Old Testament Lectionary 19th July Trinity 7 Jeremiah 23:1-6

 

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

The motif of God himself stepping in to care for his people because of the lack of care given by their earthly ‘shepherds’ is not an uncommon one in the OT. Ezekiel notably uses this image in chapter 34. Clearly a metaphor for the kings and rulers of the nation, the shepherds have failed to administer justice or rescue the oppressed and the victims of crime (21:12). Instead they have their hearts set on dishonest gain, oppression and bloodshed (22:17). Therefore God is going to do two things: he is going to step in and shepherd his people himself, and make a proper job of it, but he is also going to raise up a new king who will do what is just and right (23:5). It is not clear whether this will be as well as God’s own care for the people, or after it, or even whether God’s personal ministry will be exercised through this new Davidic king, whom of course we know to be his Son, and whose ministry the gospel reading for today picks up, as he ministers to sheep who have no shepherd at all.

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But what is going to happen in the meantime? Clearly in context Jeremiah is writing on the eve of the Babylonian exile, and in this passage he explains, somewhat confusingly, that it is the false shepherds who have ‘scattered’ the people into exile, (v 2), but also that it is God who has done the scattering (v 3) and will also do the re-gathering. This raises an interesting question about the exile, and about our own experiences of suffering and abandonment. When in my other blog I discussed Jonah, I made the point that the whale wasn’t punishment for Jonah: it was rescue, unpleasant and scary though that rescue may have been. Is it possible, therefore, that the exile was less a punishment on the oppressed people, and more a rescue from their oppressors? It is certainly the case that after the exile the monarchy never functioned in the ways it had before: this was real and radical regime change, and it may have been the case that the old system needed not just breaking but destroying totally in order that something more functional could replace it.

Of course there are many other references to the culpability of the ordinary people and their punishment through the exile, but maybe it doesn’t have to be one or the other. When disaster hits us it is a common reaction to ask the question ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ and in some cases there will be a clear answer to that question. But I wonder whether another question, equally valid, might be to ask ‘From what or whom is this going to save me?’ Only this last week I was surprised to hear myself in prayer giving thanks to God for one of the greatest disappointments of my life, because it saved me from what would have ended up as a disastrous career move. Maybe there are things which you can see in the same way. And maybe, like me, you can find new hope and faith in the fact that God’s plans are perfect, painful though they may be at the time.

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Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Habakkuk

We know less about Habakkuk than just about any of the other biblical prophets. We have no idea about his surname, his place of birth or his career, apart from some vague traditions that he might have been a musician or Levite attached to a shrine somewhere. Someone with his name (which seems to be Akkadian rather than Hebrew) is mentioned in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon, but that’s about as much as we know.

What we do know, though, is that he was a brave man. Many of us experience times of doubt, often when we believe God to be acting out of character and causing us suffering, But few of us dare to stand up to God as Habakkuk does, and tell him off because of his behaviour. Job can have a bit of a moan from time to time, but Habakkuk really goes for it. It looks as though he is prophesying in the South, not long before the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. The nation had seen their northern neighbours in Israel carried off by the Assyrians 100 or so years earlier, and the signs were that their fate was heading in a similar direction. Habakkuk begins by complaining that in spite of his intercessions God has done nothing to halt the violence and corruption of the nation. God responds by saying ‘Just you wait and see!’, and promises swift and furious destruction of the wicked at the hands of Babylon.

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But this only makes things worse. How can a righteous God, who cannot even look at evil, use a nation even more wicked that Judah as the instruments of his punishment? Habakkuk poses this question, and then stations himself on his watchtower to wait for a convincing answer. You can just see him there with his arms defiantly folded. Again God answers, and it is basically the same message, ‘Just you wait and see!’ Babylon is eventually going to be punished herself, this time, history tells us, at the hands of Persia. It isn’t that God is allowing them to get away with it, any more than he is Judah. Fortunately Habakkuk decides not to push it by demanding who is going to punish Persia: he has got the point, and reaches the conclusion in chapter 3 that God pretty much has the right to do what he likes. In the one purple passage of this book he stakes his faith that whatever the state of things God is worthy of our praise. He seems to be aware that a time of great tribulation is shortly to come upon the nation, but that through it all God’s purposes are going to be worked out, and that he is to be worshipped come what may.

This book tells us two things, one about us and one about God. God is big enough to cope with our rants, and Habakkuk validates the human desire to argue back when things seem unjust. Simple compliant trust and acceptance of God’s will are often held up as virtues in good Christian circles, and they may well be, but for some of us at some times we simply can’t manage that. We want to rage, shout and argue, and Habakkuk gives us permission to do so. Habakkuk’s experience is that this behaviour leads to greater understanding and deeper praise.

Image: By Dan Marsh (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary July 12th Trinity 6 Amos 7:7-15

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

We may not often shoot messengers nowadays, but we very often want to silence them. ‘The first responsibility of a leader i s to define reality’ according to American businessman Max de Pree, but sometimes communities just don’t want reality defined. They prefer the status quo, however sick it might be. It appears that Amos’ vision of the plumbline is the last straw which causes Amaziah, the priest of the sanctuary at Bethel, to report him to the king and to try to put an end to his prophetic ministry, at least around here.

What is so offensive about a plumbline? The vision begins with God standing next to a wall which has been built correctly, and warning Amos that he is about to test the nation of Israel by the same standard. The implication is that it will found to be out of true. We already know that – every paragraph of the book so far says the same thing, in different ways.File:Fil à plomb.jpg

But the big question is this: what do you do with a wall which you discover is out of true? I’m no bricklayer, but my guess is that it’s pretty hard to straighten it out, particularly once the cement has set. I suspect that tweaking bricks is an impossible task. The only possibility is a drastic one: demolish the whole thing and build it again properly. So Amos’ prophecy against Israel isn’t just a warning of judgement: it’s a warning of total destruction. God spells this out: both the sanctuaries for worship and the reigning family of Jeroboam will be spared no longer.

Various tactics are used against Amos, as they continue to be today against any leaders who try to bring unpalatable truths to the powerful stakeholders in the community. They misunderstand him: in v 12 they assume he is merely doing this for a living, failing to see the call of God burning within his guts. They dob on him to the king like schoolkids who have fallen out in v 10, and they try to bully him with the threat of the king’s anger behind them (v 13). And they simply tell him to go away and leave them alone (v 12). I, and others who have been bullied during the course of Christian ministry, will know these tactics only too well.

But Amos has a higher calling than local politics. In the only bit of biography we have in this book, he explains that he was just a working man, but when the call of God to a prophetic ministry hits you, you have no choice but to obey, whatever the cost. When God speaks, you simply can’t disobey, any more than you can fail to be afraid when a lion roars in your ear (3:8).

The other interesting thing about this passage is that it merely the third of three oracles of judgement in this chapter. In the previous two God’s threats of locust and fire are met with intercession by Amos, which causes God to relent and allow more time. But the third time there is neither intercession nor mercy. It appears that it is possible to exhaust the patience of God. How close we are to that in our nation no-one knows, but in the meantime our prophetic calling as God’s people continues to be one of announcement and intercession. ‘Who knows: God may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing’ (Joel 2:18).

Reflections on Discipleship – No Pressure!

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 …

 

During a long and boring but accident-prone print run this morning I happened to pick up a book helpfully left on the windowsill in our print room, a book of devotional thoughts from that great preacher C H Spurgeon. The book happened to fall open at July 3rd (today), which either means that someone else had just been devotional with it or God wanted to speak to me particularly. The verse for the day was, unpromisingly, Genesis 41:4:

 

‘And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows.’

 

Spurgeon went on to explain this verse in terms of the fact that times of spiritual gauntness quickly ate up the spiritually more healthy times. When he stayed close to God he made great strides forward, but the odd off-day quickly undid all the good that the good days had achieved, and set him back on his quest for true Christlikeness. His aim, he explained, was to make sure that every day was a spiritual high, and not to let any bad days or seasons undo all that he had achieved so far.

 

You can kind of see what he means, but even reading the passage made me feel exhausted! I am still pondering whether or not a) he is right, and b) whether this is a helpful kind of approach to discipleship to preach and teach around the Diocese. To me, it comes dangerously close to salvation by works, something which I would have thought that Spurgeon of all people would want to avoid teaching. It makes discipleship hard work, which on one level it is, but on another it shouldn’t be, since the Jesus whom we follow has a burden which is light. It also seems to negate those times when, according to the Bible, suffering does us good. I have grown as much, if not more, through times of spiritual aridity than I have through the good years.

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In any case, the definition of a disciple is someone who fails – you can see that again and again in the gospels. I’m not convinced that failure makes us slide back down the snake to square one: rather I think it can send us forward sadder but wiser. My God of infinite forgiveness doesn’t like to watch me fall, but when I do he is quick to restore, forgive and reinstate. So no pressure!

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Nahum

It’s an ill wind which blows nobody any good. Imagine, in the middle of world War II, a prophet standing up and announcing God’s judgement on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Bad news for the Nazis, but a great relief for France, Poland, the UK and the rest of Europe. That’s what Nahum is doing as he predicts the destruction of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians. The nations who had suffered at the hands of Assyria’s legendary brutality and cruelty would be cheering this prophet, whose name means ‘Consolation’.

All we know about the guy is that he came from Elkosh (1:1), but since we have no idea where Elkosh is that doesn’t help much. It has been identified with what became Capernaum (literally ‘the village of Nahum’)  but we just don’t know. We can, however, date this book fairly accurately, since we know that Nineveh was in fact destroyed in 612 BC. We also know that the destruction of Thebes, to which he likens Nineveh’s downfall (3:8-11), took place in 633 BC, so we have a fairly narrow window. His message is one of unremitting judgement on the city, for its violence, described graphically in 3:1-4, and in particular for its attacks on Israel.

What is interesting about this book, though, is the comparison with Jonah, which probably dates from 150 or so years earlier. We saw that Jonah was called to preach to a city even then legendary for its evil, and that when he was obedient to this call (eventually), the city repented and turned to God. Yet within a few generations the Assyrians are up to their old tricks again, and this time there is neither repentance nor, according to Nahum, any chance of it. Whilst Jonah preached God’s mercy, Nahum preaches only destruction.

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So this book raises all kinds of questions about God’s judgement and mercy, the permanence or otherwise of repentance, and ultimately the famous ‘Once saved always saved’ controversy in the Christian church. History shows us that in spite of her earlier repentance after Jonah’s ministry Nineveh had again become renowned for her brutality, and that the averted destruction did happen in the end. What we don’t know is whether the people’s earlier repentance was genuine or not, although God seemed to think so at the time. So Nahum’s message reminds us that each generation has to choose afresh whether or not it is going to serve God, and that repentance on behalf of our children is not possible. It also reflects the reality that sometimes people do lose the plot and slide back from an earlier commitment to God. It may also be that the reference to ‘witchcraft’ in 3:4, which is not developed any further by Nahum, points to some spiritual disease in the land which, without healing, simply causes the behaviour to manifest itself again in future generations. We can see this dynamic at work in all sorts of ways, for example in churches which repeat patterns of sinful behaviour keep occurring, although manifested by a new set of people. Deep repentance and healing, of the kind advocated by people like Russ Parker[1] is necessary to break sinful cycles.

Fortunately we live the other side of the cross from Nahum, so there is never, in this life, a point where judgement completely rules out the offer of mercy. We still have the responsibility of making sure that our repentance sticks, but even when it doesn’t we have a God to whom we can return, again and again.

[1] Notably in his Healing Wounded History (London: SPCK, 2012)

Image: “Adad gate exterior entrance north3” by Fredarch – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Adad_gate_exterior_entrance_north3.JPG. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons