Old Testament Lectionary July 5th Trinity 5 Ezekiel 2:1-5

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

For a while when I was young and stupid I genuinely believed in UFOs, space aliens and the like, and I devoured books about so-called encounters with extra-terrestrial beings. (I was also genuinely convinced that Jimi Hendrix had come from another planet, since no human could play that well.) Ezekiel chapter 1was a kind of proof text for UFO-freaks, since what was described there was clearly a visitation from another galaxy. But if that vision, whatever it was, was not scary enough for Ezekiel, the start of the next chapter should have had him genuinely quaking in his sandals. His prophetic call, God tells him, is to a ‘rebellious nation’ (a phrase particularly used in this book), who will refuse to hear his message, and be obstinate and stubborn instead. It is one thing to feel a sense of reluctance when called to an admiring audience, but when you know from the outset that your ministry is going to be rejected it must take quite a bit of courage to begin it in the first place. However God wants to leave the people no excuse: they will at the very least know that a prophet has been among them, even if his words fall on deaf ears. They can’t say he didn’t warn them.

File:Ezekiel's vision Zurich Bible.jpg

When we get to this passage church leaders and preachers automatically read it as though they are the prophets and their congregations, or at least some members of them, are the stubborn and rebellious ones who won’t do what they’re told. This may well be the case. I have a failed ministry under my belt, and it is easy for me to see myself as the prophet without honour, hounded out of town because my message was too uncomfortable. Sometimes as leaders we are called to speak hard words to stubborn people, although it goes without saying that being unpopular is not necessarily a sign that we are right and the others are rebellious. We might just be unpopular because we’re doing it wrongly! But to be able to confront as well as to comfort, to challenge as well as affirm, is an important tool in the leader’s toolbox.

But I wonder if there is another way of reading this passage which is less individual. As the church of Jesus Christ we are called to a prophetic role in wider society, and our voice is not always welcomed. As a townie working in a very rural diocese I’m struggling to understand rural spirituality, which appears to be very different from the urban version, although that does mean that I can look at the scene with new eyes and maybe see some blindspots more clearly. It seems to me that at its worst the rural church is all about joining in the ‘secular’ activities of the village (although I have been told off for using the term ‘secular’ because we’re all God’s children). As one priest put it ‘Of course we’re not here to evangelise the village’. Sadly many urban churches would agree with this sentiment.

The church often has a reputation for ‘ramming the Bible down people’s throats’ and the like, and we obviously can behave like that. But part of the calling of the whole people of God, surely, is to speak the unpopular, the challenging, the threatening word to a society which can be stubborn and rebellious with the best of them. They may not like us for it, but if we chicken out in favour of ‘niceness’ we are failing to be the church Christ calls us to be.

Reflections on Discipleship – High Mileage Life

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 …

My daughter has just completed a gap year discipleship programme before starting university, so we went back for her graduation to a church at which I had been on the staff in the 80s. The vicar preached a stunning sermon, concerning an advert he had come across for a 1984 VW for sale. It was advertised as having 15 miles on the clock, brand new tyres, exhaust and battery, pristine bodywork, and completely clean upholstery. It had only ever been used in first and reverse gears, and was being sold, the advert said, due to the owners losing their job. The attached photo showed a tiny island about 200 metres across, with a jetty on one side and a lighthouse on the other, with the car being used merely to ferry supplies between them.

 File:1984 VW Polo C 1.1 Formel E (15666695439).jpg

Cars are of course made to drive, to go on adventures, to change as we change. As young couples we might stick a tent in the boot and go off on holiday with no plans. Later it might commute us to work. Then it might ferry kids around their various activities. Later still it might need a topbox or bike carriers on the roof. It might take us to foreign countries as well as to Tesco’s. Cars which never get up to temperature are more likely to suffer wear internally, even though the bodywork might be pristine. The preacher who told this story challenged us to think about high-mileage as opposed to low-mileage lives. It’s possible to live nice clean simple lives, nicely polished with regular visits to church, with never a dent, scratch or wear. Disciples, though, he said, are those who live high-mileage lives, have adventures, go places, and occasionally get damaged in the process, as Jesus’ first disciples did. Disciples run into the ground.

 

Where has your discipleship taken you? How much has it cost? When your time comes, will you die in pristine condition, or will your life with Jesus have taken you to challenging and dangerous places? We need high-mileage disciples who, in Dylan Thomas’ immortal words, do not go gentle into that good night.

 

But this isn’t just about individual Christians: churches too can be low- or high-mileage. Some keep their liturgy highly polished, their worship-songs up to date, their accounts in perfect order, with nothing to dent their sparkling finish. But others take risks, do crazy things for the kingdom, use faith to take financial risks, make plans and reflect on them, learn, grow, change and adapt as the world around them changes. High-mileage churches have known amazing journeys of faith, but may well have a few scratches to show for it. I guess that can be true for dioceses too: living a high-mileage life is not always what the C of E has been known for, but it is, I believe, what we are called to. We should go places, rather than being stuck on our own little island.

Image: By Charlie from United Kingdom (1984 VW Polo C 1.1 Formel E) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Micah

Micah was an approximate contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Amos and Hosea, in the 8th Century and the lead up to the Babylonian exile. We have already seen how different prophets, facing the same situation, felt very differently about the root cause of the issues God was calling them to address. We saw Hosea complaining about unfaithfulness and lack of love for God, while Amos concentrated more on social injustice. Micah gives us a third take on this period, although his words are more in line with those of Amos. Like all the prophets of this period he warns people about coming judgement, and blames their deliberate and planned oppression of one another. National leaders and false prophets, who say what the people want to hear rather than bringing challenge to them, are equally condemned. Religion is comfortable, big business, and deeply compromised and therefore abusive.

 

But of his contemporaries Micah is perhaps the prophet most clearly able to see beyond tragedy and punishment to redemption and new hope. He has quite a lot more carrot than stick. He talks about ‘the last days’ (4:1 etc) when the Temple, set on the mountain of the Lord, will become a centre of worship and truth, not just for Israel but for many nations. As people gather to meet with the true God, so his teaching will go out, and warfare and conflict will be replaced with peace and prosperity. The poor will become rich, the sick healthy, the weak and grieving nation will, paradoxically, become mighty warriors.

 A cross in the sky of Bethlehem (8316854980).jpg

In chapter 5 this future vision becomes even clearer, as a new ruler for Israel is prophesied, who will come from the insignificant village of Bethlehem. Whether or not this is to be read as a clear prophecy about Jesus the coming Messiah, two things are significant: Bethlehem’s background as the place from which David, Israel’s greatest king, hailed, and the fact that it is the back of beyond as far as prestige and power are concerned. I wonder if we are meant to see a contrast between the current regime of powerful and oppressive religious leaders, based at the ‘cathedral’ of the Jerusalem Temple, and the future leader whose background is insignificant and who will shepherd the people rather than oppressing them.

 

The last word comes from the other purple passage of this book, 6:6-8, which sets out what the people have to do in order to please God: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. These kinds of behaviour and mindset are worth for more to God than extravagant sacrifices. The universal picture of salvation is reprised in the final paragraphs with a picture of the warlike nations who have oppressed Israel crawling out of their dens to find forgiveness and true faith in God.

 

Micah’s work delicately balances warning and hope, judgement and restoration, and Israel and the rest of the nations. It warns us of the dangers both of oppressive religious systems, injustice to others, and a belligerent attitude to the world around. God’s salvation is for all, even people ‘not like us’. It encourages us to righteous living and reverent worship.

Image: “A cross in the sky of Bethlehem (8316854980)” by Lux Moundi – A cross in the sky of Bethlehem. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Old Testament Lectionary June 28th Trinity 4 Lamentations 3:23-33

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

Being quite keen on the proper Bible I’ve chosen the Lamentations option, the one key purple passage in the book which I have discussed further here. It’s a great passage, standing proud like a lighthouse on the dark stormy seas of the rest of the book, and there is much encouragement to be had from it, but I found myself more interested on this occasion in the later verses, from v 25 onwards, and the advice it gives to suffering Christians.

This mini-section begins with the idea that God’s people (‘those whose hope is in him’) have a God who is basically good to them, although of course it doesn’t always feel like that. Therefore, in holding these two paradoxical truths together, we have to ‘bear the yoke’ and to ‘wait quietly’. It gets worse: we have to sit in silence, remembering that this is in fact God doing all this to them, and to ‘bury our faces in the dust’ in case there is any hope.

This language is uncannily reminiscent of Job’s comforters, and, whilst it reflects Israel’s Wisdom tradition, is in the end rejected by Job in favour of an inscrutable God who has the right to do whatever he likes. Indeed, reiterates the author here, it is God who causes suffering, though he doesn’t do it for fun, and he always mixes it with compassion, because that’s who he is. So are we any the wiser?

File:Child in the ruins of St Casimir Church.jpg

As always it will probably help us to set this passage in its historical context, so that we don’t try to make it say something to us which it never intended to say. Stuff it tells us about God is probably reliable, but not necessarily that which it says about our reaction. So let’s go back to the final days before the exile, when the Holy City has been devastated, God’s punishment on an apostate nation has been wreaked, and people are left in despair. So what do we do now?

Well, the author says, the time for penitence in the hope that God will let you off the hook is over. You had every opportunity to turn back to him, but you didn’t, and now there is no way of undoing the punishment which he warned you would come upon you. Your only hope now is to suck it up, keep your heads down and wait. You can be sure that the God who has brought this punishment on you will temper it with compassion, but you will have to sit through it. God would have loved to have seen you repent and therefore avoid this catastrophe, but you weren’t interested, so now you have to take what was coming to you.

This does, I think, put the words in one particular historical setting, and it also sets us free from believing that they apply directly to us today. They underline the importance of reading carefully, of not making blanket transfers down the years and across the miles, and of asking deeper questions about what from here we can take as truth for us today.

We have a God of compassion, but also a God of punishment (I have often said, in the face of our society’s valuing of ‘tolerance’ above all virtues, that God is not tolerant: he’s forgiving, which is a very different thing). He doesn’t enjoy putting people through hard times, but he understands when it is necessary. And, we know from our perspective the other side of the cross, that there is after all the chance to escape punishment, because his Son took it for us. This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jonah

We’re a bit more on familiar ground with this fishy tale, a book with a great story and loads of difficult issues. Jonah is called by God to preach God’s judgement in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, a cruel and vicious enemy of Israel away to the north east, which is a bit like asking someone to run an Alpha Course at Islamic State headquarters. So quite naturally he runs off in the opposite direction, and gets on a boat in Joppa. However, his disobedience threatens the life of his fellow-passengers, and he is thrown into the sea, only to be rescued by some sort of sea creature. He spends three days inside the creature, singing, no doubt, since we all know that everyone sings in whales, until sadder and wiser he gets vomited out and goes and does what he’s told, only to see the Assyrians repent in great numbers, from the King downwards. However, Jonah is really annoyed that God is letting them off after all they’ve done to harm Israel, and he throws a hissy fit and decides to sulk himself to death. Using a gourd-vine and a worm God teaches him a lesson, but the book is left hanging as to whether or not Jonah is convinced.

The miraculous in this book is clearly a big issue for some, and different people tells tales of having survived inside a large fish or whale, while others tell of the physiological impossibility of this happening. It may be that we have a well-known folk tale here, which is given a more spiritual twist. We saw that when we looked at Job. The book is difficult to date too. It must be fairly late, when the Assyrian empire was at its height and had captured Israel. Some regard it as a treatise against the narrow nationalism of post-exilic Judah. When you’ve been in exile and finally returned to rebuild your own land it’s natural for you to feel a bit xenophobic, to want to batten down the hatches and keep God to yourself. The idea that God might love foreigners appears to be a novel one, and the idea that he might love the very nation responsible for the destruction of your fellow-Israelites up north is unthinkable. So Jonah’s sorry tale might be for the nation a reminder that the God of mercy and compassion is merciful to all. It might also serve another purpose, which we have touched on before, taking them back to the original call of Abraham to be blessed but also to be a blessing for the rest of the world.

So what might this book have to say to us? There is something, I think, about the consequences for others when the church loses its vocation and focuses on being blessed rather than on being a blessing. At the lowest level we leave people not being able to tell their right hands from their left. Of course that doesn’t in any way refer to my wife, but rather speaks of a nation lost and confused in their sin and ignorance. The people lack all moral perception, and are unable to see the consequences of their action. The abolition of ‘Sunday’, for example, had radical effects on Western family and working life. Many believe that the persistent erosion of stable families is going to reap a whirlwind in the future. We can read all the research that children thrive best in families with a man and a woman in lifelong commitment, yet we continue actively to promote alternatives. When the church loses moral battles, the nation as a whole is weakened. Without preachers of truth and repentance, the nation simply will not hear, and may lose out the opportunity to change its ways.

But it gets worse: might those on the boat with Jonah be a picture of the storms which threaten others when Christians are disobedient. The church continues to be rocked, for example, by accusations of abuse, and in a real sense many have simply shoved us over the side to drown. The fish or whale, therefore, becomes not an image of God’s judgement but of his rescue, a sign of hope that we may get a second chance, and that people might even start to listen when we simply do what God tells us.

OT Lectionary June 21st Trinity 3 Job 38:1-11

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

The gospel this week is Mark’s story of the stilling of the storm, and the Job passage could be seen as God’s beginning to still the storm which had so viciously rocked Job’s life. After 36 chapters of Job’s agonised philosophising God finally speaks, although his words are not yet the words of comfort for which Job had been hoping. God begins by asking a series of rhetorical questions designed to remind Job who he is and how he has the right and the power to do whatever he likes. God is Lord, not just of Job’s life but also of the created world. He allows storms to scare us, although not ultimately to defeat us.

The phrase ‘Gird up your loins like a man’ is used in the OT as a rough equivalent to ‘grow a pair’. Stop grizzling about your misfortune and get on with it. This seems a bit harsh, as does God’s deliberate reversal of the question and answer dialogue. In 23:5 Job demands some answers from a silent God: if only he knew where to find God ‘I would find out what he would answer me’. But now the roles have been reversed: Job is in the dock and God at the bar, and his questions all demand the answer ‘No’. No, I wasn’t there at the creation, and therefore, by implication, no, I don’t have the knowledge to question or the right to object to your purposes.

Again, a bit harsh, we may think. I have written elsewhere about the book of Job as a whole, and this isn’t the place to repeat it, but nevertheless there are some parallels with Mark’s story, and therefore some insights into the way God handles us. ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ cry the terrified disciples. Behind this, and behind Job’s agony, is the assumption that God’s job in life is to keep everything nice for us, to keep the waters calm so that we may glide along across the millpond of health, wealth and happiness without so much as a ripple to disturb us. Yet Jesus sleeps while the fishermen struggle; God is silent while Job mourns. Yet in both cases there is growth and learning, which wouldn’t have happened without the rocky waters. ‘Who is this?’ ask the disciples. ‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand’ concludes Job.

In this passage, and the chapters following, God takes job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, and shows him scenes he had never encountered in his comfortable life as a pillar of the urban community. He takes him where the wild things are, and shows him the uncontrollable and desolate corners of the universe, places, incidentally, devoid of any human habitation. This walk on the wild side challenges his former predictable lifestyle, and both shrinks him into perspective, yet also elevates him to the privileged position of having been taken on the tour at all. We are left with the question ‘Where would I rather be?’ settled, comfortable and completely unaware of the wildness of life, or on an adventure to see life in all its dangerous, unpredictable fullness.

This faces us up to a big question for the church. The older I get, the more likely I am to opt for comfort and safety. Last weekend my son climbed Helvellyn and walked Striding Edge. I did that once, when I was young, but last weekend I weeded the garden. I used to bung a tent in the back of the car and go off somewhere: now I book a hotel. Increasingly, as the church grows more elderly, we opt for comfort and safety. But a generation younger than us longs for adventure, danger, storms and the thrill of having overcome them. Will we let them lead the church into some of it, or will we go gentle into that good night?

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Obadiah

This is one of my fave little books, brilliant for introducing group Bible study. With a little bit of background knowledge it’s possible to grasp what this book is all about, tick it off and get going on the other 65. Living out its message, of course, takes longer, but it’s always good for people to be able to say ‘OK, understand that’.

So what do we know about the background? Not a lot. Who was Obadiah? No idea. When might it have been written? We’ll come to that. Next question: who is this prophecy about? V 1 tells us it’s aimed at Edom, a nation who lived due south of Judah next to the Dead Sea. There are a few more clues to Edom’s location: the people live ‘in the clefts of rocks’, ‘on the heights’, ‘among the stars’ where the eagles soar. Not Lincolnshire, then. Note too that the people are called ‘Esau’, so they are the descendents of Jacob’s cheated brother, and so not always best friends with the Israelites.

What will happen to this nation? They will be totally ransacked by God’s judgement. If it were only human invaders things would be slightly better, but upset God and you’re in deep muck. And the fact that you think you’re unconquerable (v 3) only shows how much you underestimate God.

Now those who have visited the Holy Land may by now be picking up some clues, particularly if I tell you that in Hebrew ‘edom’ means ‘red’. (Esau was by all accounts a ginger.) What we’ve got here is the capital city, Petra, carved high in the red sandstone mountains of the Negev, accessible only by a narrow defile, called the Siq, only a few metres wide, and therefore extremely easy to defend. But not against God.

So what great crime did Edom commit to incur their judgement? Reconstructing v 10-16 the scenario seems to be that when Judah, their neighbours, were under attack (almost certainly as they were being carried off into exile in Babylon, which helps no end with the dating of this prophecy) Edom, rather than coming to their aid, stood at a distance and gloated, then helped mop up a few survivors and handed them over to the attackers, and then marched into the deserted city to loot what was left, desecrating the Temple as they went.

It’s been said that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. But to add active insult to passive injury makes things even worse. There is an implicit warning here for those who do nothing while others suffer. I recently led a study on this book in a Homegroup, at around the time that the Christian Church in Syria, Baghdad and other parts of the Middle East was undergoing virtual wipeout at the hands of Islamic State murderers, and we couldn’t help but wonder how our brothers and sisters viewed the Church in the West, and whether this very book which we were studying in the comfort of our nice homes was speaking to them of us. It’s a deeply challenging book, inviting us to stand up against injustice and violence wherever we can, and warning us against believing that we’re safe and secure here where no-one can touch us.

Images: By David Bjorgen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Jordan, Petra, Panorama, High Sacrifice” by filmrausch.com – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons