Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Bible Sunday – Nehemiah 8:1-12

Yet another departure from the Sundays of Trinity this week as I base my reflections on Bible Sunday. I said last week that I’m not all that keen on Saints, but I am very keen on the Bible, so let’s see what it has to say about itself.

If I were choosing a Gospel to go with this theme, I would choose the Emmaus Road story from Luke 24, because both that and the Nehemiah reading concern both the power and the limitation of Scripture. Ezra reads from the Torah, the Law of Moses, to the assembled Jews who have returned from exile in Babylon, with dramatic effect. But this raises the question ‘Why?’ Why now do the people fall to their knees in worship and weep in penitence? They must have heard the Law read many times before. Yes, they had been in exile in a foreign land, but that doesn’t mean that they had forgotten the Law. It is usually recognised that the worship of the Synagogue started during the exile, when they could no longer attend the sacrificial worship of the Temple, and Synagogue worship was all about gathering round the Torah in order to learn to live well. Yet on this day, as the Scriptures were read, there was a dramatic effect. What was different?

The same dynamic is present on the Emmaus Road. The Stranger expounded the Scriptures to the two disciples, but it was not until later, as he broke bread, that they were allowed to see who he really was. Only with hindsight did they realise that their hearts had been burning as Scripture was expounded. In each case, it seems that Scripture alone was not enough. There had to be some added ingredient which meant that they wept and their hearts burned. Maybe that ingredient was the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Week by week, in thousands of churches across our land, the Scriptures are read and expounded, but with very little evidence of weeping or burning among those who hear. I wonder what people expect as readings are announced, as the sermon begins. And I wonder what readers and preachers expect. We have probably all known times when something from God’s Word has struck us, or spoken exactly into a situation we’re facing, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The Bible can be powerful, but so often it seems to be read and expounded with little visible effect on those who hear. Obviously each Sunday can’t be more special than the one before – that’s too much pressure for any church leader! – but might we hear Scripture better if we raised our expectations and prayed more earnestly for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the Liturgy of the Word?

But back to Nehemiah, and there does seem to be a progression through the passage which might shed some light on a strategy for raising the profile of Scripture in our churches. First of all, reading between the lines, there is a sense of hunger for the Word. The people gather, urge Ezra to bring out the scrolls, and listen attentively from day beak until midday, around six hours. No-one was going to tell him off if he went over his Anglican seven minutes. What might we do to help people feel hungry for Scripture?

Secondly, there is respect for the Word. As when we read the Gospel, people stand, but one senses not out of tradition, but out of genuine welcome and reverence. Rarely though do we complete this verse and bow with our faces to the ground at the sight of the Gospel book. Not all churches will go in for lavish Gospel Processions, but are there things we can do to foster this kind of respect?

Thirdly, there is a response to the Word. Conviction of sin sweeps through the crowd and weeping breaks out. I wonder what proportion of our preaching is about disturbing the comfortable as opposed to comforting the disturbed. The Torah is all about how you must live to honour God and please him, and the people clearly realised how far they had come from that kind of a lifestyle. It broke their hearts. Oh for more broken hearts in today’s church!

Finally though, at the urging of those who really got it, there was joy in the Word. Conviction of sin is great, because it leads you out of the dark corner, whereas condemnation for sin keeps you trapped there. The first is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Helper;  the second the work of Satan, the accuser. The people are filled with joy because they now understand both the holiness and the mercy of God. Note too that joy leads to generosity, as food and hospitality is shared.

Whether you will be preaching, reading or listening to Scripture tomorrow, let this passage inspire you to pray and prepare for God to speak. Whether weeping or burning, pray for the Holy Spirit to speak powerfully through the Word, to change lives, and to bring freedom and rejoicing.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

S Luke  – Isaiah 35:3-6

Uncharacteristically I’ve chosen to go with St Luke today, rather than Trinity 19. I’m not big on Saints’ days – I’ll tell you why in a moment – but it seemed appropriate as new and even more confusing lockdown regulations have just been announced and we have as many hospitalisations as we had when lockdown was first introduced back in the Spring. Dr Luke would be having a field day if he were alive now!

As always our lectionary gives us a mere snippet of the passage which really ought to be read at the very least from verses 1 to 10 (sorry to sound like a cracked record on this – it’s almost as though we’re trying to get away with as little Scripture in our services as possible). In the next fortnight I’ll be teaching my students at the Lincoln School of Theology about exegesis, and the importance of asking the right questions of a passage. So let’s begin with two: where? and when?

Isaiah answers the first very clearly: the desert or wilderness (v.1). The setting for this passage, described by two Hebrew words in parallel is a vast place of desolation, parched and arid. These words are used in the OT as deep symbols, just as we talk today about finding ourselves in the wilderness. It’s a place where we can feel alone and abandoned, where we can easily get lost, a place which is scary and evil. Nothing grows there, and there is neither food nor water to sustain us, but dangerous animals lurk threateningly. In later thought it is the place where demons live, where Jesus himself went to be tested. But it is also a place of encounter with God, where wisdom may be gained and God’s care and provision experienced. Many Christians who have suffered would testify to the value of the desert in their spiritual growth.

It is into this arid landscape that the glory and splendour of God are going to appear. That will make all the difference, to the land itself, as dryness gives way to fruitfulness and beauty, and to the people, who will find healing and restoration. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dumb will shout praises, and the lame will dance for joy.

That’s the ‘Where?’ question, but what about ‘When?’ Suddenly Isaiah goes very quiet. We just don’t know, and probably neither did he. All this wonder and joy will come to pass, but we have not a clue when, exactly.

This is a passage, therefore, for people who are suffering and have no idea how long this is going to go on for. Isaiah gives no predictions, not even a clue, but at the same time he is absolutely clear that  things will change. You may or may not share our Prime Minister’s unshakeable belief that together we will beat this virus, but Isaiah’s confidence is not based on wishful thinking or the Blitz spirit: he knows that God is going to show up, and he alone will turn wilderness weeping into joy and jubilation.

But all that is by way of background: we’ve hardly touched the verses actually set in our lectionary. And there we find a bit of a surprise. I wonder how you read verses 3-4? Is this God speaking to you, telling you to buck your ideas up? Did you find those verses comforting? Well I’m afraid that isn’t what the text says. It isn’t a comfort – it’s a commission. You – God’s people – are to get out there and start telling feeble-handed, weak-kneed, frightened people that there’s no need to fear, because God is coming. When? No idea, but he is. He’s coming to save you. These are not words of comfort to scared and weary wilderness dwellers. They are words of challenge to those who live with others in the wilderness but can see beyond its boundaries. The sand and the sun have not blinded our sight; the sickness and desolation have not robbed us of hope. We believe and trust in God.

Maybe this, then, is why this OT reading is coupled with today’s Gospel, the sending out of the 72 to teach and heal. The reason I’m not that keen on celebrating saints is that while I understand we’re supposed to look to their example and be encouraged to emulate them, in real life I reckon they do more to de-skill us than inspire us. I’ve heard quite a few sermons which have left me feeling ‘I could never in a million years do anything like that!’ Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that? Too much sainthood can leave ordinary Christians like us feeling even more useless. But Isaiah’s message to us today is surely an encouraging one – you, who are living with all your friends and family in the same wilderness, not knowing how long this is going to last, can think differently about it. You can be those whom God uses to strengthen others. Not because you have some great insight into when God is going to act, but simply because you believe he will.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 18 – Isaiah 25:1-9

This week’s OT reading gives us a tale of two cities. They are two very different cities, and Isaiah contrasts them in order to give an important message about God.

The first city is unnamed (v.2). So what do we know about it? It was a stronghold of foreigners, and it has been completely and permanently destroyed. The lack of a name for the city only adds to the sense that it has not only been destroyed, but almost forgotten. It is hardly worth mentioning.

Is there anything else we can know about this heap of ruins? Archaelologists have suggested that it was near Jerusalem, at a place called Ramat Rahel, where ruins have been found from this period, the late 7th century BC. For over 100 years Judah had been a vassal state to Assyria, and in line with their strategy for world domination the Assyrians built cities which served as outposts for their empire. Judah had paid dearly for her survival, but suddenly they were free. A new empire, that of Babylon, had taken over the world stage, and Assyria crumbled, along with its cities. It is this removal of the nation’s oppressors which is being celebrated in this hymn of praise.

We know that Assyria as a nation was cruel, enjoyed torture, and operated a scorched earth policy over most of its conquests, although obviously Judah was prosperous enough to be worth taxing rather than destroying. So when Isaiah moves on to his second city, the contrast could not be greater. This city is not named either, but there is no need to name it. It is the city on this mountain (v.6, 7, 11), right here where we are in Jerusalem. But beyond Jerusalem is the eternal city for which it stands, God’s apocalyptic kingdom, the heavenly Zion.

Zion is portrayed as a great banquet (personally one of my favourite images of heaven!) and the language used describes a Michelin 5 star rated feast: the words for aged wines contrast it with the everyday plonk, and the best of meats is literally marrowfat, which might not sound that appealing but was actually a great delicacy in that culture. But the real point here is not so much quality but quantity. This all-you-can-eat buffet is for all peoples, and particularly those who come from places of shame, disgrace and mourning. All are welcome to find healing and joy. Assyria demands and destroys: Zion welcomes and nourishes.

The Israelites were very well aware of the hand of God working through the rulers of this world and directing their paths for his purposes, so they clearly saw the rise of Babylon as a saving act of God. The ruined city became a monument to God’s power and a promise for the future, when all enemies, all that brings shame and defeat, would be destroyed by him. But there is even better news yet. There is something else on the menu at this feast: death.

The image of death being swallowed up is one which has passed into Christian imagery and liturgy. It seems to be used here deliberately, in the context of eating and drinking. At the moment our graves swallow us up, but God promises a time when death will be consumed by victory.

Whatever victories we have seen in your Christian life, whatever answered prayers or times of great closeness to God, Isaiah encourages us to see them as picture of the future. ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord; we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’ (v.9). And don’t forget this first part of that verse ‘In that day they will say …’ If you are still in a place of defeat, shame and disgrace, hold on to the experience of Judah, and let this tale of two cities lead you faithfully and joyfully towards the third.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – Isaiah 5:1-7 (related)

‘The Song of the Vineyard’ – the title by which this passage is known, seems at first sight to be a fairly straightforward allegory or parable, and undoubtedly forms the basis of Jesus’ parable in Mt 21, today’s Gospel. But on closer examination it is not so simple. There are at least three different genres or styles of writing represented in these few short verses, with twists and turns in the plot as we go along. A love song becomes an international treaty, which ends as a courtroom drama. But the message is the same – frustration.

The love song is about the prophet’s beloved, who turns out to be God. The fact that Isaiah can speak of God in these terms, and go on in the middle section to speak as from God, reflects his prophetic calling. He is the one in a close relationship of love with his Lord, and he really feels his pain. One can imagine a Blues singer announcing his next song as ‘for all those who have lost someone you love’. It is a song about love which starts well but goes sour as that love is rejected.

But as the song continues, there is a sudden switch of mood. In the ancient Near East covenants would commonly be made between nations, and the form of words often contained a list of the benefits which the stronger party had bestowed on the weaker, used as a kind of moral blackmail: ‘You owe me!’ Verse 2 is in exactly this form: ‘Look at all I’ve done for you, all I’ve given to you!’ says God to Israel. But the result isn’t a relationship of obedience and mutual respect, and the King is deeply disappointed. So what is to be done?

Again the style switches abruptly, and now we are in the courtroom, with Israel both in the dock but also in the jury box. The jury are invited to judge between themselves and God, and clearly the prophet’s hope is that confronted with this parable they will get the point and repent, just as King David did when confronted by the prophet Nathan’s parable of the rich man and the lamb in 2 Samuel 12. But nothing is forthcoming, so in verses 5 and 6 sentence is passed by the judge. And what a dreadful sentence it is to be! In a threefold act of judgement God is going to remove protection, care and nourishment from the nation. In an act reminiscent of the Flood story God is going to remove the boundaries which hold back evil from the world, just as the waters which he had divided and forbidden to come any further were suddenly released with such destructive effects. He will stop his care for the nation, stop the weeding and pruning which any gardener knows are essential if chaos is not to take over. And he will stop the nation’s nourishment, the gentle rain which waters and brings life. We are all in desperate need of these three elements of God’s sustaining love for his people, so to have them removed is punishment indeed. Woe betide any nation or people from whom God removes his protection, care and nurture.

The final verse explains the allegory, as though there were any doubt, and uses two pairs of Hebrew words to ram home the message poetically. God looked for justice (mishpat) but found only bloodshed (mishpach): he looked for righteousness (zedakah) but instead heard a cry of despair (ze’akah).

As his prophet, Isaiah feels deeply God’s frustration and disappointment that the nation to whom he had given so much, and from whom he expected so much, had produced nothing but manky fruit. So great is his pain that he is willing to allow the Vineyard to be destroyed.

I can remember a staff meeting in one of the parishes in which I served at which the discussion led to an admission that many of us felt that while God loved us (that was his job, after all) he didn’t actually like us very much, and rather resented our feeble attempts to be his people. Many of us, if we were really to admit it, basically feel that God is frustrated and angry with us. But we might picture Jesus on the cross, the Father’s protection from the angry Jews and Romans removed, his care gone as his Son feels totally abandoned, and Jesus’ thirst for drink which is met only with bitterness. Jesus, even more beloved to the Father than his Vineyard, his people, is punished in our place so that we are set free to produce righteousness and justice.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 16 – Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 (Related)

In today’s reading Ezekiel is demolishing a false argument which he (and of course God) has heard the Israelites ‘proverbing’ (literally) – repeating something which has passed into common usage because it appears to ring true. It sounds as though he is hearing the repetition of this proverb, which is being quoted as fact. The people really do believe that children are punished for their parents’ sins. More specifically, to put this into context, they have seen the Northern Kingdom of Israel destroyed by Assyria, but now the prophets are saying that they, in the South, are headed in the same direction. Seeking to justify themselves, they are blaming God for punishing them because of the sins of the previous generation. It is this false thinking, and what flows from it, which God, through his prophet, has to challenge. The argument is a bit complex, so let’s take it to bits, and add back in the verses (v.5-24) which the Lectionary has filleted out, so that we can make sense of it.

1)            Reward is personal

Ezekiel challenges head-on the notion that Judah is being punished for Israel’s sin. ‘Stop repeating that!’ he says. ‘The one who sins is the one who will die.’ Of course we all know that many children’s lives are tragically marred by their parents’ lifestyle, their abuse or their neglect, sometimes resulting in a new generation of abusers. In that sense the sins of the fathers are indeed visited on their children (Ex 20:4). But that isn’t the point here, as the prophet goes on to explain in the missing verses of this chapter.

2)            Repentance is possible

He goes on to tell the tale of three generations of people. Grandad lives a holy life, and refuses to commit any of the list of classic sins, such as false worship, adultery, robbery, usury and so on. Surely he will be declared righteous by God? Of course – no-one could dispute that. But then his son, Dad, goes completely the other way, and commits every sin in the book. What will God think of him? Again, it’s obvious – he’ll be condemned and punished (note that here Ezekiel isn’t discussing the problem of the innocent suffering while the guilty appear to go free. He’s talking about the ultimate fate of individuals under God’s judgement). But then his son, generation no. 3, sees the evil life of his Dad and follows the righteous way of Grandad instead. He’s going to be OK, surely? So the idea of punishment for your parents’ sins is a nonsense in this story. The moral is obvious – stop regarding yourselves as victims of the choices of others, and choose to do what’s right yourself. If you do end up being punished, it can only possibly be because of your own sin.

3)            Responsibility is liberating

Back to the Lectionary, and here comes the good news. To choose to accept responsibility for your own sin, to repent of it, and to live as God demands, is the best thing you could possibly do. To admit our culpability is not to walk around with our guilt hanging round our necks like a millstone, or to live and look perpetually as though we were miserable sinners: rather it is the way to rid ourselves (v.30) of our offences. The NRSV mistranslates v.25 slightly – the way of the Lord is not unjust. It is unfathomable – it just doesn’t make sense, and it’s that mystery of God’s grace which they are struggling with. That translation makes sense of the repetition of the word takan in the rest of the verse. Their thinking is not ‘unjust’; it’s daft! It just doesn’t make sense. God is gracious, and is pro-life (v.32), in the sense that he loves it when anyone turns to him and starts living justly. No way is he going to punish them, even if their parents were as evil as you can get. So man up, take responsibility for your own sins rather than claiming to be victims, and you’ll get a new heart and a new spirit. You’ll change: you’ll become a new person inside, and that will be the most liberating thing ever.

In a church in which the preaching (and expectation) of repentance has almost completely gone out of the stained-glass window, maybe we need to hear again the good news contained in this chapter.