Old Testament Lectionary

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Jeremiah 15:15-21

Now firmly into retirement, I have of course been reflecting on the ministry which has just come to an end, helped this last week by a stay with good friends who laboured with me in my first incumbency. You can’t help but ask questions about what it has all been about, what were the ups and downs, the triumphs and the disasters, and in particular who have I been as a leader?

I have always thought of myself as a teacher, and my dear readers will be able to assess the accuracy or not of this estimate. But my spiritual director used to say that my main gifting was a prophetic one. I could see what had to be done, I could see where a course of action might lead, I was deeply uncomfortable with compromise of any kind, and I was not afraid to tell inconvenient truths. Well, if that is me, I certainly know how Jeremiah felt.

Today’s passage is one of several Laments which occur in this book. We all know what it means to lament, but we may not know that lament is a liturgical form widely recognised in the Bible. It isn’t just a random few verses of moaning: it’s a journey with different phases.  There is usually a cry to God, a description of the particular suffering which the writer is going through, questions to God about why this is happening, condemnation of his enemies, fervent prayer for deliverance, a confession of trust, and sometimes some kind of a response from God. Of course not all elements are there in every single passage, and not necessarily in the same order, but this is the general pattern. Psalm 13 is one good example.

So what does this particular lament teach us, apart, of course from the fact that lament is a good, right and healthy response to suffering. Three things hit me about Jeremiah, and three about God.

Jeremiah’s honesty. It takes either a very brave constitution or a tremendous amount of suffering to enable one to accuse God of being a disappointment. That’s just what Jeremiah does in v.18, and elsewhere in the book, notably 20:7: ‘You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed.’ You’re not playing fair, O Lord – you’re a cheat and a bully! This might come as a shock to people who have been brought up always to speak nicely to God, but the real rawness of Jeremiah’s pain screams through his words, and we cannot but admire his honesty. We feel it, after all, so it won’t be any surprise to God if we pray it. And note too that Jeremiah is also honest about the other side of the situation: he knows that God is merciful (v.15). But that is exactly the problem – where is your mercy now?

Jeremiah’s passion. What exactly has got him into this mess? His passion for God, for justice, and for the people to whom he has been sent. V.16 explains that Jeremiah has been marked out as God’s, and his delight has been to serve him and to proclaim his words (v.16). Because of his prophetic calling he has made some choices, some sacrifices, and while he doesn’t begrudge them, he feels it grossly unfair that making those sacrifices has ended up in his being so depressed.

Jeremiah’s isolation. What is more, his calling from God has led to him being a lone voice, crying as it were in the wilderness where no-one appears to be able to hear him. His grasp of the seriousness of the situation leading up to the exile meant that he wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, and that laughter and levity were highly inappropriate (v.17).

So no wonder he screams out at the God who has put such a costly calling on his life. His honesty is a good example to any of God’s people who feel keenly the weight of their calling, especially when it leads to rejection and suffering, as Jesus in today’s Gospel knew it would. But while it can be a very healthy thing to rant at God, the downside is that he can be as honest back to you as you have been to him.

God’s rebuke. So God begins by calling Jeremiah to repent. Not, I don’t think, of his honesty, but of his doubts; the ‘Why do I bother when no-body takes a blind bit of notice?’ line of thinking he has got himself into. If you really want to be my prophet, as you claim, then speak words which are ‘worthy’ – the Hebrew yaqar means ‘weighty, influential, important’. In other words – man up! You’re not getting anything which does not go with the job, so stop whingeing about it and get on with being a prophet. This is exactly the sort of thing a prophet might say to others, so God is simply giving him a taste of his own medicine.

God’s protection. However, the God who called him into this prophetic ministry is on his side, and promises his protection (v.20-21). I’ll leave it to you to judge, as you read the rest of Jeremiah’s career, just what the cash value of that protection is, as those threatened by his words go to extraordinary lengths to try to shut him up. But as one Christian leader once said, ‘Christian ministry won’t harm you. It might kill you, but it won’t harm you!’ Like Jesus, we have to grasp the eternal dimension and have a firm faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting if we are to get through the suffering of this life.

God’s warning. I think the most important little phrase in this passage comes in v.19: ‘Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.’ The ultimate failure for prophets is to lose their cutting edge, to get sucked in to the very actions they are denouncing and to go soft on the sin they are calling people to reject. That is why we need prophets, as well as pastors and teachers, to lead the body of Christ. It isn’t the most comfortable calling, but God help us if that kind of voice is silenced.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 11 – Isaiah 51:1-6 (Related)

It’s a pretty well established opinion that the book of Isaiah which we have comes from three different authors and three different periods of history. In a nutshell part one (chapters 1 – 39) warns the people that if they don’t stop it they’ll end up in exile, part 2 (40 – 55) tells them that they are soon to come home from exile, and part 3 (56 – 66) asks the question ‘Now what?’ in the light of the previous two parts. Last week’s passage came from part 3, and reminded the people of Israel that their calling was to everyone, not just themselves. But now we have to make a mental leap backwards a few decades to imagine the people still in exile, far from home, and smarting at the punishment they are receiving. The good news, though, is that soon they’ll be home. The challenge often thrown out by the prophet who wrote this section is ‘Can you not believe it?’ This parallels the challenge thrown out by Jesus in the Gospel to his disciples: who do you really think I am?

We know something of the pain and bewilderment of the exiles, because several times the prophet quotes, no doubt from what he has heard on the streets, the plight of the people. 40:27 and 49:14 are two examples:

My way is hidden from the Lord,
my cause is disregarded by my God …
The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.

The prophet faces this despair head on, and our passage reassures the people that there will be an end to their troubles. So what does this passage say to us today?

We too are exiles, yes, in the sense that our real home is heaven and we’re not there yet, but also because we’re in exile from the life we used to know pre-Coronavirus. There is a widespread feeling (which of course you may or may not agree with – other political views are available) that we are in the grip not just of an evil little bundle of genetic material but also an incompetent (at best) or downright evil government who are completely out of their depth, headed for an isolated future as the laughing-stock of the world. Life as we knew it has been suddenly snatched away from us, we are unclear what the latest instructions are, and quite honestly we can see no end to it, with the threat of future spikes and a second (and third …?) lockdown on the cards. Whether or not this is God’s punishment on us is a question I won’t stop to debate now, but I do know, because like Isaiah I listen to what people tell me, that it’s really hard to see how on earth we’re going to get out of this. Yet the passage is full of reassurance and glowing promises for a glorious future. So the $64,000 question is this: is this God’s message to Britain today? To put it another way, just because you have a little plaque with Jeremiah 29:11 on your fridge or in a greetings card, does that mean that life for you is going to be great from now on? How do we discern which bits of the Bible are God’s words for us now?

Personally I think we have to remain a bit agnostic, but while to place the passage in its historical context does at least tell us about the Word of the Lord for the exiles, that isn’t the real point of this particular bit of part 2. It deals, I think, not so much with whether God is going to rescue them, but rather with whether or not they believe he can. And there’s the rub.

The people had not just lost their home and the life they once knew: they had lost faith in their God’s ability to do anything about it. That’s a much more serious problem. The prophet here is telling people that God will rescue them, but he’s also telling them that he can. We may not be sure about the first in our Covid-ridden world, but the prophet would, I believe want us to take note of the second. Like the exiles Christians have been praying fervently for God’s mercy on our land, for the removal of the virus, for the scientists to find an injection which will make us immune, and, in some cases, for us to learn whatever lesson it is God is trying to teach us through it. Will he? Dunno. Can he? That’s the real question, and Isaiah would tell us without a shadow of a doubt that he can.

That might not answer all our agonised questions, or bring back those we love and have lost to the virus, but it certainly ought to spur us on to prayer, to fervent crying out to God for his mercy on us.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 10 – Isaiah 56:1-8 (Related)

First of all, apologies for last week’s omission. I have now located my proper computer and I’m ready to rock and roll from the new house in Sheffield, surrounded though I am with other, as yet unpacked, boxes.

And so to Isaiah, and to the eternal question ‘Just who is God for?’ That’s the subject both for today’s Gospel and for our OT passage, which I have taken the liberty of unfilleting in order that it might make some sense. It might seem a silly question, although both theologically and practically it is a vitally important one. Theologically it is raised by the very idea of a ‘chosen people’, those whom in the OT God had apparently selected to be his own special possession, those who would have a relationship with him and a privileged position in his heart and purposes which other nations were not to share. Is God, then, as universal as we might think? And of course practically it is raised by our natural human tendency to want to be with ‘PLU’s – People Like Us – rather than those who are in some way different. This attitude has manifested itself down the ages through the middle-class culture of the British Church, through apartheid in Dutch South Africa, to denominational mistrust across the globe, and has done so with differing attempts at theological justification.

So let’s go back to basics. When God called Abraham back in Genesis 12, the call was twofold – to be a blessing and to bless. Right at the very start of the Jewish nation there was built in a universality which has always been God’s purpose for this people. But throughout the OT, and on into the New and the Church today, two things have happened. First of all God’s people have been too welcoming, and secondly they have not been welcoming enough.

From very early on the Jewish people formed relationships with other nations, usually either through intermarriage or political expediency, on their terms, not God’s. This inevitably led to false worship, idolatry, and of course idolatry inevitably leads to immorality, since only the True God, Yahweh, is a God or righteousness (far more, incidentally, in the Bible than he is a God of love). The OT prophets could see this happening and so they responded with all that stuff about separation from the nations around, and the need for purity and exclusivism. But that in turn led to a kind of arrogant superiority which made God’s people look down their noses not only at ‘foreigners’ but also at those of their own race whom they considered to be sinners. That’s the kind of attitude characterised by the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Again the prophets responded, this time with the opposite message, recalling the people to their original vocation to bless other nations, not just to receive God’s blessings for themselves. The classic example of this comes in Is 49:6.

The early Church had to battle with the same question, and it wasn’t until Acts 15 that they finally realised that you didn’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus, and then only after two dramatic interventions by the Holy Spirit. And all this in spite of Jesus’ quoting from our passage when he cleansed the Temple from those who were out to make money – significantly this market place was set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the nearest non-Jews could get to God. Yet still today, in so many ways, the Church is an exclusive organisation. Every church I have visited in my diocesan ministry has told me that it was a very welcoming place, yet most of the time I have been left standing like a lemon at the back with my coffee while everyone else talks to their friends. When I was a parish priest we tried to enforce a rule that after worship you weren’t allowed to speak to a friend before you had first spoken to someone you didn’t know.

Isaiah today reinforces the original message to Abraham – you are there to be a blessing to all. Even eunuchs, specifically banned from Israelite worship in Leviticus 21 and 22, are included in this dramatic reversal of Scripture – if they are welcome, anybody is.

Yet Isaiah is not taking one prophetic side against the other with his universality. He is very keen to make the point that this inclusion has to be on God’s terms, so that ‘outsiders’ are drawn to God, rather than ‘insiders’ being tempted away from him. Note the conditions Isaiah builds into this passage: maintaining  justice, not doing evil, binding oneself to God to minister to him and love him, and interestingly keeping the Sabbath, which is mentioned twice. This inclusion is not a watering down of the faith, but rather an invitation to all to experience its benefits.

It would be worth pondering three things: firstly, where in my church is there any kind of exclusion, any kind of fear of non-PLUs, any practical actions which ‘others’ might find offputting and unwelcoming? Secondly, where are the areas where our desire to be inclusive has compromised the gospel? And thirdly, might it be possible that like many many churches, we’re blind to our exclusion and kidding ourselves?

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel.

Trinity 8 – Isaiah 55:1-5

Two days ago we moved house, following my retirement. For several weeks we have been ‘eating up’, attempting to empty our freezer and use up any odd ends of jars and packets of food in the pantry. If you’ve done this, you’ll know that there are some unusual meals to be had! But one of the first jobs on arrival in our new home was a ‘big shop’, to restock ourselves with all the essentials which we had gradually been reducing in order to make the move smoother.

This passage invites God’s people to a big shop with a difference. If you’re familiar with this passage from the old Authorised Version, you’ll remember that it started with the Hebrew cry ‘Ho!’ This probably echoed the cries of street vendors and water sellers in the marketplaces of Babylon, where the Israelites were in exile, but we might better translate it as ‘Hey!’ or ‘Listen up!’ This signals an important message which demands our full attention, and when we do listen up we can quickly see why: this big shop is all free! Sadly the huge Morrisons which is our new corner shop didn’t appear to have read Isaiah 55, but for these hungry and thirsty exiles the message was clear. No money required!

This chapter forms the climax to the central chapters of what we call the book of Isaiah, chapters 40 – 55, which are from an unknown prophet who was sent to the nation in exile to tell them that it was soon to be over, and they would soon be on their way home. The exile, symbolised by hunger and thirst (although those were probably physical realities too) is to be replaced by a feast, not just of Morrison’s Savers, but of ‘the richest of fare’. The speaker in this passage is calling out to hungry people ‘Listen up! Come and get food and drink from me! And don’t bother to bring your credit cards – it’s all on me!’

This lavish generosity of God is a great picture of his grace delivered to us by Jesus. But just as last week we thought about the importance of the word ‘if’ in God’s promises to Solomon, there are strings attached, even though it is all a free gift. Isaiah doesn’t make God’s generosity conditional as it was in 1 Kings last week, but he does talk about consequences. However the consequences aren’t portrayed as a burden, but a glorious privilege.

New Priorities

In v.2 the people are invited to rethink what is important, and we are invited in turn to consider what it is we labour for and spend on. Later on, once they have returned, the people are going to be told off by the prophet Haggai for engaging in home improvements while God’s house lies in ruins. So Isaiah here suggests that they rethink, and invest in eternity, not just a comfy life for now. After all, they or their parents had seen the Holy City destroyed at a stroke. That which God offers is eternal, indestructible, rich and ultimately satisfying.

A New Deal

The idea of ‘covenant’ is a vitally important one in the OT. Basically it is the deal between the people and God of a mutual relationship. Like a marriage covenant it binds two parties together, but also like a marriage it can be broken, and in fact the people are constantly breaking the relationship with God by their behaviour, their false worship, and the injustice and oppression which inevitably follow. But this time it’s going to be for ever. What he promised to David, Israel’s greatest king, is going to be made real, lasting and permanent. We now realise that this is going to happen through great David’s greater Son, and though we might play fast and loose with God, his desire for us, whether we like it or not, is going to be unwavering and unfaltering.

But coming out of these two gifts of God’s grace is a new responsibility. His people are going to be his witnesses to everyone else, those outside the Covenant with Israel. This echoes God’s original words to Abraham, right back in Genesis 12, that the purpose of God’s covenant people was to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to all the other nations around. In spite of the constant drag towards narrow nationalism and holy huddle mentality on the part of the Jews (and tragically on the part of many Christian churches today) the whole point is witness and outreach, and many prophets, including whoever wrote this portion of Isaiah, had to keep calling people back to this privilege and responsibility. And note the PS in v.5 – why is all this so important? Not for you; not for Israel, not even for the other nations, but ‘because of the Lord your God’. Nothing less is appropriate for our splendid God.