OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 11 – Jeremiah 2:1-14 (Related)

We’ve had a few trips into the life and times of the prophet Jeremiah recently, but this week we find ourselves back at the start of his book, in what provides an intro to everything else he’s going to say, rather like the Abstract of a PhD Thesis which sets out the main arguments in order to help people decide whether they want to read all 250 pages or not. Chapter one is famously about his call and his reluctance to obey, and then comes the summary of his message. I’ve chosen to add on the three verses before our lectionary passage, since I believe there’s an important lesson there. Jeremiah, as we know, was the prophet whose task was to announce to the nation that downfall and captivity were inescapable, and he ministered around the time of the start of the Babylonian exile, around 600 BC. He was not a happy bunny, although his work is not without hope, but to this day we call a long passage or speech full of doom, gloom and misery a ‘jeremiad’.

He’s going to spell out in great detail exactly what it is that the nation has done wrong, but in his abstract he makes it simple. Israel has done four things wrong (not just the two he mentions in v.13.

They’ve lost that loving feeling. V.1-3 looks back to the wilderness period, when, according to God, they followed him through the desert with all the love and devotion of a newly married bride. Immediately we have an important paradox: just which Bible is God reading? If you’ve been following my ‘Wilderness Years’ series of podcasts (if you haven’t, you can find them here, or by searching RevJohnLeach blog on Spotify or iTunes) you’ll know that the story was anything but one of love and devotion. It was grumble central, with the people constantly moaning, grizzling, disobeying and rebelling, to the point where Moses wanted to end his own life. So how could God look back from Jeremiah’s time and see it all as such a positive period? The answer is that he forgave. And forgot. When we forgive people, we’re often left with a trace remembrance of what they did to us, and there’s a shadow which remains between us: can we really trust them again? There’s a wariness which creeps into the relationship (at times appropriately), and however much we say we forgive, we’re still cautious. Well God isn’t like that. He remembers our sins no more. When we’re tempted to feel that our relationship has been marred by something we’ve done, that since then God has been cautious towards us, that there’s a shadow between us, we’ve failed to understand how God forgives. If he can look back on those 40 miserable years and see them as the honeymoon period, he can certainly start off again with us and a clean sheet. But the problem here is that they had lost that first love, even if he hadn’t.

They’ve found fault with God. As so often in marriages, when the love and affection dies, the carping sets in. By this time they have arrived and settled in the promised land, but they have turned against the God who so lovingly led them there (v.5).

They’ve chosen new gods instead. V.13 uses that famous picture of a nation who have turned away from the clean sparkling water which God gives them, and dug their own wells which are full of mud and muck. The nation thought they could do without God, as has ours for decades, and now they are drinking the filth their own hands have produced. But there is another big big mistake, hidden in v.8:

They failed to carry out a reality check. As their fortunes declined, they never once stopped to ask the question ‘Why?’ Why is God no longer with us? Why has he deserted us? Why are the rich getting richer and the poor poorer? Why are other nations queuing up to invade us? Why are the streets no longer safe? Why is corruption rife? The people had got used to life as it was, and had failed to stop and ask ‘Why?’

Back in 2014 the C of E published a report called Anecdote to Evidence which was a research project into church growth. The headline from it came from Professor David Voas of UCL (our arch rivals at King’s London) who famously said this:

“There is no single recipe for growth; there are no simple solutions to decline … What seems crucial is that congregations are constantly engaged in reflection; churches cannot soar on autopilot. Growth is a product of good leadership (lay and ordained) working with a willing set of churchgoers in a favourable environment.”

It is this reflective attitude, rather than soaring on autopilot, doing what we’ve always done without ever stopping to ask ‘Is this working?’ which leads to church health, and it could have led to national health for Israel too, had they only been able to pause, think and change. Jeremiah’s great complaint is that they never even stopped to ask the question.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 10 – Isaiah 58:9b-14 (Related)

When the exiles returned from Babylon around 539 BC they found a land somewhat different from what the glowing promises of Deutero-Isaiah had led them to expect. It was not until 445 BC that Nehemiah succeeded in rebuilding the city walls, and for nearly 100 years people had quite literally been eking out a living in the dust and rubble of their once proud city. They also found people in the land. Not invaders who had come to conquer or colonise – who would want to colonise a heap of stones? – but rather those who had always lived in the land alongside them, but had not been to Babylon with them, presumably because they had no skills in which the Babylonians were interested. These ‘peasants’ were treated with disdain, because the only true Jews were now those who had been through the experience of exile.

The exiles must have felt disappointed, that God had somehow sold them a pup through Deutero-Isaiah’s words. They had come from frying pan into fire, and had been roasting for 100 years. Their hopes for God’s protection and provision, for the restoration of their national life, had been dashed, and they no doubt felt cheated. So the prophet re-articulates their hopes for them (v.10-12, 14) and identifies three issues which are coming between them and God’s blessing. It is an interesting cluster of issues, and to read the book of Nehemiah alongside this passage brings illumination and explanation.

First the prophet identifies pointing fingers and malicious talk. This may be about the ‘racism’ directed against those who had every right to live in the land, but who were now regarded as foreigners, and treated as nobodies. Hand in hand with this goes the oppression of the poor, and Nehemiah suggests that this was both the ordinary people’s oppression of the peasants but also the oppression of ordinary people by the small but privileged elite, who, according to Haggai, were creaming off funds given by Emperor Cyrus for rebuilding projects and using them to sustain extravagant personal  lifestyles.

The pointing fingers of the racists and the greed of the ruling élite are of course nothing new, but the prophet makes clear the link between national health and the people’s morality, and he blames their lack of fortunes directly on these two facets of their behaviour. Bu then he adds a third, which might seem surprising to us: sabbath-keeping.

The idea of the sabbath is a really important issue in the OT, and is of course enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Yet to our ears it seems a bit outdated, in a nation where people are forced to work so hard that Sunday is their only chance for recreation and rest, where shopping and sporting activities compete for our attention, and where mobility means that many people are away on holiday or visiting friends or family. So why pick on this issue as such a vital one for the health of the nation? There are some clues within v.13 which may help us to understand.

It is worth saying, of course, that Christians are not bound by Sabbath laws as the Jews would have been, and that the Christian Sunday is not the direct equivalent of the Jewish Saturday. But nevertheless the principle of Sabbath is a sound one, built in by God in his grace because we need it, and neglected at our peril. So what does v.13 teach us about the importance of Sabbath?

First of all, to break it is to do what we please. Sabbath is a reminder that as Christians we have submitted ourselves to the Christ by whom we were bought with the price of his blood, and we find wholeness and fulfilment in being in submission to him, not by doing whatever we feel like. Sabbath is about obedience. Secondly, to break the sabbath is to resent it. Amos 8:5 condemns those who regard the Sabbath as a nuisance because it gets in the way of money-making. To deliberately keep one day free from work and the pursuit of wealth is a weekly reminder of the importance of things other than money. Sabbath is a call not to live by bred alone, and to allow others to do the same. But behind these outward observations is something deeper. We are called to regard all this as a delight, not an imposition; a blessing and not a bit of a pain. Sabbath reminds us that God really does want to be good to us, whether it feels like that or not, and to throw his blessings back in his face, apart from anything else is downright rude. Joy in the Lord and triumph for the nation are to be found both in what we stop doing, but also in what we value doing.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 9 – Jeremiah 23:23-29 (Related)

This is a great passage to go with today’s Gospel, about Jesus bringing division rather than peace (Lk 12:49-56). Jeremiah is well known as a bit of a misery among the already dour OT prophets. The calling of God on him was a heavy one, and we know quite a bit more about his personal life that we do about those of other prophets. Since chapter 11 he has been in conflict with the ‘leaders of Judah’ or, as they are described, her ‘shepherds’. He has one message, and they don’t want to hear it. Things begin to hot up in chapter 21, where Jeremiah turns his attention onto his opponents. Today’s passage is part of this condemnation of those who claim that God is saying something different to them from what Jeremiah is hearing.

So what is this great divide all about? What controversy can possibly be causing all this trouble. What is it which causes the dramatic pronouncement of ‘Woe’ to these leaders in 23:1? This word signals a solemn curse, and has real power to it. Jesus pronounces woes on the towns around the Sea of Galilee in Luke 10, and if you visit the Holy Land today you simply won’t find those places. Woes matter! So what is such a serious issue all about? In a nutshell, the leaders wanted peace when in fact there was no peace. Jeremiah had been consistently warning the people that their abandonment of true worship and the consequent lack of moral standards would be met by God’s punishment as they were carried off into exile. But the leaders obviously had a vested interest in keeping that message off the public radar. They resented the idea that a new, true leader would come and dethrone them, and no doubt, as with all corrupt leaders through all time, they were profiting financially from unchallenged greed. So this upstart prophet was a threat to the status quo, and had to be stopped.

One strategy, of course, was to fight fire with fire. If they could produce their own prophets to say what they wanted, it was simply Jeremiah’s word against theirs. Produce enough of them and the majority, surely, would win. So the real question here is about how one discerns the authentic voice of God from the voices of self-interest and the status quo. Jeremiah’s defence is simply to claim that the false prophets were just that, and had not heard God, but were making things up to suit their own ends. He begins by reminding his hearers that God knows the false from the true, even if humans find it difficult at times. In our brief passage he makes three points about true versus false prophecy.

The first is that just because we claim, or even believe that a word has come from God, it might not have done. There is an interesting juxtaposition in v.25-26. The prophets are lying prophets, speaking from the delusions of their own minds, yet they claim to be speaking in God’s name. Just putting ‘Thus says the Lord …’ in front of a prophecy is no guarantee of its genuineness. Whether they really believed that they had the mind of God, or whether they were deliberately setting out to deceive is not clear, but it amounts to the same thing.

Secondly, false prophecy will tear God’s people apart. This is an OT equivalent of ‘by their fruits will you know them’. If so-called words from God lead people away from him, rather than back to him in repentance, they cannot possibly be the genuine article. And of course a real prophet would know that.

And thirdly Jeremiah asserts, with Jesus, that genuine prophecy is often tough to hear. In three clear pictures Jeremiah distinguishes true words from God as being like a consuming fire, a threshing machine to separate truth from lies, and a sledgehammer which cracks rocks open. None of these images is cosy or comfortable, any more than God is comfortable for those deliberately opposing or ignoring him.

So does that mean that God’s word to us will always be harsh and rebuking? Is it in the very nature of the prophetic that it is only there to tell us off? The answer, I believe, is ‘only if that’s what we need’. Like the Holy Spirit himself, prophecy is there to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. We can trust our God to say to us what we need to hear, when we need to hear it. True prophecy just feels right to those whose heart’s desire is to please God at any cost.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 8 – Genesis 15:1-6 (Related)

The cycle of stories about Abraham and Sarah contains two profoundly important conversations between God and Abraham, here and in Gen 18, where Abraham intercedes for the city of Sodom. In both cases Abraham appears a bit cheeky, if we’re honest, in the way he speaks to God. Whilst these conversations have been seen as authenticating holy boldness, is there more to them?

This conversation begins, though, with God, not Abraham. He tells Abraham not to be afraid, which raises the question of what or whom he might be afraid of. He has just rescued Lot, and perhaps fears a counter-attack and retribution from Lot’s enemies. But as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that God is addressing a much deeper fear. However, he begins by describing himself as Abraham’s shield and reward. The shield is a protective piece of armour, set between the attackers and the victim: God sets himself between Abraham and all that would harm him. As for the great reward, there’s the rub, which allows Abraham to voice his real complaint. In spite of God’s promise three chapters earlier, he has still not given Abraham a son and heir. So Abraham responds by saying (and I paraphrase) ‘It’s all very well that you plan to reward me, but you haven’t given me the one thing which I really need to make any sense of my life. It’s not that I’m not grateful, but without a son everything you give me will end up being left to my servant. So thanks, but when are you going to reward me with the very thing you promised but have not done?’

For many people there is that One Thing. For Christians who believe in a God who answers prayer, the dilemma is made even more difficult. They simply can’t put it down to ‘life stinks’ or bad luck or whatever. God has promised, but he hasn’t followed through. For many couples it is the same issue, that of childlessness. For some people if goes back even further: they long to find Mr or Miss Right but it just hasn’t happened. Many struggle with chronic health conditions, or unfulfilling work, or … You can fill in the blanks yourself, and maybe you can even fill in your own blank. Many do what Abraham feared, and go to the grave with unfulfilled promises. These are real pastoral issues for so many people.

This passage offers no false hope, but does, I think, make a couple of important points for those struggling with unfulfilled hopes and shattered dreams. The first, which will seem harsh, is to ask exactly what is it that God has promised? Sometimes we struggle because God hasn’t done what we would like, but when we think about it, he has never promised to. If I spend my days in unfulfilled longing for a Ferrari and a holiday cottage in Provence, I need to ask myself the question ‘When exactly did God promise me those things?’ Unanswered wishful thinking can be as painful as unanswered prayer, but it is not the same. God has not necessarily promised me all the things I would like him to have promised.

The second, though, is more positive. This is not just wishful thinking on Abraham’s part. He can look back to the day when God specifically said to him that he would make him into a great nation. He promised! So where is it? I’ve not even got one son, let alone a nation! It’s an audacious thing to say to God, but the response is for God to restate the promise in even more detail. Your nation will not come from Eliezer of Damascus – it will come from your own natural offspring. And when I say ‘nation’, I mean this many! Look at the stars above and the sands beneath your feet. That’s what I promised, and here and now I make that promise to you again.

Of course Abraham had to wait for this reiteration of the original promise to come to pass, and in the meantime he tried to make it happen himself, and had to hear the promise a third time, around 25 years after he first heard it. We are impatient creatures compared to God, and so many of our unanswered prayers are not because God has said ‘No’ but because he has said ‘Not yet!’ But if you have some Big Issue, and are sure that God has spoken to you and has promised, it’s OK to ask him to remake the promise to you, and to ask for confident patience as you wait for him to act.