OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent Sunday – Jeremiah 33:14-16

Today we move into the season of Advent. It’s a bit of a ‘marmite’ season – personally I love it, but it can be difficult to live through, for a couple of reasons. Firstly the ‘flavour’ of the season, that of quiet prayer, anticipation and penitence in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas is oddly out of sync with how the secular world spends the time. Already as I write in Mid-November the carols are blaring in Meadowhall and gaudy lights adorn houses round about. Advent will be marked by frantic shopping, made all the more difficult of course this year due to the toxic results of Brexit and Covid, as both hardship and inflation rise alarmingly. In Church we are still uncertain about what we can do safely, and our PM has not ruled out the possibility of another Christmas lock-down as Covid infections refuse to abate while, sick of masks and restrictions, people go about as though nothing were wrong. Christians seeking to celebrate advent well are really swimming against the tide.

There is also the kind of dynamic by which Advent can rub our noses in the disastrous times through which we’re living. In spite of its penitential feel it is not a joyless season, as we look forward to the coming of Jesus not just for Christmas but for life. Yet like the exiles of Psalm 127, we find it hard to sing the Lord’s song whilst living in this strange land.

If all this isn’t just me having a bad day, and you too feel something of this disorientation, living in a place where you just don’t want to be, then today’s OT might speak to you. At the start of the chapter we’re told that Jeremiah is in prison when he receives this oracle. He’s in prison for daring to say that the nation is under God’s judgement, and that Nebuchadnezzar, who is besieging the city, will conquer it and exile its people. How dare he say that? ‘Project Fear’ or what? The first five verses paint a picture which some viewers might find disturbing, and the cause of it all is stated plainly: God has hidden his face from the nation. As we might want to turn our eyes away in disgust from some of the scenes we are subjected to on telly (as I do at Call the Midwife) so God has had enough of looking at the way people are treating one another, and just has to turn his face away. The result is devastation.

But the vision continues, from v.6, in a different direction, that of restoration and healing, a vision which culminates in our passage with the promise of a new king. He will come in fulfilment of God’s promise, for he is faithful, and will spring from the royal Davidic line. Apart from that we’re told very little about him, either here or in a parallel passage in chapter 23. The only thing we need to know is that he will be righteous, in other words incapable of doing anything wrong or bad. The result for the city will be salvation and safety.

Sometimes it is when we most need good news that we find it hardest to hear it. Many of us will have suffered, during times of great grief or depression, from cheerful ‘comforters’ who tell us that everything will be fine, and we should just look to Jesus. One can’t help but wonder if some of those who heard or read this oracle wanted to tell Jeremiah exactly where to stick his scroll. Words which are well-meaning and designed to encourage can actually cause bring more hurt than joy. And so all this Advent talk of Jesus’ return to bring righteousness, destroy evil and make everything right again can have a hollow ring to them as life continues to be a hostile experience for so many. To be fair Jeremiah does tell people that things will get worse before they get better, but paradoxically the harder we find it to hear good news, the more we need to hear it. This Advent, with all the extra problems it brings, is a time when we need more than ever to hang onto the Christian truth that King Jesus is getting ready to return and bring judgement on everything and everyone who has set their hearts on evil and destruction. However difficult, that must be our prayer this Advent – ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come and reign!’

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christ the King (Sunday before Advent) – Daniel 7:9-14

I’ve already told you that my image of heaven is an all-you-can-eat buffet which will not make you put on weight. When I was younger it was an Olympic sized swimming pool filled with pineapple milkshake. Other faiths have their own versions, which are appealing to different degrees. But here we have an image from a nation very different from ours and a very different time and context. The Jews had seen their own nation conquered by Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar, and then had watched as their captors had been captured by Cyrus of Persia. Depending on how we date this material, they may even have seen the Persians in their turn conquered by Greece. In that world there was a clear way of doing your conquering, and there is no doubt that this vision of the final victory of God is painted in terms of a conquering by one empire of another. Sometimes the conquered king would be allowed to keep some semblance of a reign, but only as a puppet for the new monarch. There was also punishment meted out on those who had resisted the king’s rule – that is present here too in the slaying of various beasts, filleted out of our lectionary reading, but there in v.11-12 as an important and integral part of the story. It is not surprising that a nation who had been passed from one empire to another should see the expected final victory of God in terms of a further conquering empire, but this time one which will not be temporary (v.14), and which is in fact welcomed by those happy to submit to its just and gentle rule.

Of course this picture of God as a conquering and destroying warrior is immensely politically incorrect in our day and age. We have become ashamed at our own history of empire-building (although interestingly only after we have lost most of it), and rather red-faced about how we have treated some of those who have colonised. So do we really want a God who is a conquering and destroying king? Do we really want to see heaven as an empire which has forcefully overcome its enemies? One writer to whom I referred on this passage tells us that this image makes her want to ‘walk out of the door’. She suggests renaming the feast of ‘Christ the King’ as ‘Jesus the Welcomer’. Many, I’m sure, would have sympathy with her position, and might find this passage a difficult one.

Sadly, though, I have never been blessed with much patience for political correctness, and actually Christ the King is my very favourite Sunday of the liturgical year. When I look around the world I can’t help but see a system which quite frankly needs conquering, a system which has increasingly chosen to hate, resist and fight against God and godliness, and which is paying the price both in the human propensity for violence, lack of respect and injustice, and in the cosmic upheaval as our wounded planet cries out in agony. The sooner the systems, human and demonic, which perpetuate the cruelty of our world are conquered by a righteous God, the better, as far as I am concerned. But then maybe I’m just a grumpy old man.

But however we choose to read it, this passage holds out hope for us, as it did for the culture which produced it. There will come a time, we say in our Creeds each week, when God will wind up history and begin the fulness of his reign, a time which, as we move into Advent, we will be exploring. We will have a king whom to serve will be perfect freedom, and there will be an authority to put an end to everyone doing what it right in their own eyes, and usually making a mess of it. We will have a king of whom we are not ashamed, as we are of some of our human leaders, a king for whom doing anything wrong is completely impossible – that’s what the title ‘the God of righteousness’ means. And we will have a king whom we can appropriately worship with everything in our beings.

Where is Christ our King in this passage? He is the ‘one like a human’ of v.13-14, not a conquered vassal-king, but a co-regent with Father and Spirit. He will share the reign with his Father, and he will share the worship of his grateful people, having rid the world of all which is destructive and evil. I don’t know about you, but this greatest of feasts fills me with hope, far more than a rather insipid ‘Jesus the Welcomer’ would. Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus! Preferably quickly!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

2nd before Advent (Kingdom 3) – Daniel 12:1-3

These verses from the book of Daniel are important in the way they foreshadow a NT understanding of the resurrection of the dead, although there are some significant differences with, for example, Paul’s teaching on resurrection, notably in 1 Cor 15. But as always an understanding of the original context can led us in a completely different direction as we seek to understand what the original writer meant the original readers to understand by this passage. A good place to begin is to ask of v.1 ‘At what time?’ When a passage begins abruptly with a phrase like ‘At that time’ we get a very strong hint that we have come in half way through the story, and so we will need to look back to find the beginning. A helpful place to start is 11:40 which defines ‘this time’ as ‘the time of the end’, but even further back in 11:36 we get a list of the sins of ‘the king’, whom it is easy to identify as Antiochus IV, or Antiochus Epiphanes, who reigned from 175 – 164 BC. Note that the passage is very detailed about what he did wrong, but rather vague about his death (11:45), which suggests that this text comes from some time before his death, although well into his reign.

The picture we get is of an arrogant and ruthless man, whose name tells us that he is ‘God made manifest’, and who had no regard for any deity other than himself. Gathering to himself a gang of admirers, he went on a rampage conquering nations and taking their spoils. In particular he was known for his persecution of the Jews, and his desecration of the Temple. Previous Greek kings had tolerated Jewish culture and religion and left them to get on with it, but Antiochus reversed this policy, and subjected the Jews to harsh persecution, which led in time to the famous Maccabean revolt from 167 to 160 BC.

So the ‘this time’ of 12:1 is a time of trouble for the Jews, a time of fear and distrust of their monarch and his cronies, and a time when the godly suffered and the wicked appeared to prosper and grow rich and fat. It was a time of injustice when the cries of the righteous must have included ‘How long, O Lord?’ When is all this going to be sorted out? When are our corrupt rulers going to get the punishment they so justly deserve? The time of distress described in v.1 is of course ‘this time’ during which the author was writing, and through which the people were living.

So the promise of resurrection is not so much about a Christian hope of eternity with God in the everlasting all-you-can-eat buffet: it is about a reversal. Since there seemed to be very little hope of anything changing now, when the ruler held such untouchable and corrupt power, and when any change of policy would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, the only hope lay in the future. Those who had been the victims of the cruelty of the king would rise to a new life where their fortunes would be diametrically changed, and presumably those who were not ‘wise’, another way of saying ‘godly’, would miss out on the rewards of the persecuted, and receive instead ‘shame and everlasting contempt’. This passage then is not merely a celebration of eternal life, but rather a celebration of the justice of God, his reign becoming fully manifest, and the restoring of a right balance in the world.

I will leave it to my dear readers to consider any parallels to our current times, but I think two issues are raised here: the need for faithfulness and the need for justice. Many passages in the NT which speak of the ‘end times’ call for steadfastness or patient endurance on the part of the saints. Only this morning I was listening to a podcast which suggested that interest in faith and religion has always declined in times of national trouble, and those who remain faithful are in the minority. The fact that a prophet is talking about the current crisis encourages us to believe that in spite of it all God does know what he is doing, and that nothing takes him by surprise. He will have the last word, and those who have remained faithful to him will be there to share it.

Secondly, though, this text, like so many more in the Bible, contrasts eternal joy with shame and punishment. As the Church increasingly preaches a gospel of ‘unconditional love’ and as a universalist approach which thinks that God is far too nice ever to exclude anyone from heaven grows in popularity, we do well to consider how the Jews who were enduring such persecution would have felt about this idea. I suspect rather like we might feel about the idea of Hitler or Bin Laden being welcomed into heaven. The God of righteousness revealed throughout the Scriptures is never seen as being so inclusive that even unrepentant sinners, who have wreaked havoc on so many lives, are OK really. Justice cries out for punishment, and if that punishment doesn’t come in this life, it surely will in the next.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

3rd before Advent (Kingdom 2) – Jonah 3:1-5, 10

What actually is the book of Jonah? A whale of a Sunday School story for the kids? A folk tale about an ancient hero? A myth? A prophetic oracle? Well, all of the above, but it will help us today if we think of it as an important manifesto for the ‘Gentile Lives Matter’ campaign. Post-exilic Israel had a tendency, you see, to think it itself as the bee’s knees. They were, and always had been, God’s ‘chosen people’ and yes, they may have been a bit naughty at times, but God was on their side and had rescued them and allowed their city and their national life to be rebuilt. So Jonah, an otherwise almost unknown prophet from a former age, had his story retold as a salutary tale against those who felt that all these Gentiles had no future in God’s glorious kingdom. The book is a treatise against the narrow and dangerous nationalism of Israel.

So Jonah (eventually) goes to preach in the streets of Nineveh, a city which was the capital of the wicked Assyrian empire, but which the readers knew, with hindsight, was responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. The city was a byword for depravity and cruelty, and God had seen it and determined to destroy it. Fair enough. But Jonah knew God only too well: in 4:2 he tells him that he understood that he would show mercy to those awful Ninevites if given half a chance. And so he had. Chapter 3 ends with the whole nation, from the king downwards, repenting in a heartfelt (some might say over the top) manner – animals in sackcloth? Really? But in the end there was no punishment after all.

So who does Jonah represent? Not just the nationalistic and xenophobic Israelites, but actually all those who put their own preferences before the will of God. Since Genesis 12, in the time of Abraham, God had made it clear that his purpose was to bless all the nations on earth, and that his ‘chosen’ people were in fact those chosen to gather the Gentiles into the kingdom. This is a theme which runs through the OT, and is of course reiterated in Simeon’s Song, what Anglicans call the Nunc dimittis, in the New. Israel constantly forgot this idea, just as the Church so often does today, whenever it does things the way we, the insiders like it, and react with horror at the idea that we might do something different which might be attractive to other, perhaps younger, seekers.

But while the reluctance of Christians to engage in evangelism might be partly down to the fear of doing something new, there are far more obvious reasons why the E-word is such a negative one for 20th century Western Christians. But again there is a subtle twist in Jonah’s tale here. Yes, he runs a mile (actually many hundreds) at the idea of his missionary calling, but it isn’t until the final chapter that we get to see why. Most of us run from evangelism because of the fear that people won’t listen. But Jonah’s reluctance comes from the opposite direction: he fears that they will, in which case God’s mercy will prevent them from getting the good thrashing they so deserve. We fear failure: Jonah feared success.

But then, when you think about it, are we actually so very different? Many of our churches, of all kinds and theological positions, are actually comfy clubs for those who are already members, and who do things they way we like them. The very idea that we might be evangelistically effective, and find our churches overrun with people who are new, different, maybe younger, who really don’t know how to behave in the House of the Lord, can be scary, if seldom articulated. We may be happy to help feed the poor through our foodbanks, but would we really like them worshipping with us on a Sunday morning? The immediate answer ought to be ‘Yes, we would!’, but it doesn’t take much to begin to imagine the potential problems. In a small way we experienced this when we planted a Fresh Expression congregation, which was resisted vigorously by some in power in the ‘proper’ church because ‘We never see them in church’. We know the gospel is for everyone, but in some cases we’re as closed as Jonah was to anything new.

If that seems miserable, then there are two bits of good news for us in this chapter, which fit around it like a pair of brackets. The first is in v.1: ‘The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time’. Our God is a God of second chances. When we have resisted, run away from his will, made excuses, or just plain ignored him, he speaks again. In his mercy and love he doesn’t give up after a first refusal. We’re invited to ask ourselves where the word of the Lord needs to come again to us, perhaps after a period of trying to drown it out.

The second bit of good news comes in the final verse: in response to Jonah’s preaching, there was repentance and mercy. If God’s people listened to him calling a second time, who knows what might happen to our corrupt and cruel nation?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

All Saints Sunday – Isaiah 25:6-9

As you may have heard me say before, I’m not a great fan of Saints (in the way that the Church uses the word, not the way the Bible uses it). In my experience too much emphasis on the Saints, and lots of sermons about how they should inspire us to higher things, actually deskill Christians and encourage a hierarchical view of the Christian life. In the NT, of course, all believers are saints, and there is nothing to suggest the elevation of some to a more holy and special status. So in my ministry I have tended to ignore Saints’ Days and carry on with preaching through Habakkuk of whatever my current series happened to be.

I am, though, a great fan of all-you-can-eat buffets, and I love the way that this image is used in the Bible to depict heaven. My expectation is that unlike earthly ones, heavenly banquets will mean that you never put on any excess weight. Can’t wait! In fact there are lots of different pictures of what heaven will be like. It might be Buddhism’s merging with the cosmos as a drop of water in the ocean, or Islam’s slightly more exciting 72 virgins. For many Christians there is the expectation of an everlasting church service where we will sing Vineyard songs 24/7 for ever. But in his picture of the future Isaiah is going somewhere else entirely. It is a feast, but it’s a particular kind of feast, which a bit of digging into the text will reveal.

As always the context is important. Most scholars agree that the period concerned is the rise of Assyria, who would eventually, in around 700 BC, besiege Jerusalem and destroy the Northern Kingdom. So the picture of a banquet stood in stark contrast to the starvation rations which made up real life. Other Ancient Near Eastern texts speak of cannibalism in such situations, and Ezekiel 24 perhaps alludes to this when Jerusalem is described as a big cooking pot full of flesh and bones. The image of a great banquet wasn’t just something nice to look forward to: it held out the hope of life itself.

Then in contrast in v.8 there is a mention of Death. Another local myth personified Death as the one who tried to swallow up Baal, the god of life and fertility. In the story Baal is rescued by his sister Anat, who hacks Death to bits with a scythe, perhaps one origin of our ‘Grim Reaper’. But Yahweh goes even further as he swallows up Death. The swallower gets swallowed himself. Are we getting the picture? This isn’t just a buffet: it’s a feast of victory. Those who try to starve the people will fail, and tears, misery and disgrace will be banished. Just as victory in warfare was celebrated with a banquet, this feast marks the ultimate victory of God to a starving and grieving nation.

So with whom will we join in this banquet? The saints, depicted in the NT as those who have fought and won; those who have run the race and finished it; those who have stood unwaveringly firm for all that is of God. I’m reminded of the image from Hebrews 11 and 12 of the last stadium lap of a marathon, when all those who have finished their course are waiting for those of us still running, or in many cases limping, towards the finish line. This great cloud of witnesses are not there to impress us with their at times extravagant holiness: they are literally egging us on so that together we can all get to the table and dig in. Isaiah’s victory feast is one we shall share with the saints of every age, and my expectation is that rather than finding them to be somewhat forbidding and severe we shall be welcomed like the long lost brothers and sisters we are. I’m particularly looking forward to meeting J S Bach, and I’m sure he’s looking forward to meeting me too, as one of his star fans.

But maybe in austere Britain all that seems a long way away. I would imagine, never having done one, that about 12 miles in to the marathon you must begin to wonder if the finishing line even exists. Well the good news is that we can have the starters now. The eucharist is our weekly reminder of the victory feast to come. In comparison to the nosh-up to come it may feel like siege rations, especially now we can’t even have wine with it, but it is designed to raise our minds, hearts and spirits to that time when we will drink new wine in the Kingdom of Heaven. We remember Jesus’ death until he comes.

We used to sing a great song many years ago, in the days when worship songs and liturgy could fit together, which went like this:

This is the feast of victory for our God

For the lamb who was slain has begun his reign

Hallelujah!

As we enjoy the starters, let’s continue to long and pray for the main course.