OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 15 – Amos 6:1a, 4-7 (Related)

My faithful followers will of course have noticed that I missed out last week’s OT Lectionary blog. This was of course out of respect for her Late Majesty, and not in any way because I completely forgot! But this week’s passage has taken me back to the sad events of last weekend, and the message of Amos is, I believe, as important as ever.

Our new PM, when she wasn’t busy reading from the Bible, was telling us that she ‘knows’ that our great country can pull through all its current crises. And at Her Majesty’s funeral and surrounding events there was a sense, and maybe on this occasion an appropriate one, that Britain really was Great under her reign. Certainly no-one, worldwide, does pomp and grief quite like our armed forces and the Church of England. Personally I found it all very moving, and for once was proud to be an Anglican, and almost proud to be English. But as we move towards the end of the period of mourning (a thoroughly biblical idea, by the way, that mourning should stop and we should move on after an appropriate period of time), our problems as a nation will still be there, with rampant inflation, food and fuel poverty for many, and continued divisions along so many different fault-lines. What was totally absent, both from the pep-talks of Mrs Truss and the celebrations of the life of Queen Elizabeth, was any sense that our problems might have something to do with our abandonment of God and with human sin, so ably demonstrated to us by our previous PM. If we are a proud and arrogant nation, recent events will sadly have reinforced this in us, paradoxically, in the light or our late monarch’s profound and public Christian faith.

If that’s how you see the state of the nation at the moment, then you’ll understand Amos completely. ‘Woe to you who are complacent!’ he thunders out in v.1. This is nothing less than a curse, pronounced with prophetic spiritual power, and believed to bring about what it said. He paints a picture of a nation where at least some of the people are living lives of luxury, not sleeping on the floor as most people did, not living off a veggie diet, not as a fad but because they simply couldn’t afford any meat, let alone the choicest. Some of the language of this passage hints at sacred idol feasts, but it may simply be describing drunken partying rather than false worship – we’re not sure about this. But either way the main point is the same: they did not grieve over the ruin of the nation (v.6). For them, as for today’s fat cats, millionaires and other figures of the élite, life was actually pretty good, even if the hoi polloi were starving and other nations were poised to attack. Eat, drink and be merry, and hope things would continue like that for the foreseeable. So it is left up to Amos to pronounce God’s opinion of the state of the nation, and his verdict is damning: your feasting and decadence will come to and end, and you will be the first to be taken off into captivity (v.7).

It has been said that if you like the book of Amos, you don’t understand it. The tone almost throughout is one of judgement on an arrogant nation which thinks it is doing fine, thank you very much. But there are three mistakes we can make in reading judgemental passages like this one. First of all, we can believe that God’s anger is the opposite of his love. This is an error which goes back at least to the 2nd century, and which led a heretic called Marcion to excise from his Bible all of the OT and all the bits of the NT which mention or quote from it, on the basis that the two testaments tell us about two different gods, the nasty angry one of the OT and the nice one, revealed to us by Jesus in the NT. God’s judgement is not the opposite of his love, it is the outworking of it, because people whom he loves are groaning in poverty because of the greed and arrogance of others. As a God of righteousness he cannot stand by and do nothing while his people suffer, at least not for long. He judges because he loves, and he judges those who fail to love.

Secondly, God’s judgement is not the same as his condemnation. He doesn’t like being angry, but he does love showing mercy. He would rather that sinners turned from their wickedness and lived. Judgement, therefore, is always aimed at repentance and change, not eternal rejection. That will come, but in his patience he wants to give us every possibility of turning back to him.

But thirdly, and most personally, judgement is not always about ‘them’, over there or back then. It is easy to see how sinful others are, but the real point is to use the Bible as a mirror in which to look at ourselves. Where does this passage reflect my sinful lifestyle, not just that of Israel two and a half thousand years ago. And what must we do which they failed to do?

Finally, in a shameless plug for my son, if you like House Music and our dear late Queen, you might like Steve’s tune which he has recently made public here. Do share it if you like it, and rejoice in the fact that, as Archbishop Justin said so clearly, if we are among God’s children, as she is, we will meet again. Goodbye and Thank You Ma’am. For everything.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 13 – Exodus 32:7-14 (Related)

One of the clichés I’m fed up of hearing is the oft-stated assertion that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change us. When we pray for something, it doesn’t talk God into giving it to us, but rather we talk ourselves into not wanting it after all! In a liberal and deistic Church where it is politically incorrect to suggest that God might actually do anything, we have lost sight of the power of direct and specific intercession to affect our lives and situations. So let’s have a look at this story of Moses the intercessor and see what the Bible actually says.

It’s worth saying that the whole incident was driven by fear, and that the people had every right to be afraid. Hunger and thirst were very real possibilities in the desert, and whether death came quickly or slowly it was a very real prospect. But as is so often the case, fear has distorted their perceptions of reality. First of all, they had distorted their view of Moses. In spite of his repeated assertions that it was God who was going to lead them to the Promised Land, they were fixated on him. It was all his fault: he had brought them out into the desert to kill them. As I write two Tory hopefuls are slugging it out to see who will be the Prime Minister to lead the nation out of the mess their party has got it into, and the more optimistic (or naïve) are hoping for a human leader who will make everything all right again, and stop them either starving or dying of hypothermia. If you put your faith in a human leader who then goes awol, there is a real panic.

Then they acted out of their distorted perception of who God was. They needed a god they could actually see, one they had made in their own image, and who would come to save them. Having cast the idol, they believed that it was this god, the one they had just made for themselves, who had and who would lead them. And finally they acted out of a distorted perspective of their whole situation, the whole journey they were on. The Hebrew uses two different words for their journey through the desert. Alah means simply to go from one place to another, like getting a bus to town, whereas yatza is a technical term for a slave being taken out of bondage and into freedom  – it’s the world used extensively in chapter 21 for the freeing of slaves. While God and Moses talk about yatza, the people only use alah. Their fear has made them lose sight of the fact that they are being set free: they merely see a long journey which isn’t going to end up much better than where they had come from.

So with these three distortions in mind, it is easy to see how God might just be a bit cross with them. This is where Moses the intercessor comes in. Note first that Moses doesn’t have his own mind changed. He is in no way tempted by the offer of becoming the father of a great nation instead of Abraham. Instead he argues with God, using three different techniques to drive home his prayers. He reminds God that they people are his: your people, whom you brought out of Egypt (v.11) It’s like a couple of parents saying ‘Look what your son has been up to!’ The people are not someone else’s; they are God’s.

Then he asks about the PR effects of mass destruction. What will all the people around think if you destroy your people? he asks. This just won’t look good on you. But finally, and this might just be the clincher, he claims God’s promises and his character. You’ve promised, and I know you’re not one who breaks promises. So God relents, and a much milder punishment is meted out (because God is righteous, and he can’t just tolerate wrongdoing.

Did God really mean to wipe out the whole nation? Or was he just testing Moses, inviting him to be the prophet he was meant to be, to stand in the gap in the wall and protect the people as Psalm 106 describes? One day we might find out, but the story as it stands encourages bold intercession. Put it alongside other biblical texts about the power of intercession, and it gives us, I believe, a strong encouragement to cry out to God in situations of evil and injustice, to claim God’s character and his promises, and to watch for the salvation of the Lord.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Related)

If you’re a fan of the rather gruesome 1996 film Trainspotting you’ll be familiar with the call to ‘choose life’ and Mark Renton’s decision ‘I chose not to choose life. I chose something else’, the ‘something else’ being heroin addiction, crime and degradation. In the previous three chapters of Deuteronomy Moses has been setting out for the nation, on the edge of the Promised Land, the choices they have, and the consequences of those choices. In this chapter, he urges them to choose life, which, in the light of the promised blessings and curses, seems a no-brainer. Yet they choose something else, again and again, and so do we. Why on earth are wrong decisions so attractive, and the right paths so difficult to walk in? Jesus himself urged his followers to go through the narrow gate rather than following the wide road towards destruction (Mt 7:13). Why do we constantly make choices which fly in the face of common sense, which we know will cause trouble, but we take them anyway?

One reason, I believe for this daft course of action, has to do with timescale. The consequences of wrong choices do come, but often they come slowly and gradually, rather than instantly. This gives us the impression that we have somehow cheated the system, that we have a kind of immunity which nobody else has. And for Christians it can lead us to believe that God is ‘tolerant’ and doesn’t really mean it when he promises the consequences, because he is after all a God of ‘unconditional love’. So the more we sin and get away with it, the stronger our belief grows that God doesn’t really mean what he says, or that it doesn’t apply to us. That is true of individuals, but we are also seeing the consequences nationally as our life seems to be falling apart.

I don’t know if you were struck reading today’s passage by the long-term nature of it all. There are references to the people’s children in v.2 and 19, for example. There is a reference in v.16 to increasing, in other words having families and descendants, and there is the promise that they will enjoy long life in the land in v.20. The promises of blessing are not short-term; neither are they just for the current hearers. They are about the nation and its long-term future. To steal Peter’s words, the promise is for you and for your children. So presumably the opposite is true. The fruits of disobedience will grow, but they will take time. The people will not live long in the land (v.18), but they will be there for some time before the consequences of their sin are made manifest. We might therefore see that one of the roots of sin is the desire for instant gratification. We want what we want now, and we’re not bothered about the longer-term consequences, either for ourselves or for others. Like Renton and his fellow addicts, we crave that fix now, and we’ve just got to have it.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus urges his followers and potential followers to count the cost, in other words to think ahead. He never promises an easy life for those who walk with him: in fact he promises the very opposite. We need, I believe, in our laudable attempts to evangelise by making the gospel appeal to people, to be careful that we help them to think long-term. People need the gospel not because it will make them feel better, or give them peace, or purpose, or any of the other feel-good factors which we so often promote and share testimonies about. People need the gospel because it’s true, and because it’s worthwhile, and because without it there will be eternal consequences. It seems paradoxical that the more we make the gospel attractive, the more the Church declines in numbers and in influence. But to acknowledge the difficulty of walking the right path, but to call people to it anyway, seems a far more Christ-like approach to evangelism.

So with Deuteronomy, and Moses’ pep-talk before the people finally cross into the land. We know, of course, the next bit of the story, and how the nation’s choice of something else rather than life led them into all kinds of trouble and eventually into captivity in Babylon while the land God promised them was reduced to rubble. Moses’ words ring down the years for us too. Choose life, because that’s the right thing to choose, even if we have to wait until our Promised Land to see the promised blessings.