OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Last after Trinity  – Jeremiah 31:7-9 (Related)

At first sight we might be surprised to find such an upbeat passage in the middle of the OT book which has become the byword for miserable complaint. But this brief section, from 30:1 to 31:40 has been called ‘The Book of Consolation’, and provides a respite from the gloom and a glimpse of the coming restoration. Jeremiah himself is living in the devastated city of Jerusalem, while many of his compatriots have been exiled to Babylon. But the words here suggest that perhaps he has a wider vision. The term ‘the ends of the earth’ might just suggest the distance from Jerusalem to Babylon (around 700 miles), but may also mean that Jeremiah’s scope is not just on those recently deported from the Southern Kingdom, but also those captured 100 years earlier by Assyria, who had become completely lost in space and time. And of course he is also addressing those with him in Jerusalem who have lost friends and family. So these words of consolation might be directed at all who have lost others, and who long for homecoming.

We today have lost people. Some have been lost through death, and while even secular funeral officiants tend to shy away from saying ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead’ and express vague hopes about dancing with the stars or whatever, people often ‘like to think’ about some kind of meeting up with lost loved ones. But there are other losses too. Friends fall out with one another. People angrily leave our churches, or they just drift away silently. Family feuds split people apart. Voting ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ divide previous friendships. In so many ways we might hope for homecoming and restoration, but find it hard to see how that might happen.

Earlier in the book (7:16, 11:14, 14:11) God had forbidden Jeremiah from crying out to him or praying for the people, and they themselves were told neither to cry out in pain or to feast and rejoice. Silence was the order of the day. Yet in spite of that the cries break through from time to time. We Brits might be good at suffering in silence, but it is not the natural human thing to do. This passage, though, begins with commands which go the opposite way: ‘Sing with joy’, ‘shout’ ‘make your praises heard’. At last the ban on demonstrative emotion is ended, and the cries of the people can once again be heard. I wonder, in any given congregation, what pain lies buried and secret, what losses go unmourned, only to break through very occasionally only to be quickly buried again. If we were encouraged really to shout out both our pain and our joy, what cacophony might ensue?

So this passage invites us to consider whom we have lost, how we might mourn them, and what hopes we have of homecoming. For Christians even death itself promises restoration: the bereaved Martha knew that she would see her brother Lazarus again, just a bit sooner than she expected. Christian funerals are rarely the unremittingly bleak events of those for people with no faith and no hope. But in other ways we might long for homecoming, as the father longed for his prodigal son to return, as Jacob yearned to meet again with Joseph, as so many today hope against hope for their children, lost in so many ways.

What is encouraging about this passage is the sense that if God alone knows where these lost people are, he alone is capable of bringing them home. They might be at the ends of the earth, literally anywhere, but he does know, and Jeremiah foresees a time when he alone will bring them back. They will be vulnerable: like the prodigal son the people envisaged here are broken people, blind, or lame, or in pain, not to mention the emotional scars of their experiences of exile. God will put all the required accessibility aids in place for them, as all good churches do, and will refresh them with streams of water, something which they will not have seen too much of in the Iraqi desert. But why is God doing all this restoration? The answer comes in our final verse: because of relationship. He is their father, and they his children, and like a good father he too aches for homecoming.

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but think of those I have known over the years who have lost that relationship with God. People once on fire with the Spirit have now drifted away from any desire to have anything to do with God. Church decline is not just because of the death of elderly members, but also due to the drifting of the young. Whether it is shallow roots, the joys and cares of this world, or the snatching away of the Enemy, many are lost from our churches, quite apart from those who have never been there in the first place. Perhaps this passage encourages us to cry out for homecoming for people we know like that.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 20 – Isaiah 53:4-12 (Related)

There’s a probably apocryphal story of a vicar giving a children’s address at an All-age service. ‘What’s got big ears, eats hay, and goes “hee-haw”?’ she asks. Immediately a young child sticks up her hand and answers, ‘Well I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sounds like a donkey to me!’ When we believe that Jesus is the answer, its very easy to see him as the answer to everything, and this passage, which is traditionally used on Good Friday, is perhaps the most classic example. But would a preacher today construct a sermon which would only have any relevance in the year 2601? Unlikely. Surely he would address his contemporary situation. We therefore have to ask about this passage in the context of its original hearers, and not as the NT writers came to see it as being fulfilled in Christ. What is it really about?

Well, it’s an example of the ‘Servant Songs’ found in Deutero-Isaiah (Is 40 – 55), and is in fact the last and longest of four. It is about the Servant, perhaps an unidentified individual or perhaps the nation as a whole, or at least the faithful remnant of that nation. The servant is undergoing great suffering, apparently at the hand of God, but somehow through that suffering the rest of the people find redemption and forgiveness. Of course this does make Christian sense, and Paul in his letter to the[LJ1]  Romans, which I have just finished working through in my podcasts here, obviously makes great use of this text in the formation of his theology of salvation. But there are deeper questions, which the passage raises for people 600 years before anyone had ever heard of Jesus.

The Bible is in fact ambivalent about undeserved punishment. Ex 20:4-6 tells us clearly that several generations will suffer for their ancestors’ sins, while both Ezekiel (18:4) and Jeremiah (31:30) assure us that it is the people who sinned who will suffer, and no-one else. The first seems harsh, but the later texts simply do not tie in with reality. So are people punished because of the sins of others, and if so what are we to make of our own particular and personal suffering? And is it really God doing the smiting? Let’s try to pick these questions to bits.

First of all, it clearly is the case that people do suffer because of others’ sin. Ask anyone who has lost a loved one to a drunk driver. But not all suffering comes into this category. Accidents do happen. This passage, however, is not primarily an exploration of innocent suffering: we need to look to Job to find that kind of material. The Servant here may have suffering inflicted on him, but he accepts it willingly, without fighting, without protest. In that sense, the key verse here might be v.7. and if so, this becomes a passage not about why we suffer, but about how. That insight changes everything. Perhaps the passage was written to encourage those who felt they were being treated unfairly by God and others. A good Jew should face hardship like this, the author might be saying, and so of course Jesus, the perfect Jew, exemplifies its teaching perfectly. That’s why it is so easy to see him ‘prophesied about’ or ‘predicted’ by the author.

But when we look at how the servant suffers, we gain an incredibly difficult but amazingly inspiring insight. He sees his suffering as redemptive: good will come from it in the end. Of course the Bible doesn’t teach that all suffering is redemptive: much of it is purely destructive. But the point is that it can be. Secondly he suffers with dignity. Some of those old paintings of Ecce homo ‘Behold the Man!’ portray a quiet and dignified authority in the battered body of Jesus. Thirdly, he sees God’s hand in it. Again, not all punishment, according to the Bible, comes directly from the hand of God, although of course at the time of this passage any doctrine of Satan would have been very undeveloped: he comes onto the stage much later, so for now anything which happened could only come from God, particularly in such a strictly monotheistic faith as Judaism. But the Servant does recognise that through it all God is at work, and will bring his purposes out in the wash. Fourthly, he can see the other side, and holds on to the hope of future blessing to come. And finally, and perhaps this is the most startling of all, he actively intercedes for those who are responsible for his pain. What a way to suffer! No wallowing in it, no ‘poor me’, no trying to find someone to blame.

Can suffering be redemptive? The answer, I think, is that it can be if we choose to make it so. History is full of people who chose to use their suffering for others, from Maximillian Kolbe to Marcus Rashford. I’m very aware that there are people who have known, and know on a daily basis, suffering the like of which I cannot imagine, and far be it from me to load guilt onto pain by telling you how to deal with it. But this passage, I believe, sets us an example to which to aspire. Only Jesus has ever achieved it perfectly, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to follow him, through the pain and into the resurrection beyond.


OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 19 – Amos 5:6-15 (Related)

As a Southern prophet called to minister in the North during the time of the divided kingdom (C8 BC), Amos has few kind words to say about the rival sanctuaries set up in Bethel and Dan, at either end of the Northern Kingdom. But in today’s reading (to which I have re-added verses 8 and 9, filleted out by our lectionary) his agenda seems different. It is not so much that the Northerners are worshipping contrary to the Deuteronomic Law, which established Jerusalem as the only valid place to worship God, but rather that their worship is not being backed up by their lives. In particular Amos condemns the injustice which means that the rich were growing richer while the poor struggled to survive. Sound familiar?

In terms of its literary form, this passage forms part of a funeral dirge, yet it is a funeral with a difference: it is possible that the society which has self-harmed its way to death might be able to come back to life. This tension runs through the passage: v.2 reads like the death notice in the paper, and yet v.6 calls the nation to ‘Seek the Lord and live.’ This is a familiar phrase in the prophetic writings, and always comes at a time of crisis when seeking God’s favour might just be the only way out. In fact the whole book of Amos has this tension: the sharp transition from 9:8a to b ‘I will destroy [the kingdom] from the face of the earth. Yet I will not totally destroy [it] …’ has led many to suggest that an earlier, harsh form of the book has been edited later on with the possibility of restoration added in.

So what is this passage actually saying, and what might it say to 21st century Britain? The first thing to note is the importance of the two verses left out by the lectionary. These verses establish God’s right and his power to punish. He is the creator and also, if need be, the destroyer. That which he made and declared ‘very good’ has gone bad. We do well to hold both sides of his character in our minds, and to ponder what it is that might make him become destructive.

Secondly, though, there is a consideration of the state of the nation, and the activities and attitudes which make God so angry, and threaten the security of the whole kingdom. The crimes of Israel are summed up neatly by two words which so often are linked together in Scripture: justice and righteousness, or rather their opposites. When things go wrong, justice, fair living, becomes bitterness and righteousness, right living, is trampled on the ground. In practice this means several things. Morality is turned upside down, and truth-speakers (we might call them ‘whistle-blowers’ today) become hated and vilified. This means that the poor can be taxed heavily while the rich enjoy the fruits of their greed, bribery can decide right and wrong rather than God’s laws, and the poor have no access to impartial justice. But underneath all this, although never stated, is the power of the establishment (whoever that was) to keep things that way. Those who have any sense just keep their heads down and stay quiet. Amos’ shocking verdict on this society: the times are evil.

I don’t think I have ever felt such a sense of despair at the state of our own nation as I do today. That may of course be because I am old and have become a grumpy old man, but as I read Amos I cannot escape the conclusion that he is describing a society very like our own. I don’t want to get too political but it seems to me that the massive acts of national self harm which saw us cut our ties with Europe on the basis largely of lies and fuelled-up xenophobia are coming home to roost, and our arrogance in thinking that we might invite a few truck drivers over for a month or two so that our Christmasses aren’t spoiled are on a par with the self-destructive trajectory of our own nation which Amos would no doubt condemn roundly. The exploitation of the poor by the rich élite has uncanny parallels with Amos’ times, and cannot but bring the anger of God down on us. I have found in my own prayers that when I pray, as 1 Tim 2 tells us to, for national leaders my prayer has become less ‘God bless them’, and much more ‘God stop them!’

I find Amos’ last words on the subject both consoling but also terrifying: ‘Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy’. How we need to pray that he will!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 18 – Genesis 2:18-24 (Related)

It is well known that the beginning of Genesis contain not one but two accounts of creation, and the evidence suggests that they were written over 300 years apart from one another. Chapter 2 gives the earlier account, and like all history tells us as much about the period in which it was written as it does about the events it describes. But the selection which our lectionary gives us for today zooms in on one aspect, that of the relationship between the sexes and their role in reproduction for the continuance of the race.

In preparing this blog I read a few commentaries on the passage, and, like history, it was significant when those comments were written. The one written this year was full of how we mustn’t read this passage as anthropocentric and heteronormative, and stuff about what a womanist reading of the passage would have it say, and how we mustn’t upset anyone from the LGBTQ+ community by the way we teach from it. Suddenly this has become a huge agenda, and any biblical passage which appears to challenge it has to be reinterpreted to make it all OK. And, to be fair, it has been mishandled and used offensively. So how might we read it intelligently, and be guided by the text itself and not what political correctness demands of it?

This is where the Hebrew text becomes important. In fact it is full of word-play: the word adamah means earth or clay, and adam means human, but not necessarily male. It is very unlikely to be a proper name. but then there are also ish which does mean a (male) man, and ishah, a (female) wife. What this means is that God creates a human from the earth, not necessarily a man.

In  the later account of creation, God stands apart and speaks his commands, and everything he makes is ‘very good’. But in Gen 2 God gets down and dirty, and there is the first appearance of something which is not good: loneliness. So God plays trial and error with various animals, none of which can fully help the human in the search for companionship. So God takes the human and performs surgery, splitting apart the body into two, who are complementary, and which quite literally fit together. Only at this point are the two people called ish and ishah. So if you think this story mandates male dominance over the female, think again. It is much more about companionship and complementarity than about a divinely commanded pecking order, and the relationship is about putting back together what God separated, quite literally when it comes to sexual intercourse.

So there are some principles which we can take from this passage. Firstly, that being alone is not good: we do need other people, and maybe one special other person. Secondly, that relationships are designed to be permanent: separation might have been the initial way in which God created, but from then on it is about putting back together to make one flesh. The motif of what used to be called ‘leaving and cleaving’ implies permanence, not a series of one night stands. Thirdly, that complementarity is expressed in physical terms, not just emotional. The passage seems to be about the coming together of difference, not sameness. And fourthly, as we shall see if we read on into the next chapter, all of the above can go wrong, and that what went wrong for our first ancestors ripples down the millennia in its effects. So people are lonely and alone, and have to make the best of it, just as some couple find themselves unable to reproduce. Relationships do come to and end, for a variety of reasons, and Jesus reflects on this in today’s Gospel reading, taking a liberal approach, blaming hardness of heart (which is usually there somewhere in any divorce) for the sad fact that sometimes separation is necessary. Men do dominate women (and women men) rather than living in harmony as loving partners. Some people do find themselves sexually attracted to those of the same sex in a way which just doesn’t fit with the witness of Scripture or the tradition of the Church, and often therefore find themselves in lonely places.

Any reading of this passage has to take all this into consideration, whilst also holding true to the rest of Scripture, and it should lead to both celebration and compassion, but never to name-calling or hostility.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29  (Related)

This cycle of stories, about Moses’ leadership of the people during the wilderness wanderings, is one of my favourite books of the OT, and, I very much hope, the subject of a book I hope to write before too long. The odd selection of verses which our lectionary gives us provides rich pickings, and there are loads of ways in which we might approach it. We could talk about grumbling; the way it spreads from ‘the rabble’ to everyone else, the way it uses false nostalgia to make slavery in Egypt seem a better option than freedom, and the way in which it almost destroys the leadership. Or we could come at it from Moses’ point of view; the leader trying to do his best but being beaten down at every turn by his ungrateful congregation, but praying for them anyway.

But the linking of this passage with the Gospel reading for today clearly intends us to concentrate on what was probably a separate narrative which has become interwoven, that of the anointing of the 70 elders. The hinge point is Moses’ despair at having to deal with all these infantile manifestations among the people to whom God has sent him. The burden is just too much for him, and he wants to commit divine suicide: like a few other OT characters he asks God to kill him rather than make him carry on with the torture of having to deal with his people.

I once helped to run a clergy training day on stress, with a colleague who came from an engineering background. He brought some really useful insights about how, in the world of civil engineering, you cope with stress. You either lighten the load, strengthen the material it is made from, or share the load between several different places. It is the latter approach which God takes for Moses here. Exodus 18 and Moses’ meeting with Jethro notwithstanding, the implication here is that he is carrying the weight alone – at least that’s what it feels like to him. So the Spirit of God, who helps him in his leadership role, is to be received by another 70 leaders. The two elders who didn’t turn up but received the Spirit nevertheless are included in the story because they allow Moses to say that he wished that all God’s people could be Spirit-filled prophets, a verse much used in certain sections of the Church today.

Whether or not the elders got much choice about their anointing we are not told. But it does run counter to many in the Church today, who are happy merely to be led by others, and to moan about it when things don’t all go their way. I can remember taking a service as holiday cover for a friend deep in the Welsh Valleys, where I was expected to swing incense, genuflect in odd places and so on. I arrived early, and was coached in my rustiness by a very helpful verger. ‘You really know your stuff, don’t you?’ I commented. She told me she’d been verger here for 50 odd years, and again I told her how brilliant she was in her tutoring of me. ‘You wouldn’t like to preach the sermon as well, would you?’ I asked. Her face dropped, and almost in terror, she replied ‘Oh no, Father. I know my place!’ Sadly too many Christians ‘know their place’ under the benign dictatorship of the clergy: Moses at least would love them all to be Spirit-filled ministers.

This passage is one of the few mass fillings with the Holy Spirit in the OT: usually he comes upon individuals at specific times for specific tasks. But other passages look forward to the fulfilment of Moses’ wishes, notably Joel chapter 2, where the prophet looks forward to the time when everyone, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, will be filled with the Spirit. The Apostles gathered on the Day of Pentecost saw that event as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, but then so did the early pioneers of Pentecostalism and charismatic renewal , begging the question about how the Church which had seen a universal outpouring of the Spirit had lost the plot so badly that it needed another one! And how today do we live in so many churches where spirit-filled leaders are struggling against grumbling congregations.

I wonder how many in our churches ever stop to ask themselves how they make their leaders feel. Maybe some of us need a new experience of the Holy Spirit to run our moaning into joyful praise, and maybe some of our leaders need to run the risk of handing over some power to everyone.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 16 – Proverbs 31:10-31 (Related)

One year on Mothering Sunday my wife received a card from our highly creative elder son, which marked her out of 13 as a good Mum, according to the criteria of Proverbs 31. Sadly she failed miserably when it came to buying fields and selling clothes, but she did pretty well on the rest, if you translate for example the Hebrew for ‘from afar’ in v.14 as ‘from Tesco’s’. It’s a lovely picture, and as someone once said, about as realistic as Snow White. And of course nowadays, in these days of ‘househusbands’ it’s a notoriously difficult passage to read because it can be seen as politically incorrect, and about keeping the little wifey at home while the men go and do the important stuff. So what positives might we gain from this text?

The first thing to look at is the context, and if this passage is linked, as many think, to the first nine verses of chapter 31, it puts a new slant on it. King Lemuel (no idea who he was!) has been taught wisdom by his mother, including the kind of characteristics he might find in a good wife. As both Queen Mother and Mother-in-Law she clearly values the kind of characteristics listed in this passage. In fact it’s an acrostic poem, with each verse beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so it is literally an A to Z of good character (according, of course, to the culture of the time). I wonder what words we would use if we were to construct such a poem today?

But what constitutes good character? The word translated ‘noble’ in v.10 and 29 is a Hebrew word from the context of battle: great warriors are described in the same way. This is far from the shrinking violet ‘little woman at home’ persona which our culture has been rejecting for decades. So a better translation then ‘noble’ might be ‘courageous’. She is an entrepreneur, a diligent worker, a carer and a provider for the family, and her contributions to the stability of society are obviously valued highly here. But not just the family: in v.20 her care for the poor is held up as a virtue, and she is clearly not so wrapped up in her family group that she turns a blind eye to the needs of others. Charity might begin at home, but it doesn’t stay there.

But to get even more deeply into the text, we need to note two changes within the passage as a whole. The first is a move from what she does to who she is. Before v.25 there is a list of her achievements and actions, but after that it is much more about her strength, wisdom and efficiency. Both her husband and her children praise her, and are clearly proud of her. But above all she fears the Lord (v.31), an assertion which provides the climax to the passage. All that she does, the text implies, flows not just from her devotion to her family, but also to her God. No wonder her husband has full confidence in her (v.11).

The second change is more subtle, though, but even more profound. In v.10 the question is asked (by the Queen Mother?) ‘Who can find such a great woman?’ Then through most of the text such a find is described – she does this, that and the other. But then there is an abrupt change in v.29. Instead of talking about the good wife, the writer suddenly talks to her: ‘… you surpass them all.’ Apparently many Jewish husbands, as part of their Sabbath rituals each Friday evening, recite these words to their wives. There are loads of great women about, but you beat the lot of them! I’m guessing those wives really look forward to that weekly affirmation of who they are, and I wonder whether the rest of us might have something to learn from those Jewish men.

So I wonder whether a more constructive approach to this text, rather than avoiding it as portraying stereotypes which are just not acceptable in the 21st century, might be to learn from the intentions behind it: to affirm the tremendous value of women in our society, and to bring regular personal praise to the one God has given to us.