OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 7 – Ecclesiastes 1:1 – 2:23 (Related)

‘There is nothing new under the sun’ the Teacher, called Qoheleth in the Hebrew, tells us in 1:9. As we encounter these ancient words of an Israelite philosopher from maybe 2300 years ago, we may be struck by the similarity of mood between his world and ours. There are two points in particular which may speak to us from this selection of verses (the Lectionary as usual fillets out much material which I have put back in for the purposes of this blog). In summary, Qoheleth proclaims everything meaningless (‘vanity of vanities’, 1:2 as it is most often remembered). Nothing new ever happens. He has tried wisdom, fun, building projects, sex, hard work, and found them all to be meaningless. So what is he to make of this world? There is a minor conclusion in v.24, but we have to wait until the end of the book to find out how we cope in a meaningless world (11:7 – 12:14).

It is worth asking, first of all, just what the terms ‘vanity’ and ‘meaninglessness’ mean. We tend to think of the words as totally negative, but the Hebrew hebel actually means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. The point isn’t that breathing is evil or pointless, but that it is ephemeral, and needs to be done again and again. To try to catch our breath, or to hold onto it, is a waste of time, literally like trying to catch the wind in our hands (1:14).

Our lectionary skips over many of these ephemeral activities, but concentrates in 2:17-23 on the world of work. How topical is that! As a result of the Covid pandemic and several lockdowns, many people have re-evaluated their working lives. A good friend is currently looking around for a new job because he simply can’t buy in to the American work-ethic of the company he works for, where in return for reasonable but not excessive pay they think they own every hour of his life. His church Men’s Group recently had a discussion about the insidious nature of the term ‘work-life balance’ which has insinuated itself into our vocabulary. It suggests that work and life are two different things which somehow have to be held in balance against one another, as though work wasn’t a part of life. Many many people have been offered by the pandemic a chance to re-examine their working lives and their value, and as a result have left jobs for a more healthy lifestyle. Qoheleth would approve! As a recent retiree, I can’t help but look back over my years of work and ask myself what it has all been about. 1:3-11 remind us that nothing we do will last (I would exclude evangelism from this) and that future generations will have to do it all over again. Rather than being the cynical and godless piece of philosophy which Ecclesiastes appears at a casual glance to be, it is actually profoundly up-to-date, and invites us to gain perspective, we might say ‘wisdom’, about all that we spend time and effort on.

The other point this passage makes for us is more of a negative one. It seems to pay little regard to the generations who will follow us, suggesting that they will just get on with life and make all the same mistakes we have made. Yet another agenda, bang up-to-date, challenges this. 1:7 tells us that the sea is never full, yet we know that it is getting much fuller, and one of the main concerns of our day is that we need to protect our planet not for ourselves, but for our grandchildren. The kind of me and now-centred thinking which Qoheleth suggests, is exactly that which, in the eyes of the environmentalists, is behind the apathy and the reluctance to make changes and sacrifices for the sake of generations to come.

So how then do we live in a world like this? In the end, Qoheleth is going to tell us to put God at the centre, which is great news, but in 2:24, just after our lectionary selection stops, he comes up with a temporary solution to help us cope with the meaninglessness of life. It’s a surprising one, and again curiously postmodern: eat, drink and be merry. Find pleasure where you can, for this too ‘is from the hand of God’. Stop looking like you’re sucking lemons, stop fighting the system, stop trying to save the universe singlehandedly, and gain satisfaction from the little moments of joy. This afternoon we’re off to our daughter’s (delayed) graduation a year after her qualification as a doctor. She’s not going to cure all the world of its ills, but we’re so proud of her doing what she can, and finding among the coaldust some beautiful diamonds here and there.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 5 – Genesis 18:1-10a (Related)

Today’s story is a well-known one, not least through its depiction in the famous Rublev icon and its application to the Trinity. But a close reading of the text might help us see through our familiarity and gain new riches from the story. As well as being seen as an early indication of God as Trinity, the story is also often interpreted to hold out the value of hospitality, although actually Abraham does very little, and in any case his actions would not be unusual in the Middle East. So Abraham offers to get the visitors something to eat, and then runs to tell Sarah to do the baking and a servant to prepare the meat. To be fair, though, he has just been circumcised, and so is probably glad of the sit down.

The story, though, is really about the announcement of the birth of his son Isaac. Sarah, who presumably is hearing this nonsense for the first time, responds with cynical laughter at what she hears as a cruel joke, but Abraham of course has heard this promise before, in Gen 12 and again in chapter 15. For 25 years he has known what God intended to do, and yet nothing has happened. I wonder how he heard the news? This time there is a specific time given, but I wonder whether 25 years of disappointment had soured his hope into cynicism, or whether he felt a jolt of excitement at the ‘OK, now is the time!’ nature of this particular announcement. The key question, which of course has been lopped off by our lectionary compilers, comes in v.14: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ The Hebrew word doesn’t just mean ‘difficult’. It can also mean extraordinary, marvellous and wondrous. Is there anything so outrageously wonderful that the Lord can’t manage it? Obviously not. Yet Sarah reacts with cynical laughter, which she goes on to deny, and Abraham apparently with tired resignation – ‘Here we go again! More impossible promises.’

Many of us will have waited, perhaps for decades, for God to come through for us, to answer our desperate prayers, to make good on something we believe he promised us years ago. Perhaps we have become cynical; perhaps our initial faith has tarnished into dull acceptance of the status quo, as hope has trickled away into the dry desert sand. Maybe, like Abraham, we have resorted to making it happen ourselves, yet finding that it hasn’t quite worked. Perhaps, when God does show up to make good his promises, we might fail to recognise him.

One of the most annoying mysteries of our faith is the refusal of the God whose Son told us to ask for anything and it will be done to act as we want him to when we want him to. So much of the Christian life is marked by frustration as we seek to hold onto biblical promises but find them to be apparently void in our case. For some this frustration has led to an abandoning of their faith, while of others our faith has morphed into something sadder and more cynical, as the clouds of reality have blotted out the sun of faith.

Yet for this couple God has shown up, even if 25 years later than they would have liked. The three travellers come to bring news that God is about to act, and Abraham’s generosity towards them comes long before he realises what they have come to give him. We can’t do anything about God’s slow pace in answering prayers, if at all. But we can maintain a softness of heart towards him, and others. We, the readers, are told that the three men are in fact the Lord (v.10) but it isn’t at all clear that Abraham recognised this divine visitation. Yet he treats them with kindness and respect. They are nowhere called angels, but he is certainly entertaining them unaware of who they really are. He may be disappointed and disillusioned, but it hasn’t turned him nasty. In fact the NT develops this theme, when Paul in Romans 5 extols the virtues of patience and perseverance in building character. We can’t control God, but we can choose how we react to frustration and unanswered prayer. Maybe we’ll see him come through for us eventually, or maybe it will all pale into insignificance when we meet him face to face.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 4 – Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (Related)

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we look more deeply at today’s text – the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Some high profile teachers, mostly from the USA, have taught that those who are Christians are promised lives of health, wealth and happiness as a reward for living in obedience to God, and often for financial generosity to the ministry in question. Such leaders may drive around in ostentatiously large cars, strut the stage in sharp designer suits, and expound the Bible to demonstrate that God’s will is for his people to prosper. The Prosperity Gospel has not caught on big time in the UK – we have a cynical streak which seems to be absent from many Americans  – but it is still a significant player in the Christian Church today in some circles.

So does the Bible teach prosperity as a result for obedience? Yes, it does, and today’s passage is one of many which says exactly that. In which case, why do we usually regard prosperity teaching as a dangerous distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ? The answer, I reckon, lies in the word ‘you’. ‘The Lord God will make you most prosperous …’ and so on throughout the passage. Our problem lies in the fact that when we hear ‘you’ in the Bible we automatically think singular – ‘you’ as opposed to the American ‘y’all’ or the Irish ‘youse’. But most often in passages like this the verb is plural. Prosperity is not promised to devout individuals, but rather to godly communities. It is perhaps summed up in the phrase in Proverbs 14:34: ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.’ Understand that, and I think we have solved the problem of Prosperity Gospel theology.

So how does a nation or community live in a way which will bring them prosperity? The latter chapters of Deuteronomy are a roller coaster ride between blessings and curses, used liturgically at a covenant renewal ceremony designed to keep before the people’s eyes both the grace of God and their own tendency to live wickedly. A set of very specific curses is laid out, but is balanced by promises of renewal, restoration and blessing. But this text makes two points.

The first is that God’s blessing is conditional on our behaviour. Throughout the OT God’s people are called to live with righteousness and justice, so reflecting his own character. I have said many times before that there is no such thing in the Bible as God’s ‘unconditional love’, and this passage is a further reminder that we will be blessed as long as we keep his commands and decrees (v.10). Protestant Christians have a problem with this idea, believing as we do in salvation by grace alone, but God both expects righteous behaviour, and has provided in Jesus a remedy for when we get it wrong.

The second principle is that, to paraphrase v.11-14, it isn’t rocket science. This is not some escape room game that requires extraordinary efforts to get free from sin. God has not set up some elaborate puzzle in order to help us fail, nor a Squid Game-type execution process. As Micah realised (6:8) ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ That’s it – it’s as simple as that. Christians know that God has put his Spirit within us to sharpen up our consciences, to strengthen us to resist temptation, and gradually to grow his fruit of goodness within us. And above all he has given us his Son as the remedy for sin.

Of course we will fail. But we ought to be failing less, and repenting quickly when we do. One American pastor told his congregation ‘You’re not sinless, but you are sinning less.’ That’s a good aim in life!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 3 – Isaiah 66:10-14

Since retiring two years ago I have recently started taking funerals again, something I loved about parish ministry but which, due to a Diocesan job and then the pandemic I haven’t really done for about 8 years. As you might imagine I was nervous at first, but very quickly I got back into the saddle as though it was only yesterday. I was reminded of a previous funeral where, as is my custom, I used a prayer to reflect on the fact that no relationship is ever perfect, and that we might just have some regrets in our relationship to the deceased, some things we would have liked the time to have said, or maybe some things we wish we hadn’t said or done. Despite the fact that the person whose funeral I was taking was an absolutely lovely old saint, I was thanked warmly after the service for my honesty in acknowledging that things hadn’t always been perfect, and my avoidance of the sentimental hagiography so often present at funerals.

Today’s reading is almost the final paragraph of the corporate work we call the book of Isaiah, and thematically it is like closing the bracket which was opened at 40:1 with God’s words to comfort his people. In 66:13 God himself has become the comforter, in a climax to three themes which appear in this short passage. They are positive themes, a call to joy and celebration, the image of Jerusalem as a nurturing mother, and finally the comfort of God. But each of them carries echoes of something less positive. Just like my funeral ministrations, the prophet wants to acknowledge the pain and hurt which so often exist alongside joy. He doesn’t go overboard and negate the joy and comfort, as I hope I don’t at funerals, but the mere echo of a mention gives the listeners the opportunity and the permission to be real rather than sentimental, or, as in another common funeral habit, not to try to suppress sadness altogether (‘We don’t want anyone to wear black …’, ‘I am not there, I did not die.’)

So the call to rejoice is made, in v.10, to those who mourn. We have watched the chequered history of God’s holy city, and we know that it is going to continue into the NT, where it is known as the city which slaughters prophets, until the Temple’s final destruction in 70 AD. We rejoice not by forgetting the more negative aspects, but in spite of them.

Similarly the picture of Jerusalem as the nurturing mother in v.11 echoes with other passages where the city is seen as an adulterous whore. In Lamentations the city weeps because her children have been taken away from her. So her current status as a nurturing mother has to be seen against the backdrop of less favourable times.

And finally the image of God as comforter in v.13-14 has a rather jarring conclusion with the reminder that those who are God’s enemies will see not his comfort but his wrath. In fact, when you think about it there are very few unremittingly positive passages in the whole of the Bible: there is always the lurking reminder, sometimes hiding in the shadows, but sometimes centre stage, that God is not a God of universal unconditional love, but that we have a choice, and he responds to us in the light of how we respond to him.

I wonder if this passage, then, is a reminder to God’s people never to sink into sentimentality, but to retain a realistically balanced and biblical understanding of who he is, and of how we relate to him. There is something in the human mind which wants to avoid pain and make everything nice, rewriting history if necessary. Have you noticed that anyone who tragically loses their life in some catastrophe or other was always lively, loving, bright and intelligent, caring etc? It seems that no-one who dies was ever nasty, or even just ordinary as we are. But when, as in my funeral ministry, I simply allow people to acknowledge the obvious, that real life, and real people, are both good and bad, sometimes at the same time, they are grateful for it. This allows them both to grieve appropriately and rejoice realistically. Perhaps whoever wrote this passage had the same aim in mind.