OT Lectionary June 14thrd Trinity 2 Ezekiel 17:22-24

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Last week we considered the need of God not just to tweak his ruptured world but to re-create it from scratch, but in this poem or parable from the prophet Ezekiel we see that in the meantime God is not above a bit of tweaking. This poem is about both the sovereignty of God, but also the continuation of the remnant of Israel after the time of exile which forms the backdrop for this oracle.

As humans we are very happy for God to act in what we would call ‘positive’ ways, but less so when things begin to go pear-shaped. Nowadays we have a Devil to blame for life’s disasters, but the fiercely monotheistic Jews were reluctant to allow anyone or anything apart from Yahweh any spiritual authority. Good and bad both came from the hand of God, and if his ways and purposes are inscrutable, we simply have to have faith that he knows what he is doing. He is perfectly entitled both to plant and prune, to make flourish and to make wither, to plant and to uproot. He is the one who reverses human fortunes by his mighty hand, bringing down rulers from their thrones, but lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty, as Mary was later to sing. If my fortunes suddenly plummet, it might just be that I was a bit too rich, and a bit lacking in humility.

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So Israel in exile had to accept by faith that what had happened to them was all somehow contained within God’s good purposes, just as we have to when life kicks us in the teeth. Believing that God’s will can contain our dark times is not, of course, the same as saying that they are directly his will for us: Christians do believe in evil, and, as we saw last week, in the consequences of sin. But this parable speaks also of God’s purposes beyond suffering. A nation which feels like a tree which has all but lost its life, rather like the Mediterranean cypress which I grew from seed but which doesn’t seem to like the Lincolnshire climate, can be encouraged by the thought that from the smallest cutting God is able to replant, and that in time new growth can result. A key word here, as any gardener will know, is the word ‘tender’ in v 22. The Hebrew rak means soft and pliable, both physically and of heart. It’s no good trying to replant woody stems, usually. Cuttings come from small and pliable sprigs, and it is the sadder but wiser nation which will be restored, just as the tough and rigid one had to be cut down and punished.

But the second motif, which probably guided our compilers to this somewhat obscure little passage, is that of the birds finding shelter, picked up in today’s gospel. It is the universality of bird-life which is striking here (‘birds of every kind’ v 23): in Mark 4 the point is the size of the tree growing from such a tiny seed, but Ezekiel may have a different purpose, reminding Israel once again of her vocation, which goes back to Abraham, to be blessed and to be a blessing. In God’s kingdom there is room for all; among God’s people there is a mission to all. Re-creation will happen, but the more people ready for it, the better.

Image: “Cedar Tree (7853418286)” by Smabs Sputzer from Stockport, UK – Cedar TreeUploaded by Kurpfalzbilder.de. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

Reflections on Discipleship – Joy, not Duty

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 …

I’m reading a fascinating if somewhat esoteric book at the moment[1], but I was struck by the point made by the author that the greatest calling for Christians is to live with joy. After all, he explains, the gospel begins and ends with joy. ‘I bring you good news of great joy’ and ‘They worshipped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’ (Luke 2:10 and 24:52). Joy goes around the whole thing like a huge pair of brackets. Celebration invites us to life our heads above the flood of things to do and breathe in God’s Spirit. It gives us the excuse to climb the mountain and see the big picture. And of course to give thanks to God for all he is doing is the right thing to do, our duty and our joy.

Schmemann notes that ‘Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy’.[2]

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Disciples, followers of Jesus, are part of this story of joy. We are given it; we are called to live in it, and we are called to shine it out into a miserable world. We are to be spreaders of joy, and we are to know as joyful people.

Note also that the Bible calls us to joy even when life is not joyful by human standards. ‘Consider it pure joy’, says James (1:2) ‘whenever you face trials of many kinds.’ Rejoicing in sufferings is commended throughout the New Testament. It has been said that he who smiles to himself has a secret. Disciples have! We know that whatever this world throws at us, its power to harm us has been taken away. As a friend put it ‘God will never allow you to come to any harm. You might die, but you will never come to any harm’. Disciples have a different take, a different perspective, which will simply not allow us to be grumpy. We are not of this world, just as Jesus wasn’t. Disciples know where they’re headed, and the prospect of that fills us with unutterable joy, even if there are no parking spaces or the printer has crashed again.

A miserable disciple is a contradiction in terms. Not a sad one, note. Life is sad. At times it’s excruciatingly sad. But disciples are not robbed of their joy by mere sadness. We have the gift of joy, and we can’t help but share it with others.

Image: “Baby love” by Gilberto Filho from Salvador, Brasil – baby love. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

[1] Schmemann, A For the Life of the World (New York: St Vladimir, 1973) in case you’re interested

[2] P 24

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Amos

And now for something completely different. Hosea whom we looked at two weeks ago was an 8th century prophet who warned people that because of their lack of love for God and their prostitution of their faith through adulterous relationships with other gods they would go into exile. Then we saw Joel, who is not easy to date, believing that a plague of locusts heralded the start of God’s apocalyptic judgement, which might, however, be held back by deep penitence for sin. Now we come to Amos, a slightly earlier contemporary of Hosea, also ministering in the North, also predicting  judgement, but for very different reasons.

His message, and his style, were aimed at people who were basically complacent and self-satisfied. It wasn’t that they were bad at loving God, but that they were dreadful at loving their neighbours.

He begins to tickle their complacency by a cook’s tour of the surrounding nations, each of which is roundly condemned for some area of sin. You can just hear the applause after each nation is mentioned, as self-righteousness and xenophobia combine to make the people feel better and better. The penultimate straw is his condemnation of Judah, their despised brothers to the South: this would really have raised the roof. But then the hammer drops as in 2:6 Israel itself get exactly the same treatment. Not only does this condemn them for their sins, but also it tells them that they are no better than all these hated foreigners in God’s sight. All alike are ripe for punishment.

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The sins of Israel, though, are not about their lack of devotion to God. Indeed their worship and music are exemplary (5:21-24). It’s just that it is so much hot air, and does not show itself in care and concern for the poor, needy and broken of society. Their worship really is the Tory Party at Prayer, while the humble poor are neglected. The rich get richer, and enjoy a life of ease, while the poor are further beaten into the dust. And no-one even seems to care, or even to notice.

It isn’t that God hasn’t tried to get their attention. In chapter 4 there is a list of disasters which have overtaken the nation: famine, drought, pests and plagues, warfare and destruction. But the refrain after each disaster is the same: ‘Yet you have not returned to me!’.

The Israelites could have done with being Anglicans. Merely to say to God ‘We do not presume …’ might have freed them from annihilation. But they would not, and their self-righteousness continued. Amaziah the shrine priest tried to send Amos back down South to do his preaching there (7:10ff) but he knew his calling, and he had no choice but to obey. His message was that those who longed for the Day of the Lord, that time would God would come and vent his wrath on all the foreigners, would be the day they too were on the receiving end of it.

I need not labour the parallels with our own age, with its injustice, inequality and violence. But as we’ll see next time, to do nothing is simply not enough. How tragic if the British Church heard God say ‘yet you have not returned to me’.

Image: By Jim Linwood [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary June 7th Trinity 1 Genesis 3:8-15

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Now that we’re in ordinary time I face a choice over whether to comment each week on the related or continuous strands of the OT lectionary. I’ve plumped for the related stream, simply because it will be more interesting for me, but if I were you I’d scrap the lectionary altogether and preach on what your church needs to hear at this particular time in its history, which of course you can do legally for several months. My How to Preach Strategically[1] can help you with this.

Anyway, for those determined to go on, here’s some thoughts on Genesis 3, the so-called story of the Fall. Our compilers miss out the slightly weird snakey stuff at the beginning, and cut to the chase of the consequences of this event. Our first question, though, is about the degree to which the term ‘Fall’ is a good one. We talk about ‘falling from grace’ and ‘falling into sin’, but I remember hearing one lecture in which it was suggested that a better terms was ‘the rupture’, which is less about tumbling from an exalted position and more about breaking out of proscribed boundaries in our search for something new and better. It is human nature to focus immediately on the one tree which was out of bounds and ignore the other however-many which were OK. But this bursting of boundaries continually goes on around us. We have recently done it to marriage in Britain, for example. I find it a much more helpful way of thinking than falling, and the more I think about it, the more I can see its insidious power, and the more I can see it in my own life.

Hugo van der Goes - The Fall of Man and The Lamentation - Google Art Project.jpg

So what are the consequences of this rupture? One way of looking at it is to see harmony replaced with separation, conflict and enmity. So we see separation between Adam and Eve and God in v 8. Previously they communed: now they hide. There is separation too between Adam and Eve, as blame enters the world in v 12, and equality is replaced by submission (v 16). At a deeper level humans become separated from themselves as they first begin to experience shame: unhappiness with who they are, as symbolised here by the sudden awareness of nakedness. There is a brief interlude for a couple of ‘Just So’ stories explaining why snakes have no legs and why childbirth hurts, but then we see separation and hostility between humans and the created world, as their bursting of the boundaries affects the rest of the created order, and the land itself. There is even separation from life itself, as a few chapters later God curbs human immortality and limits his life, an act of mercy actually.

Bursting, therefore, matters. To us as individuals, to our relationships, to our society, and even to the very land in which we live. Nowadays medical hernias are pretty easy to repair, apparently. But with this rupture, as in the very different story of Pandora’s Box, it is almost impossible to rewind and go back to how things were. That is why the grand sweep of Scripture is less about healing than it is about re-creation, less about life-support and more about death and resurrection. As the story begins here with the rupture, so it ends with a brand new heavens and earth, and a new paradise, free from blame, shame and pain. We are part of this story, disobedient but learning, on the way to re-creation but still broken. Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Cambridge: Grove W211, 2012