By popular demand (from one person) here’s what heaven will look like:
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20
We don’t get a whole lot of Zephaniah in our lectionary, so we can make the most of him today. But to read the final few verses alone can be highly misleading, as they form a post-exilic PS which is in stark contrast to the main thrust of the book. Probably written in the late 7th century BC, under the reign of King Josiah, the book consists of one oracle after another, all of them dire warnings of doom and judgement. It’s worth spending the few minutes it would take to read through the whole book, in order to note the stark contrast with the last paragraph. Simply to read the postscript is severely to miss the point.
It’s interesting to be reading this book at a time of a lockdown due to the Cronavirus pandemic. Again and again I hear promises, including from Her Majesty the Queen, that things will soon be back to normal, that ‘we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again’. That of course is our hope, but along with the hope for the future goes the sense of tragedy for those who have been the victims of this microscopic virus, and the many ways in which life will actually never be the same again for so many people. I’m not wanting to comment on whether or not the virus is God’s judgement on a sinful world, but the point is that like Zephaniah we can look to a wonderful new world, but it is a world we will enter bearing the scars of disaster.
Whether the final few verses are a prophetic and hopeful look to the future, or a later addition after the event, the people did emerge from the exile in Babylon sadder but wiser. The language of rejoicing is punctuated throughout with reminders of just who will be rejoicing, and we need to listen to that and note it well. It is ‘Daughter Zion’, or ‘Daughter Jerusalem’ over whom God is so excited, a shorthand way of denoting his own people, those in relationship with him, and not the nations listed in chapter 2 as being ripe for destruction. It is a nation who had been punished, who had been attacked by enemies, who had lived in fear (v.15). It is people whose hands had hung limp, who had mourned under burdens, who had been oppressed and lamed. But it is not the proud and arrogant, who had not been humbled before God’s punishment and anger. Those who are to be gathered in God’s loving arms are those who have known pain and suffering and responded by turning to him in humility.
I heard recently that many of those gifted prophetically in our nation see this year, with its pandemic, as a time of great harvest for the Kingdom of God. Certainly it seems anecdotally that the numbers of people connecting with online worship far exceed our normal Sunday attendance, but whether the churches will be able to reap this harvest remains to be seen. But I pray that whatever its origins, this pandemic will serve to remind people of our fragility, our arrogance, our unquestioning worship of the great god ‘Science’, and our vulnerability before an enemy too small to see. I pray that out of our suffering we can rise again and come to know ourselves as God’s dear sons and daughters, over whom he rejoices so extravagantly. The prayer ‘Lord, restore our fortunes’ (v.20) is very different from ‘Lord, take this away and put everything back to normal’.
In the past few months I have had more than one conversation with different people which were almost identical. They all went like this: ‘My mother/grandma/aunt/whatever is beginning to talk about death, and it turns out that in spite of being a staunch Christian, someone I’ve looked up to all my life as a pillar of faith, it turns out they they’re not at all sure what to expect as they know their life is drawing to a close, and are actually quite frightened. What do you say to people like that? And where on earth has the Church’s ministry of teaching been?’
I also read an article from the Church Times which asked ‘Do we believe in the resurrection of the dead or not?’ The author was bemoaning the fact that in all the pronouncements coming from the C of E centrally about Covid 19 there was very little which spoke about a Christian response to death and dying, or of the Easter hope of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. All we were getting was good advice on how to avoid dying.
So in response to these two events, and in case it helps, I offer a sermon which I preached at my church in Lincoln a while ago.
From the Diocese of Lincoln’s Homilies Project
- Which of these three gifts do you most want to ask Jesus for today?
- Where in your life do you need Jesus’ peace?
- Where do you need proof about your faith? Where do you feel shaky, lacking in confidence?
- In what ways would you say you have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit? What difference has this made to you?
- Is there anything else from the passage not already discussed that speaks to you? What is it?
- What will you do this week in your Monday-to-Saturday ministry in response to what you have heard today? #everydayfaith
Important note about the Homilies podcasts:
Since I am now on furlough and therefore not allowed to do any work for the Diocese, I’m afraid that all the podcasts I recorded before I left come to an end this Sunday, and I will not be producing any more here. However you can still download the printed versions from the diocesan website here:
Sorry about that!
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 2 2020 – Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
Just as the resurrection is the central act in the drama of the NT, so the Exodus is the central point of the OT. And just as we have four separate accounts of the passion and resurrection stories, so we have three accounts of the exodus, one of them, perhaps like John’s Gospel, more poetic and two, like the Synoptics, more narrative. Ex 15 is in the form of a prophetic (that is inspired) psalm which sets a retelling of the events in the context of a song of praise, while Ex 14 interweaves two other accounts. Biblical scholars who have nothing better to do with themselves can easily unpick the two accounts, using the distinctive vocabulary of each source, and make two coherent but different stories.
In the first account, from around 1000 BC, Moses has to do nothing, merely stand still and see what God will do. Yahweh plants his pillar of cloud/fire firmly between the Israelites and the Egyptians, who panic and run into the sea to their deaths. But in the later account dating from after the Babylonian exile, maybe the mid 5th century BC, Moses, and the people, are far more active: Moses holds out his staff, the sea opens (think Cecil B. de Mille), and then closes again over the pursuing Egyptian army.
Fascinating though this is, there are some important theological truths which we can only find through refusing merely to harmonise these stories. For example, we might ask the question – How exactly are we saved? The first, or Jahwistic source, would say by standing still and letting God do everything. Jesus’ death on the cross was entirely God’s initiative, to which Jesus willingly agreed, and there is nothing required of us, like ‘trying his works to do’ or, worse, trying to earn or deserve God’s salvation. But the later Priestly source would put much more emphasis on our response: our salvation is a combination of God’s initiative, Moses’ obedience, and our walking through the gap to the other side. To open the sea took God’s power and Moses’ stick, and the rescue of the people required them to enter into the sea and walk to the other side. Merely to ‘stand still and see the salvation of God’ would simply not have cut it. Both these truths need to be held in tension, in paradox, and in particular we need to ponder what would have happened to people who, even though God had opened the sea, refused to follow on the journey. It is also worth asking when are the times when we are called, as it were, to hold up our staffs, to work with God so that God’s salvation might come to others.
But of course there is a huge elephant in the room, one which requires us to read this story in a fourth, more symbolic way. What about those poor Egyptians? The later, Priestly writers, had spent time in exile in Babylon, and were very familiar with the creation story according to Babylonian religion, where Marduk, the chief god (goodie), battles with a great sea-monster called Tiamat (baddie), and ends up cutting it in half and making the heavens and the earth from the two halves. This story is referenced a few times in the OT, with Tiamat going by the names of ‘The Deep’, Rahab and Leviathan, and God, of course, winning the fight. So the writers couldn’t resist seeing in the dividing of the Red Sea the cutting in half of something which formed the supreme symbol of all that is evil and destructive. Pharaoh, too, symbolises everything and everyone who stands against God, hardens his heart and refuses to submit to his will, and in so doing keeps people in slavery, and sends others to their deaths. Even at the bank of the Sea the army could have given in and admitted defeat, but no, they had to follow the Israelites in, and the very evil which God was defeating became their destruction, as evil always has been and always will be to those who sell their souls to it. And the poor soldiers who were simply obeying orders? They were collateral damage, as there always is in war and conflict. Tragically to set our hearts on evil, to choose to become a tyrant, means that it is not just us who gets hurt, but many innocent bystanders too. ‘Twas ever thus.
So this story, now that we have looked at it a bit more deeply, encourages us to give heartfelt praise to God for his initiative in saving us, to make sure that we follow him and help others to do so, and above all to get rid of anything and everything in our lives which plays into the hands of evil, harms others, and puts us in the way of our own destruction.
Just in case anyone’s interested, here’s my Easter Day sermon which I preached in Freckenham, Lincoln, Tenerife and South Norwood. Ain’t science wonderful?