OT Lectionary Apr 5th Easter Sunday Isaiah 25:6-9

 Reflections on the oft-neglected OT lectionary passages

Those among my dear readers who have undergone any academic training will probably have had to answer this essay question: ‘1 Corinthians 15:4 states that Christ “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”. Which scriptures, exactly?’

This is an interesting question: Paul, along with our liturgical creeds, clearly saw the resurrection as have been predicted in some way in the OT, although it is not easy to see exactly where. So our solitary OT lectionary passage for Easter Day (not counting the Psalm, of course) doesn’t directly address the resurrection per se, but it does talk in symbolic language about what some of the results of resurrection might be, whether or not it directly expected the physical resurrection from death of an individual.

It’s worth noting first that Isaiah’s scene is played out on a mountain, while Jesus is crucified on Skull Hill. In the OT mountains are often places of encounter with God, and most clearly the place of law. The cross becomes the place where earth and heaven meet, but the place of law becomes the place of grace.

Isaiah begins here, as he so often does, with food. Whatever event he is looking towards, it is set around a laden table, with people celebrating joyfully with the finest of fare, something of a contrast with the austerity of the Last Supper. It is also a feast open, he tells us, to all peoples. The resurrection of Jesus, our lectionary compilers are clearly trying to tell us, is for celebration and nourishment, and all are welcome, not just ‘PLU’s (People Like Us).

While the people feast a ‘shroud’ is removed from them. This might refer to the shroud of death which, like taxes, is inevitable for all, or it might be an introductory phrase which is spelt out in the next few verses as he promises the defeat of death, misery and disgrace, negative elements as much of a threat to all of us today as they were in Isaiah’s time and ever since. The resurrection of Jesus promises us not just freedom from the sting and fear of death, but also the possibility of forgiveness for the shamefaced, healing for the sick and joy for the downcast.

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Isaiah ends by noting that whatever it is that God is doing, it has been long-awaited. It shows the other side of the coin from all those desperate ‘How long?’ cries which ring through the OT and down the ages. For so long, it seems, God has chosen, for whatever reasons, not, apparently, to do very much. But now he has stirred himself: he is on the move, his purposes are being worked out, and his salvation is there for the asking.

Our response to all this? As it will be on Easter Sunday in our churches, rejoicing is the only appropriate way to celebrate this mighty act of God.

Reflections on Discipleship – Surprised by Generosity

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 …

Is it just me, or do you sometimes get a bit despairing about Church as a whole? On a really bad day as my mind wanders I look around from my office desk and see thousands of ancient and often crumbling buildings populated by a handful of people in their 70s, whose only hope is for survival and whose only vision is for keeping the show on the road somehow? I see clergy worn out by the demands of up to a dozen, often fiercely independent parishes, each with its individual set of PCCs and other committee meetings. I see worship which often lacks the most basic of resources, and can feel flat and uninspiring. What on earth do I think I’m doing? I sometimes ask myself. What’s the point? As my Dad used to say ‘I don’t think church will ever catch on!’

But then I get up from my desk and get out and about around the Diocese. At the moment we’re in the middle of a set of roadshows around the Diocese, running study days around discipleship themes, and based around what it means today to live out Acts 2:42-47. You might think that actually to go out and meet all this deadness face to face would be a depressing experience. But to my surprise my perambulations have had exactly the opposite effect, as, to my shock and shame, I have encountered many real life disciples who really do get it.

Of course it is true that diocesan roadshows are a bit self-selecting, and you would expect the keen people to rock up for a day of study and learning. But I have been so encouraged by what I have seen and heard, and I have come to realise that, as he did in the time of Elijah, God still has those who really are his and remain faithful to him and hungry for him. It is a bit sad that for some people their discipleship is being lived out in the context of a church and under leadership who seem bent on doing all they can to prevent it, but I have been pleasantly surprised and excited to know that faithful followers of Jesus are still going for it.

People, it appears, genuinely do want to learn how to pray, how to serve, how to understand the Bible better, and so on. One lovely story came from a man I met at one of the roadshows who had been in a pretty well-paid job and who, in response to prayer and a call from his diocesan bishop years ago, had got into the habit of regular proportional giving. When he took early retirement and had to live on his pension his immediate plan was to continue the same proportion of giving but at the new significantly lower rate. But as he was praying he felt challenged by God to maintain his giving at the old rate. He decided to try this for a month or two, but expected that he would have to reduce it before too long. But, he told me with excitement in his eyes, we’re still managing fine, and happily giving on what his salary had been.

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I love this story because it isn’t just about giving, good thermometer of our spirituality though that is. It’s actually a story of commitment, of prayer, of listening to God and obeying, and above all of the discovery of the joy which comes from full commitment to Jesus.

So with people like him around, I’m optimistic. And I’ve learnt that we see better from in among the people than we do from a desk.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Isaiah Part 3

First of all, apologies to my regular readers for missing a week. Busy busy busy doing discipleship around the diocese. I’m now back in the office so here we go with the third section of the book of Isaiah, from chapters 56 – 66.

So far we have heard Isaiah of Jerusalem warning the people of imminent punishment by exile, and Deutero-Isaiah comforting them and telling them that their punishment is over. The final few chapters of the book once again presuppose a very different audience in a very different situation, suggesting a third prophet, whom we have quite logically named ‘Trito-Isaiah’. The people are now no longer wicked, idolatrous and godless, nor ravaged and in despair. They have returned to Jerusalem, the city and the Temple have been rebuilt, and all their hopes and dreams have come true. And yet …

You know that feeling when you come back from a great holiday? You’ve been looking forward to getting back home, but then it all feels just kind of … flat. It was pretty rough for the people in exile, but it certainly wasn’t boring. Now, though, they have lost vision. They need a new hope, a new future, now that everything they had hoped for has happened. So the prophet addresses the people with three main themes.

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He turns his attention, firstly, to a much bigger and more eschatological vision for the future. ‘There is more to life than this!’ he tells them. There are images of glory for the nation which are far more exciting than mere comfort and more of the same. The prophecy ends with a vision very much in keeping with John’s in Revelation: there will be a new heavens and a new earth, a reign of peace and prosperity, and a special place for those who are God’s people.

Secondly he sets before the people a much wider vision of their role among the nations. This is a theme which we have seen time and time again since the call of Abraham: God’s chosen people are chosen to give the good things of the kingdom to everyone else. Perhaps the most purple of the passages in this section are chapters 60 and 61, both of which are calls to an outward-looking focus.

But thirdly he sets before them a reminder of things past, implying a warning for what might yet be to come. The God who allowed them to be punished for all those years in Babylon is still an active God, capable on the one hand of silencing their enemies and raising them to glory, but also equally capable of further punishment if they do continue to refuse him and live out their lives of relaxed, selfish comfort. These three themes together act like carrot and stick to encourage the people to wake up out of their self-satisfied but unsatisfying stupor and live lives of what we would nowadays call 24/7 discipleship.

Today first Isaiah might be addressing the godless, the evil and the depraved of our society. Deutero-Isaiah would be addressing the poor, broken and downcast victims. But Trito-Isaiah might well be addressing C of E ‘churchgoers’, calling us to a more glorious vision of the future, a more outward-looking and missionary lifestyle, and a whole-life discipleship which means that we really mean it when we sing ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Isaiah Part 2

I said last week that it is generally reckoned to be the case that what we call the book of Isaiah is actually three books by three authors widely separated in time. Isaiah of Jerusalem, who is responsible largely for the first 39 chapters, warned the people about the danger of exile if they didn’t buck their spiritual ideas up, and of course they didn’t, and exile was indeed their lot.

We have already mentioned the exile when we were looking at Ezra and Nehemiah, but may I invite you for a moment to think yourself into the situation of those whose home city had been besieged and ransacked, and who had been carried off, with great violence, to become slaves and prisoners in a foreign land many hundreds of miles away. What must that have felt like? What hardships did they have to endure? And, perhaps worse, what theological agonising did they spend their time in? This certainly felt like punishment from God: Isaiah had been right all along.

But what are we to do about it now? Maybe our God simply wasn’t powerful enough to prevent Nebuchadnezzar from conquering us. Is there any point praying to him now? After all, we’re not in his patch any longer; maybe we should try praying to a god more local to here, Bel, Nebo or one of those the natives worship. And even if we could get through to Yahweh from 500 miles away, is he going to forgive us? Isaiah wasn’t wrong, if we’re really honest. We were a pretty rotten lot to God, after all he’s done for our people in the past. Maybe we’ve crossed the line. So is there any basis for hope? Or have we blown it once and for all with God? Have we broken our covenant relationship in a way which simply can’t be mended?

You can just imagine the agonised debating which took place, and the increasing despair with which they faced nearly 70 years of silence on God’s part.

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Then suddenly, just as all hope must have virtually evaporated away, a new voice was heard in the land. A new prophet had been raised up by God, and his message was as different from that of Isaiah as chalk from cheese. Although we have 15 chapters of his work, actually it is only the first seven words which are really significant. We know nothing about the guy, except that scholars have christened him ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ which you must admit is catchy.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

It is almost impossible to grasp the depth of relief with which people would have received these words, but to them the centuries would have echoed with resonances. From the earliest times the deal, the covenant with God and his chosen people had been expressed in the terms ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people’. You can find that phrase again and again in the OT. And now, in the midst of despair, the prophet was saying to those exiles ‘The deal is still on!’ Comfort my people, says your God. He goes on to explain that Israel’s’ sins have been paid for exactly: the word ‘double’ in 40:2 doesn’t mean twice as much as they really deserved, but double in the sense of people who are exactly alike. The punishment has fitted the crime exactly, no more, no less. The prophet then spends the next 15 chapters answering all their theological questions: of course Yahweh is still God, even in Babylon. God only allowed them to go into exile so that it would stop the degradation of their national life: in fact there is no other god, only him. He is the God of all creation, and these so-called Babylonian deities are nothing more than dead scraps of wood: how dare you think that he’s powerless? And the best news of all is that the people will return, the ruins of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and they will know blessing after their hardships. All the themes of the book are there in the first chapter, but all of it is well worth a read through, particularly by those who feel themselves to have a God who has given up on them.

Old Testament Lectionary March 15th Mothering Sunday Exodus 2:1-10/1 Samuel 1:20-28

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

I’m assuming that most churches will want to celebrate Mothering Sunday this week, but when I looked up the OT lectionary passages I have to say that I couldn’t make up my mind between them, so I’m actually going to do a bit of both. Mothering Sunday is, of course, fraught with difficulties for so many reasons, but I believe that there is much here which can speak to all sorts and conditions of women.

One of the big debates of recent years, although I sense we’ve all got a bit bored with it now, is whether God is male or female, or, more specifically, whether we should use male or female language about him or her. I too am bored with this sterile debate, but what I can affirm is that God often exhibits traits which, in our particular stereotyped culture, we would tend to call female ones. I am in no doubt that God ‘mothers’ us. I want to suggest that both the mothers in today’s OT stories are in fact behaving in some very God-like ways, and by looking at these women we can learn much about what it is God’s job to do with regard to children, and how parents may reflect this. You will get it as we go on, honest!

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Jochebed, Moses’ mum, begins, obviously, by giving birth. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, does the same, although not until after a significant struggle and much prayer. Both of them reveal God as the life-giver, and affirm that when we create new life we are doing what God intended the human race to do, although the Bible also recognises, in several places, the heartache and grief of women who find it difficult or impossible to conceive. In a Jewish culture where this would have been a sign of being cursed by God the Scriptures take a different view, and give dignity and particular care to those agonising over childlessness.

Jochebed then has to protect her child, due to the particular circumstances in which they lived, in a hostile nation with a cruel and violent ruler. She is wise and resourceful in this protection, and reveals to us God as the giver of life but also as its sustainer and protector. She also has to provide for her baby, and does so by finding a caring surrogate mother who will even pay her to bring up her own child. Like God she is life-giver, protector, sustainer and provider.

This isn’t made explicit in the Exodus passage, but Hannah in 1 Samuel dedicates the life of her son to God. Many couples, even those with a very tenuous faith, feel the weight of responsibility on becoming parents and want in some way to ‘dedicate’ their child, through whatever ceremony the church offers them. And of course Christian parents who actually get it will want nothing more than to see their children continuing in the faith into which they were born, and eventually making the shift from family faith to personal faith and discipleship.

But perhaps the most difficult part comes, again from the Hannah story, when she has to let go. God gives us our children not as possessions to hang on to forever, but as gifts in trust. Our children are ours to bear, protect, nurture, care for, but also to dedicate to him for his service. The time times when they must make their own way in life, and a very difficult and painful parting this can be, particularly when the path they choose might not be that which we would have chosen for them, or when that parting involves them being suddenly snatched away from us. But just as they will always be in our hearts, so we, as God’s children, will always be in his caring, loving attention, even during those times when we choose to go our own way for a while.

God gives parenting, and particularly mothering, significance and dignity, because when we do it we are doing what he does. But his heart is also broken for the childless, the anxious, the lonely and, perhaps most painful of all, those bereaved of their children. Mothering Sunday is not just for nice happy nuclear families: all the joy and grief which come bundled together with children can be brought into our worship and intercession today.