Old Testament Lectionary April 12th Easter 2 Exodus 14:10-13, 15:20-21

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

Last week, on Easter Sunday, our OT reading set before us a vision of what the victory of God would look like: this week the Red Sea narrative demonstrates one occasion on which it was demonstrated. We are clearly invited to reflect on the victory of Christ, which for John is not demonstrated by the resurrection but by the cross.

Many attempts have been made to explain the miracle of the Red Sea in ‘scientific’ terms (as we all know from our TV adverts, slap some scientific-sounding names on a shampoo and it’s bound to be OK) but that is to miss the point. The deliverance from their enemies and their freedom to begin a new life is presented as being down to God and God alone, although of course Moses has to co-operate by obediently holding out his staff. From the description in verse 29 Cecil B DeMille got it exactly right. In the same way on the cross Satan is defeated, a new way is opened up, and a new people come into being. It’s just a miracle.

But our reading, when read alongside the gospel from John 20, presents us with another theme, that of doubt. Thomas we know all about: like a true child of the Enlightenment he needs proof, not just tales from his friends, and so Jesus graciously provides a special appearance just for him. But the doubt of the fleeing Israelites is a far deeper thing: it goes beyond intellectual disbelief and becomes a matter of life and death as the Egyptian army gets ever closer. In their panic they turn on Moses (again!), but Holy Spirit encourages them to remain steadfast, although one wonders to what extent he had any idea just how God was going to get them out of this one! Verse 15 suggests that privately he was in as much panic as the people, but the art of leadership is of course to keep calm, carry on, and never let it show.

The destruction of all those poor Egyptian soldiers is also a matter of concern for 21st century readers but simply not for the biblical writers. We think ‘individual’: we remember that each one of the soldiers probably had a wife and kids; we shuffle along for hours to look at 888,000 individual poppies in the Tower of London. The Bible always thinks corporate: Egypt as a nation had enslaved and ill-treated God’s people, had stubbornly refused to take any notice of ten plagues, and so was fair game for God’s retribution. I’m not saying that one is right or wrong, just that to expect the Bible to see things as we do and go all apologetic for God’s enemies getting their comeuppance is completely anachronistic.

The little coda from 15:20-21 lifts our thoughts away from such messy questions and sets our focus firmly back where it ought to remain throughout the Easter season: on celebration and rejoicing. As Common Worship puts it:

in his victory over the grave a new age has dawned,

the long reign of sin is ended,

a broken world is being renewed

and humanity is once again made whole.

Reflections on Discipleship – Taking up our Cross

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 …

 

‘If you want to be my disciple’, Jesus told his followers, ‘you have to deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me’. What better day than Good Friday to think about discipleship in these terms? If you have watched the controversial Passion of the Christ you will have seen one person’s suggestions about the extreme nature of the suffering Jesus went through for love of the human race. It does not make comfortable viewing, and it challenges the sanitised ideas we have about crucifixion. Of course we know it must have hurt, but we prefer not to think about just how much. So why did Jesus use the picture of a cross to describe discipleship? Is it really meant to be that awful following him?

Madero de Tormento.jpg

First let’s clear up one misunderstanding. In common parlance our ‘cross to bear’ means some unfortunate circumstance with which we feel our life to have been blighted, anything from a bad back to a nasty mother-in-law. This is manifestly not what Jesus is talking about. We ‘take up’ our cross, not have it bonked down upon us by fate or circumstance. A cross is something we choose, not something we’re stuck with. Martin Luther King chose, at great personal cost, to speak up for persecuted black people in the USA. It led him to vilification, attack and finally martyrdom. Countless others throughout history have deliberately chosen to go down the more difficult path, knowing it could, and often would, lead to their death. At any moment they could presumably have chosen to lay down the cross and walk away to safety, but they didn’t. They walked that path to the end. And that is discipleship. It’s our choice.

Of course, while discipleship often has been so extreme as to lead to death, it needn’t. It might be small things. I once worked in a warehouse where the lads would greet visiting drivers, take them off to the canteen and get them a cup of tea while the rest of the gang ransacked the back of the truck looking for anything worth nicking. They didn’t kill me because I refused to join in, but I wasn’t flavour of the month. Maybe we make a stand in our community against some injustice, whistle-blow at work, enforce Christian standards among our kids, sign a petition saying that gay marriage is not just what our country needs right now, or refuse to fiddle our expenses. But we do what we do because we believe in something worth fighting for. Or alternatively we keep quiet, merge into the crowd, and save our reputations. It’s up to us what, if anything, we feel strongly about.

That’s the thing about following Jesus – he always gives us space. He makes the highest of demands, but understands if we don’t choose to rise to the challenge, and keeps the door open until we decide to go his way. Like so many others he paid the ultimate price for his obedience to the Father, but as the forerunner of others he showed that even discipleship to the point of death isn’t terminal.

“Madero de Tormento” by Rubén Betanzo S. – Mi PC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg#/media/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jeremiah

This far through our odyssey we’re beginning to get a broad overview of OT history. We’ve seen the judges and the monarchy, the decline and fall of Israel and the exile in Babylon, and then Ezra and Nehemiah’s return and rebuilding in Jerusalem. This big picture will be helpful to keep in mind as we explore the remaining prophetic books, each of which will be positioned somewhere in this story.

Jeremiah has the reputation of being the most miserable of the prophets, and it is easy to see why. His ministry crossed the time before and into the exile, and his words fall pretty much into two halves, firstly warning the unrepentant Israelites that it has become too late for repentance: they simply have to accept their punishment at the hands of Babylon and suck it up. Then, as Jerusalem falls and the people are carried off, he turns to speaking to the ruling classes in exile, telling them that God was still in control and would fulfil his purposes through them if they just kept the faith. Meanwhile the peasants who remained in the now devastated Judah were encouraged simply to accept their lot and wait patiently for God’s salvation.

This is familiar stuff – Jeremiah was roughly contemporary with Isaiah of Jerusalem, and had a similar if much harder message. Isaiah believed that repentance and salvation were still possible, while Jeremiah’s message was that the nation’s apostasy had gone beyond the point of no return. But there are two things which make this book stand out from the crowd. The first is the high proportion of biographical material. Most of the prophetic books give at least some detail about the prophet himself, but Jeremiah has given us not just many narrative details of his career, but also some very poignant outpourings of his own emotions as he is ignored, rejected and persecuted. We also feel something of his pain as the city he loves is razed to the ground by foreign invaders, although nowhere near as much as we are going to feel next week. We are reminded that we are reading about a real person, whose calling from God meant that his life was one of almost complete rejection. The promise from God in 29:11 that he had plans to prosper the people, and that he would not harm them, a purple passage owned by Christians down the years, certainly didn’t seem to be fulfilled in Jeremiah’s own life. We are reminded of the cost of Christian ministry, and the fact that in his love for us God is not committed to giving us an easy life if we obey him.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

The other significance of Jeremiah’s prophecy is its strong relevance to today’s culture. He ministered at a time when society was literally crumbling and giving way to a new order. Culture-watchers have defined the late 20th century, with the death of enlightenment modernism and the tectonic shift to postmodernity and beyond as a time which parallels the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the settled lifestyle which had been Israel’s since the days of the judges. We watch with Jeremiah at the end of an era; we feel his pain, confusion and uncertainty, and we hear his reassurances that the unchanging God is still somehow in charge, even if, like his original hearers, we find it all a bit hard to believe. Jeremiah makes good reading for Christians who feel that the world is going to hell in a handcart. He validates our grief but yet holds out to us the offer of hope.