Old Testament Lectionary 6th Sept Trinity 14 Isaiah 35:4-7a

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

We begin by noting two somewhat strange things about this passage. The first is that it reads much more like Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) than Isaiah of Jerusalem, in whose section of the whole book is it placed. It seems as though this chapter has become detached, although the bigger context demonstrates well why this might be an appropriate place for it. The second strange thing is why on earth our dear friends the lectionary compilers have whipped an odd three and a half verses out of a chapter which makes perfect sense, and which falls neatly into two halves midway through our passage.

In a bigger context still chapter 35 contrasts dramatically with the preceding chapter, an announcement of God’s judgement. Edom in particular is singled out for punishment, and there are vivid pictures of a thriving land reverting to desert under the Lord’s vengeance. By contrast, therefore, the Israelites in chapter 35 are to experience two events: God himself coming among them (v 1-6a) and the nation’s return from exile as the desert once again becomes fruitful (v 6b-10).

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One key word which links all these thoughts together is the word ‘vengeance’ in v 4. We usually tend to see rescue and vengeance as two equal and opposite things, which show God as nice and nasty respectively. But the Hebrew word naqam is more nuanced than that: it refers to judgement and punishment by a legitimate authority, and so that justice can be restored for those who have been treated badly. Sometimes you can’t have justice and liberation without punishment: Moses as well as Isaiah knew that.

Like many prophecies there is something of a telescope effect here. Just when are we to expect the fulfilment of these words? On an immediate level the text clearly refers to the return from exile in Babylon, and the language of highways and blossoming deserts is unmistakably linked to later passages such as chapter 40. But the healing of v 5-6 sounds more Messianic and even eschatological. Does ‘entering Zion’ in v 10 refer merely to the return to Jerusalem, or does it seek fulfilment much further ahead in the heavenly city? The Bible often uses this multi-staged approach, and seems to remain deliberately vague. Sometimes the small positives in our lives can point to a much bigger and eternal reality, and hope can sustain us and spur us on in our discipleship.

Note also the language of separation implicit in this passage, as it is throughout the Bible, making life very difficult for universalists. The fearful, the weak, the blind, deaf and lame are to the be recipients of God’s favour, while the unclean wicked fools will be excluded. Only the redeemed, those whom God has rescued, will enter Zion. We need to make sure that through Christ our Messiah we are those who will receive the restitution part of God’s naqam, and not the punishment.

Image: By Rennett Stowe from USA (Desert Flowers  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Luke

For those into Myers-Briggs personality stuff, I have already suggested that Matthew was a dominant T and Mark an S. Luke, our third gospel writer, is definitely an F, and you can see this pastoral and personal flavour throughout his book.

 

We know that by profession he was a doctor, but that he was also no mean historian. In the intro to the gospel, in 1:4 he addresses ‘Theophilus’, who may be a personal friend, or may be a way of saying that the book is for the ‘Lover of God’ (which is what Theophilus means), in other words for the whole Christian community. He tells us, here, and at the start of his volume 2, Acts, that his desire is to check his sources carefully and to record an orderly account of Jesus’ life. Passages such as 3:1-2 show us how important it is to him to root his stories in real history, a real contrast to the vague ‘Once upon a time …’ with which folk tales begin. Those tempted to refer to the Bible as ‘just a fairy story’ take note!

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But Luke has other fish to fry too, and his account of Jesus’ ministry emphasises medical details (as you might expect), women and children, outcasts and the oppressed. He loves the human interest stories, and virtually all we know of Jesus’ early life comes from him, which suggests a close friendship with Mary. Mark, of course, has no time for these family details, and launches Jesus from nowhere at the start of his public ministry, but Luke wants us to know the background. Like Matthew, Luke gives us Jesus’ genealogy, but begins with Adam, rather than Abraham. Matthew, we have noted, wants to show that Jesus is the Messiah for the Jews: Luke goes right back to the common humanity we all share in Adam, thus demonstrating that Jesus is for everyone. He is also something of a gourmet: there are loads of accounts of shared meals in his gospel, and the promise that the Last Supper is merely a prefiguring of the banquet in heaven.

 

Structurally, although Luke uses a lot of material common with Matthew, he distributes it differently. Matthew, for example, has the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as a large wodge of teaching, sandwiched between narrative section about Jesus’ actions. But Luke chops the sermon up and distributes different bits of teaching among the miracles. The question as to whether Matthew has collected disparate teachings together, or Luke has split up one long sermon is one to which we will find the answer one day!

 

Luke includes a few details in the passion narratives which are unique to him. Jesus heals the ear of the servant whom one of the disciples has attacked, he dialogues with the weeping women of Jerusalem as he is being crucified, and he speaks words of salvation to the penitent criminal beside him. Luke emphasises the fact that it is the women who bring the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the rest.

 

Luke takes the time to present Jesus accurately, and as the friend of women, children and sinners. Luke’s Jesus is an attractive figure, very different from our fourth gospel-writing next week.

Image: By Deutsch: Auftraggeber: Otto III. oder Heinrich II. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary Aug 30th Trinity 13 Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

I wonder if you were a space alien from the planet Tharg and you landed by mistake in Britain, whether your first and instinctive reaction would be to exclaim ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ Our passage today, along with the Gospel from Mark 7, is about the Law, and I have already discussed elsewhere what place the Law has in the lives of Christians who have been saved by grace. We concluded that the Law is meant to be a delight to God’s people, not because it restricts them but because it points the way to life and wisdom, the kind of savoir faire which helps us to live effectively. But today’s passage reminds us that this is not just an individual characteristic but a corporate one as well.

There is a common motif in the OT about the surrounding nations observing Israel and seeing them as wise and effective, and acknowledging that their god is indeed a good one. This thought lies at the heart of this passage: in v 7-8 the repeated cry of ‘what other great nation?’ displays the awe with which those outside Israel regard their national life. Would that that were true of 21st century Britain!

The Law is hallmarked by wisdom and justice. It is not to be tampered with according to personal taste, it needs guarding jealously and living out zealously, and above all it needs passing on to generations yet to come. Proverbs 24:34 tells us that ‘righteousness exalts a nation’, and it is clearly meant to exalt the nation in the eyes of other nations, so that they may see both the presence of God among us, and the goodness of that God.

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But this is not just a nice idea. Our lectionary compilers have again filleted out the more awkward verses from v 3-5, but to reinsert them reminds us that actually this is a matter of life and death. We don’t just keep the Law so that we’ll look good, but that we may live. To ignore it is to dice with death – literally. Whether that is the quick death of idolators punished by God, or the long, slow death of a nation in moral decline, it is equally inevitable.

It is worth reminding ourselves, though, of the place of the whole book of Deuteronomy, which purports to be Moses’ final instructions as the nation enters a new phase, having left behind slavery and wandering. Now they are to become more of a settled nation, it is good to get the foundations in place as the new phase of life begins. In the final verse Moses urges the people to keep careful watch on themselves lest what he is telling them fades from memory. If you want to see what happens to nations which may be built on good foundations but which have lost the plot over the years, you have only to watch the news. This passage calls forth intercession from me, that God would have mercy on a nation well down the road of disobedience and decay.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Mark

Our second gospel could not be more different from Matthew’s which we looked at last week. Mark is writing for a Gentile audience, which means that he has to explain some Jewish technical terms (for example in 7:11). He pays little attention to fulfilment of OT scripture, and only quotes the OT occasionally.  It is the shortest of the gospels, and has no great wodges of teaching such as the Sermon on the Mount. But more than anything else, Mark is in a hurry, or rather his Jesus is. One of his most common words is euthus (immediately), and we see Jesus on a whirlwind tour, rushing from one thing to the next and never letting the grass grow under his feet. And talking of grass, mark is the only one of the evangelists to tell us that the grass on which Jesus fed the 5000 was green, which makes him sound to me like a Myers-Briggs S.

Most scholars believe that Mark’s was the first gospel to have been written, and that Mark got his info from Peter. It has been suggested that the first recorded streaker (14:51-2) was Mark himself. The relationship between the first three (or ‘synoptic’) gospels is a complex one, but it does seem that Matthew and Luke used mark as one of their sources, although reworking the material for their own purposes.

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Theologian Paula Gooder has suggested that a good way to read Mark is to treat it a bit like a pantomime, with four main groups of characters. Jesus goes around doing his stuff, and while the crowds are amazed (‘We have never seen anything like this! 2:12), the disciples just don’t get it. Meanwhile the evil Pharisees play the villains, and the four groups keep interacting as the story unfolds.

But Mark’s is a gospel of two halves, and there is an abrupt change of tone at 9:2, after Peter has finally recognised Jesus for who he is, as the journey towards the cross begins in earnest. Mark’s account of the passion is short and to the point: Jesus is crucified by the Romans, with the slightest of Jewish complicity, and the resurrection gets only 8 verses. The ‘long ending’ is almost certainly not original, but was added subsequently, although probably not too long after, which means it must reflect something of the practice of the Early Church.

Another strong theme for Mark is what has been called the ‘Messianic secret’. Again and again Jesus begs people not to go around telling everyone about him, which is of course exactly what people do. He doesn’t seem to want to interpret his parables, but simply to let them stand on their own, although when with his disciples Holy Spirit does give some explanation, although scholars dispute whether this was actually what Jesus did, and whether Mark himself felt the need to explain more than Jesus did. The classic statement of this policy is in 4:11-12, in one of his few OT quotations. There is much dispute over the reasons for this secrecy.

Mark is a great place to start reading the story of Jesus: it is clear, simple and fast-moving, and will appeal to S people who like facts and details.

Old Testament Lectionary 23rd August Trinity 12 Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18

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

One of the ideas which has become a lot less fashionable nowadays is that of the in-or-out nature of faith. Yet the NT is full of that kind of language which suggests that there is a very clear dividing line between those who are actually God’s and those who are not. For a recent conference I listed over 50 occurrences of such language from the Epistles and Gospels: darkness to light, no people to God’s people, enemies to friends of God, children of the Devil to God’s children, wise and foolish … the list goes on. This provides a major stumbling block for universalists and for rural Christians, both of whom tend either to blur the boundaries or to remove them altogether.

Today’s gospel differentiates clearly between those who are in and out, and even demonstrates the possibility of moving from in to out. And the background to that kind of choice is to be found in the stark choice with which Joshua faced his people in this famous passage, much beloved by evangelists. The chapter in my Bible is headed ‘The covenant renewed’, and the occasion is the completion of the conquest of the Promised Land and the start of a more settled period in Israel’s history. It never hurts, when entering into new phases, to stop and recommit ourselves to God.

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Joshua’s words, though, provide an interesting commentary on faith in God and its alternatives. First of all, it is a deliberate choice, which we can and must make, one way or the other. Making the choice to turn to Christ (as the Anglican liturgy puts it) involves also the choice to turn our backs on other things. There is very little which we can bring into the kingdom with us, and Jesus warned about the impossibility of trying to serve two masters.

However, for those a bit hesitant about taking this step, Joshua sets out some possible alternatives. If you don’t want to serve the living God, he tells the people, then you might like to try one of two alternatives. The first is about the past: you can chose to remain in the unenlightened state in which you lived formerly. This is a constant danger for God’s people. Nostalgia, it has been said, isn’t what it used to be, but it is still very powerful, and the draw of ways of living which seemed to work in past generations is strong, whether it is about liturgical texts and forms of worship, buildings, or the pleasures of youth. These are the gods, Joshua tells them, that they ought really to throw away.

If the past is not attractive, though, the second option is the surrounding culture and its gods. Merely to go along with what everyone else is doing and thinking, and how they are living, can often be the path of least resistance, and can seem very attractive as opposed to the radical and unpopular path of following Christ.

The people’s enthusiastic response in v 18 is a good example to us all of giving the right answer, and fortunately our lectionary compliers, wanting as ever to keep things nice, stop us reading before Joshua’s somewhat cynical but nevertheless realistic comment in v 19-20. Choosing the right path is always a struggle, always a battle, and it is only through faith and gritted teeth that we can stick to it at every crossroads.

Image: Ian Paterson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Matthew

Welcome to the New Testament – you’ll notice that from now on I’m on less solid ground as my first love is the OT, but I’ll have a go.

The NT begins with four gospels, accounts of the life and death of Jesus seen from four different viewpoints. I once asked four members of a homegroup to describe the Sunday morning service at which we had all been a few days earlier. As you might imagine the accounts were very different, to the point of wondering whether we had all been at the same service! A musician told us what songs we had sung; a parent told about what the children and been up to; someone else described the sermon in some detail but hadn’t much to say about anything else. It isn’t that the people were being deliberately dishonest, or trying to rewrite history: they just genuinely saw it differently. Whenever we read the gospels we are hearing accounts written from a particular point of view, with different audiences in mind and different areas of interest. By reading all four gospels we are helped to build up a rounded picture of who Jesus was and what he did. It might not also be stretching things too far to see in the gospels different Myers-Briggs personality types. So where is Matthew coming from, and what does he tell us?

 

Matthew has a distinctly Jewish flavour. It is clearly intended for Jewish readers: it does not explain Jewish terms or customs (compare with Mark), it is constantly looking for fulfilments of OT texts, and uses the term ‘Kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘of God’ since saying the divine name was forbidden to Jews, as the Monty Python boys so eloquently illustrated for us. The boring bits in chapter 1 make sure that we understand Jesus’ descent from the OT worthies. There is a pattern of fives in the book, perhaps based on the five books of the Torah, with alternate slices of teaching and action. And there is much made of Jesus’ relationship with the OT Law, as he comes to make it both less and more demanding.

 

There is also a sense that Matthew is highly critical of the Jewish leaders and theologians, as he writes up Jesus’ condemnation of them with seeming relish. His is a gospel for the dominant ‘T’s, and his Jesus is a teacher with a very black and white outlook, and he teaches what it means to live in the direction of the Kingdom of God, which all good Jews were expecting as a future state. He lives in fulfilment of the OT, he dies as a sacrifice for sins, and he rises to take his place of total authority. Matthew’s burning desire is that his Jewish countrymen should understand that all they have been living for is to be fulfilled and completed in Jesus, and that they should recognise him to be the Messiah for whom they were longing and hoping.

 

Next week we’ll see, by complete contrast, how Mark tells the same story.

 

 

Old Testament Lectionary 16th August Trinity 11 Proverbs 9:1-6

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

The parallels with today’s gospel reading are clear: Wisdom, so often personified as a socially intelligent woman, offers to all who are interested a feast of food and wine. A glance at two other passages will help us get the best from this one, though.

The first is in the previous chapter, a passage which is the classic text on the personification of wisdom. She (perhaps because the Hebrew for ‘wisdom’ hokmah is a feminine noun) is pictured as being present at the creation of the world. She was the very first thing to be created by God (8:22) and was at his side throughout the process of creation (8:30). Whether the wisdom tradition writers saw her as a distinct being, or an aspect of God’s creativity, or even as the Holy Spirit is unclear, but the point is that wisdom is an absolutely fundamental and foundational characteristic of God’s intentions for his world.

Then we have her in our passage, preparing a banquet, starting as far back as building her own banqueting hall. The reference to the seven pillars carved out and/or set up by her suggests both significant size, and therefore room for all, and the perfection which seven represents. There may also be a reference back to the seven days of creation. The ‘simple’ (pethi) are invited, but so is absolutely everyone else. The simple are both those who are naïve through lack of experience, but also those culpably lacking in savoir faire because they have turned down the invitations to the feast. This makes them both gullible and reckless. The food and wine are sumptuous, and provide food for ‘insight’. The mention of ‘walking’ suggests not just a one-off flash of inspiration, but rather a life lived in the right direction long-term.

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The concept of wisdom isn’t about what we might call intelligence or cleverness, but much more about knowing the prudent way to act in any situation, hence the French term above which best captures this meaning. But to understand it better we need to read the whole chapter, which the author surely intended us to. In the second part, from v13, we get Wisdom’s ugly sister ‘Folly’. She is simple, but in a way a bit more sinister than merely being naïve. She too sits in her doorway calling out to all comers. She purports to offer wisdom, but actually her house is full of deadness, and what she offers is dishonesty and cheap thrills.

Both Wisdom and Folly’s houses are at the highest point of the city, as the temple and royal palace would have been, and are therefore in a commanding and highly visible position. One can’t help but compare the messages sent out to us constantly through the media, TV adverts and so on, all claiming that in their products are to be found health, wealth and happiness. As with Folly’s wares, much of what we are sold turns out to be dead and empty, but the wise and experienced have learnt more discernment. I have often encouraged people in my congregations to ‘shout back at the Telly’: when someone says something crass, stupid or just plain wrong, just argue back with a wiser and more Christian perspective. I have a theory that the people on the telly can’t actually hear you, but your family can and it teaches us all not simply to absorb all that comes out at us, but to use the mind of Christ to see things from a different perspective. Whilst not brimming with Christian content the         TV show Gogglebox shows us different families interacting, often encouragingly, with the media.

In the gospel reading Jesus also offers food and drink, but not just for this life. Food and wine from Christ nourish us into eternity.

Image: Vassia Atanassova – Spiritia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons