Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Chronicles

 

It is as we move into volume 2 that we can see most clearly the difference in concerns of the Priestly strand as opposed to the Deuteronomists. We said that their version of the history was concerned less with answering the question ‘What went so wrong that we landed up in exile?’ and much more with keeping accurate records for official purposes, and with the correct ordering of the Temple and its worship. So Solomon, the builder of the Temple, gets an undue amount of space, as do the liturgical details of its dedication. His prayers are recorded presumably verbatim, and the roles of the priests and other worship professionals are given great prominence. Solomon’s pre-eminence is further enhanced with accounts of his wealth and splendour, and the visit of the Queen of Sheba who comes to admire it all.

Then the kingdom splits, and as you might expect it is the South, home of the Jerusalem Temple, which gets far more attention. Chronicles doesn’t appear to be all that interested in what is going on north of the border, and even in the accounts of the Southern kings there is a clear bias shown. The books of Kings concentrate on the bad kings and their outrageous apostasy: Chronicles is far more interested in the good ones, the ones who attempt to bring reform and renewal. So Asa, an early reformer, who gets just 15 verses in 1 Kings 15, warrants three whole chapters in 2 Chronicles 14-16. Attention is given to Joash, Josiah and particularly Hezekiah, but of course the inevitable happens: a difference of emphasis can’t bring about a different ending, and Jerusalem falls to Babylon in the final chapter.

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The Priests couldn’t change the ending, but they could see beyond it, with their slightly later dating. In the final 4 verses of the book we get some information which dates from decades afterwards, as Cyrus of Persia comes to power, the Cyrus who is going to allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and begin the rebuilding of the Temple, although that’s next week’s tale. We haven’t quite finished with the Priestly writings yet: they’re going to continue with two further books. But although the ending is inevitably tragic, the Priests are able to see beyond it and find the seeds of new hope.

2 Chronicles is an easier read that volume 1, with a lack of boring lists of names, but to me the value of the Priestly writings, where they tell essentially the same story as the books of Samuel and Kings, lies in the completely different perspective from which they view things. I am challenged, as I think about my life and times, to ask myself about my perspective. Am I more interested in the villains or the heroes? Do I more readily see the disasters or the successes, of myself and others? Is my trajectory a downward rush towards disaster, albeit with a few small but temporary peaks along the way, or is it a story of hope, of reformation, of ultimate victory? Temperamentally am I a Deuteronomist or a Priest? It is easy to see God’s unfolding story from either direction, but as a bit of a misery I find that Chronicles has a hopefulness about it which can at times provides a great tonic for me when I am tempted to see sin more clearly than holiness, and the slide down rather than the climb up.

 

Old Testament Lectionary 4th January Christmas 2 Jeremiah 31:7-14

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

On one level this is a very tricky passage indeed for us to cope with. It is essentially a failed prophecy. Spoken to the people of the Northern Kingdom, who were overrun and scattered by Assyria, these words promise restoration at many levels. The scattered will be gathered, the sick and pregnant will be healed and restored, privation will give way to plenty and weeping will become singing and dancing. The hard fact is that this simply did not happen. So what do you do with unfulfilled prophecy?

Christians have answered that question in several different ways. First, you can recycle it. The Northern Kingdom never did see restoration, but it has been suggested that Deutero-Isaiah, who announced restoration to the Southern Kingdom, based his work on these chapters of Jeremiah, known as Jeremiah’s ‘Book of Consolation’ . Our passage ends with ‘comfort’ (v 13) which is where Isaiah 40 begins. God’s purposes may not have worked out perfectly this time, but they remain his purposes, and if the fulfilment delays, wait for it, because it will surely happen. In fact we constantly read prophecy this way, and we understand that a ‘word’ might not just have a single fulfilment. Witness the claiming of Joel 2 in the late 1960s as the charismatic movement burst into life, even though the Bible sees the passage as having been fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost AD33.

Secondly, we can discount it and become cynical about it. Jeremiah was just indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, that’s all. It was, frankly, a bit rash of him to utter as a prophetic world something he would have loved to have seen but clearly had no mandate from God for. Again, don’t those charismatics do that all the time? Or maybe it was a good word, but its time just hadn’t yet come. the blind and the lame people might have heard it as a promise of immediate restoration to their homeland, but that was never what God intended: in fact, as we now know, it was actually all about Jesus.

Or thirdly we might take a more radical approach, and suggest that the ‘word’ really did represent the heart’s wish of God, but the fact is that God doesn’t always get his way, or he doesn’t get it as soon as he and we would like. Pete Grieg’s masterful study of unanswered prayer, God on Mute, suggests, convincingly to my mind, that if God always got his way Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray that his will would be done here on earth, just like it is being done in heaven. God looks at our world, and although he longs for justice, peace and restoration, he clearly isn’t getting it just yet. It is the great mystery of all all-powerful and all-loving God who chooses for a while to let things take their course.

So what do we do with prophecies like this? Might it be that they keep us in tune not with what is going to happen in a week or two, but rather with the heart and will of God for his world. Might it be that words like these are there in the middle of the mess and evil of real life (as indeed they are in context here – we looked last week at the passage which follows from this one, about the inconsolable grief for Rachel’s lost children) to remind us that through it all we have a God who weeps with us, and who eventually will have his will done perfectly. What is going on is not God having lost the plot, punishing us, or all the other explanations which Deutero-Isaiah is subverting. It is a temporary, if protracted, state of affairs until God’s kingdom comes in all is fullness.

You’ll have to ask someone a lot wiser than I about why God chooses to delay so long, but in the meantime Jeremiah and many others keep us in touch with what his actually will really is, and that ought to give us some strength towards enduring and steadfastness.

Reflections on Discipleship – Evil in the eyes of the Lord

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Funny how things work out. Last week in this series I had a rant about parenting and discipleship, and elsewhere I’ve been blogging about the Deuteronomic history and the decline and fall of the Israelite empire. What an exciting life I lead! Then this morning we were reading about Manesseh, the king of Judah who led Israel into occult practices so that ‘they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before them’. The interesting part of this tragic tale, though, comes in 2 Chronicles 33:3 where we discover that Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah. Reading on, we discover that after his radical turn-around and repentance following Assyrian torture, he was succeeded by his son Amon, who again ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’.

I made the point when writing about this era of history that although there were some high points and some godly reforming kings, the general trend was downhill and where there were reforms they were usually short-lived and only lasted as long as the good king in question. So Joash, who repaired and re-opened the Temple, was succeeded by his son Amaziah, who, while he tried to follow in his father’s footsteps, failed to stamp out idolatry. Hezekiah, as we have seen, was followed by Manesseh, the nadir of evil, and the other great reformer, Josiah, was succeeded by his son Jehoahaz, who lasted in his evil practices for 3 months, before being succeeded in turn by Jehoiakim, who again ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’.

I couldn’t help but think that wonderful though their attempts to renew and reform the nation were, as parents these godly kings left a certain amount to be desired. They had clearly failed totally to form their children as godly people, with a heart for the Lord and a desire to see the nation blessed and prospering through its faithfulness to God. In fact we see this quite a bit in the pages of Scripture, and again it screams out at me about the vital importance of discipling our kids. What’s the point of being godly and wise, of seeking to bring health to our communities, if within a whisker of our death things revert to how they were, or worse?

I sense from the evidence in last week’s blog that we have a serious problem in the church, a massive loss of nerve among parents, and a lot of work to do among young couples on the edge of being parents. One commentator on 2 Chronicles says that we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Manesseh, because the political scene at the time made godliness very difficult. Does that let us off the hook, because we live in a time when political correctness has eaten away at stable family life almost to the point of extinction? Or do we not need to bring much further up our agenda in the church the equipping of parents faithfully to disciple their kids? The life of our nation might just be at stake.

(That’s enough parenting rants. Ed.)

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Chronicles

Our next few books are going to be the same but different. We’ve met the Dueteronomic Historians, who, from the vantage point of the Babylonian exile, were able to reflect on the period of the monarchy and explain what went wrong. I now need to introduce you to a new strand of literature, that coming from what is called the ‘Priestly’ source (P). Generally reckoned to date from the 5th Century, Israel had returned from exile to Jerusalem, and were living under Persian rule. The same period of history is written up, so it will feel a bit as though we are rewinding, but the interests and style of the Priestly writers are completely different from those of the Deuteronomists. Imagine two lectures or sermons, one given by a hellfire preacher passionate about the gospel, and the other by the archive curator of your local museum of history. That’ll give you some idea of the flavour of our next few books. In fact we have met P before, as some of the sections of the first five books (the ‘Pentateuch’) look as though they come from this source. The main concern is the careful documentation of facts and figures, the listing of people involved, and liturgical details of worship. P is not as easy to read, which is why it is often neglected. In fact the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are simply a long list of names, starting with Adam and going right through to Saul and his family. (You are allowed to skip this bit, although if you like funny Hebrew names this is a rich trawling-ground. I particularly like Zelophehad.)

The actual story is picked up in chapter 10 with the death of Saul and the crowning of David, and continues to the preparations for the building of the Temple and David’s death. There are some well-told stories, but there are regular interruptions for more lists, of David’s key soldiers, various people involved in the building of the Temple, priests, musicians and Levites, and so on. In places it feels as though you’ve somehow put down the Bible and picked up the phone book instead.

But in spite of this rather archivy approach, the books contain some deeply spiritual and significant passages. David’s psalm of praise in chapter 16, written to celebrate the return of the Ark to Jerusalem, is a highspot of worship. The exploits of his mighty warriors in chapter 11 make great reading, especially for blokes, and David’s touching call to the people to give generously to the work on the Temple, and his own leading by example, is a great stewardship passage from which to preach. This is not merely a historical record: like everything in the Bible is has a theological point of view. The Priests are keen to exalt the place of worship in the community, to trace its origins back to David, to demonstrate how much care and attention ought to be paid to it, and perhaps therefore to raise awareness among those returned from exile but more intereste in home improvements than the worship of God. A fascinating insight into this period can be found in the writings of Haggai, who found a nation at comfortable ease, living in their panelled houses rather than working  on the Temple of God. This book is a call back to the priority of worship, to the careful attention which must be given to it, and to the reverence with which God is to be treated.

Old Testament Lectionary 28th December Holy Innocents Jeremiah 31:15-17

 

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of the things which makes me sad is the fact that we rarely get to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It rarely hits a Sunday, and even then it sort of spoils the mood, coming as it does so close on the heels of Christmas. I’ve always wanted to read this Jeremiah passage and then play the congregation a recording of Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky. I’m aware of course that my sadness in not being able to do this is nothing compared to the sadness of parents watching their children get slaughtered, which of course many parents are still having to do today.

So what are we to make of this vitally important and horribly tragic story? I’m writing this the day after 132 children were slaughtered in Pakistan by Taliban gunmen, which reminds us that this is not just a Bible story. I’m also writing whilst engaging with the results of the Church Growth Research Survey. At a recent conference we heard one of the researchers tell us that the problem wasn’t children leaving church, but children never starting. Within generations numbers are fairly static: it’s just that we’re having less and less impact on new generations, and that we’ll die of old age if we don’t do something to re-engage pretty quickly. Elsewhere I’ve been blogging on the importance of discipling children. All these things coming together have led me to what I believe is an important insight: the Enemy hates children.

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However you conceive of the devil (and personally I have no problems believing in him as a real being), he does seem to take delight in harming children, especially those who are going to be significant later. Both Moses and Jesus narrowly escaped neo-natal slaughter, which is more than can be said for the other infants at the time, whom he presumably regarded as collateral damage if he could wipe out these two key leaders. More recently we’ve been doing his work for him as millions of unborn lives have been ended, sometimes as little more than a form of contraception. And now he can use terrorists with guns.

That, of course, is a bit extreme, but he can do it in subtler ways too. If he can use parents who don’t feel that passing on their beliefs is important, and a combination of multi-faith confusion and New Age wooliness to kill children’s faith, then that’s a job well done. And as the figures for the C of E tell us, he isn’t doing a bad job of it.

I wonder how the more upbeat second half of today’s passage will have come across to cruelly bereaved parents? ‘Keep your voice from weeping’ sounds like jolly advice from someone who could do with some basic counselling lessons. ‘There is a reward, and you will get them back’ may sound like hollow words. But when God utters them, it’s different, and we have to listen. Like all of us I find these stories, both biblical and contemporary, shockingly appalling. But I have no option but to believe that ‘there is hope for your future’. This passage is in a typical biblical ‘lament’ form – taking the bad news seriously without glossing over the real pain and anguish, but moving towards hope. The Enemy has always had evil people (and sometimes just misguided people) to do his filthy work for him, but he will not have the last word, however real the grief he can cause now. We simply have to hold on to Jesus’ words ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’. As a church we are there to sit in the ashes with grief-stricken people, but not to leave them there with no hope.

Reflections on Discipleship – Teach your Children

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.          (Deut 6)

 We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so that the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.                                                                                               (Ps 78)

It was my privilege recently to attend a conference following up the Anecdote to Evidence report. It was a great day, but there was one moment of deep shock and sadness for me. The one major headline of the whole day was that as a church if we don’t begin to take seriously the desperate need to engage with younger generations, we simply have no future. But one speaker asked the question ‘How have we got to this stage?’ Why are parents not passing on Christian commitment to their children?

He spoke of some research in which parents were given a list of ‘values’ – nice, positive qualities such as kindness, respect, honesty, diligence, law-abidingness (if that’s a real word), and also religious faith. The parents were asked to list the top five of these qualities which they would like to see imbued in their children as they grew up. The results were shocking:

  •  Of those who called themselves ‘Anglicans’ only 11% had ‘faith’ in their top five
  • Of those who were ‘active Anglicans’ (attending church regularly) only 28% did, and
  • Of ‘Committed Anglicans’ only 36% did.

Anglicans don’t seem to care whether or not their children grow up with faith! This news cut me to the core. As I pondered it, I reflected that the figures spoke of even committed Christians who regarded their faith as an optional extra, a leisure activity, or a lifestyle choice which, in our tolerant age, they would not be so presumptuous as to try to force on anyone else, even their own kids.

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I am aware that there are many many parents in the churches of our land who know the grief of seeing their children grow up to abandon the religion in which they have been faithfully brought up, and choose lifestyles which they would not want for them. I am sometimes made to feel guilty because all three of my grown-up children are as passionate about God as they ever were, and all seeking to serve him in different ways as their top priority. I also know that for many parents of lost children the reaction is shoulder-shrugging resignation, because the alternative is far too uncomfortable to contemplate.

But if I could address new parents of those contemplating parenthood, I would point them to the passages above and tell them that their single highest calling in life is to make sure that their children have vibrant faith, and that God’s way of achieving this is through parents, and not through Church or Sunday School. If you feel inadequate to this task , welcome to the club. You need to attend seriously to your own discipleship, because you won’t create in your kids what isn’t in you.

And if I could address parents with kids no longer living for God, I would call them to deep, grief-stricken and anguished prayer and intercession, rather than merely believing that ‘everyone does it nowadays’. I know this is uncomfortable: I’ve got myself into deep trouble more than once for saying this, but unless we start taking our children’s faith seriously, there quite simply is no future.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Kings

 

The downward spiral of decline and apostasy continues with more of the same as we move into the final book of the Deuteronomic history, although there are some highspots too. The ministry of the prophet Elijah draws to a close and Elisha is appointed to succeed him. There are several stories about his prophetic work in chapters 2 to 9, my personal favourite of which is the cursing of the ‘children’ in 2:23-24, resulting in them being attacked by two bears. If you go down in the woods today …

This is a book of quite black and white heroes and villains. Ahab and his queen Jezebel stand out as highly evil characters, although it is interesting that ‘secular’ histories of this period laud Ahab and a great king and a mighty warrior. But of course the Deuteronomic historians aren’t interested in that, but only in the centralisation of worship in Jerusalem and the idolatry of the nation and its leaders. Later on Judah’s king Manasseh sinks to an all-time low by promoting mass occultism and the practice of child sacrifice, but in between are a few more minor villains who are assessed, as we have now come to expect, on their perpetuation or not of the rival sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan. Typical is this summing up of the reign of Pekahiah of Israel from 2 Kings 15:

  23 In the fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekahiah son of Menahem became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned for two years. 24 Pekahiah did evil in the eyes of the Lord. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.

the sins of Jeroboam, of course, being the setting up of the rival shrines.File:Jerusalem ruins from Davids.jpg

However there are some heroes too, leaders whose hearts seemed set on God and therefore the renewal of the nation’s life. After Ahab’s death Joash sets about restoring the physical Temple, opening its doors once again for worship, and later Hezekiah, with the help of his contemporary prophet Isaiah, attempts reform. After him Josiah again sets out of building renovations, and discovers some lost scrolls, probably parts of the book of Leviticus, which cause him to realise how far wrong the nation has gone.

But the reforms are short-lived, and in chapter 17 the Northern Kingdom of Israel goes off into exile in Assyria, followed in the final chapter by Jerusalem falling and people being deported to Babylon.

All in all it is a sorry tale. Like watching with a terminal cancer patient we read this history knowing that death is inevitable, and that even if there is an occasional better day, the direction is inexorably downhill. Later on, when the sadder and wiser historians seek to write up this sad tale and learn lessons from it, their viewpoint is simple: people abandoned God, so eventually he abandoned them. It’s pure Romans 1 theology, or, if you’ve ever read it, straight out of The Tale of Georgie Grubb.

We’re going, of course, to see that the exile was far from being the last word, but before we move on from this sad period we’re going to read it all over again, but written up from a very different point of view.