OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 13 – Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Many times during my career I have left jobs, and have had to preach final sermons. Two in particular stand out in my memory. The first was a parish which had seen dramatic growth and a new planted congregation of relatively recent converts. We were obviously keen that things continued, that people grew to maturity and that new people would find faith, so the final sermon was a kind of encouraging pep talk about keeping going and keeping growing. The second was in a church which had effectively bullied me out, and which had a paralysing tendency to brush difficult things under the carpet and not deal with the more harsh realities of life. That farewell sermon was very different: I basically said that if they didn’t address what had happened, history would repeat itself. I recently heard that my successor had, like me, only lasted a few years.

The book of Deuteronomy purports to be the farewell sermon given by Moses just before his death, and, like my two farewells, it contains elements both of encouragement and warning. Chapter 4 raises some important questions, so let’s ask them and see what we can discover.

When? The date would be around 1250 BC, but more significant is the answer that this came towards the end of a very difficult period, when the people had seen hardship, food shortages, corrupt leadership, plague, death and uncertainty. They were coming to the end, though, of this harsh period, and therefore had the opportunity to look back and learn, to remember the past as sadder but wiser people. Even more significantly, it came at the end of the life of Moses, God’s prophet who had led and guided them through the wilderness period, but who would not go any further with them.

Where? Moses had led the people to a mountaintop in Moab from which they could see the promised land across the Jordan Valley, even though he himself was never going to enter it. They were on the threshold of a new normal, although there would be difficult readjustments to be made, not least in the loss of their charismatic leader. The future was literally in sight, but they still had much to do to get there.

What? So what was the content of Moses final pep-talk? When I teach my theological students different sessions, I always begin with what Higher Educationalists call ‘Learning Outcomes’: ‘by the end of this session we will have …’

Moses is very clear about the learning outcomes from this lecture: he wants them to listen and learn from what he’s about to say for the next 32 chapters. The Hebrew word for ‘hear’ in v.1 doesn’t just mean listen: it means actually take notice and live it out. What he has to say will literally change their lives. Teaching forges action. So he’s going to cover all sorts of things: how to worship, how to run the political, prophetic, and religious life of the nation. He’s going to teach them about national holy days, festivals, and times of rest. He tells them how to fight fairly, how to limit war and vendettas, how to run an economy with justice, and how to care for widows, orphans, and the poor, and how to protect the vulnerable. Mundane things like work, family life and eating together are all covered. 

How much? So he’s got a lot to say to the people – how much of it should they take note of and put into action? As a preacher I know that there may be odd nuggets among all I say which will connect with different people in different ways. But Moses isn’t working like that: everything he is about to say is vitally important. So in v.2 the people are told not to add or subtract anything from his teaching. They have to absorb all of it. You often hear Christians saying stuff like ‘I can’t believe in a God who…’ or ‘I know the Bible says that, but I don’t believe that bit’. Moses doesn’t allow them that pick’n’mix option: the whole counsel of God is non-negotiable and vital.

But then comes the most important question, Why? Why is all this so important? Of course, for the smooth running of society, although that isn’t the emphasis here. Actually it’s all about witness, or evangelism as we might call it nowadays. They are to order the life of their nation well so that the other nations will look at them and say ‘Goodness, these people are wise! They really know how to live well!’ and that will reflect back on their God as the one behind such wisdom – surely a great God to follow and serve. There is a theme running through the OT about Gentiles seeking God because they can see such positive lives lived out by his chosen people. This is an incredibly challenging motif in an age when the Christian Church is increasingly being marginalised as outdated and irrelevant, exactly the opposite of what God intends. So what are we doing wrong?

Finally comes the How? question. This is all very well, but how are they actually to make it work, and be that evangelistic picture of God for the pagans around them? There are two hints towards this in the final verse of our passage – remember and teach. Don’t let what you have known and experienced of God drift out of your memory. And secondly see it as your role to pass it on down the generations. It’s always difficult when personal experience becomes folk memory, so keeping faith alive for the next generation becomes vital, and actually helps with the remembering too. In an age when we feel it’s OK to sit lightly to God’s words, and to allow our children to ‘make up their own minds’, we maybe need to hear Moses’ teaching again. As we too emerge from a difficult and uncertain period, maybe it’s time to rededicate ourselves to living wholeheartedly for God, and making him known in an uncaring world.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

We still mean it …

If I had been brought up as a Methodist rather than as a Baptist, I would have attended an annual Covenant Renewal service, probably on the first Sunday of each New Year, at which I would have pledged myself to God’s service and worship for the year ahead, and I would have joined in the famous prayer, now adopted into the Anglican Common Worship corpus, the prayer that begins ‘I am no longer my own, but yours …’ (you can find the words here). Anglicans do a similar thing at Easter each year, when we are invited to renew our baptism promises. In today’s OT reading the Israelite community, having settled in the land and about to lose the leader who helped to get them there, are invited in a similar way to renew the covenant they have made with God.

History demonstrates, of course, how fickle the were as a nation, and in the verses beyond our reading Joshua himself recognised this, but at the time they no doubt really meant it. While covenant renewal repeated too often can become an annual ritual with little meaning behind it, there are of course important liminal occasions, like conquering a new land and moving from a nomadic to a settled existence, when it seems highly appropriate. I wonder if the emergence from a pandemic, which means that we have been unable to meet together as usual, might be an occasion for renewing our relationship with God, and with one another, and reminding ourselves on what it is based.

What is interesting here, though, is the set of alternatives offered. Joshua clearly wants the people to remain faithful to the God who has brought them this far, out of slavery and into a land of their own, but he recognises the possibility that serving the Lord might seem undesirable to them (v.15). So he offers them some alternatives.

It is worth noting first that one alternative which he doesn’t offer is to worship nothing or no-one. He takes it for granted that they will worship something, because, well … we all do. It might not seem like a god in the conventional sense of the word, but anything which, in the famous definition of an idol,

rivets my attention,

centres my activity,

preoccupies my mind, and

motivates my action

is in fact a god which we worship. We just can’t help it, because we were created to worship, and if we don’t worship the true God, we’ll worship something else.

So what are the alternatives which Joshua offers them? First of all, they might like to worship the gods of their ancestors. This is about the hankering for the past, a kind of nostalgic, rosy-spectacled view of how things were (or at least how we romantically remember them to be). This might be a desire for Church as it used to be, when we used the proper Prayer Book and the right hymns, or even for Church as it used to be a few months ago when we had that nice vicar. In my experience this desire to worship the gods of the past is perhaps the single greatest issue facing the C of E today, and leaders trying to drag their churches kicking and screaming into the 20th  century (or even the 18th) know what fierce opposition and personal vindictiveness this can engender. The Israelites would soon face the temptation to cease being pilgrim people, on the way to somewhere and dependent on God for all they needed for that journey, and become settled and self-sufficient people who liked things exactly as they are (or were). The church I attended for six years had suddenly, a few days before Christmas, to leave its building as it was declared unsafe, and this began a three year pilgrimage towards a meeting place of our own, which they settled in just after we had moved to another city. We were led brilliantly through that process by an excellent vicar, which engendered in the church a sense of journey, pilgrimage and purpose which few churches have managed to achieve. Beware of settling down: beware of the gods of the past.

But the other option is to serve the gods of the people around, in this case the Amorites or Canaanites, those who were living alongside Israel. This too has become a great temptation among Christians, some of whom have become infected by the consumerism and pluralism of our culture, and have compromised their faith in the living God with various distortions of the gospel, such as the Prosperity Gospel or the Therapy Gospel. I have just been reading a fascinating book which charts the rise of ‘MTD’, or moralistic therapeutic deism as the main religion of young people. In other words young people worship a God who will stop them from being too stupid, will satisfy all their needs, but will never intervene in any meaningful way in their lives, for example by challenging their sin or subverting their ambitions. Each generation will have similar distortions of the biblical gospel to which they are particularly prone.

In v.16 the people proudly (but somewhat short-sightedly) declare their complete devotion to Yahweh, but even if they are going to prove incapable of keeping their promises, they nevertheless have a sound basis from which to start: they remember what God has done. Verses 17-18 sound like a mini-creed, as the people remind themselves of their past relationship with God, and that is a really good thing to do regularly. The problem is that we soon forget.

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 11 – Proverbs 9:1-6 (Related)

Feasting on Wisdom

If ever a nation needed wisdom, ours does now. We have broken our ties with Europe on what the campaigners subsequently admitted were a pack of lies, with no idea at all of what the consequences would be, even among those who led the campaign. We have seen the gross mishandling of the Covid pandemic by buffoon politicians, which has led to thousands of deaths. And now we are facing increasing hostility from the anti-vac campaign who feel that it is a breach of human rights to expect people to have life-saving injections. I have been young, and now I am old, but never have I felt so ashamed to be English, and so deeply in the grip of such utter stupidity, which is so often driven by utter evil (other views of current politics are also available!).

So what is wisdom, and how might it help us? A recent facebook post which I enjoyed went like this:

Wisdom in the biblical sense is not so much about academic success or intelligence, but what the French call savoire-faire, or knowing what to do. The doctors, immunologists and all the rest are no doubt intelligent, but they are not as wise, in the OT sense, as whoever posted this gem. He can can see what’s going on and can see right through it.

Enough politics, though – let’s have a look at the text. The book of Proverbs is a polished but somewhat disorganised set of maxims and sayings which may have been collected under Solomon’s reign in the 900s BC, in order to describe and commend wisdom to Israel. It ranges from down-to-earth common sense like not being too enthusiastic too early in the morning (27:14) through to practical advice for avoiding adultery (5:7-8) and the value of wisdom for longevity (3:1-2). But wisdom is more than a set of good ideas: throughout the book Wisdom is personified as a woman who tries to get us to learn from her. In chapter 8 she is seen at God’s hand during the process of creation, and different people have understood this in different ways. Was she the very first thing created by God (8:22), or is she an aspect of God’s character, or even the Holy Spirit? Whatever, she is as old as the word itself, and her insight is built into the created order.

In this chapter, though, she invites humans to come and learn from her, using the metaphor of an invitation to a banquet. Wisdom has built a banqueting hall for the purpose, cooked the meal herself, and issued invitation to anyone who would like to come and enjoy her fare. Particularly welcome are those who know they lack wisdom, and who hunger for what she has to offer. Later on in the chapter we meet a similar woman called Folly, who is pictured as a roadside prostitute who calls out to men to come and taste what she has to offer, and which will ultimately place them among the dead. This stark choice faces all of us, both individually and as a society.

Knowing the right thing to do in any situation is, of course, something we are meant to learn from our parents, as the book repeatedly reminds us. But it is also something which we gain from God, who, according to the Bible, is only too willing to give it to those who ask. Often wisdom shows itself as perspective. Rick Warren, in his Purpose-driven Church (1995), lists what he regards as the steps to mature Christian discipleship, and step 2, after knowledge about God and our faith, is ‘perspective’, in other words the ability to see things from God’s point-of-view, rather than merely through human eyes. To take things deeper than face value, and to begin to think and feel about situations as God thinks and feels about them, is the mark of wisdom.

I wouldn’t claim to be super-wise, but I am old, and that helps. But I find it a useful prayer insight, particularly when interceding for our world. Whether or not you have any sympathy for my blatant political views as outlined above, we can all pray for wisdom for our leaders, if we define it as above. To see what’s going on in our nation from God’s perspective might just be a helpful thing for all of us. When I do what 1 Timothy 2 tells us all to do and pray for our rulers, I find this prayer for wisdom springing to my lips.

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 10 – 1 Kings 19:4-8 (Related)

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

I love this chapter, and I have preached on it often: indeed it forms an important part of my own spiritual journey. Often you will have read me moaning about the little snippets our lectionary gives us, and seen me trespassing into the wider context. But it has been useful for me this week to have to focus in on a few verses of a passage I know and love as a whole chapter.

We do need a bit of context, though. Elijah is the prophet fighting for the soul of the nation as Baal worship looks as though it might replace the worship of Yahweh in Israel, and he has just won a mighty victory by calling fire down from heaven on Mount Carmel. But as is so often the case, after a great victory comes an immediate come-down. The Elijah we meet here is a very different man from the bold prophet confronting false worship on the mountaintop. Instead he is broken, suicidal and alone in the wilderness. Last week we talked about liminality, that place of no-mans-land where we have to learn lessons which will take us into the future. Elijah finds himself here in a liminal space, so let’s think about what is going on: what he does, and what God does.

Firstly, he runs off into the wilderness. As we heard last week, this is a very special place in the Bible, and fundamentally it is a place of encounter with God, often because there is simply nothing else there to do. Biblical heroes, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Paul all spent time there with God. It is a place of nothingness, and so there is nothing for us to do, to plan, to worry about. We just are. There we spend time with our own secrets. In our activity-driven world, and in an increasingly performance-driven church, it feels like a cop-out to stop and just be. Even retreats, in my experience, can be filled with stuff to do. Elijah just stops, and discovers some of his deep feelings, feelings of despair and brokenness.

So he asks God to end his life. We all hope, in some way, to be better than our ancestors, to leave a mark on the world. But Elijah’s fear of Queen Jezebel distorts his perspective, and in spite of a massive victory he can see nothing of worth which he has achieved. In the liminal stages of early retirement I had to wrestle with the question ‘What has it all been about?’ 38 years of hard labour for the C of E, and what have I actually achieved? What is there to show for it all? It’s easy to lose perspective, even if it doesn’t drive us to suicide. This request for death is significantly followed by him lying down and going to sleep. He wants to die, but he wants it to be in his sleep; good and painless.

It can be only when we reach the end of our resources that we can surrender to rest and sleep. When I was diagnosed with cancer, and told by my consultant to kiss goodbye to the next six months of my life, I was able to rest and sleep free of guilt that I ought really to be doing something. My family were beautifully understanding, and let me go for a sleep any time I felt I needed one. Sadly most employers are not as understanding, so we feel that to nap, or to sleep in, is really a bad thing to be doing. Elijah feels no such pressure to get on with it, and in fact sleeps twice. This isn’t a power-nap, this is deep, refreshing, perspective-restoring sleep. Many of us get far to little of it.

But while Elijah is sleeping, God is at work. God is going to give so much to Elijah in this chapter, but these few verses concentrate on just one thing: nourishment. He sends an angel with freshly-baked bread and water, and Elijah’s bodily as well as emotional needs are taken care of. In spite of a society in which diet has become an obsession we have not entirely learnt the lesson that our emotional states are linked to our bodily condition, and that often the best thing we can do when we feel down is to eat, drink, exercise and rest properly, all of which can be the very last things we feel like doing. So I guess that an angel commanding us to get up and eat might be just what we need!

Later on God is going to reassure and recommission Elijah for ministry, but he knows what he needs first: a total break from everything. Wilderness, nourishment and rest provide that break, and prepare him for the forward journey. When we feel that the journey is just too much for us, maybe a good place to begin is to stop, rest and eat. Paying attention to the physical can work wonders for the emotional. We know that in theory, but when we’re in the middle of it it’s really hard to remember.

If you’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!