Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Zechariah

A contemporary of Haggai, prophesying during the reign of Persian king Darius over Israel, Zechariah ministered after the exile as the national life was being restored. His book falls into two halves. In chapters 1-8 he is urging the people to complete the rebuilding of the Temple, but while Haggai uses logic to persuade the people that it will be good for them if they get on with it and receive God’s blessing once again, Zechariah uses a series of somewhat strange visions to the same end. This is much more right-brain stuff than the cold logic of Haggai, but what shines through it is God’s desire to bless his people.

The nature of the second half of the book is much more like your trad prophetic oracle, predicting the downfall and judgement of Israel’s enemies and the coming of God to be among the people.

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The language, certainly of the first half of the book, is apocalyptic, which we first discovered in the book of Daniel. The weird visions, the angelic guides who interpret for him, the number symbolism: all this set this book firmly in the apocalyptic tradition. It is therefore uncertain as to the exact chronology of the fulfilment of these oracles, but has been interpreted as a messianic text. Certainly there is much which could be seen to link to the life of Jesus: the passage about mourning in 12:10ff, the thirty pieces of silver and the potter in 11:12ff, the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the flock in 13:7ff. Those writing up the events of Jesus’ life and death had plenty of language here with which to tell their story.

The key point here is the universal reign of God and his final victory. The foreign nations will either be destroyed or will come to worship the one true God. Whilst the book bristles with interpretational problems, which we simply can’t do justice to here, the message is clear: God will reign, so live in ways which will honour and obey him. But these images of a conquering king are interspersed with the imagery of shepherding a vulnerable flock with care and compassion. As such the book reveals the paradox of our God as a caring pastor and a fearless leader.

It raises the question of which version of God we prefer. Currently the fashion seems to be for a ‘nice’ God who is politically correct, who loves us ‘unconditionally’ (where can you find that in the Bible?), and above all who, like all good postmodern people, is tolerant. In past ages God was much more of a warrior, but that idea is well out of fashion now. Zechariah holds out to us a vision of both, and calls us to hold the two in tension. But one thing is certain: his ultimate victory for those who are his people.

Old Testament Lectionary 2nd August Trinity Exodus 16:9-15

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

‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world’ exclaimed the crowds who had just been fed with loaves and fishes in last week’s gospel. Who is this ‘Prophet’ whom they were expecting, and why did the feeding of the crowds make people think he had turned up? The answer is expanded in this week’s readings, but first we have to know about Deuteronomy 18:14ff and Moses’ promise of a ‘prophet like me’. This idea evolved into an understanding that the Messiah would come and repeat some of Moses’ miracles. It is easy to see, therefore, how the crowds saw Moses and the manna in Jesus and the loaves.

But as always my concern is not to reinterpret the OT readings in the light of the gospels, but to let them speak for themselves, in context. And, as so often in the Exodus narrative, the context is the people’s grizzling. Of course the grumbling of people in uncertain times is a common motif, and we can easily read this text thinking what an awful, faithless lot they were. But the text makes no such judgement, and God seems not to either at this point. The people are a month or so into their journey, and quite understandably they are fearful. Having faced thirst at the end of the previous chapter, they now face the very real threat of starvation. We might condemn them for their lack of faith, having seen the provision of God before, but we might also feel that they are justified in having a bit of a moan.

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That said, however, we might wish for a little bit more sense and insight for the people. So often our reaction, when faced with problems, or change, is to go backwards. There is an attraction in what we know, where we have been, even if our memories get a bit selective: nostalgia, is, after all, not what it was. The Israelites get nostalgic about life in Egypt – we might have been slaves, but at least we got food! Churches long for the golden age when the pews were full and the Sunday Schools thriving, and even those with a penchant for revival pray ‘Lord, do it again!’. They seem to have lost sight of a God who does new things, who is able constantly to surprise them, and who knows their needs even before they ask.

Anyway, God invites them to bring their complaints near to him. At least a moan is a cry for help, and God delights to help. The miraculous provision of bread and meat follows, and even though the people remain pathologically stupid in the way they handle it, they can’t fault God for his provision. So to all the grizzlers out there: bring your complaints to God: this passage in no way suggests that to cry out in despair to God is a bad thing to do. Experience his patience, see his power, and benefit from his provision. But then try to learn from it: we have a God who is faithful, and we don’t need to be anxious.

(By the way, a PS for real theological anoraks: it is possible to translate v 15 with the people asking ‘Who is he? For they did not know who he was’. This identification of Moses the provider with the manna itself might be one root of John’s tradition that Jesus himself is the bread of life, coming down from heaven to give life to the world. Just saying.)

Image:  “Alexandr Ivanov 081” by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov – http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/238/7793_Народ_собирает_манну_небесную.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – Live Life Better

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’re one of those people who think the Sunday lectionary is a good idea, I wonder whether you were struck as I was by something from the gospel for last Sunday? In Mark 6:30 the disciples, returning from a mission trip, are invited to spend some time with Jesus to debrief and recharge their spiritual batteries. However, if spite of his efforts to get away the crowds find him, and his compassion for them takes over, because he sees them as like ‘sheep without a shepherd’.

Those of us in pastoral ministry know this scenario well. In spite of our best efforts at time management, prioritising and the rest, our hearts often take over and we can’t help but respond to real need. But what struck me was the nature of this response. Just what do these shepherdless sheep need? A visit from the vicar? A bunch of flowers and a cup of tea? A promise to pray for them? Or just money? Jesus saw things differently: seeing their lostness he began teaching them.

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It is a hobby horse of mine, but I never cease to be amazed at the poor state of the teaching ministry in today’s church. We believe that the Bible contains the wisdom of God, both the words of eternal life and common sense for good living now, but we seem to have lost our nerve in preaching and learning from it. In a sound-bite culture we have forgotten the art of listening deeply, studying, memorising and learning from Scripture, and teachers have been replaced by pastors or administrators as the default models for church leadership. I find it ironic that in many evangelical churches the Bible is never read publicly, but merely alluded to in sermons.

And yet there is a hunger among people. In one diocese in which I worked the Bishop cleared his diary one Lent, and travelled around the Diocese five nights a week for six weeks giving lectures on John’s gospel. It was standing room only, and people were deeply impacted by his teaching ministry, which of course used to be one of the main roles of bishops.

One church in which I used to minister developed as its strapline ‘Meet friends; meet God; live life better’ which pretty much sums up for me what church ought to be about. Archbishop Rowan Williams apparently said that the next stage on from discipleship isn’t leadership; it’s citizenship. Disciples are engaged in the process of becoming more Christ-like people, and this must show at every level. We need the Bible’s wisdom to grow and mature, and we need the ministry of teachers to help us do that.

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There is, I think, a cyclical thing going on here. People in our churches are seldom hungry for God’s word, until someone sets before them a feast, when they begin to realise just how starving they actually are. We need to pray, I believe, for those with teaching gifts to be raised up, and for God’s people to served up banquets of good things from his word.

Image:  “Eritrean platter at London restaurant” by Secretlondon – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Haggai

I love this book as it provides my sole contribution to the C of E’s Common Worship corpus – if you look on p 116 of New Patterns for Worship you’ll see my lectionary module to help with a preaching series on Haggai. All my own work!

The book dates from the period after the return from the Babylonian exile, and as we have already seen in Ezra and the third section of Isaiah things were not going as well as they might. Released from the hardship of exile and slavery, the people seem to have returned to their homeland and simply flopped. Haggai is called by God to wake the people up from their stupor and refocus on their worship of God. In particular they are called to rebuild the Temple, the symbol of God present among his people.

The spiritual stupor, though, was not one of slumber, but rather of self-centredness. In 1:4 the term ‘panelled houses’ implies a programme of home improvements for the people, while the Temple still lies in ruins. A modern rewriting of this book might include a concentration on block paved driveways and fitted kitchens, along with a neglect of spiritual life and values. In other words it is a book which speaks directly to well-off Christians feeling they deserve a bit of ease after the rigours of life. Yet it is a lifestyle which does not satisfy: Haggai describes in 1:5-6 and 2:15-19 the materialistic lifestyle which is never enough, in a way which speaks uncannily accurately into 21st century consumerism.

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Unlike many prophets Haggai’s words do not fall on deaf ears, and there is a speedy response. If you look carefully at the chronology of the book the whole thing happens over a period of months. The people are motivated to work in around three weeks, and the work appears to be completed within around three months. But with it come some promises from God: the future is going to be even better than the past, and that the rebuilding will mark a turning point in the people’s fortunes.

Haggai also brings encouragement to the nation’s leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, and promises the presence of his Spirit with them. The book ends with an apocalyptic-sounding glimpse of a victorious future for the remnant of the people.

The book reminds us of two important truths: the temperature of our spiritual lives cannot but affect everything else, and that outward ease and prosperity are shallow if they are not the gifts of God. The ‘peace’ promised in 2:9 sounds an altogether different thing from the implied ease and comfort of 1:4. The more we procrastinate over our spiritual lives, symbolised here by the state of the Temple, the less the things of this world will bring us satisfaction. I write as the schools are breaking up for the summer, and church life often trims back to give everyone a well-deserved rest. But I know only too well how easy it is to forget God when life gets easier. It is paradoxical that the gift of rest, which is our eternal destiny, can serve to help us forget God when we have it down here.

The second truth, though, is the good news of fresh starts, as many as we need. How many times in our lives have we heard God saying to us ‘From this day on I will bless you’? Praise him for his mercy and patience.

Image:       By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (On the Building Site  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Old Testament Lectionary 26th July Trinity 8 2 Kings 4:42-44

Old Testament Lectionary 26th July Trinity 8 2 Kings 4:42-44

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

This small and relatively unknown periscope has obviously been chosen to tie in with Jesus’ feeding of the crowds in today’s gospel. It is a simple story, but hidden within it are two larger questions: just who is God, and who is his prophet?

This incident is the fourth miracle story since Elisha has taken over from Elijah as the ‘man of God’, and they function to prove his worthiness for the task. Even at the very start of his ministry Elisha seems to want to prove his worth: in 2 Kings 2:13 he takes Elijah’s cloak and throws down the challenge: ‘Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ the resulting division of the water confirmed that God was indeed with him and that Elijah’s mantle had literally fallen upon him. Then follow a series of miracles which validate this position, although they do seem to be of a different nature from Elijah’s: we might best describe them as being more domestic, although no less powerful. Raising from the dead is no mean trick.

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But it may be that we have a continuation in this story of another of Elijah’s miracles. It all hangs on the place from which the man comes to Elisha: Baal-Shalisha. It has been suggested that this town is to be identified with Bethlehem, which literally means ‘House of Bread’, the place from which David came, and in which the Messiah was later to be born. Bethlehem is indeed a place from which God feeds his people. But the name ‘Baal’ also suggests a place where a particular god had a temple or shrine in Canaanite worship. ‘Shalisha’ means ‘three’ or ‘third’, so this place is where the Lord or master over three was worshipped. Elijah’s clashes with the prophets of Baal are well-known and dramatic, but we might expect Elisha’s to be tamer although just as powerful. It would be typical of both prophets for Elijah to summon fire from heaven, but for Elisha to feed hungry people. So it may be the case that what we have here is a much more subdued ‘Mount Carmel-type’ contest to find out who is the real god. Does the bread come from Yahweh’s House of Bread, or from Baal’s Shalisha? And can Elisha, still proving himself as Elijah’s successor, win the contest in his own style?

Elijah has his enemies put to the sword, but Elisha instead brings life as the bread is used to feed starving people in a time of famine. In the gospels the miraculous feedings have a different point, as they demonstrate the authority of Jesus not just over sin and sickness but over fallen and hostile nature itself. Linked as it is to the stilling of the storm, it serves to reveal even more about who this Jesus is, and what authority he has. Perhaps this story of Elisha serves a similar purpose.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Zephaniah

Zephaniah was an approximate contemporary of Jeremiah, prophesying not long before Judah was exiled to Babylon, but in many ways his book has similarities with Amos. it is about the univ3ersal judgement of god, not just on those who are his ‘chosen people’, but on all the nations. The Philistines (2:4-7), Moab and Ammon (2:8-11), Egypt (2:12) and Assyria, who had overrun the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2:13-15) are all to get their come-uppance from God as he executes his judgement on people. Some of the nations’ crimes are spelled out: Moab and Ammon have insulted God’s people, always a dangerous thing to do, and Assyria have been presumptuous and complacent. We’re not told what Egypt or Philistia have done, although we know that they have both at different times oppressed God’s people.

But the plot thickens: in 3:6 we are told that God has already wreaked destruction on other nations. He expected that Judah would see this and make the connection with her own sin. Seeing the anger of God expressed on others ought to have led her to repentance herself. But no, and therefore she too will be subject to his judgement. But there is still time: if people can only read the signs of the times, watch what God is doing to other nations, make the links and come in penitence to him there is the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. That ‘perhaps’ motif, which we encountered in Joel 2:14, is present here too.

So the book is, like Amos, a corrective to people who think that because they are God’s chosen people they are immune from punishment and can do exactly what they like. Instead they should gather – this is more corporate than individual – seek God, humility and righteousness. If they do that, perhaps God will spare them when he judges everyone else.

The book ends, though, as so many of the prophetic books do, with a promise of redemption. History tells us that this promise did not prevent exile and punishment, but it did heal it. The language is not of rescue but rather of restoration. Scattered people will be gathered, purified and re-created as a truthful, honest and fearless nation. In the one verse which anyone knows from this book, we have the beautiful picture in 3:17 of God rejoicing and singing with delight over his people. The Mighty Warrior has almost been overcome with delight and compassion.  The shame and contempt which the nation has received, not just from Moab and Ammon but also from many other nations will be removed, to be replaced with honour and praise from all who see them.

It is very tempting to read OT books like these individualistically: Jesus has saved me and so all this stuff applies to me as one of his people. It is good to remember that the Bible thinks ‘corporate’ far more than it thinks ‘individual’. If we read this book against the current world scene, and think national rather than personal, it provides some severe warnings about presumption, oppression and national penitence.