OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 1 / 4 before Advent – Isaiah 1:10-18

Remember the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Thanksgiving service? Remember the then almost totally disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson being booed by the crowds as he arrived? And remember the irony of him having to read from Philippians during the service ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable …’? One letter afterwards in a newspaper said that ‘Whoever was responsible for this deserves to be top of the Queen’s next honours list’, but went on to suggest that ‘Even God must have chuckled.’ Isaiah would disagree. The first chapter of his book is in the form of an introductory statement by the prosecuting barrister in a trial, setting out the case for the accused’s guilt. It hinges around a very clever piece of Hebrew writing in v.15: ‘You spread out your hands in prayer … Your hands are full of blood.’ There is a detailed account of how tiresome and wearying God finds their worship, which is echoed in other OT passages such as Amos 5. But the problem isn’t the worship being offered, but the people offering the worship.  To use the right words while living the opposite is the great crime of Israel, and God was certainly not chuckling: he was outraged.

The crime is all too familiar: as a nation they were not seeking justice, and they were not caring for the most vulnerable in society. In the parallel book of Amos the problem was that the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. And in both cases this was being done (or not done) by people who turned up to worship. This, in God’s eyes, was not a cause for chuckling, but rather for turning his back on those who so failed to understand what he wanted of them. It wasn’t about impeccable music and liturgy: it was about 24/7 behaviour which reflected his character as a God of righteousness and justice.

God doesn’t quite pronounce sentence in this passage, but he does hint at what it could be. The references to Sodom and Gomorrah in v.10 is obviously to two cities which were totally destroyed by God because of their wickedness. If this passage was written around 701 BC when Jerusalem was being besieged by Sennacherib of Assyria the threat of total destruction must have seemed a distinct possibility. There is real menace in the prophet’s allusion to this part of their history, with the suggestion that it could well happen again, which of course it did around 100 years later.

And yet there is still hope. v.19-20 set out a choice which confronts the nation. Let’s talk about this, says God. If you want, the red stains on your hands can be washed clean, and you’ll eat again and prosper, a great possibility when you’re under siege. But if not, that’s it. The swords of the enemies will get you. And that’s that.

What amazes me is that this seems like a no-brainer. And yet people consistently chose, and continue to choose, death rather than life, cursing rather than blessing. History shows that it was usually only a remnant of the nation of Israel which remained faithful to God, while the majority pursued false worship and the evil behaviour which flowed inevitably from it. And of course we live in a nation which has almost dispensed with God altogether and is bearing the consequences. We have neither the will nor the humility to turn to him for forgiveness. And yet through this passage shines the light from a God of supreme patience. We have a God who looks at sinners and says ‘Can we have a chat about this?’

Whilst all this refers to a corporate situation, a nation which has lost its way, and whilst this application of the passage seems particularly apposite to Britain in 2022, it is worth remembering that God deals in a similar way with individuals. It provides, therefore, an invitation for us to examine our hands, both as they are stretched out in prayer, but also as they conduct our business in the world. Is there anything there about which God might like to have a chat with us?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Last after Trinity Joel 2:23-32 (Related)

I wonder how you felt as you read today’s passage, and heard God’s flowing promises of prosperity, as you prepare to face a winter of fuel and food shortages, power cuts and no doubt more governmental chaos? If, like me, you have something of a cynical streak, you might have been thinking ‘O yeah? Fat chance of that happening!’ Or maybe you just separated the two out: that’s the Bible, and it’s all very nice, but I’ve got to survive in real life. If you are feeling any of that, then you’ve got an idea of how the people who first heard those words probably reacted.

It’s not easy to date the book of Joel, but we do know that the nation had suffered a devastating attack from a plague of locusts. That of course was not uncommon in the Middle East, as in parts of the world today. But if you’ve seen them on TV you’ll know how completely devastating locust attacks can be. Literally anything green goes. It isn’t just that there are no crops to eat now: there will also be no seeds for next year. It really is a major disaster. We don’t know when exactly this happened in Israel, but the prophet seems to be using the very real physical invasion of the land as a warning about a different invasion, probably from one of the great empires round the borders of Israel, empires which were constantly looking to expand, and to devour any little nation which got in the way. Whether Assyria to the north east, Babylon to the east, or Egypt to the south west, they were a constant threat to God’s people. If they get you, then mere locusts are a minor irritation in comparison.

So we can’t read our passage, where God promises future abundance, in a vacuum. This isn’t some nice promise to stick on your fridge. These are words spoken to nation on its knees, and scared of much worse to come. So what’s Joel’s message, to them and to us? There are two motifs which stand out, two links which the Bible makes plain are important, but which we humans have so often forgotten and broken.

The first is the link between the created world, the human world and the spiritual world. We do know this, of course: in fact we hear of little else but climate change, which has become the new religion, taught with great fervency in our schools, with his Holiness David Attenborough as the new Pope, and all sorts of observances which we have to follow religiously, like recycling, shunning plastic and so on. Joel knew about this link this too. A couple of verses before our passage, God promises restoration, but not just to humans. Both animals, and the land itself, are told not to fear, because food is growing (v.21-22). The physical land on which we live is an important part of Jewish religion, and its fortunes are controlled by God as ours are. But it is also dependent on us for keeping and nurturing, according to Genesis 2. Break that link, forget to care for the land and the animals who live on it, and disaster will follow. We’re seeing that all around our world today! But Joel knew also about the link between the physical and the spiritual worlds. At the end of our text is the purple passage about the outpouring of Spirit, the passage from which Peter quotes on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, a passage much beloved of charismatics. But it is interesting that spiritual renewal comes in the context of physical restoration. It isn’t just food we need, but we also need to be in touch with God, hearing from him through prophets, and seeing his action in healing, restoring, and other miraculous works. If we believe that what we most need is for inflation to go down, we’re missing the point. What our world needs is the Spirit of God. Of course bad times can help us to break that link, as we focus on the immediate, but ultimately less important things like petrol. But getting inflation down isn’t the be all and end all of life, however that feels to us at the moment. It’s our broken link to God which is the real issue. The rest are just the consequences.

Which leads us on to the second broken link, that between Penitence and Restoration. How do we actually turn things round? The answer to that is hinted at in the final verse of our passage, but expounded clearly in earlier parts of Joel. It rings out loud and clear: we repent! It’s an emotional repentance, one we really feel, as our hearts are torn open and tears flow. I see a lot of anger about the state of our nation, but very few tears, suggesting that we are nowhere near as deeply upset as we should be. It’s a corporate repentance, led by the priests. The trumpet call was like an air-raid siren, which gathered people to shelter, or which roused them up to fight for their lives. And this repentance had to be the highest priority. Even newly-weds are to leave their bedrooms to join in the penitence, so vital is it for the survival of the nation. Whatever you think is more important, drop it. It is those who call on the name of Lord who will be saved, and who will save the nation.

If a leader wants to ‘tear up economic orthodoxy’ one great way to do that would be to call the nation to days of national prayer and fasting.  We have done that in the past, and seen God respond, so it might be a good time to do it again, repenting of the corruption, lying, cheating and greed which have become the norm in government, and which, unlike economics, does trickle down throughout society.

How are we to pray for our country and our government, as the Bible tells us to? My prayer is simple: Lord, bring us to our knees.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 18 – Genesis 32:22-32 (Related)

Let me introduce you to a chap called Arnold van Gennep. He lived from 1873 to 1957, had a great moustache, and was a French folklorist (what a brilliant job!). He was responsible for the idea of ‘liminality’. Limen is apparently the Latin word for a door or doorway, and van Gennep suggested that all of us go through ‘doorways’ in life, where things change for us. That journey, he suggested, happens in three phases, the pre-liminal, where we’re preparing for change, the liminal, where we actually do change, and the post-liminal, which is about readjustment now that life is different. Last June our daughter got married, and we lived with her through that liminal experience. Pre-liminally she had to sort out a house to live in, get a wedding dress, organise cake and all the rest of it. The liminal part was the Wedding day: when the priest said ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ everything changed. Now she’s living through the post-liminal phase, readjusting to married life. Other liminal experiences would include having a baby, starting a new job, moving house, and, or course, dying. All involve those three phases.

Poor old Jacob goes through a liminal experience in today’s reading. You’ll remember that he cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, and they had been separated for years. But now Esau is coming to get him, with small army of 400 men. Jacob knows that this is going to be decisive, a liminal experience, where he will either end up reconciled or dead. So he enters the pre-liminal phase by preparing. He divides his family and possessions into two groups, so if Esau gets one lot, the others might escape. Then he prays, a prayer for survival (v.9-12), and then he gets practical again, preparing and sending gifts to pacify Esau, in the hope he might buy him off. And then it’s the fateful liminal night. He sends his wives and family and all his possessions away. He is alone by the River Jabbok. Whatever this night brings, he’s never going to be the same again.

Then he meets – who? A man who turns out to be God? Or maybe an angel? It’s hard to tell, but the result is that they spend all night wrestling. Jacob wants his name and  his blessing. Instead he gets a new name, and a disability. Although he does feel blessed – to see God and still to be alive is about as blessed as it gets! But he is left physically different by the encounter, and he enters the post-liminal phase as the sun dawns on a new day.

This is such a rich story, with so much to say about the changes and chances of our lives, and those liminal experiences which leave us different. This story teaches us, I believe, about

Something for us to do

Something for us to pray, and

Something for us to understand.

1)         Something for us to do

I love the balance between practical preparation and heartfelt prayer. If I can buy Esau off, O Lord, all well and good, but if not, can you save me? All liminal experiences require practical preparation in the pre-liminal stage, and Jacob shows us the relation between prayer and practice. There is stuff we can do – to just ‘leave it all in God’s hands’ sounds superspiritual but is ultimately a bit silly. Those bridesmaids’ dresses are not going to make themselves. And yet there’s fervent prayer too. Whatever we do without God’s blessing is not going to get very far.

2)         Something for us to pray

But there’s something beyond a mere prayer for survival. Jacob wanted to know God’s name. He wanted to know God better, to be on more intimate terms with him. To give someone your name is a bit like giving them your mobile number nowadays. It puts you in new, closer relationship. How can we let the changes in our lives help us understand God better, and draw us closer to him?

3)         Something for us to understand

Jacob was left different as a result of his liminal night of wrestling, and  part of that was his limp. He becomes aware of his vulnerability, and has a physical visual aid to remind him. Post-liminally he has to learn to walk with that limp, as well as living in a new relationship with his brother, with whom there is reconciliation a few verses later. When we meet God in some life-changing ways, it isn’t the case that everything changes for the better, and we need to know that. Many would testify to some kind of a ‘limp’ after a profound encounter with God. The art is to understand that ‘limp’ as part and parcel of God’s blessing.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – 2 Kings 5:1-17 (Related)

Last week in the church I attend we restarted the invitation to prayer ministry at the Eucharist, a practice which here, and I suspect in many churches, has gone by the board during the Covid lockdown, and which is either being forgotten or reinstated with some hesitancy. Our readings today consider two incidents of healing, both of people with leprosy, one by the prophet Elisha and the other by Jesus. I’d like to consider the first under the guiding question ‘How do I get what I want?’

The answer in our world is, of course, by buying it. The more money we have, the greater our ability to buy everything from food and fuel to education and healthcare. Whilst I feel sorry for all those poor £150,000+ per year earners who had the promise of a pay increase dangled before them only to have it cruelly snatched away within a few days, the fact is that the important people in our society are those with enough money to buy influence. Naaman was such a person, and he was used to the kind of power and authority described in Mt 8:9: he tells people to do something, and they do it. But the one thing he couldn’t command was his own body, which had become infected with leprosy. How was he going to get what he wanted?

He found the route to healing, somewhat unexpectedly, through a servant girl, a real nobody, but a nobody with a story to tell about a somebody. And not just through a servant girl, but also via his wife, another relatively unimportant person in that culture. Nevertheless Naaman hasn’t got the message yet, and he sets off laden with riches with which to buy his healing. He goes, quite naturally given his status, to the King. Elisha hears and intervenes before warfare breaks out, but again Naaman is disappointed at the offhand reception he gets from Elisha, and the undramatic and seemingly unhygienic method of his healing. At this point his pride almost costs him his healing, but it is another group of servants who persuade him to suck it up and do what he has been told (for a change). The healing ensues, and again his mindset leads him to try and pay for it. Finally he gets it, and asks for a gift instead, which will enable him to worship the God he has come to see is the true God. he has received not just a new body, but a new Lord into the bargain.

Throughout this story there is a thread about power and humility, a thread which we do well to consider. In a world where power, money and influence are believed to get us what we want, and where humility is seen as weakness, the gospel reminds us that humble submission to God is the route to his heart and favour. It has been interesting to consider the contrasts between our late Queen and our former Prime Minister, and to notice which one is held in the higher regard by the greatest number of people. Perhaps the one word-group used most frequently of Her late Majesty during the mourning period was ‘service/servant/serving’. In our story, in spite of her royal status, she has lived far more like the various servants who were able to speak wisdom with humility than the two quarrelling Kings. And people have noticed. Like Matthew’s centurion she knew that she only had authority because she was under authority from a higher King.

I’m guessing that most of those who get to read this blog are not the kind of people to pay higher rate income tax, but this story reminds us of who will eventually get what they want, inheriting the earth and entering with joy into the Kingdom of Heaven. Once again, the Bible invites us to live differently, to act counter-culturally, and not to fall for the lies that earthly power is worth everything. As Neader’s hymn reminds us:

Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 16 – Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 (Related)

Well would you believe it? The Lectionary has thrown these passages at me just as I’m drawing to the end of teaching my students a module which is all about the book of Habakkuk. We’ve taken it to bits, put it back together again, and tried to apply it. So thanks to them in advance for all their ideas which have contributed to this blog. I would advise reading the whole book – it won’t take long, and will give you a much better sense of what’s going on than these two snippets.

The interpretation of the whole book hangs on how we understand one word in v.4 – the ‘wicked’. Are they the Assyrians, who in the mid 7th century BC had just obliterated the Northern tribes and were now turning their attention to Judah in the South? Or are they the Babylonians who had defeated the Assyrian empire and in 604 captured Philistia, right on Judah’s borders? I don’t think either of these really works. A third alternative is that the wicked are the people of Judah itself, and, having warned them through prophets for two hundred years or more, God is now intent on punishing them by using the Babylonians to overrun them. This is what did happen in 597. The reference to ‘The Law’ in v.4 is the clincher for me. Why would anyone be surprised if Assyrians or Babylonians didn’t keep the Jewish Law? This third interpretation helps us, I believe, to place ourselves right in the story, and see how our relationship with God makes sense in today’s world.

Habakkuk is living in a time when the nation is broken, and is going to pot. What he describes in v.2-4, injustice, violence, conflict and strife, is as fresh today as it was then. The rich line their own pockets while the poor starve or freeze to death, policemen rape women, gangs can execute innocent people on their own doorsteps, no-one trusts anyone else, and meanwhile a hostile nation nearby is on the rampage and is destroying its neighbour, whilst threatening nuclear war. The parallels are uncanny. So Habakkuk, like most of us today, wants the answer to three questions. Why are you letting this happen, O Lord? Where will it all end? And how are we supposed to live through times like these? The whole book answers each of these questions, but here’s a spoiler for questions 1 and 3. God is in control, he knows what he is doing, and it’s all under his control. And one day all the earth will come to recognise, and acknowledge his glory (2:14).

But it is the middle question which our lectionary invites us to consider, stopping as it does at the ‘punchline’ of 2:4. This verse, (mis)quoted by Paul in Romans  1:17, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’, became the watchword of the Protestant Reformation, with its attack on the idea of ‘salvation by works’, in other words our ability to somehow earn our own salvation, either by good works or by repeated religious rituals. In fact that simply isn’t what Habakkuk is saying, or what the Hebrew really means. A much better translation would be ‘The righteous will survive through their faithfulness’. In other words, not everyone in the nation is wicked – this is called ‘Remnant theology’ and it’s a common motif in the Bible, that of all those who think they are God’s people, only a faithful few really are living for him. You see this in the Elijah on Mt Carmel story, in Isaiah, and in many other places. However bad things look, God always keeps for himself a remnant who are faithful to him. So those who are really living for God and avoiding the idolatry and the wickedness which inevitably stems from it, will survive the Babylonian punishment by remaining faithful to God. Don’t join in with the idolatry which is so prevalent, but, more subtly, don’t give up believing that God is in control and he does know what he’s doing. In our time too we see a small but faithful church struggling to make sense of a world going to pot, and Christians often being tempted just to throw in our lot with the nasty spirit of the age, or to all intents and purposes to give up believing in God at all.

There is a major emphasis in the book on waiting (1:2, 2:1), and in a world which needs instant answers and solutions this is difficult for us. To slow down, to keep questioning God, but above all to believe that the revelation awaits an appointed time, is what it means to remain faithful. There’s a lovely image in 3:19 which is not about prancing about joyfully but rather sure-footedness (cue film clip from David Attenborough of ibexes leaping down a mountainside to avoid being eaten by a fox – you can watch it here). Keep your nerve, keep your trust in God, who does know what he’s doing, stay sure-footed in negotiating the present crisis, and long and pray for that time when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (2:14).