OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Isaiah 55:1-11

I must confess that I absolutely love this passage. I am also a great fan of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. For any who haven’t heard of this model, it’s basically a way of dividing the human race up into 16 different personality types, and then using insights about yourself in areas as diverse as your marriage, your working life, parenting, spirituality, preaching, and even which Bible books you prefer. I have found it immensely helpful over the years, but I can still remember the retreat I went on when we were sorted out into our types (no hats were involved) and taught what it all meant and how it might be applied. The climax of the weekend was when we were put into groups of the same personality type. I have rarely felt so comfortable in my life, being with a small group of people who thought in exactly the same way as I did. Each group was given two sheets of flipchart paper, and asked to write two things: what we would most like to say to the world, and what we would most like to hear the world saying to us. It took us all of 10 seconds to come up with ours: we would like to say ‘Trust us, we know what we’re doing!’ and we would most like to hear ‘You were right all along!’ I’ll never forget that moment.

This passage, which dates from the end of Israel’s exile and which promises liberation and return to their homeland, has Israel’s enemies saying to her ‘You were right all along!’ It is one of several passages in the OT where those who have not been part of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh come flocking to his people to receive from his riches, his wisdom and his blessing because they have seen Israel’s splendour. Zechariah 8:23 is a great example: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”’ I love the idea of those who have rejected God finally getting it, and saying to the Christians ‘You were right all along!’

As a visionary I’m very good at seeing what’s wrong with things, and as a thinker I like to believe that I’m always coming up with workable solutions for improvement. But as an introvert I rarely show my working-out, so that the net result is that like John Lennon people often say I’m a dreamer. We’re all very well aware that we live in a Church which, at least in the West, is far from effective, is in desperate need of an overhaul, and is being increasingly marginalised by the world around, with fewer and fewer people apparently having any interest at all in what we have to say. Add into the mix a year of lockdown when we have been unable to do one of the main things we think we do know how to do, and everything seems to be up in the air. So the promise of people coming to us and saying ‘People of God, what must we do?’ seems a highly remote one. Show us how to be saved, teach us the wisdom to live well, and share with us your splendour and God’s blessings. Yeah, right. Not going to happen.

And yet the promise of this text is that it will, and I for one find this immensely comforting as I come to terms with the decline of the organisation I have given most of my life for. I take home two things from this passage. The first is the importance of personality in reading Scripture. All of us will have different bits, books, or passages which we most love, and that isn’t a sin: it’s because of how God has wired each of us up uniquely. That of course doesn’t let us off the hook from exploring other passages which we are less immediately drawn towards, or which we find downright difficult. But to enjoy those passages which most speak to us because of who God has made us can be a real tonic for our spirituality.

But the second thing this to listen to the message of this text, especially when we are tempted to feel despair at the state of the Church and the state of the world because of the state of the Church. I pray fervently towards that promised day when people will flock to us to say ‘You were right all along!’

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 – Genesis 22:1-18

This is an appalling story on so many levels. God demands a human sacrifice. That sacrifice is to be the longed-for son born miraculously to a barren woman of 90, as a direct result of his promise of a dynasty for Abraham. The way that the story is narrated slows down as we read through, building the tension until the dramatic climax when Abraham, knife in hand, is about to kill his own son, believing that God has told him to do so. What on earth is this all about? Is it a story of a cruel and heartless God, or Abraham’s misguided faith, or what?

On one level, this story (known in Jewish scholarship as the ‘Akedah’ or ‘binding’ of Isaac) is what is known as an aetiology, that is, a story told to explain a present reality. The OT is full of them, and they are easy to spot as they usually say something like ‘That is why that pile of stones is here to this day’. You can imagine a child asking a question, with the aetiology being told as the answer. This story became associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, and the child might have asked ‘Why do we cut up animals?’ The answer is that people used to cut up each other, until God stepped in and prevented that form of worship, substituting animals instead. Our culture’s animal rights agenda notwithstanding, the story immediately becomes something of an improvement. But I think there is something deeper going on, and we will have to look elsewhere for the key which unlocks it. But first, as always, a bit of context.

22:1 begins ‘Some time later’ or, in the Hebrew ‘After these things’. After what things? For many chapters God has been at work on Abraham. He begins by changing his name, and then through a series of encounters he tests Abraham’s relationship with him. He makes the promise of a naturally born son and heir, and Abraham’s reaction is incredulous laughter. He invites Abraham to intercede for the doomed cities, and he allows Abraham to lie about his wife to king Abimelek, rescuing Sarah just in time. Abraham’s faith in God is, to say the very least, a bit shaky. But by the time God steps in and rescues Isaac from the knife, he knows now that Abraham ‘fears’ him – the first time this word has been used about Abraham and God, although we have seen Abraham fearing death at the hand of local rulers because of his beautiful wife (Chs 12 and 20), and we have seen him afraid that God’s promise of a son could not be fulfilled without his and Hagar’s help. Abraham is not so much being invited to kill off his son, but rather his lack of trust in God.

But there is something else going on here, and the key is to be found in Gen 18:17. God sends three angels (?) to Abraham to warn his about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where his relative Lot was living. But God asks himself the poignant question ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’ The immediate meaning of this is the destruction of the evil cities, but many centuries in the future God was going to do something else: he was going to offer his one and only son, whom he loved dearly, as a sacrifice. All those years earlier God wanted to share with his friend what was on his heart: that’s what friends do, and that may be why James was later to describe Abraham as God’s friend (2:23). Abraham gained a unique insight into God’s eternal purposes as his friend shared his heart with him.

When I was working as a diocesan discipleship officer there was, as you might imagine, much debate over what discipleship really means, how we might define it and whether or not it might in any way be measured. Surely there is no greater relationship with God than one of profound friendship, in which we gradually, and often painfully, get to understand his heart as he understands ours. Yes, Christian growth is to some extent about becoming more like Jesus, breaking the grip of addictive sins on us (whatever our particular poison might be), knowing our Bibles better and all that, but Abraham would tell us that the bottom line is how well we know God and understand his heart. This is still a very difficult story, but to read it as an insight into God’s heart and emotions can at least help us to find a way into it.

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