OT Lectionary April 6th Lent 5 Ezekiel 37:1-14

As I write I’m busily mugging up on church growth theory for a job interview, and I can remember a time in the past when God spoke to me powerfully through this well-known passage about the Valley of Dry Bones. In particular my attention was drawn to the process by which a pile of dead skeletons became a mighty army. The parallels to the church today are only too obvious, but the passage may speak to us more personally too. Where there is dryness and deadness it is God’s will to bring life and flourishing, whether in the church today with all its dryness or in the lives of Lent-weary Christians.

Stage 1: First of all Ezekiel is invited to take stock. That walking to and fro in the graveyard allowed him to see clearly the true state of affairs. I can remember one staff meeting in one of the churches I served when I made us all go for a walk around the church buildings, really concentrating on what we could see, and trying to see it through the eyes of someone who was visiting for the first time. It was a most depressing morning as we noticed broken windows, peeling paint, piles of junk everywhere, broken bits of equipment which no-one had felt it was their job to throw away – you get the idea. But that miserable perambulation began a process of change and refurbishment of our buildings. So that’s the first question, which God doesn’t actually ask here, although he does in other places: ‘What do you see?’

Stage 2: Then comes the supplementary: ‘Can these bones live?’ After inviting him to face the reality, God brings hope, followed by action: ‘Prophesy to these bones!’ I think there’s a difference between praying about a situation and prophesying over it, but the prophesying can only come at the Lord’s command. It is not something we take upon ourselves to do. But Ezekiel has heard God, and so in obedience he proclaims the purposes of the Lord over the bones, and they begin to stir.

 

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Stage 3: So far so good. The dead bones are now bodies. But they’re only zombies. They haven’t got the breath (or ‘spirit’) of life in them. So a third stage is needed, as Ezekiel, again, note, at God’s command, prophesies to the breath/spirit/wind – it’s all the same word – and life enters the bodies.

This story always reminds me of that famous verse from Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ We can build structures, but unless God breathes his Spirit into them, we’re wasting our time. We can do all the right stuff to get our churches to grow, but if the Lord doesn’t sovereignly start revealing his truth to people, what’s the point? We can fast and pray and all the rest through Lent, but if Jesus doesn’t meet us it’s all empty. So much of what we do in the Christian life and in the Church seems only to be half the job, with little in terms of life-bringing or life-changing results. We can’t make God act; we can’t prophesy with our own breath, but we can cry out to God with all that is within us for him to act. In my experience he usually acts on the raw material which we have prepared: he breathes his life into the skeletons we have put together, so this is not an excuse for passivity. But this story does remind us, I believe, of our desperate need for God’s Spirit who alone can bring new life.

What’s Church For? Luke 10 Church

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at some different models and understandings of church, both biblical and not-quite-so. I haven’t anywhere near finished with church yet, and I’m aiming to get a bit more gritty as we continue this series, but first I thought I might try out on my dear readers a model which is certainly drawn from Scripture, and which I believe ought to capture the essence of what church is for.

I can’t claim this will be a scholarly exegesis of Luke 10, nor am I even sure that what I am about to describe suggests as clear a paradigm as I might wish it would, so I simply want to say that this model is to me a highly suggestive one, which we might do well to think about.

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The story goes that in the previous chapter Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples to drive out demons, heal the sick and preach the kingdom (in that order). Then at the start of Luke 10 he sends out a larger group, of 70 or 72 depending on which manuscripts you read. Again they were to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom, although this time Jesus recognised in his instructions that there might be the possibility of them facing a bit of opposition (was this something he learnt from feedback when the 12 returned? Discuss).

Anyway, and here comes the church model, the 72 return in v 17, obviously delighted at how their deliverance ministry had gone. Jesus seems thrilled too, and in v 21, enabled by the Holy Spirit, he is filled with joy, not, interestingly, because some demons had been kicked out, but because this newly-formed team of beginners had learnt so much from the experience. But in between these two verses Jesus is found giving further teaching to the disciples, both to reassure them about their authority in him, but also to direct their enthusiasm more correctly. The section ends with him again telling his disciples how privileged they are to have been a part of this ministry.

That’s all we get, but bear with me, because it seems to me that this might have been more than a one-off occasion, and if so might provide a radical vision for the nature of church, or at least church services. Just imagine a Sunday morning meeting which looked like this:

Everybody gathers full of the Holy Spirit and joy because of what they have seen God doing through them during the previous week to heal, set free, and give new life. The church leader shares in their enthusiasm, but also gives them a bit more teaching. Then they’re all sent out again to see what God is going to do in the week ahead. The next Sunday they come and celebrate together again, receive more teaching, and so it goes on, as more and more people experience the new life of the kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that most weeks when we gather we haven’t actually seen God do anything, nor, quite honestly, do we have any expectation that he’s going to do very much in the week ahead. So all we have left is ‘church’: the celebration is non-existent, so we just sing hymns and say liturgy; the teaching is pointless so we just listen to platitudes or academic theology, and then we go home to our lunch.

I’m not sure where we break into this cycle, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try?

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Mothering Sunday Ex 2:1-10

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, but if you’d rather use the Lent 4 readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4F

At first sight this story seems more like child abuse than a model of good motherhood: Jochebed bungs her baby in a basket, floats him in a river, and then gives him up for adoption to a foreigner. This sounds like something the Daily Mail would do an exposé on! But of course we know more than this, and her risky actions were designed to save her baby, not to endanger him. In fact he was already in quite enough danger: a people in slavery were quite deliberately being culled by a paranoid Pharaoh as means of controlling the population explosion. I won’t dwell on the seven million children slaughtered in the name of ideology and freedom since the 1967 Abortion Act, but even when children do survive birth there are many parts of the world where they are unlikely to last very much longer.

So what does this story tell us about motherhood? There is something deeply wired in to human parents which seeks to protect their vulnerable children, at least into the vast majority of parents. It still shocks us to hear about mothers who sell their toddlers to sex traders in order to fund their drug habits, and long may it continue to do so. But Jochebed is a good mother, and takes considerable risks first of all to hide her baby, not an easy job as most babies I know like to have their say! Then in committing him to the waters she is talking another risk: who will find him first, a human or a crocodile? And if a human, one who is moved to compassion by his innocent vulnerability, or a nasty one? It could all have gone horribly wrong, but she had no choice.

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But underneath this story is a deeper one about a mother trusting God. To the Egyptians the Nile was a sacred river, almost a god itself. It was this god who once a year flooded and gave them the rich water for their crops. So it could be that Jochebed had lost her faith in Yahweh, and had lost the plot and gone native. Maybe she was trusting the Egyptian gods to preserve her son’s life. I don’t think so. I reckon she knew that her God, the true God, was able to save her son, and by placing him in the Nile she was almost making a statement that, in the words of the song, ‘our God is greater’. And of course not only did God use this greatest of leaders to free his people from the slavery which had been their lot for so long, but he even arranged it so that Jochebed got paid for it.

Jesus himself was later to be protected from the death-threats of a paranoid monarch. Today we might give thanks for that protective care wired into us by a loving God, pray for those who are under threat, and for those sad mothers whose circumstances have taken from them the ability to care and protect as our Father does us.

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Lent 4 1 Samuel 16:1-13

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, so if you’d rather use those readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4J 

This passage is all about appearances being deceptive, and about the way that as humans we struggle to see things in the same way that God sees them. Rick Warren, in his Purpose-driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) tries to analyse the nature of discipleship, and the ways in which we grow into it. His second step, after Biblical knowledge, is Perspective, which may be defined exactly as this ability to understand how God sees things, and to subdue our personal likes and dislikes to his. For example, in an age where sin has gone out of fashion (while sinning, apparently, remains as popular as ever) Christians need to understand just how repugnant it is to God, and just how harmful it is to individuals and to society as a whole. When we see sin as he does, that makes it a whole lot easier to want to avoid it.

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Getting God’s perspective on things, therefore, will often bring us naturally into conflict with the values of the world around us. It isn’t that Christians are meant to be unpopular: it’s just that we’re meant to be unpopular for the right reasons and over the right issues. So how do we gain this sense of perspective? How do we learn to see what God sees, which is so often buried under the surface?

Samuel basically learns here through trial and error, and ears open to God’s promptings. On one level he doesn’t come out of this chapter looking very good at all. First of all he’s hanging on to the past: God has to rebuke him because of his over-fond memories of King Saul (whom, of course, he had previously anointed). The hard truth is that God has rejected him: God forbid that we hold onto something God has finished with – there’s a lesson for the church right there, which I have discussed elsewhere in my Ending Well (www.grovebooks.co.uk R39). His next mistake is to assume that he knows the answer himself – he has already made his mind up without a single word from the Lord as soon as he sees how butch Eliab is. So again God has to remind him that he sees things differently, and that he sees the hidden things of the heart, the irony being that while Samuel himself looks every bit the prophet, enough in fact to scare the good townsfolk of Bethlehem, his heart is so mistaken, which God can see.

From then on he seems sadder and wiser, and ready to hear when God rejects Eliab’s brothers one by one. So do we hear in his question to Jesse about any more sons the conviction that there must be, because God hasn’t chosen any so far, or rather a lack of faith in God, or in his ability to hear him (‘Of course you haven’t got any more sons, have you?’) I’ll let you decide that one, but at the end of the passage he seems at least to have learnt one thing: in obedience to God’s word he anoints this young bit of a kid, and then presumably sees evidence of the rightness of this action as the Spirit anoints David too.

I don’t think the major question is whether or not we have gained God’s perspective: we’re all on the way, hopefully. But it is about being obedient even when we’re not sure, giving God, as it were, the benefit of the doubt.

What’s Church For? Church as Army

What’s Church For? Church as Army

I’ll make no bones about it: I have always thought of church as an army. I can’t help it, it’s just my age and my sex. I’m a bloke, and I just like the idea. In the old days, when we used to frequent such places, we would occasionally visit Blockbuster to choose a video for an evening off. As you can imagine my wife, being a girl (another quaint idea nowadays), headed straight for the romcom aisle to find a nice film about relationships and love. Meanwhile I went off to find something where Arnie or someone saved the world and blew up a load of stuff, or Beatrix Kiddo dismembered a few people with her Hattori Hanzo sword. So it’s not surprising that I tend to see church in similar ways, although with a bit less dismembering. We have a battle to fight, an Enemy to defeat, people to rescue, ground to take, poor people to feed and broken people to heal. Add to that the fact that one of the most formative periods in my Christian upbringing was the late 70s and early 80s, when we used to sing all those songs about treading down our enemies and entering the land in heavenly armour, calling on the principalities and powers to bow down and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Those were the days, before the political correctness police got their hands on Christian worship. So you can see where I get it from.

But is this a biblical picture of church? Did Jesus or Paul conceive of it in this way? As with some other models we’ve looked at, I can’t point you to a verse which is the equivalent of Paul saying ‘You are the Body of Christ’. But it does seem to me that the idea of battle, struggle and victory pervades the Scriptures. In the OT, which I’ll admit does contain some difficult passages about slaughtering people, God’s people were often to be found at war against someone or other, and often defending themselves. I love the throw-away comment in 1 Samuel 11 where David the king is staying in Jerusalem spying from his palace roof ‘at the time when kings go off to war’. There is an implied rebuke: if David had been out on the battlefield as he should have been, he would never have got into the mess he did with Bath-sheba and Uriah the Hittite. If as a church we really were fighting for the land we just wouldn’t have the time nor the inclination to argue about women bishops and all that other stuff which so preoccupies us. In the NT we’re told very clearly a) that we’re in a battle, and b) that it’s against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. So although the Bible doesn’t specifically call the church an army, it clearly thinks that there’s fighting to be done.

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A church which sees itself as an army will place a high value on things like prayer, training, learning study and discipline, because it will want to be as fit and as well-equipped as it can for the mission God has for it. It will also be purposeful, and is more likely to attract men. It will know how to mourn its defeats, and it will pick itself up, dust itself down and start all over again, because war is like that. And if it seems a bit of a harsh model after the nice family and haven ones we’ve been thinking about recently, remember that armies too have relationships, but they’re called ‘camaraderie’. There is no friendship like that with people we’ve fought alongside in battle, whose wounds we have bound up, and maybe even whose lives we have saved. I love the idea of church as a field hospital rather than a convalescent home, or even an old people’s home. This is the model for me!

Soon I’m going to move on from biblical images and look more closely at the church as it really is today. This will give me the opportunity for a bit more of a rant about some of the problems I think are facing us, and what we might do about them. But before that, next time – a ‘Luke 10’ model for church, and after that Church as Big Business.

OT Lectionary Mar 23rd Lent 3 Exodus 17:1-7

There is one important motif which comes throughout the story of the trek from Egypt to the Promised Land: that of the Israelites’ ‘grumbling’. Today’s passage is the third example: they have already moaned at Moses in chapter 15 because of the nasty-tasting water, and in 16 because they were missing the exotic meats of Egypt. In Numbers 11, my favourite example, laughable because of its sheer stupidity, they are missing the Egyptian melons, leeks, garlic and cucumbers. Come on! Who has ever wailed over a lack of cucumber? If only I could go back to making bricks in the mud and getting whipped for my troubles, as long as I just had some melons! But for now the problem is less silly and in fact potentially quite serious. There’s no water at all, not even the bitter sort, and once again the people turn on their leader.

The resulting story is one of the people’s ungratefulness, Moses’ prayerfulness and God’s faithfulness, and as such forms a good template for anyone in leadership in the church, whether of a small group, a congregation or a diocese. It is not a coincidence that leaders in the Bible are often likened to shepherds: it can often feel as though the people have the intelligence of a piece of mutton combined with the viciousness of an angry ram (and, incidentally, the memory of a goldfish). Later on in Numbers 11 we’re going to hear even more deeply Moses’ anguish at having to lead this particular flock, but there is one thing which each of these stories has in common. Moses, almost as though he had already heard Joseph Scriven’s hymn, takes it to the Lord in prayer. In fact whenever there’s a crisis of any kind, Moses’ immediate and instinctive response is to go back to the God who had landed him with this thankless task in the first place. There’s a challenge for us: I tend to get angry, discouraged, depressed and despairing in approximately that order. Moses prays, and in every case God does something as a result of that prayer, and the crisis is averted.

 

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I never cease to be challenged by Moses’ leadership. He was commissioned by God to get the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, by hook or by crook, whether they wanted to go there or not. I love his determination, but like most church leaders I have also felt often his sense of hopelessness, of his calling having become a burden to him. Many leaders have had ‘Gethsemane’ moments when we have had to re-surrender ourselves to the will of the God who called us in the first place, and some have even had ‘Jonah’ moments when we felt as though death was a preferable alternative to Christian ministry. I note too that Moses takes not just the situation but also his anger and despair about the situation to God. He doesn’t feel the need to be polite, but he is painfully real.

The big question for me has to do with whether or not God would have sorted things out anyway without Moses’ intercession. I don’t know, but I do wonder how many miracles I’ve missed out on because I have not shared Moses’ instinctive prayer life. When I have only become angry and frustrated but have not thought to cry out to God about it; when I have decided I can sort this out by myself, it might just be that I have denied God the opportunity to work a saving miracle.

What’s Church For? Church as Haven

Last week we looked at that most popular of models of church, ‘happy family’, and I suggested that this model was both unhelpful and probably unbiblical, at least as a way to think about the local congregation. This week’s model is different but related: church as ‘Haven’.

If you want a perfect illustration of the thinking behind this model, there is nowhere where it is stated more clearly that in a couple of lines from Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn Abide with me:

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

This hymn, popular at funerals and, inexplicably, cup finals, is about the approach to the end of life. Lyte wrote it whilst busy dying of TB, and actually survived only a further three weeks after its completion. I’m not there yet myself, but I guess it reflects an old man’s bewilderment at a changing world, and his readiness to go to a better place (although Lyte was only 56 when he died). As such it popularises a spirituality common among older people, particularly in an age of rapid culture change and technological innovation. Everywhere I look I find a world changed beyond recognition, almost as though I were living in a foreign land, where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture. So thank goodness that in the shifting sands of life there is one place where I can look for unchanging succour. Church, so the reasoning goes, is meant to be the place where I can go to get my dose of the familiar, a place where I feel safe, where I understand the rules, a place where ‘naught changes’. My church is my safe haven against the changes and chances of life in a world where I no longer feel at home. ‘Change’, note, is synonymous with ‘decay’, rather than ‘growth’, ‘development’ or improvement.

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Whilst this sense of what the sociologists call ‘cultural dislocation’ is understandable, and while it is particularly understandable among a generation brought up in a stable world where change has suddenly began to spin out of control, it betrays an interesting and ultimately unhelpful view of church, and of God. Note first of all that Lyte sees God as the unchangeable point of reference; God, not his church. We have mistranslated his words to mean that church should never change, a sentiment which manifests itself most clearly in the matters of liturgy, music and buildings. God is indeed unchanging, but it has been said that ‘change is the angel of the unchanging God’. As we have already said in this blog God is actually a God of pilgrimage, a God who constantly leads his people purposefully forward. Sadly churches which see themselves as safe havens against change are often churches on their own deathbeds.

Of course we need to care pastorally for those nearing the end of their lives, and perhaps feeling disorientated and frightened. But to see a church as a safe haven from the storms of life is diametrically opposite to the pioneering and adventuring spirit to which I believe we are called. If we’re quoting hymns, I much prefer this one:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.   (Robert Bridges)

We need a God who guides us through change, not who saves us from it.