Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

All Saints Day – Psalm 34:1-10

Oh dear – I’ve got a real problem this week – the lectionary doesn’t give us an OT reading. So, in order to prevent myself being sued under the Trades Descriptions Act, I’ve decided to go with the next best thing – Psalm 34. After all, Psalm 34 is strictly speaking in the OT, even if that isn’t how it functions liturgically. So here goes.

This Psalm is what is known by Psalm scholars as an individual thanksgiving, one of 15 in our Psalter. It’s helpful, if you belong to that kind of a church, to think of it as a testimony. When I was a parish priest I learnt from a visit to a friend who was an Episcopalian Rector in Florida a great way to start a Sunday service: he sent a server out with a roving mic and asked the congregation ‘What has God been or done for you this week such that you have come to worship him today?’ A few people would then stick up their hands and briefly tell their stories of God’s goodness. When we started doing that back in Coventry it really lifted the worship. Other denominations make even greater use of testimony, and that is what is going on here in this Psalm.

The person testifying purports to be David, and his testimony is of a particular incident in his life, which you can read about in 1 Samuel 21. Whether David actually wrote this is a matter of dispute, particularly as the story as 1 Samuel tells it has David going mad in front of King Achish, not Abimelek as here, although of course it’s easy for anyone to misremember details.

The other interesting thing about this Psalm is that it is an acrostic, with each verse beginning with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. We have seven such Psalms, as well as other parts of the OT. What this means is that this isn’t a speech someone thought up at the start of a service: it’s a clever piece of literary art which has been put together with great creativity to the glory of God.

So why this Psalm for All Saints’ Day? I confessed a couple of weeks ago that I am not all that keen on the celebration of Saints’ Days, because for all their stories are supposed to inspire us to greater things they often actually end up making us feel deskilled and useless. But this Psalm is different, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is a Psalm about God, and not merely the testifier. Every one of our 10 verses mentions the Lord, apart from v.5 which merely uses a pronoun. So many Saints’ stories, and so many of our more contemporary testimonies, tend to focus on what we have done, but this passage leaves us in no doubt at all that the Lord is the one to whom the glory is due. Some human testimony might be the better for a bit more of such an emphasis.

Secondly, though, where there is human activity, it is not exactly exemplary. In order to escape with his life David pretends to be mad, dribbling and raving until they sling him out. Hardly something to be particularly proud of. One big problem with testimony is that it can tell only the good bits, which again can be deskilling for ordinary people. I can remember when we used the words above at the start of our worship there were lots of good stories shared, and a few great ones, but what sticks in my mind is the occasions when someone said something like ‘I’ve had a dreadful week and God has seemed a million miles away but I’ve come to worship him this morning anyway’. We rarely hear the more negative aspects in our hagiographical preaching: this Psalm is real, and much more flattering to God than to the story-teller.

But thirdly I particularly like v.2-3, where the author gives his testimony but then invites all of us to join in with him in glorifying and exalting God. This is the exact opposite of the way much preaching on the Saints goes, where they are held up as heroes and heroines who are out of our reach. It invites us in, rather than merely inviting us to watch and dream. It expounds the biblical truth that all Christians are Saints, and rejects the double-decker approach which our twin festivals of All Saints and All Souls have emphasised, that there are ordinary Christians who feebly struggle while real saints in glory shine. Those saints who have gone ahead of us, according to Hebrews 11, are egging us on, waiting with bated breath for us to join them in exalting the Lord. They want nothing more than to see us joining in with their praise.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Bible Sunday – Nehemiah 8:1-12

Yet another departure from the Sundays of Trinity this week as I base my reflections on Bible Sunday. I said last week that I’m not all that keen on Saints, but I am very keen on the Bible, so let’s see what it has to say about itself.

If I were choosing a Gospel to go with this theme, I would choose the Emmaus Road story from Luke 24, because both that and the Nehemiah reading concern both the power and the limitation of Scripture. Ezra reads from the Torah, the Law of Moses, to the assembled Jews who have returned from exile in Babylon, with dramatic effect. But this raises the question ‘Why?’ Why now do the people fall to their knees in worship and weep in penitence? They must have heard the Law read many times before. Yes, they had been in exile in a foreign land, but that doesn’t mean that they had forgotten the Law. It is usually recognised that the worship of the Synagogue started during the exile, when they could no longer attend the sacrificial worship of the Temple, and Synagogue worship was all about gathering round the Torah in order to learn to live well. Yet on this day, as the Scriptures were read, there was a dramatic effect. What was different?

The same dynamic is present on the Emmaus Road. The Stranger expounded the Scriptures to the two disciples, but it was not until later, as he broke bread, that they were allowed to see who he really was. Only with hindsight did they realise that their hearts had been burning as Scripture was expounded. In each case, it seems that Scripture alone was not enough. There had to be some added ingredient which meant that they wept and their hearts burned. Maybe that ingredient was the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Week by week, in thousands of churches across our land, the Scriptures are read and expounded, but with very little evidence of weeping or burning among those who hear. I wonder what people expect as readings are announced, as the sermon begins. And I wonder what readers and preachers expect. We have probably all known times when something from God’s Word has struck us, or spoken exactly into a situation we’re facing, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The Bible can be powerful, but so often it seems to be read and expounded with little visible effect on those who hear. Obviously each Sunday can’t be more special than the one before – that’s too much pressure for any church leader! – but might we hear Scripture better if we raised our expectations and prayed more earnestly for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the Liturgy of the Word?

But back to Nehemiah, and there does seem to be a progression through the passage which might shed some light on a strategy for raising the profile of Scripture in our churches. First of all, reading between the lines, there is a sense of hunger for the Word. The people gather, urge Ezra to bring out the scrolls, and listen attentively from day beak until midday, around six hours. No-one was going to tell him off if he went over his Anglican seven minutes. What might we do to help people feel hungry for Scripture?

Secondly, there is respect for the Word. As when we read the Gospel, people stand, but one senses not out of tradition, but out of genuine welcome and reverence. Rarely though do we complete this verse and bow with our faces to the ground at the sight of the Gospel book. Not all churches will go in for lavish Gospel Processions, but are there things we can do to foster this kind of respect?

Thirdly, there is a response to the Word. Conviction of sin sweeps through the crowd and weeping breaks out. I wonder what proportion of our preaching is about disturbing the comfortable as opposed to comforting the disturbed. The Torah is all about how you must live to honour God and please him, and the people clearly realised how far they had come from that kind of a lifestyle. It broke their hearts. Oh for more broken hearts in today’s church!

Finally though, at the urging of those who really got it, there was joy in the Word. Conviction of sin is great, because it leads you out of the dark corner, whereas condemnation for sin keeps you trapped there. The first is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Helper;  the second the work of Satan, the accuser. The people are filled with joy because they now understand both the holiness and the mercy of God. Note too that joy leads to generosity, as food and hospitality is shared.

Whether you will be preaching, reading or listening to Scripture tomorrow, let this passage inspire you to pray and prepare for God to speak. Whether weeping or burning, pray for the Holy Spirit to speak powerfully through the Word, to change lives, and to bring freedom and rejoicing.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

S Luke  – Isaiah 35:3-6

Uncharacteristically I’ve chosen to go with St Luke today, rather than Trinity 19. I’m not big on Saints’ days – I’ll tell you why in a moment – but it seemed appropriate as new and even more confusing lockdown regulations have just been announced and we have as many hospitalisations as we had when lockdown was first introduced back in the Spring. Dr Luke would be having a field day if he were alive now!

As always our lectionary gives us a mere snippet of the passage which really ought to be read at the very least from verses 1 to 10 (sorry to sound like a cracked record on this – it’s almost as though we’re trying to get away with as little Scripture in our services as possible). In the next fortnight I’ll be teaching my students at the Lincoln School of Theology about exegesis, and the importance of asking the right questions of a passage. So let’s begin with two: where? and when?

Isaiah answers the first very clearly: the desert or wilderness (v.1). The setting for this passage, described by two Hebrew words in parallel is a vast place of desolation, parched and arid. These words are used in the OT as deep symbols, just as we talk today about finding ourselves in the wilderness. It’s a place where we can feel alone and abandoned, where we can easily get lost, a place which is scary and evil. Nothing grows there, and there is neither food nor water to sustain us, but dangerous animals lurk threateningly. In later thought it is the place where demons live, where Jesus himself went to be tested. But it is also a place of encounter with God, where wisdom may be gained and God’s care and provision experienced. Many Christians who have suffered would testify to the value of the desert in their spiritual growth.

It is into this arid landscape that the glory and splendour of God are going to appear. That will make all the difference, to the land itself, as dryness gives way to fruitfulness and beauty, and to the people, who will find healing and restoration. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dumb will shout praises, and the lame will dance for joy.

That’s the ‘Where?’ question, but what about ‘When?’ Suddenly Isaiah goes very quiet. We just don’t know, and probably neither did he. All this wonder and joy will come to pass, but we have not a clue when, exactly.

This is a passage, therefore, for people who are suffering and have no idea how long this is going to go on for. Isaiah gives no predictions, not even a clue, but at the same time he is absolutely clear that  things will change. You may or may not share our Prime Minister’s unshakeable belief that together we will beat this virus, but Isaiah’s confidence is not based on wishful thinking or the Blitz spirit: he knows that God is going to show up, and he alone will turn wilderness weeping into joy and jubilation.

But all that is by way of background: we’ve hardly touched the verses actually set in our lectionary. And there we find a bit of a surprise. I wonder how you read verses 3-4? Is this God speaking to you, telling you to buck your ideas up? Did you find those verses comforting? Well I’m afraid that isn’t what the text says. It isn’t a comfort – it’s a commission. You – God’s people – are to get out there and start telling feeble-handed, weak-kneed, frightened people that there’s no need to fear, because God is coming. When? No idea, but he is. He’s coming to save you. These are not words of comfort to scared and weary wilderness dwellers. They are words of challenge to those who live with others in the wilderness but can see beyond its boundaries. The sand and the sun have not blinded our sight; the sickness and desolation have not robbed us of hope. We believe and trust in God.

Maybe this, then, is why this OT reading is coupled with today’s Gospel, the sending out of the 72 to teach and heal. The reason I’m not that keen on celebrating saints is that while I understand we’re supposed to look to their example and be encouraged to emulate them, in real life I reckon they do more to de-skill us than inspire us. I’ve heard quite a few sermons which have left me feeling ‘I could never in a million years do anything like that!’ Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that? Too much sainthood can leave ordinary Christians like us feeling even more useless. But Isaiah’s message to us today is surely an encouraging one – you, who are living with all your friends and family in the same wilderness, not knowing how long this is going to last, can think differently about it. You can be those whom God uses to strengthen others. Not because you have some great insight into when God is going to act, but simply because you believe he will.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 18 – Isaiah 25:1-9

This week’s OT reading gives us a tale of two cities. They are two very different cities, and Isaiah contrasts them in order to give an important message about God.

The first city is unnamed (v.2). So what do we know about it? It was a stronghold of foreigners, and it has been completely and permanently destroyed. The lack of a name for the city only adds to the sense that it has not only been destroyed, but almost forgotten. It is hardly worth mentioning.

Is there anything else we can know about this heap of ruins? Archaelologists have suggested that it was near Jerusalem, at a place called Ramat Rahel, where ruins have been found from this period, the late 7th century BC. For over 100 years Judah had been a vassal state to Assyria, and in line with their strategy for world domination the Assyrians built cities which served as outposts for their empire. Judah had paid dearly for her survival, but suddenly they were free. A new empire, that of Babylon, had taken over the world stage, and Assyria crumbled, along with its cities. It is this removal of the nation’s oppressors which is being celebrated in this hymn of praise.

We know that Assyria as a nation was cruel, enjoyed torture, and operated a scorched earth policy over most of its conquests, although obviously Judah was prosperous enough to be worth taxing rather than destroying. So when Isaiah moves on to his second city, the contrast could not be greater. This city is not named either, but there is no need to name it. It is the city on this mountain (v.6, 7, 11), right here where we are in Jerusalem. But beyond Jerusalem is the eternal city for which it stands, God’s apocalyptic kingdom, the heavenly Zion.

Zion is portrayed as a great banquet (personally one of my favourite images of heaven!) and the language used describes a Michelin 5 star rated feast: the words for aged wines contrast it with the everyday plonk, and the best of meats is literally marrowfat, which might not sound that appealing but was actually a great delicacy in that culture. But the real point here is not so much quality but quantity. This all-you-can-eat buffet is for all peoples, and particularly those who come from places of shame, disgrace and mourning. All are welcome to find healing and joy. Assyria demands and destroys: Zion welcomes and nourishes.

The Israelites were very well aware of the hand of God working through the rulers of this world and directing their paths for his purposes, so they clearly saw the rise of Babylon as a saving act of God. The ruined city became a monument to God’s power and a promise for the future, when all enemies, all that brings shame and defeat, would be destroyed by him. But there is even better news yet. There is something else on the menu at this feast: death.

The image of death being swallowed up is one which has passed into Christian imagery and liturgy. It seems to be used here deliberately, in the context of eating and drinking. At the moment our graves swallow us up, but God promises a time when death will be consumed by victory.

Whatever victories we have seen in your Christian life, whatever answered prayers or times of great closeness to God, Isaiah encourages us to see them as picture of the future. ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord; we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’ (v.9). And don’t forget this first part of that verse ‘In that day they will say …’ If you are still in a place of defeat, shame and disgrace, hold on to the experience of Judah, and let this tale of two cities lead you faithfully and joyfully towards the third.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – Isaiah 5:1-7 (related)

‘The Song of the Vineyard’ – the title by which this passage is known, seems at first sight to be a fairly straightforward allegory or parable, and undoubtedly forms the basis of Jesus’ parable in Mt 21, today’s Gospel. But on closer examination it is not so simple. There are at least three different genres or styles of writing represented in these few short verses, with twists and turns in the plot as we go along. A love song becomes an international treaty, which ends as a courtroom drama. But the message is the same – frustration.

The love song is about the prophet’s beloved, who turns out to be God. The fact that Isaiah can speak of God in these terms, and go on in the middle section to speak as from God, reflects his prophetic calling. He is the one in a close relationship of love with his Lord, and he really feels his pain. One can imagine a Blues singer announcing his next song as ‘for all those who have lost someone you love’. It is a song about love which starts well but goes sour as that love is rejected.

But as the song continues, there is a sudden switch of mood. In the ancient Near East covenants would commonly be made between nations, and the form of words often contained a list of the benefits which the stronger party had bestowed on the weaker, used as a kind of moral blackmail: ‘You owe me!’ Verse 2 is in exactly this form: ‘Look at all I’ve done for you, all I’ve given to you!’ says God to Israel. But the result isn’t a relationship of obedience and mutual respect, and the King is deeply disappointed. So what is to be done?

Again the style switches abruptly, and now we are in the courtroom, with Israel both in the dock but also in the jury box. The jury are invited to judge between themselves and God, and clearly the prophet’s hope is that confronted with this parable they will get the point and repent, just as King David did when confronted by the prophet Nathan’s parable of the rich man and the lamb in 2 Samuel 12. But nothing is forthcoming, so in verses 5 and 6 sentence is passed by the judge. And what a dreadful sentence it is to be! In a threefold act of judgement God is going to remove protection, care and nourishment from the nation. In an act reminiscent of the Flood story God is going to remove the boundaries which hold back evil from the world, just as the waters which he had divided and forbidden to come any further were suddenly released with such destructive effects. He will stop his care for the nation, stop the weeding and pruning which any gardener knows are essential if chaos is not to take over. And he will stop the nation’s nourishment, the gentle rain which waters and brings life. We are all in desperate need of these three elements of God’s sustaining love for his people, so to have them removed is punishment indeed. Woe betide any nation or people from whom God removes his protection, care and nurture.

The final verse explains the allegory, as though there were any doubt, and uses two pairs of Hebrew words to ram home the message poetically. God looked for justice (mishpat) but found only bloodshed (mishpach): he looked for righteousness (zedakah) but instead heard a cry of despair (ze’akah).

As his prophet, Isaiah feels deeply God’s frustration and disappointment that the nation to whom he had given so much, and from whom he expected so much, had produced nothing but manky fruit. So great is his pain that he is willing to allow the Vineyard to be destroyed.

I can remember a staff meeting in one of the parishes in which I served at which the discussion led to an admission that many of us felt that while God loved us (that was his job, after all) he didn’t actually like us very much, and rather resented our feeble attempts to be his people. Many of us, if we were really to admit it, basically feel that God is frustrated and angry with us. But we might picture Jesus on the cross, the Father’s protection from the angry Jews and Romans removed, his care gone as his Son feels totally abandoned, and Jesus’ thirst for drink which is met only with bitterness. Jesus, even more beloved to the Father than his Vineyard, his people, is punished in our place so that we are set free to produce righteousness and justice.