Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent Sunday – Isaiah 64:1-9

Sorry to begin Advent on a downer, but this passage is all about disappointment. I wonder if any of us are feeling that as we look back over the Year of Our Lord 2020? As part of a longer Psalm of Lament (63:7 – 64:12), it is the nation’s cry of anguish because things hadn’t worked out as they expected. Situated after the return from exile in Babylon, as promised by the middle section of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55), this section, part of what is known as Third- or Tritio-Isaiah, is the response of the people to the fact that the glowing predictions of Deutero-Isaiah about Jerusalem being returned to its former splendour and prominence hadn’t quite come to pass, and that in fact life was all about hard slog and discouragement rather than triumph and glory.

It begins with a cry for God to do something, and preferably something dramatic, to show Israel’s enemies who’s boss (v.1-3). It moves onto an accusation: we have sinned because you have been absent. Like cheating spouses who blame their infidelity on a lack of attention from their other half, they tell God that if only he had been there for them they would have behaved (v.5-7). Then there seems to be a recognition, perhaps dawning gradually, that actually it is them, not the nations, which need God to turn up and make a difference. This leads to an admission that they were powerless to shape their own destiny, as powerless as a lump of clay, but nevertheless ‘we are all your people’ (v.8-9), so there ought to be hope, surely? It’s almost as if, in the composition of this passage, the prophet was coming to a dawning recognition of the real state of affairs.

So why had God apparently absented himself with such disappointing consequences? The clue, I think, lies in v.4: God acts for those who wait. As Christians I expect we know that most of our disappointment and frustration with God comes not because he hasn’t done something or other, but because he hasn’t done it yet. As believers in the resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth we know that in the end things will pan out fine; we really do believe that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purposes. But O my goodness isn’t it taking a long time? And there we have the absolute heart of Advent: it teaches us to wait. We know what’s coming, we believe it’s coming, so why on earth doesn’t it come? That’s the agonised cry of the Church for 2000 years: that’s the at times despairing cry of Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Of course we don’t really do waiting nowadays. Ever since the launch of the Access Card in October 1972, with its strapline ‘Taking the waiting out of wanting’, we have increasingly grown to expect everything instantly. If a web page doesn’t load within two seconds we don’t bother, and any social media post more than a few lines long is greeted with ‘tldr’. The charismatic renewal movement has been accused of ‘triumphalism’, which I define as ‘wanting our triumph now rather than later’. Yet God is definitely a God who makes us wait, and who promises to reward those who wait – eventually.

This year we have learnt a lot about waiting: for many there hasn’t been much else to do during lockdown, furlough or even redundancy. As I write we’re waiting to be told if and how we might celebrate Christmas this year, within our families and within our churches. We’re waiting for the magic vaccinations which will make this horrible thing go away and put life back to normal again. We’re waiting to see how the wonderfully prosperous life outside the EU we were promised will actually pan out. And yes, as we look back, we’re disappointed. Disappointed about our jobs, our livelihood, those cancelled holidays, marriages and get-togethers, and some of us above all are disappointed that those we love have died, sometimes without us being able to hold their hands as they went.

So what does this text tell us about our disappointments? The same as Advent tells u every year, although this year with much greater poignancy: wait. We’re powerless, ultimately, so all we can do is recognise that we’re in the hands of a skilled potter who is making something both beautiful and useful, but who is certainly taking his time to do it. Our job, yes, is to cry out in anguish ‘for goodness’ sake get on with it!’, but it is also to discern, see and wonder at what we’re becoming as we wait. It’s also about proclaiming triumphantly, but sometimes through gritted teeth, with v.9 ‘We are all your people.’

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christ the King – Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

1 Timothy 2 urges us to be constant in prayer for our earthly leaders, and you can’t argue with that, although at times I find myself very tempted about what exactly to pray for them! Every night’s news brings further reports of our government’s failures, incompetence, downright lies, and internal warring. Even those who voted this lot in in order to get Brexit done seem to have grown quieter and quieter about its promised merits as we seem no closer to any kind of a deal which will lead to a prosperous future. Today, the Feast of Christ the King, reminds us that beyond fallible human leaders there is a real King who is both reigning and also getting ready to reign. Ezekiel 34 provides a helpful link between the reality of 2020 Britain and the coming reign of Jesus.

The chapter as a whole is an oracle of judgment against the rulers of Judah, and verses 1-6 list their shortcomings every bit as clearly as Laura Keunssberg does every evening with ours. The text is strangely up-to-date: they look after themselves while neglecting their duty of care for the poor; they have done nothing to heal the broken or comfort the sorrowing. They have ruled harshly and brutally, so that the people were lost and scattered, and they did nothing to bring them back together. For those reasons, says Ezekiel, God is against them. So what is he going to do?

Our reading starts here, in v.11: because of the failure of human rulers, he is going to come and do the job properly himself. Ezekiel then goes on to give us four characteristics of the reign of God as opposed to the current human rulers.

The people, not themselves.

The picture used throughout the chapter is of shepherds, those whose job is to care for, nurture and protect the sheep in their care. OT Kings are often seen in terms of shepherding, and it is no mere chance that the greatest king ever, David, began as a shepherd boy. When the Good Shepherd comes, he will not be interested in feathering his own nest (forgive the change of metaphor!) but will do what shepherds are meant to do: care for the flock, rescue them from danger, and bring them to good pasture. The lovely picture of them lying down in v.15 is reminiscent of Psalm 23, and provides a great picture of a nation at rest, free both from external oppression and internal anxiety.

Active, not passive.

God the King will actively seek out those who are lost and scattered, those who have lost their way or become excluded. Rather than not caring, like the earthly rulers, the new King will take the initiative and the lost will be found and the broken healed.

The community, not just individuals.

If there is one difficult or politically incorrect motif in this chapter, it is the words of judgement (which, surprise surprise, have been filleted out). But they have to be there, because the Shepherd King, who is totally committed to the flock and its wellbeing, has no choice but to deal decisively with anything or anyone who threatens their safety, and tragically it is the rulers who have become a danger to the people. Our King is paradoxically committed to each individual, but he is against anyone who threatens the life of the community. As I have said many times in preaching, God is not tolerant! He has to stop those who would harm his people, and he will.

Unity, not division.

Our reading ends with the vision of a united people, yes, brought back from exile to their own land, but also under the reign of one King who will bless them, not harm them. Under his reign there will be no Leavers and Remainers, no North/South divide, no Democrats and Republicans, nor any of the other divisions which have been allowed to wreck our world.

Historically this chapter marks the turning point on Ezekiel’s prophecy. Before chapter 33 he has written only in warning of the coming judgement, in the shape of the Babylonian exile. But the mood changes here as he begins for the first time really to talk about restoration. The coming of the new King, whom we know to be Jesus, and for which we are still waiting, holds out hope for healing and restoration, not just for poor and broken people, but also for a sick and divided world. What a hope! And, as we head into Advent next week, what a stimulus to prayer. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 3/2nd before Advent – Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

How would you feel if you were suddenly told that Jesus was coming back tomorrow? I can remember as a child growing up in the Baptist Church being absolutely terrified of Jesus’ return. I somehow picked up the idea that my eternal destiny would depend on what I happened to be doing at the moment Jesus appeared (I don’t think this is official Baptist theology). Not only did this belief lead to a very insecure life; it also taught me to sin quickly, thus reducing the statistical likelihood that I would be caught out like a thief in the night. As I’ve grown up, I have corrected my doctrine, but also, if I’m honest, lost that sense of urgency and immediacy. The people of Zephaniah’s age, possibly the 630s BC, also seem to have lost their sense of urgency, other than a vague awareness that the Day of the Lord will come one day eventually, and that it will mean Israel coming out on top again and the nations around them getting their come-uppance.

So Zephaniah’s dramatic message comes at them like a double whammy. He begins with an onomatopoeic Hebrew word translated ‘Listen!’ or ‘be silent!’ but actually more like ‘Hush!’. The Day of the Lord is coming any time now, and when it comes they will be the first to be judged. That judgement is described in the most dramatic detail: the filleted verses 8-11 describe crying and wailing as God begins with royal officials (perhaps those ruling during the years before King Josiah was old enough to reign) and then moves on to those who wear foreign clothes, possibly the vestments used in pagan worship. Next in line, somewhat inexplicably, are those who leap over the threshold of the Temple (?), and then the market traders. After that God will go through the darkest corners of the city with a powerful torch, seeking out those trying to hide in the dark corners, and those who are so complacent that they don’t even bother to hide. Plunder and destruction will be the order of the day, as God comes to punish and destroy.

Now with such an encouraging message many of our Marcionite tendencies immediately spring into action. As with the 2nd century heretic, we take comfort from believing that of course that is the OT God, the nasty judgemental one, not the nice Jesus we have in the Gospels. But this just won’t do, because Jesus too came as judge. John the Baptist’s heraldic warnings spoke of the coming wrath, of a chopping down and a burning up. Jesus begins his ministry (at least in John’s Gospel) by cleansing the Temple from all who bought and sold instead of praying, and continues with teaching about judgement, separation and punishment. We can’t get away with saying that Zephaniah’s words passed out of date at the beginning of Matthew: the OT God and the NT Messiah have the same judging role.

But something is different. Jesus does something which Zephaniah never did. He did something you’ll never see Judge John Deed doing. Yes, they both pronounce sentence, but Jesus takes it further: he gets down from the judge’s bench and enters the dock, and goes on to die a criminal’s death, our criminals’ death.

So corrupt leadership, false worship, superstition and unjust moneygrabbing are all soundly condemned, and will be punished, but lurking in this list of doom is one little phrase which might just the most frightening of all. Perhaps the greatest punishment will be reserved for those who say to themselves ‘The Lord will do nothing, neither good or bad’. What is really going on here is the loss of belief in an active God and a moral God. Once you lose that, you really have lost the plot. Remember these are not atheists or pagans: these are God’s chosen people. Heaven help us when we convince ourselves that God doesn’t care how we live, or that even if he does he’s powerless to do anything about it. What on earth kind of faith does that leave us with?

So as we approach Advent, when we traditionally focus on judgement and being ready so we’re on the right side of it, Zephaniah shouts out to us ‘Hush! Shut up and listen!’ Have the right theology to see God for who he really is, the righteous judge who will have no truck with anything impure, and have the right humility to cry to him for mercy. Have the right lifestyle which is one of gratitude for Jesus’ having taken our sins and given us his righteousness.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Remembrance Sunday – Amos 5:18-24

When I found this passage set for Remembrance Sunday this year I was slightly surprised, as I had expected an earlier chapter of Amos. I have preached on more than one occasion to churches full of British Legion members and Veterans on a text from the previous chapter, 4:10:

I killed your young men with the sword,
    along with your captured horses.
I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps,
    yet you have not returned to me,’
declares the Lord.

But this reading seems to be more about the relationship between worship and social justice than war or conflict. How might it speak into today’s ceremonies of remembrance? As is so often the case, we can make so much more sense of the passage by reading it against the background of the whole book, which can be seen as being about ‘us and them’.

The situation is that the nation is enjoying peace and prosperity, at least on the surface. However underneath it is corrupt, with injustice rife, contempt for the poor rampant, and the rich élite enjoying life at the expense of the downtrodden peasantry. Amos is called by God to the unenviable task of warning the nation that God is not going to put up with this for much longer. In a masterly piece of rhetoric he begins with the surrounding nations, with oracles of condemnation for Israel’s neighbours. You can just hear the Israelites cheering as all those foreigners are cursed and their punishments predicted. Us and them, and ‘they’ are going to get what they so richly deserve. But then Amos comes closer to home, and predicts the downfall of Judah. This time the cheering is a little more nervous. ‘They’ are after all our hated neighbours the other side of the North/South divide, but at the end of the day they are still Jews, God’s supposedly chosen people. But then with a final dramatic twist of the knife, Amos pronounces a similar curse on Israel herself, the very nation who had seen themselves as superior to all those foreigners out there.

This piece of rhetoric sets the tone for the rest of the book, where those who felt themselves so superior to the others begin to feel the burning heat of God’s judgement on them.  Our passage begins with a highly significant term: the ‘Day of the Lord’. In Jewish thought this was the coming time when God would ride into town and sort everything out, smashing up the foreigners and placing Israel back where they belonged as top dogs. They couldn’t wait! But Amos’ message was a startling one: when God does intervene, it will be to punish you, not to save you. In the ‘us and them’ battle, you are actually no better than them. You will be punished as violently as anything you wish on your enemies.

I have never been a pacifist. In my teenage years we had a minister at our Baptist church who had been a forces chaplain, and had spent some time in Belsen. I can remember, as clearly as the day he said it, that he could never be a pacifist because when he saw what Hitler was doing, he knew he had to be stopped. That has stayed with me, and although my own tangles with the Armed Forces were nothing more than a short-term RAF chaplaincy while the proper one was sent off to the Falklands War, I have always believed that sometimes war is indeed justified. But what is never justified is the superior ‘us and them’ attitude which so often accompanies war, the xenophobia which is hostile even without official hostilities having been declared, nor the racism which would like to see ‘them’ get their come-uppance while we prosper. The fact is, we are no better than anyone else: the fascism which exploded in Hitler’s Germany, for example, is not very far under the surface of our own nation at the present time. As a country we do well to imitate not the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, but the heart-broken sinner who realised much more clearly than did his theologically-informed oppo that actually we are all in dire need of God’s mercy, both ‘them’ and ‘us’.

So today, yes we shall remember, and we will give thanks for those who fought to save our country and most of the rest of Europe. But we should do so humbly, and in a way which acknowledges that the seeds of anger, violence and destruction lie buried within each of us, and sometimes not all that deeply buried. Perhaps this year it is a good thing that the pageantry of the Cenotaph procession will not be happening. Maybe it will help us to remember in a way which is more humble, more forgiving, and more wary lest we become the very thing against which our grandparents fought.