OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 8 – 2 Kings 4:42-44 (Related)

It’s easy to see how this OT passage fits with today’s Gospel. But what was the passage about in its original setting – that’s the key question of exegesis or interpretation for any text. A mantra which I try to drum into my students’ heads is: ‘A passage cannot mean anything that the original author would not have expected the original readers/hearers to understand by it’. Whilst this rather knocks on the head most of the OT readings we have around Christmas and Easter, it is nevertheless a sound principle of interpretation. So let’s put Elisha back in his context. What is this text actually about?

Zooming out as far as we can, we see Elisha and his predecessor Elijah as engaged in the battle for the spirit of the nation, trying to keep the people faithful to Yahweh rather than worshipping the Canaanite deity Baal. But the two prophets handle this challenge in two very different ways. Both are miracle workers, but while Elijah’s are huge and dramatic (bringing drought, calling down fire from heaven …) Elisha’s are more domestic and individual in their focus. But they all have the same purpose: to demonstrate the powerlessness of Baal compared to Yahweh.

Now let’s zoom in to this chapter, which contains five of Elisha’s miracles, all around the theme of need and supply. Just as Elijah confronts Baal who is supposed to provide rain, so here Elisha confronts Baal whose job is to supply all our human needs, including fertility as well as food. The final miracle, which ends the chapter and provides our passage for today, is merely the last in a series of linked stories.

So what’s important about this story? First, note where the bread donor comes from – Baal Shalisha. We’re not entirely certain where this is, but the name suggests a centre of Baal worship, perhaps in Ephraim, to the north west of Jerusalem. If that’s true, it is encouraging that even in a place of pagan worship, there is at least one faithful man who recognises Yahweh and his prophet, and wants to do something practical to help. Perhaps this is reminiscent of Elijah’s faithful remnant who have not worshipped Baal.

It isn’t clear in v.43 who exactly ‘his servant’ is. The narrative looks as though Elisha is holding a conversation with the man who brought the loaves, but it may be that the command to give them to the people is addressed to a different man, who acted as servant to him, just as Gehazi had for Elijah. But whoever it was, he provided a stark contrast with Elisha in his lack of faith and vision, just as Philip did in today’s Gospel.

It’s understandable, of course, to doubt when you look at the meagre resources on offer, that fear might set in. But while the servant could only see lack and shortage, the man of God could see plenty, more than enough in fact, as the motif (also in the Gospel story) of having leftovers demonstrates. As I write many supermarket shelves are empty due to the pinging of people in the supply chain. It is easy for a faithless nation to resort to individual hoarding as in the scenes at the start of the pandemic. But Elisha sees in the gift of the man a miracle on its way.

The story challenges us with this contrast between doubt and faith, and the deeper question lying in the background: in whom do we put our faith and hope? As Christians living in a nation of consumerism and greed, what gifts are we bringing to the people of God and his Church, and how are we seeing God use them miraculously to feed many? In a time of national hardship and fear, how are we living differently? How is our faith in God showing itself in our attitudes and actions. This is the kind of counter-cultural living to which we are all called.

If you’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 7 – Jeremiah 23:1-6

The prophet Jeremiah was ministering at the start of Judah’s exile to Babylon, just after 600 BC. The nation had watched as Jerusalem was besieged and eventually destroyed, with the Temple and the royal palace smashed to the ground, the King and his family deported, many of the ruling classes killed, and many of the poor of the land dispossessed. No wonder he has a reputation for being a bit of a misery. Like everyone around at the time, Jeremiah is trying to make sense of the shock and trauma experienced by the nation, and to answer the inevitable questions ‘Who is to blame for this?’ and ‘What will become of us?’ These two questions, by the way, are being asked today as I write the day after England lost to Italy in the Euro cup final, and the discourse consists of both intelligent analysis of strategy and downright racist abuse. Trauma invites the former, but often sadly brings forth the latter.

So who does Jeremiah blame? In fact he answers that question in two different ways. First of all he blames the ‘shepherds’ a well known metaphor for the Kings. In this attack on the rulers Jeremiah continues here what he started in the previous chapter, where past Kings are denounced for a variety of crimes: failing to care for their subjects, feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor, cruelty to foreigners, and general godless corruption. Far be it from me, of course, to draw any parallels with any other period of history, but Jeremiah seems to believe that when a nation’s leaders become selfish and corrupt, the whole nation suffers. In Jeremiah’s world the people have been scattered and lost directly because of the lack of attention by those whose role is to care for and protect them.

Bu then things get interesting. It isn’t just because of the leaders that the people are in such a mess. It is because of God himself. In v.2 it is the shepherds who have scattered the flock, but in v.3 it is God who has driven them away. What on earth are we to make of that? Is God no better a leader than the corrupt politicians?

There are at least three ways in which we might make sense of these verses. It may be that whilst the leaders failed to do their jobs properly the people were not just innocent victims. They could have refused to be a part of the evil behaviour of the nation as a whole; they could have refused to join in with the idolatrous worship and immoral living of the nation. So while the leaders get particular stick from the prophet, the people deserve God’s punishment too. I think there is a lot of truth in this: the school child’s ‘He made me do it, Miss!’ argument doesn’t really work. The people needed a good scattering every bit as much as the Kings did.

Another interpretation might be tied in to Jesus’ words to his disciples that whatever they bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven. In other words, humans do have real power for good or ill, and when they lead a nation into corruption the whole nation suffers the consequences. As individualist children of the Enlightenment we struggle with this idea, but in the real world that is just how it works. A politician makes a bad decision, and the whole nation suffers. God has to punish everyone because that’s how the universe works, whether we like it or not.

But maybe something else is being said here. Maybe God’s scattering of the people is meant to remind us that whatever humans do, God will always have the last word. And that is exactly what Jeremiah is going on to say in the remainder of the passage. You think it was your bent politicians who got you into this mess, but not one of them takes a single breath without my say-so. I have allowed this punishment to come to you, but hear me out, and you’ll see the end of the story, where all this is heading. God promises a new king who will do the job properly, who will undo all the harm done by the current wicked bunch, and cause the nation to live in fearless peace.

The nation never did, in fact, get such a monarch on the throne, but those who see these words fulfilled in Jesus, who will one day reign in equity, wiping every tear from every eye, will have a whole new angle from which to see the evil and corruption under which the world currently lives, and a whole new hope to sustain them to live lives in the direction of godliness, shing like stars in a corrupt generation.

If You’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 6 – Amos 7:7-15

As I write, we have just witnessed the resignation of a cabinet minister after his extramarital affair became public knowledge (although it is a fascinating sign of the times that his crime wasn’t adultery but breaking social distancing rules!). This event led to the usual spate of social media comment, with opinion divided between ‘His private life is his own business’ and ‘If he can lie to his wife, how can the electorate trust him?’ Our readings today give us the Bible’s take on this question, as two prophets confront rulers over their behaviour and morality.

Amos’ victims are Amaziah, the high priest who presided over the corrupt sanctuary, and King Jeroboam. The vision of the plumb-line, so beautifully captured in the Coventry Cathedral sculpture, communicated the fact that both the shrine worship and the dynasty would be destroyed. The priests have presided over two false sanctuaries in the Northern Kingdom, and have offered illegal sacrifices while the nation, ruled over by Jeroboam, has descended into injustice, corruption and complacency. You can get the flavour of the nation by reading the rest of Amos’ book. His vision of the plumb-line forms a fitting summary: the nation has become bent.

Like Herod 600-odd years later, the recipients of this prophetic lashing were not happy, so Amaziah attempts to gang up on Amos with the King’s authority. The accusation is that ‘the land cannot bear all his words’. The fact is, lands never can bear the words of righteous prophets once they themselves have abandoned righteousness. The truth hurts, and so we try various methods to silence it.

The reaction of Amaziah is a textbook example of what people do when their evil is confronted. First of all, he tries to twist Amos’ words and his intentions, and reports this false information to others. He can only think in terms of politics: Amos is seeking to raise a revolutionary army to overthrow the King. It doesn’t occur to him to listen for the voice of God through the prophet’s words. Those who dare to criticise us, or the status quo, can only possibly be doing so for their own sinister ends.

He then seeks to discredit Amos. You can almost hear the sneer in the words ‘you seer’. In a land which had known its share of false prophets, eccentrics and oddballs, it is easy to mock away any threat. The same, of course, happens today when Christians attempt to stand up against all kinds of behaviour which is contrary to Scripture. They’re just religious nuts or puritans who are totally out of touch with the real world, which, according to one recent statement by an Anglican bishop, ought to be allowed to set the agenda.

Amaziah’s final resort is simply to get rid of him – go somewhere else and do your prophesying. Just leave us alone to live our lives in peace. Go and get lost in some backwater somewhere. Amos responds by both denying and affirming his prophetic vocation. He hasn’t come from any prophetic background, and had never sought this career. He didn’t enjoy moaning about people, another reputation which prophets seem to have had in Israel. I’m not some kind of professional prophet who does this kind of thing for fun. But then he tells of his calling: God called him and took him. As he has said earlier (3:8) ‘The lion has roared – who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken – who can but prophesy?’ When God puts his finger on you, you don’t exactly have a choice: you have to say what he tells you to say, and what he has told me to say is that this corrupt nation is going to go off into exile and punishment.

So what do we do with this text? The easiest application is to think of times when we have been persecuted by others because we have done what we believed God was telling us to do. I can think of many examples from my own ministry down the years, and it is a great comfort to occupy the moral high ground by claiming solidarity with Amos and the other prophets whom Jesus said Israel delighted to persecute.

But a more difficult application might be to ask questions about whose voices we might be resisting, and what tactics we are using in order to drown them out. No-one likes to be told off, and it’s particularly painful when we know at some deep level that our critics might just be right. Hebrews 12 talks about this very thing, our reluctance to bear godly discipline, and we all know what it is saying. But the fact is that Amaziah, Jeroboam and the whole nation could have been saved had they listen to the voice of God through his prophets. What is stopping you simply from giving in, saying sorry, and mending your ways?

If You’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 5 – Ezekiel 2:1-5

40 years ago this weekend I was ordained as a Deacon in the Church of God. On the Sunday evening I was to preach my first sermon in my new church, where I would serve for four years. Nobody knew me from Adam, apart from the Vicar who had appointed me, so this was a chance to make a good first impression. Imagine my delight when this passage from Ezekiel came up as the set lesson, especially the bit about God sending me to obstinate and stubborn people. I can remember saying with a big smile ‘I’m sure that won’t apply here!’ How wrong could I be?

Today’s readings are about new commissions and sendings, with Ezekiel being commissioned here, and the 12 disciples being sent out in the Gospel reading. In both cases God’s words to Ezekiel proved to be highly applicable, not least to those of Jesus’ disciples who ended up giving their lives for the message of the Gospel. Many of us who have been in church leadership for more than six months will also know something of the pain of rejection and personal spite: it has been a poignant thing this weekend to see all those photos on facebook of the hopefuls, many of whom I have helped train, excitedly parading with their bishops after ordination services. What could possibly go wrong?

The passage itself gives us a couple of interesting insights into the prophetic ministry which should always form a part of the work of any church leaders, which are worth exploring, not least if we are those who are the recipients of ordained ministry. Here are five of them, including, as always, something from beyond the verses set for us.

The need for the Spirit. We shall return to v.2 at the end, but for now one interpretation of it is the complete powerlessness of Ezekiel even to stand up without the Spirit’s help. Ordination services include prayer and waiting for the Spirit to come upon candidates to equip them for ministry, and my own memory is of feeling completely inadequate for the task, and desperately in need of God’s help. What a great way to enter ministry! Much more healthy than ‘Great! I’m ready – let me at it!’ How do you pray for your church leaders? Maybe to pray for more of God’s Spirit for them would be a great thing to do.

The need for a specific calling. God is very clear about what exactly Ezekiel has to do, and among whom. The Israelites are to be his subjects, not anyone else. And what are those Israelites like? God spares no details in telling the prophet just how hard this is going to be (v.3-4). I have known times when the specific calling of God to me has kept me there in the firing line. That sense of God’s call has been my anchor in times of doubt and desperation, when all I wanted to do was run.

The need for realism. I can remember hearing an ordination sermon, preached not from the Bible, as is customary, but from a Greek vase. It had images carved on it of young animals being released from cages, and leaping with exaltation at their freedom, but unaware that they had been released so that the hunters behind them could begin their sport. The preacher likened the sense of freedom that finally training was over and the candidates were being let loose to the ignorance of the animals that they were soon going to be shot at! The preacher (who did also say some positive things) was warning the new ministers that life was not always going to be smooth of joyful. He was doing them a favour!

The need for determination. Here we move beyond the set passage to v.6, where God exhorts Ezekiel to make sure that he says what he is given to say, even when people don’t like it. Prophetic ministry should be more afraid of disobeying God than it is of upsetting other people. Again and again in my various diocesan jobs I have met clergy paralysed by fear of ‘what people would say’ if they actually led their churches forward in mission. I am aware, as a trainer of leaders, that nowadays its all about collaboration and shared ministry, but there must come times when a leader says ‘This is where we’re going – If you don’t want to come along, that isn’t going to stop the rest of us.’ I’m not advocating dictatorial leadership, but I am advocating determined leadership. One day I’m going to write a book about it!

The need for wisdom. I promised you a different take on v.2, and it’s based on these words: ‘As he spoke, the Spirit came into me.’ It is a hallmark of OT prophetic thought that words matter: the words themselves have the power to bring about what they say. Wittgenstein was the first of many philosophers to explore ‘speech act’ theory. If someone says to me ‘You’re fired!’ those words are not just statements of information, but they actually cause my employment to come to an end. In the same way we can talk about forgiveness, but when we say ‘You’re forgiven’ something real changes. That’s why the absolution in services is so important, and to miss it out such a big mistake. God’s words ‘stand up on your feet’ enable the prophet to do so, as the Spirit works through those very words. The other side of this is the power of words to harm, abuse or undermine; to curse, in fact. Those filled with God’s Spirit and called to his ministry have a huge responsibility in what they say – it might just actually come to pass! One church leader used to pray daily ‘Lord, give me a character strong enough to carry the anointing you have given me.’ A wise prayer indeed.

If You’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 4 – Lamentations 3:22-33 (Related)

In this podcast at the start of this year I introduced a two-parter on Lament, and I made the point that this is something of a forgotten art in the church today: ‘We don’t lament, we just whinge!’ Today our lectionary invites us to revisit lament, but, needless to say, in a nice way, where we focus on the few positive verses in this otherwise unremittingly miserable book. This passage, the inspiration for the hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ comes at the midpoint of the lament, and while it offers another view and some hopeful faith in God, it isn’t the book’s last word.

Verse 21 introduces this change of mood with the word ‘I’: ‘This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope’. But who is ‘I’, exactly? If we explore that question, we will discover something important about lament and about ourselves. We need to go back to 3:1, although it isn’t easy to explore the identity of ‘I’ in that verse, since in the TNIV the word is hardly there: ‘I am one who has seen …’ the Hebrew word translated ‘one’ is geber, which is usually translated not just as ‘one’ but actually as a mighty warrior, a man who is supposed to protect and defend others. But rather than managing to do that, ‘I’ have been afflicted, driven out and sickened.

Behind this little word come the feelings of every goalkeeper who has let in a penalty, every parent who has seen a child suffer and felt that somehow they ought to have done something to prevent it, every soldier wounded and defeated in battle, and perhaps every priest who has seen their church age and decline and simply could do nothing about it. If the traditional attribution of this book to Jeremiah is correct, it is easy to see how he might have seen himself as the geber, the prophet, the mighty man of God, whose calling was to warn the nation about disaster in order that it might be averted. Geber isa word full of shame and guilt. It was up to me to sort this, to protect others, to make it all go away, and I failed. Completely. I had one job …

No wonder there is an attempt to blame God for this failure. Even his prayers went unanswered: God was out to get him, and there was nothing he could do to fight back. But then comes the nice bit, and in the passage set for us there is hope in spite of the previous chapters, and interestingly, in spite of the two remaining chapters, which return to lament as potent as that in the first two. So are our verses a defiant expression of trust in God, even though they are wrapped up and almost overwhelmed by hopelessness? Or are they a shoulder-shrugging resignation: if I don’t somehow cling on to God, I’ve got literally nowhere else to go. Or are they a triumph of the true over the real: nothing in me experiences these verses as how things really are, but my faith is mature enough to know that they are true, whatever I may be feeling at this moment. We don’t know, and in a sense they’re not the point of the book, nor of lament in general, otherwise they would have formed the climax to the book, not just a slightly less painful interlude at tis centre.

This is a word, I believe, for all of us who feel that we have been failures. It is an invitation to acknowledge that sense of having blown it, to sit in silence and feel the pain, to bury our faces in the dust. It is not really a passage of certainty: like Joel 2:14 there is that motif of ‘Who knows? God might just do something if we lament enough’. V.29 brings the uncertain feeling that there may yet be hope, but it isn’t guaranteed.

Our culture, and our Church, is not good at this. We try to blame failure on anyone or anything but ourselves. Church is declining because of Sunday Trading, or mini-rugby, or anything but us. You can’t expect anything different nowadays … you’ve heard all the excuses. This passage invites us to the paradoxical freedom of admitting our failure, of having become broken when we ought to have been the strong defender, of sitting in the dust without moving on too quickly to the happy ending. And it’s a reminder that it is God, not us, who are ultimately the faithful ones.

If you’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook and tell your chums. Ta!