Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel.

Trinity 8 – Isaiah 55:1-5

Two days ago we moved house, following my retirement. For several weeks we have been ‘eating up’, attempting to empty our freezer and use up any odd ends of jars and packets of food in the pantry. If you’ve done this, you’ll know that there are some unusual meals to be had! But one of the first jobs on arrival in our new home was a ‘big shop’, to restock ourselves with all the essentials which we had gradually been reducing in order to make the move smoother.

This passage invites God’s people to a big shop with a difference. If you’re familiar with this passage from the old Authorised Version, you’ll remember that it started with the Hebrew cry ‘Ho!’ This probably echoed the cries of street vendors and water sellers in the marketplaces of Babylon, where the Israelites were in exile, but we might better translate it as ‘Hey!’ or ‘Listen up!’ This signals an important message which demands our full attention, and when we do listen up we can quickly see why: this big shop is all free! Sadly the huge Morrisons which is our new corner shop didn’t appear to have read Isaiah 55, but for these hungry and thirsty exiles the message was clear. No money required!

This chapter forms the climax to the central chapters of what we call the book of Isaiah, chapters 40 – 55, which are from an unknown prophet who was sent to the nation in exile to tell them that it was soon to be over, and they would soon be on their way home. The exile, symbolised by hunger and thirst (although those were probably physical realities too) is to be replaced by a feast, not just of Morrison’s Savers, but of ‘the richest of fare’. The speaker in this passage is calling out to hungry people ‘Listen up! Come and get food and drink from me! And don’t bother to bring your credit cards – it’s all on me!’

This lavish generosity of God is a great picture of his grace delivered to us by Jesus. But just as last week we thought about the importance of the word ‘if’ in God’s promises to Solomon, there are strings attached, even though it is all a free gift. Isaiah doesn’t make God’s generosity conditional as it was in 1 Kings last week, but he does talk about consequences. However the consequences aren’t portrayed as a burden, but a glorious privilege.

New Priorities

In v.2 the people are invited to rethink what is important, and we are invited in turn to consider what it is we labour for and spend on. Later on, once they have returned, the people are going to be told off by the prophet Haggai for engaging in home improvements while God’s house lies in ruins. So Isaiah here suggests that they rethink, and invest in eternity, not just a comfy life for now. After all, they or their parents had seen the Holy City destroyed at a stroke. That which God offers is eternal, indestructible, rich and ultimately satisfying.

A New Deal

The idea of ‘covenant’ is a vitally important one in the OT. Basically it is the deal between the people and God of a mutual relationship. Like a marriage covenant it binds two parties together, but also like a marriage it can be broken, and in fact the people are constantly breaking the relationship with God by their behaviour, their false worship, and the injustice and oppression which inevitably follow. But this time it’s going to be for ever. What he promised to David, Israel’s greatest king, is going to be made real, lasting and permanent. We now realise that this is going to happen through great David’s greater Son, and though we might play fast and loose with God, his desire for us, whether we like it or not, is going to be unwavering and unfaltering.

But coming out of these two gifts of God’s grace is a new responsibility. His people are going to be his witnesses to everyone else, those outside the Covenant with Israel. This echoes God’s original words to Abraham, right back in Genesis 12, that the purpose of God’s covenant people was to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to all the other nations around. In spite of the constant drag towards narrow nationalism and holy huddle mentality on the part of the Jews (and tragically on the part of many Christian churches today) the whole point is witness and outreach, and many prophets, including whoever wrote this portion of Isaiah, had to keep calling people back to this privilege and responsibility. And note the PS in v.5 – why is all this so important? Not for you; not for Israel, not even for the other nations, but ‘because of the Lord your God’. Nothing less is appropriate for our splendid God.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 7 – 1 Kings 3:5-12 (Related)

Oliver Cromwell was by all accounts not the most handsome chap in history. But when sitting for his portrait by artist Peter Lely, he refused the offer to ‘airbrush’ him up a bit, and insisted that Lely paint him as we was, warts and all. Once again our lectionary compilers have painted a glowingly positive picture of King Solomon in the snippet they have chosen from this story, whilst the two key words from the passage (one of which isn’t even in our selection) show a much more realistic picture, with Solomon’s warts and all. So we shall need to read wider if we are to see beyond the hagiography to the real person, who, we shall see, is much more like us than verses 5 – 12 would suggest.

The first key word is in v.5 – Gibeon. It’s easy to pass over it, but when OT writers give us locations they usually do so deliberately in order to tell us something important. So what was Solomon doing in Gibeon? V.4 tells us – he had gone there to offer sacrifices. On one level, why not? The Temple had not yet been built in Jerusalem, so Gibeon seemed as good a place as anywhere. But a little research into its background soon shows that it was a dark place, a place of rebellion, trickery and false worship. Whilst the text tries to excuse Solomon’s behaviour, there is still an underlying sense that this was a big mistake. It is in this context that God appears to him, not perhaps because of his extravagant sacrifices, but maybe to interrupt them. Furthermore, v.1 tells us another sinister fact about Solomon – he had used marriage to forge a political alliance with Egypt, the very nation who had enslaved and oppressed Israel for so many hundreds of years. The OT always takes a dim view of such alliances, and the verse sends out signals to us that all is not quite well with this man.

The sense of the section actually set for us, though, is clear and paints Solomon in a completely positive light. Like a genii God asks him to make a wish. Rather than choosing fame and fortune, he asks for wisdom to rule well, a highly commendable choice from God’s pint of view. Wisdom in the Bible isn’t like academic intelligence – good ‘A’ level grades and even maybe a PhD. It’s what the French call savoir faire, ‘street wisdom’, knowing instinctively the best way to behave in any given situation. Therefore it is an important quality in any decent leader. God is pleased with this request, and in his grace decides to grant Solomon his wish, along with what he didn’t ask for, wealth and honour (v.13). He is going to become ‘proverbial’ (see what I did there?) for his wisdom, the ‘patron saint’ of all wise men, and so he is to this day. But there is a catch, and it is contained in our second key word, which occurs in v.14.

It’s only a little two-letter word, but the word ‘if’ proves to be Solomon’s downfall. All God’s promises to him are wonderful but also conditional. He has to follow his father David’s example and remain faithful and obedient to God all his life. Two little letters, but they proved too hard for the wisest man who has ever lived, and his reign, perhaps like David Cameron’s premiership, has gone down in history as the one which sowed the seeds of a broken and divided nation which his successors were unable to mend, leading to the greatest North-South divide ever, and ultimately to defeat and captivity.

Maybe if you only read or heard the set section of this sorry tale, from verses 5 to 12, you were left feeling what a wonderful hero Solomon was, and how unlike mere mortals like you he was. But to read wider paints a very different picture, one which shows a much more human Solomon. Has our worship at times not been pleasing to God? Have we not tripped up over the ‘if’ word, and felt ourselves distanced from God because we have failed to remain faithful and obedient to him? There is a sense in which Solomon is no so very different from you and me as we waver and lurch through our Christian discipleship, reaching mountaintops but then crashing into the valleys below. And isn’t it exactly for people like us that God sent his Son to rescue us, to teach us wisdom and to assure us of the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us in our struggle against the ‘if’ word? Isn’t that exactly why we need both grace and the cross, because at the end of the day we’re just like Solomon, even if we don’t have quite as many wives?

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 5 – Isaiah 55:10-13 (related)

It is almost universally accepted that the book which we call ‘Isaiah’ comes from three different authors and three different periods. The middle section, which today’s lection draws to a close, runs from chapters 40 – 55, and comes from the time close to the end of the exile, when after a period of letting his people stew and reflect on their unfaithfulness, God is finally going to comfort them, assure them that their sin has been paid for, and bring them home to Jerusalem. Having heard this message, the exiles, I would imagine, must have had mixed feelings. Relief, of course, particularly because of those six words with which this section (‘Deutero- or Second Isaiah’) begins: ‘Comfort my people says your God’. That phrase reflects the covenant deal which comes time and again throughout the OT – ‘You shall be my people and I will be your God’. The pronouns which the prophet uses here are vital. They emphasise, to a nation who no doubt felt that they had really blown it with God this time, and broken the covenant once and for all, that in fact the deal is still on. My people, your God. Phew – what a relief! Is there nothing we can do to offend God so much that he simply abandons us? Not according to this prophet.

But I wonder whether there was another side to the people’s reaction: we’ll believe that when we see it! Hope deferred, says Proverbs 13, makes the heart grow sick. When we suffer so much, and for so long, we really can abandon hope, and every promise of God’s goodness and redemption simply serves to rub our noses in our pain and distress. Cynicism is the sickness of heart which can so easily result. Singing those dreadful worship-songs in church, all about how good and wonderful God is, can be profoundly painful when that simply isn’t your experience. So perhaps just as the prophet began his work with words of comfort, he ends with words of assurance for the downtrodden and cynical. How can we believe these words? Answer: because they are God’s words, and they have power behind them.

The prophet uses a poem which attacks our senses to make the point as strongly and as emotionally as he can. We can feel the cool rain and the freezing snow, even in Babylon in the middle of a desert. We can smell the fragrance of seeds sprouting from damp earth, and of the baking bread, and we can almost taste it in our mouths. And when you are set free from your slavery, says the prophet, all creation is going to line the route home to cheer you on your way. Picture piles on top of picture as abundance surrounds the broken and dispirited people on their way back to their homeland. How can this ‘word’ be trusted? Simply because God said it. It is going to happen, and indeed so it did.

But before we all get carried away, spare a thought for today’s Gospel, the parable of the sower. Again there is a picture of abundance, with up to 100-fold return, but that isn’t the whole story. For Isaiah God’s word is effective full stop. But for Jesus’ sower it all depends on the soil. And there is one of the big paradoxes of the Christian faith. We have an almighty, all-powerful God who rules the universe and can do anything he likes, who simply speaks new things into existence. And yet he chooses to allow himself to be limited by us humans. He doesn’t always get his way: he wouldn’t have told us to pray ‘Your kingdom come’ if it was simply automatic. For those who suffer, who find themselves in all kinds of exiles, we have to live with the purposes of God, which he promises will surely come to pass, not happening because of human sin and rebellion. This paradox might drive us to despair, but it certainly ought to drive us to fervent prayer.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 4 – Zechariah 9:9-12 (Related)

As you will have noticed, I like to take our OT passages as a whole (and often as more than a whole as we place the allotted verses in a larger context). But this week I was struck by one phrase, and decided it was worth exploring. The phrase comes in v.12: ‘prisoners of hope’. What’s all that about then? Isn’t hope a good thing? How then can it imprison us? There’s something important here to explore, particularly from the context in which we’re all living at the moment.

To understand the phrase, we do, of course, have to look at the rest of the passage. It’s a prophetic oracle of restoration after exile, but the language is important. It uses what’s called the Zion tradition, a belief among earlier prophets that God would ride out as a mighty warrior to protect Jerusalem from her enemies. You can find this kind of language in the Psalms, notably  2, 46, 47 and 48, as well as in some prophetic books. When the Holy City is under threat God will rouse himself and come to her rescue, scattering and punishing her enemies and renewing his reign over them. This is the kind of language used in this passage, although of course the strange reference to donkeys makes us think immediately of Palm Sunday, a thought to which we shall return.

Well, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t explain why hope might become a prison. Here the context might help us. The nation, not her enemies, has been scattered. Jerusalem has been smashed down, and the nation has suffered abject defeat and captivity in exile. And contrary to expectations God apparently did not lift and finger to help: indeed many prophets have said that it was God himself who did the defeating and scattering.

And yet the Zion theology was still alive and strong. People were still hoping that the Divine Warrior might yet wake up and rescue them by smashing up their enemies. It is this very hope which keeps them prisoners, says Zechariah. The expectation that God will do what he has always done will not die, and so they are kept imprisoned, and, significantly, prevented from seeing any other outcome. They have put God in a box, and in so doing have boxed themselves in. In fact you can see that this hope has survived into the NT when the disciples ask Jesus, just before his ascension, ‘Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6). Jesus has tried to subvert this Zion Warrior tradition by the style of his entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but like many the disciples were kept prisoner by their hope, and simply hadn’t got the message that God was acting though Jesus in a new and different way.

This raises an important question for us. What from the past might be imprisoning us, and preventing us from expecting that God will do something new and different? I can remember as a keen young charismatic in the 80s hearing someone commenting that the frequent charismatic prayer ‘Lord, do it again!’ was a much less biblical prayer than ‘Lord, do something new!’ So often our imagination cannot stretch beyond more of the same, a repeat performance of what we have seen in the past. It is this limited vision which can make us into prisoners.

At a time when we are all longing to ‘get back to normal’ this might just be an important word from God to his Church. Zechariah describes this prison of hope as a ‘waterless pit’, a place of dryness, frustration and dashed expectations. God’s desire is to return us to a ‘fortress’, a strong place from where we can experience safety, confidence, and more blessing than ever before.