Old Testament Lectionary October 5th Trinity 16 Isaiah 5:1-7

 

Every now and then you encounter a Bible passage which doesn’t work nearly as well in English as it does in the original, in this case Hebrew. There are a couple of puns which really drive home this tragic message, and the whole genre of the text shows a subtle recasting of two well-known literary styles. Let’s try to unpack it and gain the full impact of the prophet’s words.

The text, we are told in 5:1 is a love song, a popular form of literature at the time, as indeed it is today. It is clearly a love song between the prophet and his God, but there is a sudden twist in v 3 where God becomes the speaker and the love song turns into a funeral lament. The nation of Israel become the loved but unfaithful other half, and the prophet vanishes from view until he returns, as narrator and interpreter, in v 7. It is in the context of this narration that two key puns are used: God has looked for justice (mishpat), but instead he finds bloodshed (mispach). He expected righteousness (tsedaqah) but all he can find is a cry (tse’aqah), presumably of distress. God has done everything he can to create the conditions under which his vineyard will grow and thrive (v 2), but in spite of it all the harvest has been rotten and rancid (‘bad fruit’ in v 2 is a bit of an undertranslation of the Hebrew). And then, just in case we are left in any doubt, we’re given the interpretation of this parable/love song/lament in v 7: God’s vineyard is the Israelite nation, and because of our refusal to bear the right fruit we’re bound for exile and punishment.

The theology here is to be restated by Paul in Romans 1: when we give up on God he gives up on us. His patience is not infinite, despite what we might like to think, and when his vineyard is not producing that for which he hoped he decides not to keep flogging a dead horse: his judgement in v 5-6 is active as well as passive: he will stop doing the cultivation which is needed, and instead he will actively break down and remove its protection.

So what of the Church, the ‘Israel of God’? We may put up our hands to a certain sense of not quite being what God would like us to be, although of course we don’t go in for any of the crimes which the prophet outlines as he continues this chapter. But this side of the cross, surely God would never turn against us? As soon as I find myself entertaining those kinds of thoughts I can’t help but wonder whether I might be guilty of the same kind of presumption the pre-exilic Jews were guilty of: they had the Temple of the Lord; they were the chosen race, so God must be mighty pleased with them. I’m an Anglican, and we have Canterbury Cathedral, and in any case Jesus died for us. Whether or not God will judge his church, or indeed whether or not he has, is something you might like to reflect upon.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Genesis

Welcome to this new blog, which is designed to help us see the huge picture of the Bible, by encouraging us to read one book per week. As promised it certainly won’t be the last word in scholarship, but I hope it will help people to read their Bibles more and with greater understanding.

 

So … Genesis. The word means ‘beginnings’, and the Hebrew words with which it begins simply mean ‘In the beginning …’ It helpful to think of the book in three ways: as an overture, as a book of ‘Just So’ stories, and as a scene-setter. It contains the well-known stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and the Patriarchs, and Joseph with his amazing coat. Just like an overture for an opera of musical, the book introduces briefly some of the themes we’re going to hear played out more fully as the story unfolds. So we see God as creator, but also destroyer, we see the idea of covenant relationships, of calling, of journey and pilgrimage, of sacrifice and mercy, and of a purposeful working out of God’s plans for redemption. In the story of Abraham we see both the calling of the ‘chosen people’, but also the idea that the only reason God chose a nation was to be the purveyors of good things to the whole earth. Their calling was to be blessed but also to bless, a theme which I have explored before. Maybe you could trace some of these themes through the rest of the Bible and see how they are developed, just as a composer develops his original musical hints into full numbers.

File:The Creation - Bible Historiale (c.1411), vol.1, f.3 - BL Royal MS 19 D III.jpg

But the other purpose of Genesis is to answer some questions which will later arise. The technical term for this is ‘aetiology’ – a ‘just-so’ story which you can imagine parents telling their children to explain something which they observe as they go through life. Another technical term here is ‘myth’, which doesn’t strictly mean ‘not actually true’, but rather that it explains something. So the stories of creation are there to explain how we all got here, and to argue whether Adam and Eve were literal historical characters is to miss the point entirely, and is about as useful as arguing about whether Pandora’s box was made of wood or metal. ‘Why is that pretty coloured thing up in the sky?’ is another question we can imagine children asking, and the story of Noah and the flood answer that question. Similarly questions such as ‘Why are we living where we’re living?’ can be answered by the story of the call of Abraham to go to ‘a land which I will give you’.

 

Thirdly, though, the book acts as a scene-setter for the drama to come. THE pivotal event in Israel’s history is the Exodus from Egypt, which we will come to next week, but before God can get his people out of Egypt he has to get them in there, so the long story of Joseph is there to explain how it came to be that those who had been promised God’s favour and a land of their own are working as slaves far from home under cruel foreign domination. To be continued …

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac.

To think about:

 

  • Why are there two different stories of creation? What is each meant to teach us?
  • What can the story of Abraham’s call (Gen 12) say to the church today?
  • What can you learn about the ministry of Jesus from reading Genesis?

 

OT Lectionary 28th September Trinity 15 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

 

Don’t you just love politicians? If they get something right they take the credit, but if they get it horribly wrong they just blame the previous government from the other side of the House, who, while they were in power, got the country into such a mess that it is taking ages for us to undo it and right all the wrongs of their administration. School children have a slightly less mature version of this: when caught out in some mischief the response can all too easily be ‘He made me do it, Miss!’

 

The people of Israel, in exile far from home in Babylon, are playing this game too. You can’t blame us, Ezekiel, for getting ourselves into this mess. It was all those previous generations who ignored God and lived evil and idolatrous lives who went off the rails, while we are now paying the price. That’s the meaning of the common proverb of the time about eating sour grapes.

 

Ezekiel needs to refute this opinion, and its underlying implication that God just isn’t fair. It’s easy to feel like that at times, but for God’s people the starting point must be that if there’s a dispute God must be right and we must be wrong, otherwise he is not God in any normal sense of the word. ‘Will not the judge of all the earth do right?’ asks Abraham in Genesis 18, obviously expecting the answer ‘Yes!’ But God is not just fair, he is merciful too, and again and again in this passage he holds out hope for forgiveness, if only his people will return to him in repentance.

 

This passage teaches us much about sin, guilt and forgiveness, much which many of us still need to learn. Firstly, that God remains unconvinced by the blame game. Ever since Adam told God that Eve had given him the fruit to eat, and she blamed it on the snake, the human race has tried to wriggle out of a sense of guilt and shame by putting the responsibility for it elsewhere. But this doesn’t wash with God, and never has. ‘The one who sins is the one who will die’, he explains in v 4.We all have individual responsibility for our actions, and we can never put the blame on someone else.

 

Secondly, it teaches us that we have choices to make, and that we must bear their consequences. Of course this doesn’t work in the short term, or else the Bible wouldn’t contain those agonising passages about why evil people appear to prosper while the innocent suffer. But in the scope of eternity our choices matter, whether they be choices to sin or to repent.

 

Thirdly, this text speaks, as we have said, of the mercy of God. Against the commonly–held view that God is only there to have fun smiting people at any excuse, Ezekiel affirms that God takes no delight in the death of anyone but, as the liturgy puts is, he would rather they turned from their wickedness and lived. God is neither a spoilsport nor a monster, and genuinely holds us his creatures in love, although never the indulgent kind in which it doesn’t matter what we get up to.

File:Senator Gordon Wilson.jpg

Therefore, the text seems to ask, why on earth don’t we take advantage of that mercy? Why is it so deeply embedded into human nature that we’d rather moan at God and blame others than simply turn round and accept his forgiveness? Why does it seem the hardest thing in the world to put our hands up, admit our wrong, receive forgiveness and restoration? Have you noticed how often on the telly someone who has had something horrible happen to them or their family tells us that they feel ‘bitter’? And how rarely and how notable it is when someone expresses forgiveness to the perpetrators, someone like Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen? Why hang on to sin and bitterness when forgiveness is so much easier and more rewarding. If Christians haven’t learnt that lesson, what hope is there for the rest?

 

 

OT Lectionary September 21st St Matthew Proverbs 3:13-18

To be honest I’m not that big on Saints: they have to be handled with extreme caution. The kinds of churches which most go on about them can easily be the kinds of churches where Christian people (or ‘saints’ as the NT calls them) end up feeling deskilled, ordinary and not quite up to the mark, and never likely to end up in a stained glass window. However much preachers tell us we ought to learn from their examples, emulate their holiness, and so on, I never find myself entirely convinced: I usually end up feeling told off instead. However, today is St Matthew the Apostle’s day, so here goes. At least Proverbs might not do us much harm.

It’s easy to see why this passage goes with Matthew: it’s about choosing wisdom rather than wealth, which Matthew went on to do. In the OT wisdom literature ‘Wisdom’ is often personified. The clearest example of this is in Proverbs 8 where ‘she’ is depicted as a wise woman who calls out to people as it were to buy her wares, to embrace wisdom rather than folly, ‘wisdom’ meaning, of course, what the French would call savoir-faire or ‘knowing what to do’. It is not primarily deep philosophy: it is much more about knowing what would be the sensible thing to do in the many decisions with which life presents us.

So in chapter 3 to choose wisdom brings several benefits. Blessedness, profit, value, long life, riches, honour, delight and peace. There is an interesting mix of things which the ‘secular’ world might value and those which would be rather lower on the agenda: profit and riches sound good, but ‘blessedness’ is a bit more vague. The implication, though, is that Matthew, in turning his back on the tax business, and no doubt the corruption, fiddling and profit which went with it, in order to follow Jesus, was choosing the better thing. We’re not told, of course, that Matthew was a villain before his call, but the story of Zaccheus perhaps illustrates Matthew’s call a bit further.

We live in a culture where money is pretty much everything. For some the issue is addiction and greed, for others the corrupt use of wealth, while for some it is the anxiety of knowing where the next bit is going to come from. Few of us have learnt St Paul’s secret of being content with our lot (Phil 4:12), and I can’t help but wonder whether there were times when Matthew looked back and wondered how much easier his life might have been if he had simply told Jesus to push off. Whether Matthew ended up being martyred for his faith is a matter of contention, but there is no doubt that he must have suffered some of the hardships which Jesus promised to those who became his followers.

So what does Matthew make you want to ask of yourself? I sometimes wonder whether a different job might have brought me a bit more fame and fortune than has been my lot as a poor vicar, especially when I see my kinds earning double what I do. On a good day I think wisdom is actually worth more, although I wonder whether poverty and wisdom necessarily go together. But all in all I’m glad I chose to follow Jesus, leave behind my dreams of being a rock star or a top executive. I know that one day it will turn out to have been worth every penny, when I hear my Father say to me ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.

A Year in Jersey

In this next excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures my IKEA days were over as I was rescued by the offer of a three month locum in Jersey. Now read on …

We arrived on November 5th, and our first Christmas came upon us very quickly. It was also our silver wedding anniversary on Christmas eve, and although some good friends came over for Christmas we felt very isolated from our friends and family. So we decided instead to have open house. We made loads of cakes, bought plenty of cheap fizz (sadly not the real stuff) and invited everyone from both churches to drop in during the day. This was an instant and immediate success. Not only did it bring people from the two churches together, but it also set the tone for our ministry. We have always tried to use our homes for hospitality. I reserve the right of clergy to use their homes as safe sanctuaries into which the life of the parish is never allowed to intrude, but that has not been our way. We found people coming into the vicarage for the first time ever, and taking the opportunity to have a good nose around. ‘We’d always wondered what it was like inside!’ we were told by many visitors.

The chance to celebrate a major family milestone with us meant that people quickly and easily took us to their hearts. The welcome we received was instant and heartfelt, and showed itself in a variety of practical ways. One parishioner turned up one day with his estate car absolutely brimming with logs for our open fire. Another family, on hearing me remark that my study was lovely but a bit dingy, gave me their account card for the local ironmongers and told me I could spend ‘say around £200 or so’ on some new lighting. One farmer from St Lawrence kept us supplied with fresh veg, along with the occasional joint of some recently slaughtered animal. He used to bring milk for the after-service coffee: it was still warm from the cow, and was about half and half milk and thick cream.

There was a downside, though, to being a rural Rector: I had to bless things. More specifically I had to bless animals. A few times a year, on some obscure festivals which as a townie I had never really encountered before, the St Lawrence congregation would decamp to the Churchwarden’s farm, and I had to say prayers over some huge piece of livestock or other. Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against animals. Some of my best meals have contained them. But I much prefer to encounter them well done with pepper sauce than to get into a field with them and pray (although on the odd occasions in the past I had found myself in field of animals I certainly had prayed!) I tried telling Charles that my powers of blessing were so well developed that they could travel enough distance that I could do it from here, but he would have none of it. Blessing was a hands-on business apparently. When I finally left the parish Charles, in his farewell speech, described me as all in all pretty good, but a bit of a wimp with the animals, an epithet of which I was in no way ashamed.

Through The Bible in Just Over a Year – Intro

 

In my formative 20s I attended a church with a very strong teaching ministry, and one of the series we did took us through every book of the Bible, a week at a time. We were blessed with not one but two sermons, one on the background to each book, and one on its practical application for today (or rather the 70s!). I lapped it up, and owe so much to the teaching I received not just through that series but through all my eight years at that church.

Now that my day job is to work at Diocesan level to promote Christian discipleship I am amazed and frequently appalled at the lack of solid teaching in today’s C of E. I’m not sure how many churches value the teaching ministry, or how many clergy see their primary task as feeding the people of God with both milk and meat as appropriate. I’m struck by how often St Paul, when seeking to correct some error in the life of one of his churches, wrote ‘Don’t you know …?’ Bad or lack of teaching leads to misunderstanding and bad living. So in my small way I have a heart for seeing the teaching ministry restored to the church, so that healthy and mature Christians are produced, Christians able confidently to join in with the mission of God to our communities and nation. Working in the area of discipleship one of my key texts has become Gal 4:19, where Paul tells his ‘dear children’ that he is in ‘the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’. I lament the lack of this kind of passion in many church leaders today, and in this new blog series I want to recreate a kind of overview of the Bible, the primary means through which God reveals himself to us and forms us as disciples. I’m going to take you through the Bible in just over a year.

 

What you won’t get from this blog, obviously,  is in-depth scholarly stuff, loads of Hebrew and Greek, and the latest in academic thought. There are plenty of other places to find that stuff, and frankly I’m not that good at it. But what I do hope to do is to help us to read each book with some understanding of why it is in the Bible, and what it might say to us today. If I gave you a train timetable and a book of metaphysical poetry you would obviously use them very differently, and the books of the Bible are like that: you have to know what each book is trying to do so that you can read it with understanding.

 

I’m also aware that whenever we read Scripture we need the help of the Holy Spirit. People who know me well and have read my books often tell me that they ‘could just hear me speaking as they read. It’s so “you”’. In the same way we read the Bible differently when we know the author well. So there’s a circularity: we get to know God through reading Scripture, and we read Scripture better when we know God better. I hope this blog series might help on both counts.

 

So – next week – Genesis, the book of beginnings.

 

 

OT Lectionary Sunday 13th September Trinity 13 Genesis 50:15-21

 

Two words can sum up the thrust of today’s OT passage: grace and mercy. Joseph’s brothers, those who left him half-dead and then sold him into slavery, are worried because now that Dad has died the respect which Joseph has had for him might run out and he might wreak an awful revenge on them from his position of power. So, whether out of fear for their lives or genuine repentance (it’s hard to tell which from the text – maybe it was a mixture of both) they grovel before him asking that he will forgive them. Joseph’s response shows both grace and mercy, but something else besides which we will come to in a minute.

And old children’s song helpfully tells us that

‘Grace is when God gives us/the things we don’t deserve’

and

‘Mercy is when God does not/give us what we deserve’

Joseph shows both to his brothers, putting away their sins against him, and promising to provide for them into the future. It would be interesting to speculate just what his tears in v 17 were about. Gratitude that they had finally apologised to him? Horror that they should think him capable of such revenge? Maybe, but I wonder also whether his tears were about glimpsing the bigger picture. Showing grace and mercy are human activities, and very good ones too, but behind it all Joseph is able to see the hand of a loving and powerful God.

He has already made the point, in chapter 45, that what they intended as harm for him was used by God to a greater purpose. He repeats the point here, as evidence that to take the path of revenge would be to go counter to God’s larger purposes. I think there is something here for those of us who suffer, and something for those who must forgive.

Let’s begin with forgiveness. I have written elsewhere[i] about an important paper on the nature of forgiveness, so I won’t repeat is here. but I am interested that Joseph does three things. He looks their sin fair and square in the face and calls it what it is – ‘You intended to harm me’ v 20. No excuses: he tells it like it is. Secondly he refuses to take revenge, even though it was well within his power to do so. The most helpful definition of forgiveness I have heard is ‘Handing back to God the right to punish those who have hurt us’. Most of our angst and bitterness comes from the fact that we would like to take revenge ourselves, but most of the time we don’t have the ability to. To give back to God the right to punish sets us free from all that agonised bitterness.

But then Joseph goes one step further: he ‘spoke kindly to them’ v 21. Much of the time this is a step too far. We can forgive people, if we use the definition above, without having to trust them, or even to like them. Much of the time the wisest way is simply to avoid them. But Joseph somehow manages to maintain relationship with those who were so cruel to him.

I think that third step is optional, so don’t beat yourself up if you simply can’t be around those who have hurt you so much. However, the first two are essential.

And once we gain the perspective which comes from having genuinely forgiven, that makes it easier to seek God’s larger purposes. I know how much this hurt, but what did God give me, or build into me through it. what is there, in the harm intended by others, which he has turned to his purposes?

[i] Leach, J God’s Upgrades … My Adventures (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2014) p 168ff.

 

Coming soon – my new Wednesday blog ‘Through the Bible in Just Over a Year’ – 600 words introducing each book of the Bible, and how we might read it today as Christian disciples.