Romans Part 2 – 1:1-23 – The Good News of God’s Wrath
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 4 – Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13
At the moment I am in the middle of facing one of the greatest challenges of my entire life. I refer, of course, to coving. Not Covid, although that has been a bit of a challenge too. No, coving. That polystyrene curvy stuff which goes round ceilings. For the last year we have been engaged in an almost complete renovation of our daughter’s house, and now it’s coving time. Having watched the jaunty YouTube video from B&Q, nothing seemed easier. What could possibly go wrong? If you live in a house with perfectly right-angled corners and straight lines everywhere, that is. But a 1900s Sheffield terrace isn’t quite like that, as we soon discovered. Many a time we would have had to rip the stuff off and start again, had it not in fact fallen off of its own volition. I’m sure nailing it up isn’t the right way to do it, but in the end it’s the only way which has worked. Here’s a tip: buy shares in Polyfilla!
Actually, I keep telling myself, there’s no shame in pulling stuff down and starting again if it isn’t working. In fact it’s the only intelligent course of action. It’s much better than bodging it up and hoping for the best. And that is what is going on in todays reading, the edited highlights of the Flood narrative. We tend, when thinking about this story, to see it as a story of destruction, of God’s anger, of his ruing the day he ever made the world. But it is also possible to read it in a different light, that of God realising that things just aren’t working, and so starting all over again.
The chapters from Gen 3 to 6 tell of the gradual decline of the world, from the first murder to the point in Gen 6: 5 where ‘The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’
And so a remake is required, and it is possible to see within the flood story an account of a new creation. What God had constantly called good in Gen 1, he now calls evil (in the verse above and in 6:12). He is deeply troubled about what the word has become – the Hebrew words means grieving, aching in his heart – almost as grieved, I’m sure, as I am about my coving. So he sets about a remake.
Creation, according to Gen 1, had begun when God separated the waters. Now he lets them flow back together again, with disastrous effect, before separating them again as the mountains begin to appear. This echoes forward to the future when again there will be the need for a remake, as the waters are separated to allow a rabble of slaves to find freedom and a new national identity.
God’s command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and populate the earth (Gen 1:28) is repeated to the flood survivors three times, in 8:17, 9:1 and 9:7. The original deal is still on, and God’s original purpose for the human race remains unchanged. And above all, the story reaffirms that humans, however imperfect and fallen, are still made in the image of God (9:6). These deliberate echoes of the creation narrative are not there just by chance. Clearly the story is written up deliberately to show the flood as a starting again of the human race, and with it comes the rainbow, signifying that God promises that the way of complete destruction by water, in other words the allowing of the waters of chaos to overwhelm the world again, the very opposite of creation, is no longer an option which God is allowing himself.
Today we give thanks for a God who is willing to begin again. As we continue to live through the Easter season, celebrating the destruction of Jesus by human evil but God’s raising of him to new life, we are aware of how much God has had to start again in our lives, to give us second chances because he is deeply grieved at our mistakes. And we look forward to the new heavens and earth, when all creation will be perfected, never to go wrong again.
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20
We are well used to the idea that biblical books can have bits added to them later. The last part of Mark 16 and John 21 look very much as though they are additions, afterthoughts or PSs. Indeed what we call the book of Isaiah is almost universally accepted to consist of three parts, written respectively before the Babylonian exile, towards its end, and after Israel had resettled in Judea. Todays book, Zephaniah, looks very much the same. The passage set for us is in stark contrast to the rest of the book, which predates the Exile, and which promises the most severe judgement on a nation which worships false gods, whose leaders are corrupt, where violence and fraud are rife, and where, worst of all, nobody seems that bothered. The prophetic oracles which form the bulk of the book, written to people who tacitly assume that God is powerless to do anything to stop their corruption, promises judgement perhaps more severe than anywhere else in Scripture, with echoes of Noah’s flood, when not just people but also animals will be destroyed completely, to the great anguish of all who see it. But then, in a complete contrast, comes our section, from chapter 3. After the nation has been purified (3:9), great rejoicing will follow, not just on the part of the people, but also by God himself. On one level this looks like the equivalent of the middle section of Isaiah, when the sadder but wiser exiles are promised a homecoming and forgiveness (Is 40 – 55), but it does raise an interesting question for us, a question which lies at the heart of all theology: just what is God like? Do the two halves of this book give us two different answers? And following on from that is another question: what does God think of us?
Chapter 3 reveals a God who is forgiving (3:15), protecting (3:16), encouraging (3:17), and caring (3:19). Yet earlier in the book God is destructive, punishing and outraged by human sin. What has changed? The whole book seems to pivot around 3:9 – Jerusalem and the peoples around will be purified. Haughtiness and pride will be cut out, leaving only humility and obedience. So what does this say about God, and about his attitude to us?
Once while I was working in an Anglican parish, at our weekly staff meeting, one of the leaders there confessed that although he had been brought up to believe that God loved him, because after all that was his job, he never really felt that God liked him that much. That comment opened the floodgates, and in a group of people most of whom had been brought up in somewhat strict and severe ‘reformed’ denominations, we agreed that it did seem quite hard to believe that God was pleased with us. (Someone, a bit provocatively, asked the question ‘At what point did you come to believe that he liked you?’ to which I found myself answering ‘When I became an Anglican.’) Yet this passage speaks in the most extravagant terms of God’s sheer delight over his people. Many of the terms used, in the Psalms among other places, of extravagant human worship of God are here used the other way round: he takes great delight in us, and even sings over us (3:17), giving us honour and praise (3:20). The extravagance of God’s anger and judgement seem to be matched by the extravagance of his delight in those he has purified and reshaped in humility and obedience. So is God subject to severe mood swings, or can we reconcile these two halves of this little book?
The answer, it seems to me, can be found in our view of God. Elsewhere I have suggested that the Church has been mistaken in majoring on describing God as a God of love, when actually far more commonly in the Bible he is described as a God of righteousness, in other words a God completely incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair. If that’s true, it would be highly ironic if, in condemning people who weren’t that bothered that the nation was going down the pan (3:12), God joined in and merely ‘tolerated’ the state of affairs. You ought to be feeling something about this, he says, and what you ought to be feeling is complete outrage! Let me show you what that looks like! The extreme wrath of God in the first half of the book is modelling what any right-minded Jew should be feeling, and it’s strong stuff indeed. And the important thing is that he’s feeling it not because he hates the people, but because he loves them. He can see what all this idolatry, viciousness and corruption is doing to people, including those who are at the forefront of committing it, and he doesn’t like what he sees. So he’s going to do something about it – he’s going to purify the people, so that his natural rejoicing over them need not be compromised by their sin. He’s going to remove everything unlovely about them, and them express his love in singing and jubilation.
For those of us who have been purified by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from death, those of us in whom evil and sin has been defeated (even if it hasn’t quite vanished altogether yet) this is an exciting section, and a real answer to any questions we may be harbouring about how keen he is on us. But for those who continue to perpetrate evil, oppress others, and believe that God is powerless to do anything about it (1:12), it’s a different story. Oh the joy of being people of the resurrection!
Romans – Part 1 – Intro
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 2 – Exodus 14.10–31; 15.20–21
What a wonderfully complex story for Low Sunday – maybe the Lectionary compilers assumed hardly anyone would be there to hear it anyway. It’s clearly a story of conflict, but actually there is so much going on here, and in fact there are several conflicts all weaving in and out of one another.
1) Israel vs Pharaoh This is the most obvious level at which the fighting happens: the nation has been enslaved for generations, and treated with increasing brutality. In return Egypt has been harmed – there is always collateral damage when powerful leaders try to get things their own way, and God appears to have acted decisively on behalf of Israel. That is, until they are stuck by the sea, providing too much of a temptation for the defeated Pharaoh. But this stuckness leads to the second conflict
2) Israel vs God As the people see the approaching chariots (a vast army, with 600 of ‘the best chariots’ plus all the rest), they must have felt that defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. They had finally escaped, but now here they were, backed not into a corner but into the sea. Their immediate reaction, which they revert to time and time again during the wilderness period, is to want to go back to Egypt, on the ‘Devil you know’ basis. But Moses, who has not yet at this stage heard enough of this grizzling to make him suicidal, simply encourages them to watch and see what God will do. Whether this was a statement born of a prophetic insight or blind faith is not made clear, but God does act, in a way which illustrates the third conflict
3) Creation vs Chaos The story here, and the specific language with which it is told, cannot help but take us back to the creation narrative in Gen 1. Based on an old Babylonian myth, in which the god Marduk cuts the sea monster Tiamat into two pieces and makes the heavens and the earth from the halves, so God in Genesis divides the chaotic waters to make heaven and earth. Now he repeats the action, dividing the waters of the sea to create a new, emancipated nation. This story isn’t just about some escaped refugees: it’s about the eternal struggle between God’s creation, which is meant to provide the environment in which all life can flourish and be fruitful, and the forces of chaos which crush and mangle others, make the environment hostile, and bring ugliness and desolation. Pharaoh has clearly chosen the path of chaos in his treatment of the Israelites, so this is God fighting back on their behalf, striking a blow against all that is destructive in an attempt to free the people into new life. But this action inevitably involves a fourth conflict,
4) Love vs Justice When you heard or read this story, I’m betting there was a bit of you which felt uncomfortable joining in with Miriam’s songs of joy, and not just because of the tambourine. The destruction of God’s enemies in the OT has provided a great deal of controversy throughout the history of the Church, beginning with Marcion, a 2nd century heretic who taught that the cruel God of the OT was completely different from the nice Jesus of the New, a view which, although roundly condemned by the Church at the time, is alive and well – I heard a sermon saying exactly this only a few weeks ago. If you heard my talks on John 3:16 (here) you’ll have heard me challenge the idea of the ‘unconditional love’ of God, and suggest that a far more biblical picture is that God is a God of righteousness, who is incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair, and not a God of love who is incapable of doing anything nasty. And this debate isn’t just about the OT – the common idea that God would never condemn anyone eternally comes from exactly the same idea. There is a lovely Rabbinic tradition which says that when a couple of angels wanted to sing a song of praise in celebration of God’s victory, he forbade them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” Our prayer is that mercy will triumph over judgement, but when a people give themselves over so fully to evil, chaos and oppression that might not be possible, even if it brings tears to God’s eyes.
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter Sunday – Isaiah 25:6-9
There are many different pictures of eternal bliss, not just in different faith, but even within the biblical tradition, whether it’s eternity with 72 virgins, merging like a drop into the cosmic ocean, or an everlasting Vineyard song-slot. If you haven’t already heard it, you can get a glimpse of my vision of heaven here. But another one which really appeals is the one set out in this passage – an all-you-can-eat buffet at which, miraculously, you won’t put on any weight.
The passage is part of a larger unit known as the Isaianic Apocalypse (Isaiah 24-27), which speaks into Israel’s desperate situation by proclaiming a vision of the future beyond their present sufferings, which, of course, would have included food shortages, as they were ravaged by one conquering empire after another. It’s natural to think of a better life in the form of a banquet. It’s ab great picture, particularly when we realise that food is not just about eating: it’s for being together, celebrating, marking special occasions, and even for mourning. I took my first funeral for over two years last week, and it was really strange not to be able to go on somewhere for a wake afterwards. We too live in a time when we have been conquered, not by a Babylonian army but by a tiny virus, and many in our country are going hungry, while all of us long for the kind of human togetherness we have been denied for over a year now. That’s our OT passage as we celebrated Easter Day, so what can it say to us today? As is so often the case, we can get at the meaning of a passage so much better when we look at it in its wider context.
First of all, the cross speaks into turbulent times. Verses 2-5 describe the devastation going on all around in a time of conflict, poor people needing a refuge, homeless people needing shelter, uproar and ruthlessness, and that’s just in the UK! God knows what is going on, and the cross of Jesus speaks into our situation, not around it. This passage is unashamedly about pie in the sky when you die, and I don’t have a problem with that. Reward is constantly used in the Bible as a motivator to good living (that’s a whole nother blog, but think about it: from the Beatitudes to Revelation, promises of reward are constantly held out to those who have lived faithfully.) The real point of application of this passages for Easter Day lies in v.8: God will swallow up death for ever. That happened at the empty tomb, it’s our reward too, with Jesus as firstfruits of those who have died.
Secondly, the cross tries to be inclusive. In the actual verses of our passage, the word ‘all’ is used five times: all peoples, all nations, all faces, all the earth. This is not just a narrow, nationalistic vision for Israel, but rather a welcome to the banquet for all who want and need to be there. The cross welcomes all who will stand under its shadow, all who want to partake of the richness of the spread.
But then there’s suddenly a jarring note, edited out, of course, by our lectionary compilers. Verses 10-12 show us that not everybody did want to come to the feast: the nation of Moab is singled out as one which Israel came to hate strongly after the Exile. They had consistently been hostile towards Israel, and their doom is declared in Is 15. How do we hold this in tension with the ‘all’s of v.6-9? Is God’s love not as unconditional as our verses suggest?
The cross, and the empty tomb, demand a verdict, and nowhere does the Bible pretend that there will not be those who decide the wrong way, and bear the consequences. Jesus told stories of people who had been invited to banquets but who chose not to turn up. This Sunday, of all the year, asks us what we believe, and this passage sets out the alternatives: banqueting hall, or muckheap?
The Cross – Part 7 – St John