s been difficult for you, spare a thought for that lot. No Zoom, Whatsapp or Wifi, and in any case there wouldn’t be anyone else left to talk to. But as much as they would no doubt have loved to go outside the minute the rain stopped, God, in his wisdom, knew that they needed an escape plan, and that it would take time.

I’m not sure we can apply this passage directly by sending out various birds, like pit canaries, and seeing whether or not they get Covid-19. But I do think this is actually a study in patience. After 40 days in lockdown, Noah found the ark grounded, but it wasn’t yet safe, so a further period of waiting ensued. We’re not told for how long the raven flew back and forth, but after a failed attempt to get the dove to land there were two further seven day periods of waiting before it was safe to disembark. Even when it was safe for the dove, he erred on the side of caution.

What have you been waiting for these last few weeks? My daughter is waiting for her wedding, which was to have been this weekend. Some non-Covid patients have been waiting for treatment for pre-existing medical conditions. Many of us have been waiting to reconnect with families and friends, and all of us have been waiting until we can feel safe again. So why does God make us wait, not just in times of pandemic, but more generally? Why can’t we have what we want right now?

It’s worth noting that for decades we have been living in a culture of what has been called ‘instant gratification’. I can remember in the 1970s two particular TV adverts. One was for Access credit cards, which ‘took the waiting out of wanting’, and the other was for a particular brand of aspirins which were sold on the basis not of how well they got rid of your headache, but how quickly. We feel we have a divine right to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’, and in the process we have lost the art of patient endurance which would have been much more prevalent in previous generations, and which is frequently extolled as a virtue in Scripture. Instead we feel hard done by if we have to wait for anything, whether a train or the latest Amazon delivery.

God seems to live at a different pace. Indeed we’re told that 1000 years are to him just like the blink of an eye, and don’t we know that at times! Why can’t he just deliver? It’s almost as though he thinks that sometimes it can be good for us to wait! My particular brand of Christianity, influenced by charismatic renewal, is particularly bad at this. We’re often accused of triumphalism, and I can understand why. I’m fine with triumph –  it’s far preferable to the depressive death-wish of much of the Church. Triumph is promised to us, but triumphalism is wanting our triumph now, rather than later – taking the waiting out of wanting.

Recently I encountered a new worship-song which contained a line something like ‘I’ve got a feeling that this darkness won’t last much longer’. Well good for you, but your feelings are not material with which I can appropriately worship God. Far better is Maggi Dawn’s 1993 song ‘I will wait for your peace to come to me / I’ll sing in the darkness, and I’ll wait without fear.’

Noah’s enforced patience invites me to confront my own impatience, my own desire to extract myself from difficult circumstances. God knew when it would be safe, even if we’re not entirely convinced that our government does, and it is dangerous to run ahead of him. Lord, grant me patience.

PS Our lectionary stops before the amusing irony at the end of the chapter which I can’t help but find tickles me. I can just imagine all the little creatures emerging from their boat trip, so relieved that they have escaped drowning, only to be sacrificed as burnt offerings by Noah!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 4 – Genesis 7

Genesis chapter 7 forms the heart of the Flood narrative which extends from chapters 6 to 9. It’s clearly a compilation from two different sources, hence the differences in the numbers of animals who are to go into the ark (v.2, cf. v.8-9 and 15-16), and the number of times Noah and his family actually climb into the ark! But behind these details are bigger questions, about the nature of God himself.

I recently heard one preacher say, quite provocatively, that the Church has been preaching the love of God for the last hundred years, and it has been the death of us. It goes without saying that we take absolutely for granted that God is first and foremost a God of love, that his love is unconditional, and so wherever we find him being a bit, to our minds … well, nasty … we react against it and feel the need to explain it away. The first person to do this was a 2nd century heretic called Marcion who decided that the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus were two completely different beings, and so he took his Stanley knife to the Scriptures and cut out pretty much everything which in any way related to the OT. Marcion was condemned and the Bible was put back together again, but his heresy is alive and well in the Church today.

But the flood story, the very idea that God could regret making the human race in the first place (6:6), and his determination to wipe everything out and start again, goes deeply against the grain, and along with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ stories of the book of Joshua, forms perhaps the greatest challenge to faith today. What can be said in defence of this story, and what uncomfortable truths might it tell us about our God?

God’s anger is about the things which make us angry (6:5, 11-12)

When we think about the anger, or ‘wrath’ of God, we can easily thing of him as a grumpy old man, which is certainly not the kind of God we want to worship and live for. But in fact this narrative shows him as God with very human feelings. Don’t you get upset at corruption? Don’t you get angry about fat cat bankers and their bonuses, companies which avoid paying their taxes, paedophiles, vandalism and mugging on our streets, key workers who are forced to go into our hospitals and care homes without the right PPE, and so many other issues which blight our world today? What kind of a God wouldn’t want to do something about human evil and wickedness?

God’s anger is not indiscriminate (6:9, 18, 22)

We all know the kind of people who are pretty much angry about everyone and everything, but God isn’t like that. He knows righteousness when he sees it, and no way is he going to punish those who are not a part of the violence and corruption. It’s just that he doesn’t see that many of those kinds of people. A later passage is going to show us God being willing to save a city from destruction if only he could find ten good people in it (Gen 18). But sadly he couldn’t even find that many. Noah is the hero here because unlike everyone else he is blameless before God, and so God puts into place elaborate plans to save him and his family.

God’s anger is purposeful (8:21)

Why did God destroy his beautiful creation? There are two ways of looking at it. Negatively, he did it to destroy evil and wickedness, and that’s not a bad thing to do. But positively, he did it to cleanse and save his world from evil and wickedness, so that its future would be better and safer. He wants the best of his creation to continue, so he saves his non-human creatures too, even if we’re not sure quite how many of them! When Mr Hendy, my surgeon, hacked my face open and carved out a lump of cancerous tissue and bone, he didn’t do it just to get rid of the cancer because he doesn’t like it: he did it so that from then on my life would be saved, safer and more comfortable. He operated with a purpose for the future, with plans for me which were good and hopeful (and, so far, successful). Of course sin, like cancer, can easily come back, and so the Flood story looks forward to the final judgement, when evil, defeated by Jesus on the cross, will be destroyed once and for all, so that it can’t blight our eternal enjoyment of God in the new creation.

Put like that, can’t you kind of see God’s point? And aren’t you at least a bit thankful that he has acted against all that is sinful and corrupt, that through his Church he still is acting against all that ruins the life of humans, and that one day he will act decisively and deal once and for all with wickedness? Aren’t you glad that the God of love loves us so much that he won’t rest until righteousness fills who whole universe?

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20

We don’t get a whole lot of Zephaniah in our lectionary, so we can make the most of him today. But to read the final few verses alone can be highly misleading, as they form a post-exilic PS which is in stark contrast to the main thrust of the book. Probably written in the late 7th century BC, under the reign of King Josiah, the book consists of one oracle after another, all of them dire warnings of doom and judgement. It’s worth spending the few minutes it would take to read through the whole book, in order to note the stark contrast with the last paragraph. Simply to read the postscript is severely to miss the point.

It’s interesting to be reading this book at a time of a lockdown due to the Cronavirus pandemic. Again and again I hear promises, including from Her Majesty the Queen, that things will soon be back to normal, that ‘we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again’. That of course is our hope, but along with the hope for the future goes the sense of tragedy for those who have been the victims of this microscopic virus, and the many ways in which life will actually never be the same again for so many people. I’m not wanting to comment on whether or not the virus is God’s judgement on a sinful world, but the point is that like Zephaniah we can look to a wonderful new world, but it is a world we will enter bearing the scars of disaster.

Whether the final few verses are a prophetic and hopeful look to the future, or a later addition after the event, the people did emerge from the exile in  Babylon sadder but wiser. The language of rejoicing is punctuated throughout with reminders of just who will be rejoicing, and we need to listen to that and note it well. It is ‘Daughter Zion’, or ‘Daughter Jerusalem’ over whom God is so excited, a shorthand way of denoting his own people, those in relationship with him, and not the nations listed in chapter 2 as being ripe for destruction. It is a nation who had been punished, who had been attacked by enemies, who had lived in fear (v.15). It is people whose hands had hung limp, who had mourned under burdens, who had been oppressed and lamed. But it is not the proud and arrogant, who had not been humbled before God’s punishment and anger. Those who are to be gathered in God’s loving arms are those who have known pain and suffering and responded by turning to him in humility.

I heard recently that many of those gifted prophetically in our nation see this year, with its pandemic, as a time of great harvest for the Kingdom of God. Certainly it seems anecdotally that the numbers of people connecting with online worship far exceed our normal Sunday attendance, but whether the churches will be able to reap this harvest remains to be seen. But I pray that whatever its origins, this pandemic will serve to remind people of our fragility, our arrogance, our unquestioning worship of the great god ‘Science’, and our vulnerability before an enemy too small to see. I pray that out of our suffering we can rise again and come to know ourselves as God’s dear sons and daughters, over whom he rejoices so extravagantly. The prayer ‘Lord, restore our fortunes’ (v.20) is very different from ‘Lord, take this away and put everything back to normal’.