OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 4 – Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Is this passage about an eschatological character or an exercise in succession planning? The Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought the former. When John the Baptist appeared, looking strangely like they imagined Elijah would have looked, they asked him if he was ‘The Prophet’. Apparently Moses’ words from Deut 18:15 had been understood to predict a coming person, and Jewish exegesis of the text had arrived at the conclusion that The Prophet was going to appear shortly before the coming of the Messiah. The Gospels certainly seem to have been written with this expectation in mind, so that John could fulfil it, at least as the Forerunner even if not The Prophet.

But perhaps Moses’ intentions were different. When a charismatic leader departs, retires or dies, there is often a sense of let-down as the nature of the organisation inevitably changes. So how do we ensure that the changes which need to be made can happen, without losing the good things which have been good and healthy in the past? Part of my work in the past was with Anglican parishes in vacancy, helping them to think through clearly what they were looking for in a new priest. The Anglican church is notoriously bad at succession planning, only in rare cases appointing a curate already in post as the new vicar, and all too often deciding that having had one kind of leader, for the sake of balance they now need someone very different. In my parish ministry I have seen both a complete disappearance of those things I had worked to hard to lead a parish into, and also really healthy continuation of my ministry into places I would not have been able to lead people myself. It’s all very hit and miss.

So one way of reading this text is to think of Moses giving his death-bed speech (which is what Deuteronomy purports to be) to a bunch of people about whom he is anxious that the journey they have started will be completed well. First of all he passes on some of the wisdom he has learnt as their leader, and in particular the contrast with the practices of the nations around them. This passage is preceded by a warning against the occult goings on of their neighbours, who, in their attempts to get guidance, go to such lengths even as child sacrifice. God’s way is very different, and his prophets will behave very differently. If this passage is in fact about the inauguration of the prophetic movement in Israel, then there are some clear lessons to be learnt, both about prophecy and the prophets themselves. If a charismatic leader gets replaced with an institution, which they inevitably do, then Moses wants the people to know how that institution will work well, continue to be directed by the voice of God, and continue the trajectory of the original leader. And in the days of renewed prophetic gifts as the Holy Spirit is poured out through the charismatic movement, there are some helpful guidelines here too.

The nature of the prophetic is very different from occultism. Divination, sorcery and the other behaviour of the nations is all about what humans want to know: prophecy is about what God wants to reveal. He cannot be manipulated or coerced into telling our fortunes. So it follows that the job of the prophet is not like their sorcerers. Moses is very clear that prophets speak only what God gives them to say, nothing more, nothing less. So his words are not to be ignored or cherry-picked.

But even more telling is the character and role of the prophet. If I had promised my congregations that God would raise up for them ‘a vicar like me’, I wonder what would have come into their minds? (Probs best not to ask!) So what would a prophet like Moses look like? Perhaps as humble as he was. Perhaps someone who was only too keen to delegate power and see the Spirit active in all the people, rather than himself alone? Yet maybe also someone not so non-directive as a leader that he would allow democracy to rule, so that the people could return to Egypt just to get their hands on the melons and garlic. Perhaps someone so powerful an intercessor that he could get God himself to change his plans? But also someone maybe so vulnerable that he could weep in despair before God at the sheer evil of the people, someone who needed support both emotionally and also at times physically. If that’s what Moses looked like, presumably prophets like him should be recognisably similar.

Above all, says Moses, in a way which is echoed in the NT, beware of false prophets, essentially those who speak as if from God without actually having heard from him. In an age when right-wing leaders are happy to use the Holy Bible as props in their propaganda machines, we ought to be wise and careful. That surely is what taking the Lord’s name in vain means.

So maybe this passage has more relevance than we thought. Rather than being about someone whom John the Baptist refused to be, maybe it gives some useful hints for the use of the Spirit’s prophetic gifts in the Church today.

Old Testament Lectionary

Epiphany 3 – Genesis 14:17-20

What on earth is this all about? Even a read of the whole chapter (which is always a good idea, as you will have become sick of me saying) only adds to the confusion. What is going on here, and how in any way will it be edifying for me to hear about it? Let me try to shed some light.

On one level this is a political story about two coalitions of kings trying to control the major trade route through the area. For kings, of course, think tribal chieftains: these are not great nations and mighty emperors we’re talking about here. But the group from the South had been ruled for 12 years by the group from the East, and they had had enough, so revolt ensued. The southern lot were roundly defeated by the eastern lot, and their towns were sacked and prisoners taken. But what is significant is that Lot, Abram’s nephew, who had chosen to go and live in Sodom, a proverbially evil place, was also captured, along with his worldly goods. Abram gets to hear about this, and so gathers a small army and sets out on what looks like a suicidal rescue mission. However, God is with him, and Lot and his goods are saved.

As Abram returns he is met by a jubilant King of Sodom, no doubt intent on thanking him for his rescue mission. But he is upstaged by the sudden appearance of Melchizedek, king of Salem (the same word as shalom – peace, and his name means ‘King of Righteousness’). The very different responses of these two contrasting kings is the crux of this story, which is actually about how Abram is going to live out the calling he received from God two chapters earlier. The King of Sodom and King Melchizedek sit on his shoulders like the little angel and demon you see in cartoons: which way will Abram choose to go?

The King of Sodom is business-like: let’s do a deal. I’d quite like to have back the people you rescued, but you can keep all the spoils. This sounds sensible: after all the spoils of war are normally due to the victor, and Abram can certainly live without a bunch of extra Sodomites. But Melchizedek’s approach is very different. He offers Abram bread and wine, here representing the simplest of ordinary food essential to life, and a blessing which is far more about God than it is about Abram. Abram chooses to refuse the riches offered to him by Sodom, not wishing ever to be beholden to a pagan king in the living out of his call from God. Apart from the legitimate expenses of the journey, he will have none of it, preferring the blessing of God and the simple provision he needs.

Melchizedek is mentioned a few more times in the Bible. In Psalm 110 he is mentioned as the originator of the priesthood which Christ came later to fulfil. The letter to the Hebrews explains in chapters 5 and 7 that Melchizedek’s priesthood is the original and best, and that the later priesthood based on the tribe of Levi is not the real thing, thus proving to Jewish Christians that Jesus is better than their previous faith to which they may feel temped to revert.

This strange story highlights a decision which all those who are called by God have to face. What do we have to do to remain faithful to that original call? And what’s in it for us? Interestingly this is a question raised by Peter in Mk 10. There is fortunately, little financial gain to be made from Christian ministry, but the question is about where our hears and sights are fixed, and how beholden we want to allow ourselves to become to what this world has to offer. Abram passes this test with flying colours: how are we doing?

Covid Podcasts

How to Lament Part 2

Psalms of Individual Lament:

3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89*, 120, 139, 141, 142.

Psalms of Corporate Lement:

12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129

Psalms of Penitence:

6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 2 – 1 Samuel 3:1-21

The first half of this chapter is a great Sunday School story: I can remember as a child loving the hymn based on it, James Burns’ Hushed was the evening hymn, set to Arthur Sullivan’s great tune. After that, though, it turns a bit nasty, so we keep that part out of the children’s ears, and safely inside those square brackets. But the chapter as a whole is a watershed for Israel, and a challenge for all who are  positions of leadership today. To understand why, we’ll have to read around the passage a bit (never a bad idea).

Samuel, like so many other key leaders in the Bible, had been a miracle baby, and now as promised he was apprenticed to Eli the priest at the sanctuary in Shiloh. But around the key story we are given a lot more other information about the state of the nation at this time. 3:1 tells us that the word of the Lord and vision from him were rare, and interestingly the next verse tells us that Eli himself was virtually blind. But there was more to it than that. Whilst we have no record of Eli ever bringing prophetic messages from God, nor in fact doing very much at all in terms of his priestly leadership, he does seem to spend a lot of his time sitting around on a throne (4:13), and wringing his hands over the behaviour of his uncontrollable sons Hophni and Phineas. They too are priests, but are totally corrupt, pinching food from those bringing sacrifices, and raping any women they fancied. Eli hears reports from others about their behaviour, but can only rebuke this abuse of power in the mildest of terms. In addition his level of spirituality seems to be very low: he mistakes fervent prayer for drunkenness, in a way similar to some of the bystanders on the Day of Pentecost, and uncannily like some of the mockery levelled at charismatic Christians more recently.

Hannah, Samuel’s mum, had prophesied, in a way very similar to Jesus’ mum 1,000 years later, about God’s penchant for reversing people’s fortunes (2:7), bringing down the proud and powerful whilst exalting the meek. It is the first job of the her son as the fledgling prophet to proclaim that God is about to do just that to Eli’s family.

It is an uncomfortable calling to pronounce judgement, and one which is particularly out of fashion today in a church which has lost much of its prophetic edge and wants to be encouraging of pretty much anyone or anything. Yet we continue to reap the whirlwind from the behaviour of some of our leaders who, like Eli’s sons, use their positions to harm and abuse others. Samuel’s ministry is a hinge-point in the history of Israel, bringing to an end the corrupt period of the Judges and uniting the nation (for a while at least) under the monarchy. This story sets the tone for his future ministry as one who certainly could receive words and visions from the Lord, to great effect.

Over the years I have held several diocesan posts which have been about helping local churches to be healthy and effective. I have learnt two things from this kind of ministry: 1) it’s hard, and 2) effective churches are led by effective leaders. Most leaders have told me it’s hard in their particular patch, because it’s so urban, or because it’s so rural, or because it’s so middle-class … My conclusion is that it’s hard everywhere. But I have come to believe that leadership is key: it is rare to see an effective church with ineffectual or even downright corrupt leadership, and tragically I have seen plenty of both. The Bible encourages us to pray for our leaders, and that is needed today more than ever. But perhaps we also need to hear again some of the prophetic voices who call out bad behaviour and protect the Church from it in a way which Eli so manifestly failed to do.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 1/The Baptism of Christ  – Genesis 1:1-5

Let’s start with a bit of Hebrew geekery – Gen 1:1 is a bad translation! There is no ‘the’ before ‘beginning’, and the word ‘beginning’ is constructed to show that it is the beginning of something, not just ‘the beginning’. So a better translation might read ‘When God began to create …’ We are used to the idea that creation happened ex nihilo, or starting absolutely from scratch, but a careful reading of the text won’t allow that here. Formless and void though it may have been, the earth was in some sense already there. So was darkness, and so were some waters over which the Spirit was hovering. One Jewish tradition taught that God had practised already, and had rejected 974 attempts before finally getting it just how he wanted with the 975th, which is where we live. Whether or not we like this idea (and it does have a certain appeal), it is clear that God had been at work long before the big bang which started things off here. He had already prepared the raw materials before the actual creation of our world began.

Today as we remember the Baptism of Jesus, which launched him into his public ministry, we can also see that work had been going on before the big day. The Bible is largely silent about it, as it is about the pre-creation cosmos, apart from the tantalising glimpse Luke gives us of Jesus aged 12. Of course this particular vacuum has been filled abundantly with legends, like that of Jesus bringing clay birds to life and striking neighbours blind. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas makes delightful reading (just Google it to see the text), but fortunately is not within our canon of Scripture. All we get is the big day when his ministry is launched, and an awareness that God has been at work in him before that.

The other thing to note about Gen 1 is that it is a deeply polemical work, in other words it is written for something, but also against something. The chapter is generally thought to be a part of what is called the Priestly Code, probably written after the Babylonian exile to give a logical and orderly account of the creation. But it was written in the context of a nation which for a generation or more had been living with a different story, that of the Babylonian god Marduk cutting the evil sea-monster Tiamat in half and using the two halves to make heaven and earth respectively. Clearly the writers were very familiar with this story, and the people for whom it was written would have been very familiar with it too; indeed some of them may have believed it, along with the pantheon of other gods worshipped around them, represented by stars, sun, moon, trees and so on. There are interesting echoes: the Hebrew words for the ‘deep’ in v.2 is related to the name of Tiamat, and the separation in v.6 reflects the cutting in half of the monster. In other parts of the OT God chops up sea monsters or otherwise destroys them. But then, in a deeply subversive way, God goes on to create sun, moon, stars and the rest. They’re not gods: they were spoken into being and put there by our God! This is the truth, and you’d better believe it!

Another passage (which I would have chosen for the Epistle today if they had asked me) brings these two ideas together. Paul wrote in Gal 4:

When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

God had been at work in and through his Son, but one day, on just the right day, the set time arrived, and Jesus manifested himself and began his ministry. But the word ‘repent’, with which that ministry began, means that his ministry was not just for something but also against something: all that is evil, unjust and destructive, all that we have put our faith in, all the myths which we have believed because all those around us believe them. Simeon had perceived this when he first me the baby Jesus. God had been at work in him preparing him for a ministry which would inevitably bring division, become a challenge, and call people to a crisis point, to a ‘make your mind up time’.

So Jesus’ baptism invites us to consider how God might already have been at work, in our lives, in our world, in the Covid pandemic, in Trump’s USA … and what we might be called to turn from in repentance so that the truth can restore our perspective and set us free.

Covid Podcasts

How to Lament Part 1

Lament Form (eg Psalm 7)