OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 9 – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 (Related)

Lessons from Liminality

You may or may not have heard of Arnold van Gennep. He was a French folklorist who lived from 1873 to 1957 and is best known for his work on ‘Rites of Passage’ and what he called ‘liminality’. Coming from the Latin for ‘doorway’, liminality is about how we change from one stage of life to another. Engagement, for example, is a liminal stage between singleness and marriage, and is a time for learning gradually to live differently (or it used to be before we simply shacked up together). Bereavement is a similar liminal state, where we learn to come to terms with the death or loss of someone or something. It can be an uncomfortable place to live, even when the change is a positive one, and all kinds of emotions can rise to the surface. In the end we may or may not negotiate it successfully.

The Wilderness Narratives of Exodus and Numbers describe Israel in a state of liminality between the experience of slavery and moving into sovereignty in their own land, and the lessons they had to learn during this extended period were designed to shape their existence in the future. In today’s passage we get a glimpse of some of the tensions and reactions to being in a liminal stage, and state of change and readjustment. Their behaviour is very typical, and can teach us a lot about negotiating our own transitions.

The first key motif is that of grumbling. The Hebrew word only occurs in the wilderness narrative, and is a bit stronger than mere grumbling: it is a full-blooded complaining against God and his appointed leaders in the community, a complaining which at times taxes those leaders almost to breaking point. When change comes, even if it is change for the better in the long run, we can feel disorientated and thence angry. Business gurus talk about the ‘J curve’: when change comes, things can get worse before they get better, and the temptation is to want to go backwards instead of forwards.

It is this desire for what was familiar over what is more difficult which leads to the second reaction: idealisation of the past. Just about every funeral I have ever taken is of someone who was perfect in every way, loving, kind, thoughtful, considerate and so on. Frankly I don’t believe it, and I always take the opportunity to acknowledge in the service that the deceased may not have been perfect, and there might be things which have hurt us and which might need forgiveness. Often people thank me afterwards for the honesty which allowed them to move on from the pure hagiography and admit that things weren’t always perfect between them. So whilst in slavery in Egypt, being forced to make bricks, even without the raw materials, life was wonderful. They had all the food they could eat. Really? Highly unlikely, I would think. But probably what did happen is that were fed by human hands: now they had to rely on God, which seemed much more risky. How are you tempted to idealise the past? How might you admit a more realistic assessment of it.

Fortunately, they had a God who was, and is, responsive to our cries. Jesus was later to tell us that God knows what we need, and cares for us with his perfect provision, but here he appears to want to test their reaction to their new state. Are they going to ask nicely for food, knowing that he is the kind of God who loves and cares for his children. No, they’re going to moan at Moses. Here’s a third lesson from liminality: the desire to find someone to blame for our misfortunes. It feels easier to blame humans than God himself, and this repeated motif, of grumbling about their leadership, bring Moses almost to the point of suicide. Church leaders will have experienced those times when they have to act as lightning conductors for the people’s anger, usually about some aspect of change. Have you ever sparked that lightning yourself?

Fortunately God is big enough to take it, even if it brings Moses to breaking point, and he rains down both bread and meat on the people. But there is a third lesson, which comes beyond the end of our passage, but is worth mentioning. Once God is providing for them, they have to learn the new rules which changed circumstances demand. They have learnt that however much manna they gather, it is just right for them. But they are not to try to keep any overnight. Possibly doubting God’s faithfulness, that is exactly what they do, and of course it turns maggoty. They are still living in a Egyptian mindset. While they ‘sat round pots of meat’ and ate all they wanted (yeah, right!) the slavery mindset is to hoard, to grab all they can to supplement tomorrow’s no doubt meagre rations. They had to learn that God had not put them on starvation rations, and he would provide and keep on providing. Do you really have that kind of trust in God’s faithfulness?

The Israelites spectacularly and consistently failed to learn these lessons from liminality, and spectacularly extended what should have been a year in the desert to 40 because of their lack of trust and faith. If we are going through a period of change, it is God’s invitation to learn lessons about him which will take us into the future successfully. May we have the grace to learn quickly!

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 8 – 2 Kings 4:42-44 (Related)

It’s easy to see how this OT passage fits with today’s Gospel. But what was the passage about in its original setting – that’s the key question of exegesis or interpretation for any text. A mantra which I try to drum into my students’ heads is: ‘A passage cannot mean anything that the original author would not have expected the original readers/hearers to understand by it’. Whilst this rather knocks on the head most of the OT readings we have around Christmas and Easter, it is nevertheless a sound principle of interpretation. So let’s put Elisha back in his context. What is this text actually about?

Zooming out as far as we can, we see Elisha and his predecessor Elijah as engaged in the battle for the spirit of the nation, trying to keep the people faithful to Yahweh rather than worshipping the Canaanite deity Baal. But the two prophets handle this challenge in two very different ways. Both are miracle workers, but while Elijah’s are huge and dramatic (bringing drought, calling down fire from heaven …) Elisha’s are more domestic and individual in their focus. But they all have the same purpose: to demonstrate the powerlessness of Baal compared to Yahweh.

Now let’s zoom in to this chapter, which contains five of Elisha’s miracles, all around the theme of need and supply. Just as Elijah confronts Baal who is supposed to provide rain, so here Elisha confronts Baal whose job is to supply all our human needs, including fertility as well as food. The final miracle, which ends the chapter and provides our passage for today, is merely the last in a series of linked stories.

So what’s important about this story? First, note where the bread donor comes from – Baal Shalisha. We’re not entirely certain where this is, but the name suggests a centre of Baal worship, perhaps in Ephraim, to the north west of Jerusalem. If that’s true, it is encouraging that even in a place of pagan worship, there is at least one faithful man who recognises Yahweh and his prophet, and wants to do something practical to help. Perhaps this is reminiscent of Elijah’s faithful remnant who have not worshipped Baal.

It isn’t clear in v.43 who exactly ‘his servant’ is. The narrative looks as though Elisha is holding a conversation with the man who brought the loaves, but it may be that the command to give them to the people is addressed to a different man, who acted as servant to him, just as Gehazi had for Elijah. But whoever it was, he provided a stark contrast with Elisha in his lack of faith and vision, just as Philip did in today’s Gospel.

It’s understandable, of course, to doubt when you look at the meagre resources on offer, that fear might set in. But while the servant could only see lack and shortage, the man of God could see plenty, more than enough in fact, as the motif (also in the Gospel story) of having leftovers demonstrates. As I write many supermarket shelves are empty due to the pinging of people in the supply chain. It is easy for a faithless nation to resort to individual hoarding as in the scenes at the start of the pandemic. But Elisha sees in the gift of the man a miracle on its way.

The story challenges us with this contrast between doubt and faith, and the deeper question lying in the background: in whom do we put our faith and hope? As Christians living in a nation of consumerism and greed, what gifts are we bringing to the people of God and his Church, and how are we seeing God use them miraculously to feed many? In a time of national hardship and fear, how are we living differently? How is our faith in God showing itself in our attitudes and actions. This is the kind of counter-cultural living to which we are all called.

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 7 – Jeremiah 23:1-6

The prophet Jeremiah was ministering at the start of Judah’s exile to Babylon, just after 600 BC. The nation had watched as Jerusalem was besieged and eventually destroyed, with the Temple and the royal palace smashed to the ground, the King and his family deported, many of the ruling classes killed, and many of the poor of the land dispossessed. No wonder he has a reputation for being a bit of a misery. Like everyone around at the time, Jeremiah is trying to make sense of the shock and trauma experienced by the nation, and to answer the inevitable questions ‘Who is to blame for this?’ and ‘What will become of us?’ These two questions, by the way, are being asked today as I write the day after England lost to Italy in the Euro cup final, and the discourse consists of both intelligent analysis of strategy and downright racist abuse. Trauma invites the former, but often sadly brings forth the latter.

So who does Jeremiah blame? In fact he answers that question in two different ways. First of all he blames the ‘shepherds’ a well known metaphor for the Kings. In this attack on the rulers Jeremiah continues here what he started in the previous chapter, where past Kings are denounced for a variety of crimes: failing to care for their subjects, feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor, cruelty to foreigners, and general godless corruption. Far be it from me, of course, to draw any parallels with any other period of history, but Jeremiah seems to believe that when a nation’s leaders become selfish and corrupt, the whole nation suffers. In Jeremiah’s world the people have been scattered and lost directly because of the lack of attention by those whose role is to care for and protect them.

Bu then things get interesting. It isn’t just because of the leaders that the people are in such a mess. It is because of God himself. In v.2 it is the shepherds who have scattered the flock, but in v.3 it is God who has driven them away. What on earth are we to make of that? Is God no better a leader than the corrupt politicians?

There are at least three ways in which we might make sense of these verses. It may be that whilst the leaders failed to do their jobs properly the people were not just innocent victims. They could have refused to be a part of the evil behaviour of the nation as a whole; they could have refused to join in with the idolatrous worship and immoral living of the nation. So while the leaders get particular stick from the prophet, the people deserve God’s punishment too. I think there is a lot of truth in this: the school child’s ‘He made me do it, Miss!’ argument doesn’t really work. The people needed a good scattering every bit as much as the Kings did.

Another interpretation might be tied in to Jesus’ words to his disciples that whatever they bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven. In other words, humans do have real power for good or ill, and when they lead a nation into corruption the whole nation suffers the consequences. As individualist children of the Enlightenment we struggle with this idea, but in the real world that is just how it works. A politician makes a bad decision, and the whole nation suffers. God has to punish everyone because that’s how the universe works, whether we like it or not.

But maybe something else is being said here. Maybe God’s scattering of the people is meant to remind us that whatever humans do, God will always have the last word. And that is exactly what Jeremiah is going on to say in the remainder of the passage. You think it was your bent politicians who got you into this mess, but not one of them takes a single breath without my say-so. I have allowed this punishment to come to you, but hear me out, and you’ll see the end of the story, where all this is heading. God promises a new king who will do the job properly, who will undo all the harm done by the current wicked bunch, and cause the nation to live in fearless peace.

The nation never did, in fact, get such a monarch on the throne, but those who see these words fulfilled in Jesus, who will one day reign in equity, wiping every tear from every eye, will have a whole new angle from which to see the evil and corruption under which the world currently lives, and a whole new hope to sustain them to live lives in the direction of godliness, shing like stars in a corrupt generation.

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 6 – Amos 7:7-15

As I write, we have just witnessed the resignation of a cabinet minister after his extramarital affair became public knowledge (although it is a fascinating sign of the times that his crime wasn’t adultery but breaking social distancing rules!). This event led to the usual spate of social media comment, with opinion divided between ‘His private life is his own business’ and ‘If he can lie to his wife, how can the electorate trust him?’ Our readings today give us the Bible’s take on this question, as two prophets confront rulers over their behaviour and morality.

Amos’ victims are Amaziah, the high priest who presided over the corrupt sanctuary, and King Jeroboam. The vision of the plumb-line, so beautifully captured in the Coventry Cathedral sculpture, communicated the fact that both the shrine worship and the dynasty would be destroyed. The priests have presided over two false sanctuaries in the Northern Kingdom, and have offered illegal sacrifices while the nation, ruled over by Jeroboam, has descended into injustice, corruption and complacency. You can get the flavour of the nation by reading the rest of Amos’ book. His vision of the plumb-line forms a fitting summary: the nation has become bent.

Like Herod 600-odd years later, the recipients of this prophetic lashing were not happy, so Amaziah attempts to gang up on Amos with the King’s authority. The accusation is that ‘the land cannot bear all his words’. The fact is, lands never can bear the words of righteous prophets once they themselves have abandoned righteousness. The truth hurts, and so we try various methods to silence it.

The reaction of Amaziah is a textbook example of what people do when their evil is confronted. First of all, he tries to twist Amos’ words and his intentions, and reports this false information to others. He can only think in terms of politics: Amos is seeking to raise a revolutionary army to overthrow the King. It doesn’t occur to him to listen for the voice of God through the prophet’s words. Those who dare to criticise us, or the status quo, can only possibly be doing so for their own sinister ends.

He then seeks to discredit Amos. You can almost hear the sneer in the words ‘you seer’. In a land which had known its share of false prophets, eccentrics and oddballs, it is easy to mock away any threat. The same, of course, happens today when Christians attempt to stand up against all kinds of behaviour which is contrary to Scripture. They’re just religious nuts or puritans who are totally out of touch with the real world, which, according to one recent statement by an Anglican bishop, ought to be allowed to set the agenda.

Amaziah’s final resort is simply to get rid of him – go somewhere else and do your prophesying. Just leave us alone to live our lives in peace. Go and get lost in some backwater somewhere. Amos responds by both denying and affirming his prophetic vocation. He hasn’t come from any prophetic background, and had never sought this career. He didn’t enjoy moaning about people, another reputation which prophets seem to have had in Israel. I’m not some kind of professional prophet who does this kind of thing for fun. But then he tells of his calling: God called him and took him. As he has said earlier (3:8) ‘The lion has roared – who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken – who can but prophesy?’ When God puts his finger on you, you don’t exactly have a choice: you have to say what he tells you to say, and what he has told me to say is that this corrupt nation is going to go off into exile and punishment.

So what do we do with this text? The easiest application is to think of times when we have been persecuted by others because we have done what we believed God was telling us to do. I can think of many examples from my own ministry down the years, and it is a great comfort to occupy the moral high ground by claiming solidarity with Amos and the other prophets whom Jesus said Israel delighted to persecute.

But a more difficult application might be to ask questions about whose voices we might be resisting, and what tactics we are using in order to drown them out. No-one likes to be told off, and it’s particularly painful when we know at some deep level that our critics might just be right. Hebrews 12 talks about this very thing, our reluctance to bear godly discipline, and we all know what it is saying. But the fact is that Amaziah, Jeroboam and the whole nation could have been saved had they listen to the voice of God through his prophets. What is stopping you simply from giving in, saying sorry, and mending your ways?

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 5 – Ezekiel 2:1-5

40 years ago this weekend I was ordained as a Deacon in the Church of God. On the Sunday evening I was to preach my first sermon in my new church, where I would serve for four years. Nobody knew me from Adam, apart from the Vicar who had appointed me, so this was a chance to make a good first impression. Imagine my delight when this passage from Ezekiel came up as the set lesson, especially the bit about God sending me to obstinate and stubborn people. I can remember saying with a big smile ‘I’m sure that won’t apply here!’ How wrong could I be?

Today’s readings are about new commissions and sendings, with Ezekiel being commissioned here, and the 12 disciples being sent out in the Gospel reading. In both cases God’s words to Ezekiel proved to be highly applicable, not least to those of Jesus’ disciples who ended up giving their lives for the message of the Gospel. Many of us who have been in church leadership for more than six months will also know something of the pain of rejection and personal spite: it has been a poignant thing this weekend to see all those photos on facebook of the hopefuls, many of whom I have helped train, excitedly parading with their bishops after ordination services. What could possibly go wrong?

The passage itself gives us a couple of interesting insights into the prophetic ministry which should always form a part of the work of any church leaders, which are worth exploring, not least if we are those who are the recipients of ordained ministry. Here are five of them, including, as always, something from beyond the verses set for us.

The need for the Spirit. We shall return to v.2 at the end, but for now one interpretation of it is the complete powerlessness of Ezekiel even to stand up without the Spirit’s help. Ordination services include prayer and waiting for the Spirit to come upon candidates to equip them for ministry, and my own memory is of feeling completely inadequate for the task, and desperately in need of God’s help. What a great way to enter ministry! Much more healthy than ‘Great! I’m ready – let me at it!’ How do you pray for your church leaders? Maybe to pray for more of God’s Spirit for them would be a great thing to do.

The need for a specific calling. God is very clear about what exactly Ezekiel has to do, and among whom. The Israelites are to be his subjects, not anyone else. And what are those Israelites like? God spares no details in telling the prophet just how hard this is going to be (v.3-4). I have known times when the specific calling of God to me has kept me there in the firing line. That sense of God’s call has been my anchor in times of doubt and desperation, when all I wanted to do was run.

The need for realism. I can remember hearing an ordination sermon, preached not from the Bible, as is customary, but from a Greek vase. It had images carved on it of young animals being released from cages, and leaping with exaltation at their freedom, but unaware that they had been released so that the hunters behind them could begin their sport. The preacher likened the sense of freedom that finally training was over and the candidates were being let loose to the ignorance of the animals that they were soon going to be shot at! The preacher (who did also say some positive things) was warning the new ministers that life was not always going to be smooth of joyful. He was doing them a favour!

The need for determination. Here we move beyond the set passage to v.6, where God exhorts Ezekiel to make sure that he says what he is given to say, even when people don’t like it. Prophetic ministry should be more afraid of disobeying God than it is of upsetting other people. Again and again in my various diocesan jobs I have met clergy paralysed by fear of ‘what people would say’ if they actually led their churches forward in mission. I am aware, as a trainer of leaders, that nowadays its all about collaboration and shared ministry, but there must come times when a leader says ‘This is where we’re going – If you don’t want to come along, that isn’t going to stop the rest of us.’ I’m not advocating dictatorial leadership, but I am advocating determined leadership. One day I’m going to write a book about it!

The need for wisdom. I promised you a different take on v.2, and it’s based on these words: ‘As he spoke, the Spirit came into me.’ It is a hallmark of OT prophetic thought that words matter: the words themselves have the power to bring about what they say. Wittgenstein was the first of many philosophers to explore ‘speech act’ theory. If someone says to me ‘You’re fired!’ those words are not just statements of information, but they actually cause my employment to come to an end. In the same way we can talk about forgiveness, but when we say ‘You’re forgiven’ something real changes. That’s why the absolution in services is so important, and to miss it out such a big mistake. God’s words ‘stand up on your feet’ enable the prophet to do so, as the Spirit works through those very words. The other side of this is the power of words to harm, abuse or undermine; to curse, in fact. Those filled with God’s Spirit and called to his ministry have a huge responsibility in what they say – it might just actually come to pass! One church leader used to pray daily ‘Lord, give me a character strong enough to carry the anointing you have given me.’ A wise prayer indeed.

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