OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Ps 67

‘You’re useless – you’ll never amount to anything!’

‘You’re such an evil child!’

‘You filthy Paki!’

‘Hope you rot in hell!’

Words can be so cruel, and can cause real harm if they are directed at us, and especially if they are directed at us again and again. Philosopher John Austin wrote a book in 1962 outlining what he called ‘Speech Act theory’, suggesting that words can do so much more than merely convey information: they can actually change people. Words such as ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ or ‘I forgive you’ can bring about concrete changes, much more than merely talking about weddings or forgiveness can. And if used negatively words can be curses which harm and undermine people, sometimes permanently.

There is some scholarly dispute about the nature of this week’s Psalm, but whatever else it is, it is a Psalm of blessing. Whether or not the reference in v.6 means that it would have been used liturgically at Harvest time is not clear. It may refer to something about the nature of God, who faithfully provides for his people, rather than forming a specific thanksgiving for this year’s harvest. No doubt the author of this Psalm, as well as those who used it in worship, would have been very familiar with the words of blessing in Numbers 6, which the Psalm echoes. But there has been a progression, and things have moved on since those original words.

Our tendency is to begin by praying ‘Lord bless me’. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the words of blessing from Numbers 6 are not a self-facing prayer for myself, but rather a piece of Speech Act which pronounces blessing on ‘you’. This is the first step, that we become more concerned that others might be blessed through us than we are that we should be blessed ourselves. But the Psalm takes this journey forward with its prayer that God will bless ‘us’. ‘Us’ means ‘all of us’. The ‘our God’ in v.7 is not about an exclusive claim on God by his people. It is an acknowledgement that the God whom we love and worship throws his arms wide to bless everyone. It wasn’t just the Jews who reaped a good harvest: the rain and sun provide for the wicked as well as the righteous. But our desire is that the God who so faithfully blesses us might also become the God of those who don’t yet acknowledge him. The chorus, which comes in v.3 and 5 (and perhaps ought to be there as v.8 too), is a prayer for exactly this: that all the earth might come to praise our God and, in v.7, to fear him.

This Psalm, then, is an invitation to God’s Church to do two things: to become inclusive not exclusive, and to bless rather than curse. In spite of all the references in the OT to God’s purposes for all nations, going right back to Gen 12, the Jews constantly grasped at the privilege of having their own God and looked down their noses at the rest of humanity. Even the Acts Church had to have some pretty serious signs from God and a General Synod before they realised that Jesus was for Gentiles as well as Jews. Wherever we organise our church life for ourselves rather than for non-members we are in danger of being guilty of this same attitude. Whenever we keep church the way we like it rather than asking how we can be more effective in mission, we become heirs of Jewish OT exclusivism.

The second thing is to learn the power of blessing. I remember hearing some years ago about a church which had planned a big ‘March for Jesus’ type event through the city centre, only to be told a few days before that the LBGTQ+ community had booked a Pride March for the same day, and the city council obviously feared the wrath of the Gays more than that of the Church. To that church all things LBGTQ+ would have been anathema, but instead of praying God’s wrath down on them or engaging in aggressive evangelism, they set about blessing. They set up tables along the route, gave out free food and drink, and prayed for the people as they passed. It was carnage, with ppl falling to the ground as the Spirit hit them, and many coming to faith in Christ. When we are quick to curse others, maybe we can allow passages like this Psalm to remind us that God wants to bless all the ends of the earth.

Culture and the Mind of Christ – Part 5

Humanism

Glossary:

Feuerbach, Ludwig (1804–1872) – German philosopher who claimed that the human race had replaced God as supreme.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844-1900) – German philospher who claimed that only a special breed of humans, the ‘superman’, with the ‘will to power’, were worthy of replacing the God who had been killed by science.

Marx, Karl (1818-1883) – founder of Marxism which evolved into Communism, the belief that the collective was more important than the individuals from which it was made up.

Hitler, Adolf (1889-1945) – leader of the Nazi party which sought to purify the human race and create a master breed worthy of existence.

Culture and the Mind of Christ – Part 4

Modernism

Glossary:

Descartes, Rene – French philosopher, 1596–1650

Cartesian Dualism – the belief, originated by Descartes, that the physical world and the world of thoughts, emotions and faith were two completely different worlds.

Enlightenment – A movement in the 17-18th centuries in Europe which saw the human race as emerging from the dark ages and making significant progress in the world of science. thus enabling human flourishing and happiness. Human reason became the most important thing, with evidence gained from the five senses as the only reliable guide.

Modernism – The culture which emerged from the Enlightenment, in which human reason reigned supreme.

Materialism – the Modernist belief that only the physical is real and has value.

Rationalism – the Modernist belief that only the provable and logical is reliable.

Psychology of Religion – the branch of science which studied the enduring phenomenon of religious belief, and sought to explain it in scientific terms.

Scientism – the worship of Science as the all-powerful god.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 – Psalm 148

This week’s piece of post-Easter psalmody is very different from last week’s, Psalm 23, which was about the individual’s relationship with the care and power of God. Psalm 148 is a psalm or hymn of praise, and it lacks any specific home in the worship of Israel. If it were in a modern hymn-book, it would be listed under ‘General Hymns of Praise’. Psalms of thanksgiving tend to praise God for something specific which he has done, but here we have a much more general listing of his qualities. This list of God’s creation may owe its order to some more ancient texts. It is similar to Job 38, to a passage in the Song of the Three Young Men in the Apocrypha, and even to the Egyptian Onomasticon of Amenope, where the creatures of the god Ptah are listed. But this ancient tradition has been placed firmly in the context of the God of Israel and his unequalled power.

Normally such Psalms fall into two parts: the summons to worship, and the reasons for worship. The people are called into the praise of God, and just in case any were thinking ‘But why should we?’, the qualities of God which are worthy of praise are listed. These two parts are present here, but there is another two-fold division, based not on the logic of worship but on the location of the worshippers. First of all God praise is summoned from the heavens (v.1). The angel choirs and the created world are both invited to praise God. Why? Because he made them all, and because by his command they are established and upheld.

Then the focus shifts and praise is called forth from the earth (v.7). All of the earthly creation is included, from the weather to the animal and plant kingdoms, and finally the earth’s human inhabitants. Why? Because of God’s almighty splendour, unequalled in all creation. But there is more – God has raised up a horn, symbolising strength, for his people. In its original context this might mean that God has renewed the people’s power, perhaps by restoring their fortunes after a period of trouble, giving them a new lease of life. This would fit with the probably post-exilic date of the psalm. But Christians can’t help but read this as an Easter psalm, celebrating the victory of God, through Jesus, over all that is evil and oppressive to his created world.

Today we too come to worship. This psalm reminds us about several things we do when we worship God. We come with all creation, which can be encouraging if there are six of us in a cold and musty country church. We come together – each of the ten summonses to worship are in the plural – ‘Youse’ or ‘Y’all’ praise the Lord. We come with humility, as part of a list which includes both the kings of the earth and the tiny creeping creatures of the earth – worms and insects. Probably we would put ourselves somewhere between those two extremes in the pecking order! But it’s good to remind ourselves both how small and how important our praises are to God.

Two more of our readings set for today, though, place the psalm in a bigger context. In Acts 11 the Church is beginning to wake up to the fact that Gentiles as well as Jews are welcome in God’s kingdom. Our worship is to be as inclusive as it possibly can. Anyone who wants to worship God is welcome, and we are not to put up barriers which God would rip down. And Revelation 21 reminds us that although in this psalm the created world has been established for ever (v.6), nevertheless the days of this creation are numbered, when, at the return of Jesus, both the heavens and the earth will be recreated, and nothing will ever get in the way of our praise again. We may be painfully aware, as we perhaps struggle through our worship today, that our praise has not yet been perfected, but we have the promise of a new creation where, without any sadness or suffering, we will worship for all eternity. Bring it on, Lord!

Culture and the Mind of Christ – Part 3

Theism and Deism

Glossary:

Metanarrative: The big overarching story which every culture tells itself about how life, the universe and everything works

Theism: The belief that:

There is a God

He created the universe

He continues to sustain it

He has revealed himself to humans

He wants relationship with them

Deism: The belief that:

There is a God

He created the universe

But he no further involvement with it or with us.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 4 – Psalm 23

We continue with our series of post-Easter Psalms which continue the theme of thanksgiving and rescue, even from death. Today we come to a Psalm which many people know well, some off by heart, and often in the AV words. It is classified as a Psalm of individual thanksgiving, and Jesus may well have reflected on these words post-resurrection, and used them to praise his Father.  Maybe even before his passion he found comfort as he contemplated what he knew was coming his way. But in line with my blogs, I’m less interested in how Jesus might have ‘fulfilled’ the OT, and more in what the original hearers will have got from the words, and in turn what they may say to us.

I was particularly struck by a phrase from one commentator on this Psalm. The trouble with sheep, he said, is that they ‘nibble themselves lost’. They see grass, they want it, then they see a bit more, further away, and go after that, and so on until they fall into a ravine or get eaten by some predatory animal. That clever phrase reflects perfectly what we shall be discovering about Consumerism in a few weeks’ time on my ‘Culture’ series of podcasts. We want stuff, go after it, and before long we are lost. So the opening few words of the Psalm are as significant for 21st century consumers as for 1st century Messiahs. ‘The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want.’

When I was very young I thought this Psalm was a bit rude, translating it in my head as ‘The Lord is my shepherd, but I don’t want him’! I now realise, of course that it means the very opposite, but it is interesting that the job of the shepherd, to prevent the sheep from getting lost, doesn’t just lead to the consequence that we ‘lack nothing’. In fact the absence of lack is the very thing which keeps us close to the shepherd. We have no need to go off nibbling, because we lack nothing by his side.

One of the central motifs of the OT is the presence of God among his people. Other nations had gods who were up there, over there, out there, but Israel had a God among them, and idea which of course comes to full fruition in the incarnation of Jesus, ‘Immanuel – God with us’. It is interesting that the central phrase of this Psalm is in v.4 – ‘You are with me’. In the Hebrew text it is literally the centre, with 26 words before it and 26 after it. It also marks the transition from third person language about God (‘Heleads me …’) to first person (‘You are with me.’). A propositional faith has turned into a relationship, a conversation.

So do we lack nothing? Of course not! Personally I lack a six-figure pension, a few Armani suits, a Jens Ritter fretless bass (Google it!)and a cottage in the South of France. Lacking nothing seems an almost impossible concept, but another commentator suggests that the words really ask the question ‘When God is with me, do I go without anything I really need?’ The Psalm lists some things which God thinks we really need: rest, refreshment, food, guidance, protection,a great party from time to time, and eternal part in the end. So when we realise the riches we have through God’s presence and relationship with us, why do we still nibble ourselves lost? Listen to the Consumerism podcast when it comes out, and I’ll try to explain, but for now the Psalm is, I believe, an invitation to snuggle up and live more closely with God, and enjoy his presence and his presents, and to stop believing that the grass is greener somewhere else, or that our lives will be more fulfilled if we can just nibble a bit more for ourselves.