OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 1 – Hosea 5:15 – 6:6 (Related)

What would you rather have: a God who was angry with you, or a God who was dead and powerless? That is the question posed by this very difficult passage from Hosea. We need a bit of background to understand both the question and how we might answer it. Hosea was a contemporary of another OT prophet, Amos. Both of them were based in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and both wrote around 740 BC, not long before Assyria captured the kingdom and virtually wiped it from the pages of history. But although writing in very similar circumstances, their messages were quite different. Amos focussed on social injustice: the rich were cruel and oppressive towards the poor, justice could be bought with bribes, and the people were thoroughly corrupt in their dealings with one another. Amos’ most famous call was for ‘justice [to] roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.’ (5:24). But Hosea saw things differently. The root problem was not the people’s lack of love for one another, but their lack of love for God. He lived out his message by obediently marrying a prostitute, whom he knew would be unfaithful to him, and by yearning for and welcoming her return.

One clear message to emerge from the book was that it was the same God who punished the nation and healed them. In the verses just before our passage there are three powerful pictures of God’s action on the adulterous people: he would flood them with his anger, he would eat away at them like moths or rot, and he would tear them apart like a lion. This seems problematic to us: we are used to someone else harming us but God restoring us. The idea that the God who has torn us to pieces is the only one who can bind up our wounds (6:1) seems difficult to say the least! So how can we understand this in context, and make sense of it for ourselves?

Hosea appeared to know that before too long the growing and greedy Assyrian empire would destroy Israel. Because of Israel’s fierce monotheism, they simply could not believe in another power at work alongside God’s will, or an equal and opposite ‘devil’ figure. Whatever happened, good or evil, could only possibly come from God. That, by the way, is the explanation for the difficult idea found in 1 Samuel that ‘an evil spirit from the Lord’ attacked King Saul. There was simply nowhere else from which an evil spirit might come: it had to be God. So if you were beaten in battle, there could only be two possible explanations. Either your god was cross with you and was teaching you a lesson, or he was weaker that your enemy’s god and had been defeated. Of the two options in OT thought, clearly the first was less serious than the second. If your god was dead, there was no hope, but if he was annoyed with you, there was still the possibility that he might forgive you.

So having torn the nation apart, God retreated in 15:15 to his lair to wait and see what the people would do next. In 16:1 we have a change of voice, and the people do indeed come back to God, confident (perhaps over-confident) that he will turn and restore them, and that he will do so quickly. But it isn’t as simple as that, and in 16:4 God again speaks, lamenting the short-lived fickleness of his people, and longing for their so-called repentance to manifest itself in love for him and therefore mercy in the land. Cheap repentance, and shallow worship, would not cut it, so he had had to cut them.

So what does this say to those of us living in Christ on the other side of God’s son being torn on the cross? In one sense, nothing has changed. We would all, if we’re honest, acknowledge that we can be fickle and insincere, repeating liturgical words of penitence but then living in exactly the same ways as before. Indeed these very words form part of one Common Worship prayer of confession. We would all own up to loving God nowhere near as intensely as we should. But it remains true that the only one who can bring forgiveness is the same one who castigates us for that lack of love, and who, like Hosea himself, yearns for a restored relationship with those who go off after others. If God is upset with us, there is hope: because Jesus died but was raised we do not have a dead, powerless God, but rather one longing to forgive, heal and restore.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity Sunday – Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-31

This has got to be about the hardest Sunday of the year for which to write an OT Lectionary blog! If the Trinity is only alluded to in the NT, how on earth are we meant to find it in the Old? In fact it wasn’t until the 4th century that the doctrine of the Trinity as we understand it was finalised, the end of a journey in which Christians had tried to express theologically what they knew and had experienced of God, and to outlaw false doctrine. So to expect to find a fully developed trinitarian theology in our Bibles is a vain hope. Yet there are hints, the very hints which caused early Christians to try to formulate the idea. Maybe there are some in today’s OT reading.

The passage comes from the second part of the book of Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah) which dates from the end of the Babylonian exile, and announces to a weary and homesick nation that God is about to rescue them and build a highway to take them back to their homeland. There is the feel that people had almost given up on their God after decades away from home, with their Temple having been destroyed, and being surrounded by the gods of Babylon, where they now felt they were doomed live for ever. So to a people who had forgotten, the prophet poses a series of questions, with the refrain ‘Do you not know?’

‘Who has …?

v.12-17 pose a series of questions about God as creator, and the relative tininess of humans. The reference to God’s Spirit or spirit in v.13 is probably what inspired the lectionary compliers to choose this as a trinitarian passage, although most likely it simply means the ‘mind’ of God: who can grasp what God means to do, or tell him how to do it? But what we do have here is a dramatic picture of the majestic creator of all, before whom humans appear as nothing.

The filleted out verses, 18-26, similarly pose questions to the disillusioned Jews: With whom will you compare God? (v.18), Do you not know? (v.21) and again To whom will you compare God (v.25). If we are seeking to read these verses through the lens of a trinitarian theology, we have a description of God the Almighty king and Father, before whom we are left with no option other than humble and awe-filled worship.

But then the next question introduces a different note:

‘Why do you complain …?’

This leads into an assurance that God has in no way forgotten them, nor are they beyond his reach in Babylon, nor has he grown old and past it, needing to be replaced by a more up-to-date Babylonian deity. In fact he is among them even so far away from home: the very ends of the earth are his. If we want to, we can perhaps find a hint of the incarnation here. God, rather than leaving the exiles to get on with it, is still present in their world, with compassion and care. Jesus is God with us.

‘Do you not know …?’

This question, to which we shall return in a moment, ushers in the famous verses about renewed strength and eagle’s wings, which we might want to read as a reference not to the majesty of the creator, nor the closeness of the redeemer, but rather God’s Holy Spirit within us, renewing, empowering, comforting and equipping for the journey.

So at a stretch, and without believing that Deutero-Isaiah had a fully developed 4th century doctrine of the Trinity, we might see some hints here about the nature of God as creator, redeemer and empowerer. But to return to that question which forms a refrain in between the others, what is significant is that the people ought to have known, and that in knowing would be their comfort and salvation. The Hebrew word yadha’ is a rich one, and is not just used about having information. Its primary meaning is to ‘ascertain by seeing’, and that right there is perhaps the most helpful thing we can say about the Trinity from this passage. Preachers have spent so long trying to get people to understand how God can be three and one at the same time, but that is to miss the point, not least because no-one can understand. But Isaiah’s question isn’t about what they comprehend; it’s about what they have experienced. ‘Have you not heard?’ in v.28 could mean ‘Have you not experienced?’ And there’s the point: how have we experienced the awesome majesty of God the Creator and sustainer of the whole universe, and how do we respond to him in worship? How do we know the closeness of Christ with us day by day, such that we love him and call out to him for help in all the circumstances of life? And how have we felt the empowering of the Spirit, bringing his gifts and growing his fruit in us, refreshing us, renewing us and causing us to flourish? This is a very different kind of knowing, and is of far more value then mere theological formulae.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Pentecost – Numbers 11:24-30

Once again our lectionary compilers have given us Daily Breadcrumbs here, with only half the story and no context, so let’s begin with the whole chapter (always a good idea) and try to put it in context. The Israelites have just left Sinai after around a year camped there, and almost immediately there is trouble. The people start complaining again, causing God to send fire on them, which only abates when Moses intercedes (again!). Then off they go again, moaning not about their unspecified hardships as in v.1, but this time about the manna which God has graciously provided for them, to the point where they wish they were back in Egypt because they used to have melons and garlic. Moses hears the wailing, and so does God, who decides to act to help Moses with the lonely and heartbreaking job of leadership, a job which has made him ask God just to kill him and get it over with.

So God promises in v.16-18 to ease Moses’ burden by giving him other leaders to work with him. In the meantime God provides quail for the people to help with their monotonous diet of manna, but then we come to our passage, the fulfilment of the promise given earlier. 70 elders are called out and equipped with the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who dwelt within Moses. The result was a one-off prophetic ministry.

It is not easy to understand how this actually helped Moses, however. There is no record of the elders doing much more in terms of working with Moses to deal with his miserable people, and the fact that they ‘prophesied’ probably means something very different from either the work of the canonical OT prophets or current prophecy within the charismatic movement. It probably simply refers to some kind of ecstatic state which was believed to demonstrate the fact that the Spirit had been received, and we can only imagine what that kind of behaviour might have looked like. The non-attendance of Eldad and Medad seems merely to function as a set-up for the punch-line of this passage: ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (v.29)

So is this passage more than a set-up for Pentecost? The more common OT reading from Joel 2 looks forward to a time when all God’s people would have the Spirit on them, and in his speech Peter deliberately emphasises the universality of the gift of the Holy Spirit, quoting Joel as he does so. Or are we perhaps meant to notice the differences between Acts 2 and the OT work of the Spirit? Moses wishes that all God’s people could receive the Spirit, but they don’t, only 70 of them. They get worked up into a prophetic frenzy, but only once. And very little seems to happen after the initial experience of receiving the Spirit. There is jealously and the desire to protect the Spirit from those who don’t quite keep the rules, or maybe to protect them from the Spirit! And the whole event comes at a time of great disaster, when Moses has been brought to the point of suicide.

In Acts 2 we see a very different story. The disciples are filled with joy at the resurrection, ascension and promise of Jesus. The Spirit comes, and the result is visible and audible, as it always is when the Spirit comes on people in the NT, but the fruit is more than clear to see: 3,000 converts, followed by healings, deliverance, and even raising from the dead. And anyone can receive this Spirit, not just leaders or elders. Still today many are hesitant, and regard the power of the Holy Spirit as like a bare electricity wire from which we do well to keep as far away as possible. Yet in the NT we see Moses’ wish and Joel’s prophecy being fulfilled. Will we celebrate Pentecost on Sunday with great joy? Will we be there, or would we prefer to stay indoors? And will the celebration of the festival allow more effective ministry and more exuberant joy in the Church? We can only pray for the latter, for all God’s people without exception.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday After Ascension – Ezekiel 26:24-28

This week we are in a period of waiting, between Ascension and Pentecost. Just as the disciples spent these days in fervent prayer, so the Church has often used this time as a time of waiting and preparing for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with initiatives such as ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. But it is worth asking ourselves just what it is that we are waiting for. What exactly are we expecting to happen as we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost? I guess that will vary. For some, who already know and understand the Spirit and his gifts, it will basically be more of the same, with perhaps a chance to receive afresh, to be topped up with the Spirit, since we all leak. For others the story of Acts 2 remains a bit of a mystery, and a weird one at that, which engenders little in the way of expectation. I can remember being part of a team organising a Pentecost celebration in our local cathedral, and someone had the idea of showing children with sparkly (and now politically incorrect) shapes from the ceiling to represent the flames of fire coming down on their heads. When I suggested that we might just skip that and pray for them to receive the fire of the Spirit directly, I was greeted with stunned silence. We’re sometimes happier with the symbols that we are with the reality.

In an otherwise gloomy and negative book these few verses from Ezekiel speak of a people in waiting. The prophet has used the reality of their exile to blame them for getting into this mess through their own deliberate fault. As I have mentioned before, the prophet nowhere speaks of God’s love for his people as a motive for restoring them. But he does speak about four things God is intending to do in order to bring about their healing. Maybe there are some parallels with our waiting and our celebration of Pentecost, and how we might perhaps pray for the Church.

God will gather us

Sin often results in breaking and fragmenting, whether because of racism, sectarianism, or, in this case, displacement. God’s solution is not to try to ‘ban the boats’, but rather to gather people back together again and to give them a future. It has often been noted that Pentecost is a kind of reversal of Babel, where language caused the people to be scattered and separated, but now communication is restored through the Spirit’s gift. It is tragic that the work of the Holy Spirit has so often divided the Church, and so we wait prayerfully for his healing of our divisions and differences.

God will cleanse us

Sin pollutes us, and the image of sprinkling and cleansing, taken up in the sacrament of Baptism, is a major one in Scripture. Note that God never says ‘That’s OK’, but he does say ‘I forgive you’, which is a very different thing. Whilst the Israelites had committed many sins, it is interesting that it is idolatry which is specifically mentioned here. The prophet recognises that false worship leads inexorably to false living, so we pray for God’s church not just to be one, but also to be holy.

God will change us

Recently I have been teaching about discipleship and how we might measure it, how we can see whether in fact our ministry is helping people to grow more Christ-like. Two very different attempts to do this both contain one very similar metric. One calls it ‘perspective’, in other words how well people are growing to think and see things as God sees them, as the mind of Christ grows in them. It’s not so much ‘What would Jesus do?’ as ‘What would Jesus think?’ about any particular situation. And another scheme talks about ‘consequence’ the degree to which people’s so-called faith inspires them to live differently, and affects their finances, how they vote at elections, and so on. Discipleship is a long and gradual journey, a ‘long obedience in the same direction’ to quote Nietzsche, but here God promises a heart transplant which will change our desire to live for God, and to obey him. In a culture where we instinctively reject any authority, we might pray for a new heart for the Church, which gladly submits our all to God and to his purposes.

God will reaffirm the covenant

The words in v.28 about the relationship between God and his people are the standard form of the covenant, the ‘deal’ between us, and come again and again in the OT. They are going to be used again in Isaiah 40:1 when that prophet announces the return from exile to their homeland: ‘Comfort my people says your God.’ Ezekiel has roundly condemned the nation throughout his book for their sin, and yet God remains faithful and willing to give them a second chance (in fact an nth chance) to live in relationship with him. In spite of our sin, weakness, idolatry and compromise, the deal is still on! Perhaps that is our greatest prayer: that God will restore us to be the Church he has always intended us to be. Come, Holy Spirit!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Genesis 8:20 – 9:17

In the final part of this mini-series on the Flood narrative we come to the happy ending, although actually it is not that happy. We may have been struggling with the idea of a God who, in a fit of anger, regrets that he has made the world and destroys almost all of its inhabitants with a flood. We have used the picture of a divine reboot to get things running smoothly again, although without too much hope for anything different to happen in the future. God himself knows that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood’, so even his hopes must have been low. Yet this story is one of grace and patience, of a God who will try anything to restore the relationships which have been so tragically broken.

But first we need to get that grace in context. It is possible to read the story as though God woke up in a bad mood one morning and snapped his destructive fingers in a fit of pique. In fact the chapters from Gen 3 to 6, chapters which cover eight generations, show a continuous downward spiral, from Adam and Eve’s disobedience, Cain’s murder, through to the spiritual evil of the demonic Nephilim. God had put up with human sin for hundreds of years, and did not lightly come to the conclusion that drastic punishment was needed. But in the aftermath of that, his grace one more rises to the fore, as he makes a covenant with his creation.

The first thing to note is that covenants are made between parties who have a relationship. They are not like the dreadful ‘Married at first sight’ TV shows. The fact that God makes a covenant with all the created order is significant, since it implies relationship. In the 17th century a new philosophy arose, which saw God as the great Creator who had now finished his wonderful work and put it on the shelf, having nothing more to do with it, like a clockmaker who winds up his machine and leaves it to get on with it. God has no ongoing relationship with us or his world. As the Creator he is worthy of our respect, but not of our love or worship. Deism soon died out to be replaced by atheism, although it is still alive and well in the Masonic Lodge, the Scouting Movement and the Anglican 8 o’clock Communion service. The fact that God has relationship enough with his created world to make a covenant with it gives the lie to this heresy. Note too that it is all living creatures. We are used to thinking about God’s covenant with his chosen people, the Jews, but here his favour is for everyone, a favour which will be worked out finally when all nations come to worship at his footstool.

The second thing to note here, though, is that this covenant is entirely one-sided. Elsewhere in the Bible covenants are conditional. If you keep my commandments, I will bless you and be your God, that sort of thing. Not this one. This is purely about God’s desire not to wipe us all out again. This is pure grace, even though, as we have mentioned, God knows exactly what sinful human hearts are like. Any images we have of a grumpy and spiteful God need to be tempered by this truth. There are some regulations about what may and may not be eaten, and vegetarianism seems to be a thing of the past, and there is a reminder of the sanctity of human life which must not be ended by bloodshed and murder, but nowhere is God’s blessing stated to be dependant on these regulations.

The third significant feature of this narrative is the rainbow, which we so often misunderstand. While the rainbow is a natural feature which we all recognise, its significance here is often missed. The word ‘bow’ (qesheth) refers primarily to the weapon used in hunting and in warfare. It only carries the meaning of a rainbow because of the similarity in shape. So God is quite literally ‘hanging up his bow’ in the sky, in the same way we are used to a boxer hanging up his gloves. In other words, there will be no more fighting. The old song about ‘When you see a rainbow, remember God loves you’ misses the point entirely. The heavenly bow is a sign for God, not for us, which he will see and remember (zacar) his grace and mercy.

Of course as Christian readers of the OT we can see here a foreshadowing of that time when the Messiah came not to destroy his enemies but to show mercy on them through his death, knowing full well that most would turn away from him. As in so much of the OT, we see mercy triumphing over judgement. Hallelujah, what a saviour!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 – Genesis 8:1-19

This week we have part 2 of the flood narrative which we began last week. It’s a well-known story, and we enjoy the images of birds flying away, and a dove with an olive twig, which has become a universal symbol of peace and rest. Sadly our lectionary reading doesn’t quite complete the chapter, and there is an amusing irony in some of the animals who had been saved from a watery death, no doubt feeling relieved that they are safe back on dry land, then being chosen for sacrifices. But I want to take a slightly different tack this week, and focus on one idea, from a Hebrew word which occurs in v.1. The word is zacar (pronounced zaarkar) and it is usually translated ‘remember’. God remembered Noah.

This word is used 235 times in the OT, and some notable examples would be God remembering his people in slavery in Egypt (Ex 6), remembering Abraham when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed (Gen 19), and remembering Samson one last time (Judg 6). In our culture we usually think of remembering something which we have previously forgotten. We suddenly remember where we put our car keys, or someone’s birthday, or to pick up some milk from the shops on the way home. So the sense we get from our English translations is that God had forgotten Noah, presumably because he was preoccupied with other things, but then one day thought ‘Oh my goodness! Noah! I’ve left him floating around! Oops – better sort that one out!’  

But the Hebrew sense of zacar isn’t like that, you’ll be glad to hear. When God remembers someone, he decides that the time has come to act for their good, to help them. The only thing that God is capable of forgetting is our sin. Otherwise we’re all held constantly in his heart and mind. So why then do we sometimes feel that God has forgotten us? Even Jesus felt himself to be forsaken by his Father as he died on the cross. And why does God seem to decide to zacar us at odd times, and often after some delay? If you add up the dates from our passage, it took around seven and a half months before God allowed Noah and his family out of the ark. Even round the world cruises don’t usually last that long. If he hadn’t forgotten him, why did it take so long to remember him? Maybe you have lived through times when it appeared that you had slipped out of God’s memory. Maybe you have had to wait for him to focus back on you and do something. It’s one of the hardest times to live through, and those periods really do make us question whether or not God really loves us, or even if he is in any way interested in us.

Well, let me tell you the answer to that question: why does God appear to forget us? The answer is: I’ve no idea. Frankly that isn’t how I’d play it if I were God. But he does. He decides at times to bring us to the front of his attention and act for us, and at other times not to. Our problem is that we don’t like waiting, but it appears that sometimes God thinks that waiting is good for us, so his loving purposes for us mean that we don’t get instant answers to prayers of solutions to our problems. Just as Noah was left for months floating around aimlessly until God ‘remembered’ him, so we can be left bereft, sometimes for years, until one day God starts to act. That’s how it is, like it or not.

So that leaves us with a choice. We can rail against it, moan and complain, or perhaps we can stop praying about the situation altogether, deciding that there’s simply no point since God clearly has forgotten us, or has taken against us for some reason. Or we can work with him. We can choose to trust him, that he hasn’t forgotten us, and is quietly working out his purposes for us. In the words of Maggi Dawn’s song, we can ‘sing in the darkness, and wait without fear’, confident that sooner or later he will zacar us and act for our redemption from whatever is troubling us. At the end of the day, it comes down to what we believe about God, and whether we really are confident of his love, goodness and justice. Waiting for him to remember raises important questions, and can hold up a mirror to our faith, a mirror which it would be more comfortable not to look into.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 4 – Genesis 7

In 2018 The Large Hadron Collider (or ‘Colliderscope’, as my son used to call it) had some major problems and was shut down for maintenance. On one radio programme they had an interview with one of the chief scientists, who was trying to explain what it was all about, and why he thought the machine had failed. Quite helpfully, I felt, the interviewer asked him whether, before embarking on expensive renovations, they had simply tried unplugging it from the wall and plugging it in again. We all know that can work, right? Well, the flood narrative in Genesis 6 – 9 seems to be the equivalent of God doing that with the world he had made, but which had gone sadly wrong. The problem, according to Gen 6:11-12, was about human corruption and violence, and God saw no option other than a hard reboot.

Did it happen? There is apparently some archaeological evidence for a vast flood in the ancient Middle East, and there is certainly no shortage of stories, from different cultures, of a great flood and some survivors in a boat. The most widely known is called The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it dates from around 2700 BC in Babylon, although scholars reckon that it might be a rewriting of a much earlier story. Just as this story took and used earlier traditions, so it has been suggested that the biblical story of Noah is a rewriting of the Epic, with, of course, only one God rather than a pantheon, and Noah replacing the Babylonian hero Utnapishtim. It seems as though different cultures thought and theologised differently about the same event. It is useful to compare our story with that of Utnapishtim, and so to learn what was distinctive about a Jewish retelling of the story.

In the Epic there are many gods, and they seem to be unsure about what they should do about the evil in the world. Eventually they decide on the watery reboot, but one god isn’t really happy about this decision, and so appears to Utnapishtim and tells him to make a boat in order to escape. This he does, and after not two but three birds have been released (a dove, a swallow and a raven) the boat lands and sacrifices are made to the gods. At this point we discover that in fact the gods themselves have very mixed feelings about what they have done to the human race, and not all are sure that the decision was the correct one.

So what is distinctive about the Jewish retelling of this story? First of all it comes as no surprise that there is one God and one alone. This monotheism is perhaps the central creedal statement of Judaism, expressed in the Shema: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ It certainly makes life more decisive if you don’t have to run your decisions past a committee! YHWH is clear in his condemnation of sin and of those who unrepentantly proliferate it, just as he is clear that the righteous will be on the receiving end of his mercy.

A second indication of the mercy of God, which contrasts with the capriciousness of so many pagan deities, is that he tries the reboot knowing that it will not be successful. Indeed the first thing which happens after God makes the new covenant is that Noah goes on a bender and ends up shaming himself in front of his sons. This is hardly an auspicious start for the new humanity, but God holds to his covenant and continues to bless the human race, although once again they turn against him. I have said many times before that God’s love is never unconditional, but it is often unrequited.

The next point of interest is that God has a heart for all of his creation, not just humans. That he desired to save all the species he has made is significant, and there is much in Jewish theological thinking about the significance of the land, which can be either blessed or marred by what humans do on it. One fact that the contemporary green movements seem to have missed is that the best way to protect the planet, according to the OT, is not to sin on it. You don’t hear many people protesting about that!

But note finally that as dramatic and as ethically difficult as this story is, there are actually several times when God attempts to reboot his people. The exodus, the entry into the Promised Land and the return from exile are all portrayed as significant new starts in the relationship between God and his people, and of course the resurrection of Jesus is the one event in history which provides a new opportunity to begin again. So maybe this story is not so strange or difficult after all: maybe it prefigures the way in which God is going to show his faithfulness to his own people again and again.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20

When I arrived at one of my parishes to take up my post as vicar I inherited a curate who had been in post some time. ‘You need to understand’, she told me fairly early on, ‘that in living memory people in this church have only ever heard one sermon: Jesus loves you and everything is fine!’

Last Sunday morning I preached at my home church on the Acts passage, from chapter 2 (See? I can do NT when I have to!). I used Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost as a typical example of kinds of things the earliest Christians were preaching, and I noted first of all that the idea of preaching ‘the love of God’ is simply absent, not just from the Acts sermons but also pretty much from all of the NT. Then I noted that the theme which ran throughout the Acts sermons was the command to repent. I questioned whether we have made the gospel so nice that it has lost its cutting edge, and whether people deep down don’t want to be told ‘Jesus loves you and everything is fine’, but would rather know that there is the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and change. It certainly seemed to work in the 1st century!

But I was challenged by one person who said, in effect, that sometimes all we need is to know that we are loved. As a priest I was charged at my ordination and the start of each new post to ‘proclaim [the gospel] afresh in each generation’. Might it be the case, I was asked, that our generation doesn’t want to hear about repentance, but only about How much God loves them? Personally I wasn’t convinced, but it is a good question, and there are signs that in today’s OT reading there is some evidence that a classic OT idea, that of ‘The Day of the Lord’ was being framed afresh.

The idea of the Day of the Lord was apparently widely held long before Amos first mentioned it in chapter 5. He is clearly addressing people who thought they knew what the Day of the Lord meant, and believed it would be a day of great rejoicing, when God came to them in power to punish their enemies and make them top nation. But Amos subverts this, and proclaims woe on those who believe that when God comes it will be for a knees-up. Rather, he says, it will be a day of darkness and catastrophe, as God comes to judge the injustice and idolatry of the nation. He is certainly proclaiming the idea afresh for his current generation.

Zephaniah too summons the people to repent, with dire warnings of punishment and destruction when God appears, to ‘sweep away everything from the face of the earth’ (1:2). Even Jerusalem, the city of God, will be consumed, along with the whole world, ‘by the fire of my jealous anger’ (3:8). But then suddenly, and without warning, the Day of the Lord is proclaimed afresh afresh, in the oracle of celebration which forms our reading, and which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book. Now God’s turning up will be an occasion for rescue, singing and festivity. It’s a very upbeat message, ideal as we continue to live through the Easter period. God’s coming to his people will mean forgiveness for sin, purification, defeat for enemies, and encouragement, as God sings to his people just as they usually sing to him. Naturally there are scholars who dislike these kinds of sudden U-turns in Scripture, and suggest that this final section of the book is a later appendix, perhaps celebrating the return from exile in Babylon. They may well be right, but the question is raised for us about what the Spirit might be saying to the Church today, and how that relates to the Bible’s message as a whole. We all know the feeling that now and again ‘God really spoke to me through that passage – it was just what I needed to hear!’ We also know the feeling that having heard the Bible we are left cold and feel that there was nothing there which spoke or connected. This underlines, I think, the responsibly of preachers and teachers to discern what God is wanting to say to people now. The gospel doesn’t change, but the nuances of it may well do, and the particular facets which will speak now may not be the same as those which spoke yesterday. It is our job, as preachers, to feed people with the whole counsel of God, but we won’t do all of it every week, so it is vital that we give people what they need now, even if that is not exactly what they would like every single time.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 2 – Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.’ (Ex 15:21)

We’re probably used to this verse, to the point where we might even have lost the shock value of its complete political incorrectness. The complex story of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, told in chapter 14, goes beyond being a goodies vs baddies story. The language and the imagery used in the Hebrew text make it clear that this is not just an escape story: it’s actually about the struggle between creation and chaos. Back in Genesis 1 God begins his creation by confronting darkness and chaos, dividing the water (a potent symbol of chaos, as you will have seen if you have been an a dark beach during a night-time storm). The first man and woman are told to be fruitful, and are given meaningful work to do, working in harmony with what call ‘creation’. The writers of this story make it clear that what they want us to see in this story is a new creation, which is necessary because of the oppressive and chaotic reign of Pharaoh. The Israelites are indeed multiplying, but seeing that as a threat Pharaoh tries to limit their fruitfulness by killing their babies. Meaningful and enjoyable work is replaced by back-breaking slave labour. Pharaoh is asked nicely to stop it and let the people go, but in the end the only thing which will force his hand and break his hard-heated will is a series of events in which God uses the things he has originally created for destruction, and ultimately death. Finally the last barrier, the water of the Red Sea, is divided in two, with dry land appearing. But then it flows back, and the entire Egyptian army is wiped out.

There is an old rabbinic tradition which has angels around God’s throne wanting to sing songs of praise before their Lord, but being rebuked as God says “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?”[1] What about loving your enemies? But the fact is that sometimes the only way for some people to receive freedom from oppression is for some other people to die. Oppressive empires are not disembodied entities, they are people selling their souls to evil, and refusing to act justly or mercifully. If you were to ask the people of the Ukraine how they would feel about the possibility of Vladimir Putin’s demise, I suspect there might be a few tambourines coming out. I doubt whether holocaust survivors shed too many tears after Hitler’s death in 1945. So when God worked his salvation for his people, it had to happen through the demise of other people, just as later the return from exile came because of the death of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and the defeat of his oppressive nation by the Persians. Only as an evil empire is undone can a new age dawn. The Exodus really is a new creation, with nature itself working both destructively and creatively in the formation of a new people of God, the fulfilment of his promises to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

Much Christian thought and indeed liturgy draws on the events of Ex 14 and 15 and sees in Jesus, and particularly in the Easter story, a new creation.

‘Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us: so let us celebrate the feast’,

begin the Easter Anthems. The baptism liturgy contains links between the water of the Red Sea and that in the font or baptistry, and some more of Paul’s writings remind us that like the Israelites we have been saved through water. But, as we would expect, Jesus’ working of the new creation has some important differences. It is not some cruel dictator who has to die in order that people can be free and recreated. It is Jesus himself, the sinless Son of God, and then, secondarily, it is us ourselves who have to die to sin so that we can be born anew to God. The Easter Anthems continue:

‘See yourselves therefore as dead to sin:  and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.’

Our old sinful nature, the bit of us which rejects God and his rights over us as our Creator, has to be drowned so that we can rise to new life. Shed no tears for the old you: the new creation is here, won by Jesus on the cross. And pray for the eventual destruction of all that is evil and all those who unrepentantly pursue it.

[1] b. Sanhedrin 39b

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter Day  – Jeremiah 31:1-6

Part 2 of this week’s OT Lectionary blog celebrates Easter Day with a slightly more joyful and positive message for the Church. Like passages from Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah 31 is an oracle of restoration, which looks beyond the current situation of exile and suffering to a more glorious future, in other words a kind of resurrection. Like Isaiah 40, it begins with a reaffirmation that the covenant deal is still on, that, in the words which echo back to the covenant with Abraham, God will be their God and they will be his people, a reassuring statement for those who must have felt that they had gone beyond the pale with God, who had disowned them and banished them out of the land he had promised and given to them. No, say both Jeremiah and Isaiah, the relationship is still on. The resurrection of Jesus similarly promises to his people that nothing can separate us from his love, apart, of course, from our own deliberate and persistent rejection of it.

But the rest of our text for today spells out in more detail what that deal actually means, and resurrection rings through it, as Jeremiah lists six ingredients, or gifts we are given because of the victory of God over the evils which captivate us, and the forgiveness of the sins which enslave us.

We can enter rest. This is the equivalent of the ‘comfort’ which Isaiah promised to the exiles, an end to anxiety and the assurance of good things to come, which mean that we need be anxious about nothing. Our sins are forgiven and our hard service over.

We can be loved. God’s love is everlasting and constant, even though at times it is unrequited. For  God’s people, the good news is, in the words of the old adage, if you feel far away from God, it is you who have moved. God’s love is not unconditional, but it is available, and always will be while we are on this earth.

We are drawn. If something has come between us and God, if we have experienced some kind of exile, it is not up to us to find our way back home, any more than the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable had to sort herself out and come back to the shepherd. Like the lost son’s father, God is out looking for us, and runs to welcome us back into the family.

We are rebuilt. Like the exiled Jews we have all know times when things all around us have collapsed. It might be bereavement, illness, some enormous failure from which we feel we can never recover, but the good news is the same. If even death itself can be overturned, there is nothing, nothing, which cannot experience resurrection and rebuilding. Therefore

We can be joyful. We might not quite be up to dancing with tambourines, but the Bible is full of promises of the restoration of those who are weeping and mourning, as a down payment towards the time when sadness and misery will forever be things of the past.

We can be fruitful. One of the main curses of the exile was having to leave the land, which throughout the OT is seen as a gift from God, and a place of fruitfulness, thanks to its position in the fertile crescent. For an people of an agrarian culture the Israelites must have found living in the desert a difficult experience, as indeed it had been for them as slaves in Egypt. The prophet promises fruitfulness for those who may well have felt that were wasting their lives away. Resurrection holds out to those who feel that their lives are a waste of time the promise of purpose, effectiveness and results. We really can make a difference.

We can be attractive. We are so often used, as members of Christ’s Church, to being marginalised, or as we considered three days ago, despised and rejected. The prophets have many passages on the time when rather than hate us and our God, people will flock to us to find wisdom and to feast on the good things which God offers us. Resurrection tells us that not only will we make it to Zion, the heavenly sanctuary, but many other will too, because of the witness of our words and lives.

Happy Easter!