Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 2 – Isaiah 11:1-10

One of the things I use in my teaching is the klaxon sound from the ‘General  Ignorance’ section of TV quiz QI. Contestants are asked questions to which the answers seem obvious, but when they (invariably) get them wrong the screen flashes with their wrong answers and a loud klaxon announces their stupidity, to the audience’s collective delight. I often use this device in my lecturing work, and today’s passage provides a classic example of its application. If I were to ask you to whom the prophet is referring in talking about the shoot from Jesse’s stump, I suspect you would immediately answer ‘Jesus!’  Well at that point the klaxon would go mad!

Last week we thought about the situation into which Isaiah was writing. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians who had to all intents and purposes wiped the nation out. Now they  had turned their attention southwards, and Jerusalem had been besieged. It was a desperately scary time in Judah’s history, yet the prophet could speak out a vision of what lay beyond the present troubles. He paints what we might be tempted to call a somewhat fanciful picture of the peace and harmony which was to come, when even the natural enemies of the animal kingdom would live together without feeling the need to eat one another. And, as we mentioned last week, the foreign nations of the world would stream to Jerusalem to learn from the God of the Jews. All this was going to come through a new king, from the Davidic line, who, as a Spirit-filled leader would rule with wisdom, justice and equity. So as Christians today we naturally think ‘Jesus’. Isaiah’s contemporaries, however, would hear him very differently.

A new king, Hezekiah, had recently come to the throne, and the nation’s hopes lay in him. He had set out on a series of reforms, attempting to rid the nation of idolatry, renewing the worship through the priestly and Levitical ministries, calling the rich influencers back to the true worship of God, and restoring the welcome to outsiders at Judah’s worship festivals. These policies appeared to be going down well, and the more spiritually-minded Jews welcomed even more of the same, which would help them to achieve Isaiah’s dream. His words must have been heard as a prediction for the continuation of Hezekiah’s just reign.

Yet ultimately this was not to happen, and Hezekiah failed to provide the magic bullet which would bring in this idyllic existence. His reign ended not in total disaster, but in some less that helpful ways, and the nation’s decline was not ultimately halted. Rather than the remaining stragglers from the North finding a home in Judah,  Jerusalem was destroyed and the people went into exile in Babylon. Whatever good he might have achieved, Hezekiah did not turn out to be the Saviour of the Universe for whom the people had hoped. Still today we are waiting for this glorious state of affairs to become reality, but with the benefit of hindsight we now do believe that only king Jesus, when his reign is fully manifested. So maybe no klaxon after all.

During Advent we focus on that future reign of Jesus, and the glorious life of the world to come, but this passage gives us a profound and vital message as we too live through a period of great threat and crisis. In particular it warns us against pinning our hopes onto any human leader, a trait which has been common in our culture since the 17th century. Now that we have scientists, we can easily believe that in their hands lies the healthy future of our planet. Or we can pin our hopes onto the next leader, whether red, yellow or green, who will get rid of this evil lot and turn our fortunes. The more a nation lets go of God, the more human solutions are the only options. Yet like Hezekiah all of them will ultimately fail, because like all of us they have feet of clay.

Advent, then, provides for us a healthy reminder that no human being is up to the job of being Saviour of the Universe. It reminds us of our need of a Saviour with more than merely human power and authority. It reminds us to look not to human resources, but to God’s throne in heaven from where he will ultimately come and reign in the new heavens and new earth. Yes, we pray for our human leaders, but above all we pray for the reign of God to be manifest among us. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus. Our hope is in nothing less.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 1 – Isaiah 2:1-5

I don’t know whether my readers are great fans of Myers-Briggs stuff, but I certainly am. For those who haven’t come across it, it’s a way of classifying different personality types according to how they prefer to think and act. I can remember going on a retreat in Bristol where we were ‘done’ and then taught the implications of what we had discovered in a variety of areas, including spirituality, marriage and relationships, work, preaching and so on. It was one of the most helpful experiences of my life, but the culmination was when we were put into groups of people with exactly the same personality type and asked two questions: What would you most like to say to the world, and what would you most like to hear the world saying to you? It took us all of 10 seconds to come up with our answers: ‘We know what we’re doing: please trust us!’ and ‘You were right all along!’ Any other INTPs reading this might resonate with these answers.

Isaiah 2 begins with people saying to the Jews, and to their God, ‘You were right all along’. Isaiah was writing at a time of great uncertainty, when human leaders had failed them and evil nations had captured the people of the Northern kingdom in war, and were now encroaching on the Southern territory. He looked beyond the present troubles to an age when those who had been hostile to Yahweh and his people would finally come to recognise and acknowledge his lordship and his wisdom. Rather than doing all they could to harm Judah, they would come streaming to the Temple, the place where God was available, desperately seeking his wisdom. As they learnt from him, disputes would be settled and war would be destroyed. Therefore, says the prophet, we as God’s people have the responsibility of learning from him, so that we can be teachers of his ways to the nations.

This motif is one which occurs a few times in the OT, and obviously it is one which I love. But it also makes me question the degree to which God’s people today are seen as possessing the wisdom needed to live life well and harmoniously. Of course I believe that to be true. If everyone lived generously, and gave away anything they didn’t really need, the world would be a much more equitable place, with much less poverty. If everyone followed biblical sexual ethics, imagine the difference in the world of health. No STIs, no teenage pregnancies, no sexual violence, many fewer divorces … the list goes on. If people really did forgive those who had hurt them, feuding and vendettas, and the ensuing violence, would simply not exist. Humour me for a moment: if these were more than just pipe dreams, wouldn’t the world be so much better to live in? Christians can of course see all this very clearly, but the world thinks we are just mad, and dreaming up such a cloud-cuckoo land is just not realistic. In any case, where would be the fun in that? Religion of any sort only serves to restrict my freedom to do just what I want to do, and stuff everyone else. It’s just laughable.

Into a world like that comes Advent, a season when Christians celebrate the fact that far from being a silly dream, this kind of world is not just possible, but actually certain. Advent celebrates the streaming of the nations to God to submit to and to learn from his wisdom. It celebrates the day when all those who have thought themselves much wiser than the Christian tradition will come to say ‘You were right all along!’ And of course it reminds us that even at that point there will still be others who refuse to submit and learn, and their stupidity will be exposed for all to see.

So how do we live through this season? It’s a paradoxical time, with different motifs held in tension. We prepare for Jesus’ coming as a baby into our world, but we also look beyond that to his return in triumph. We celebrate the ultimate salvation of his people from the evils of this world, but we also are made sharply aware of the theme of judgement. Those who have not already come to the judgement-seat and submitted to Christ in this life will have to do so after this life has ended, and tragically many who have rejected Christ will reject him once and for all. So our task is to prepare for all of these events, but, according to Isaiah, first and foremost to ‘walk in the light of the Lord’ in the context of a dark and lost world.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christ the King – Jeremiah 23:1-6

First a bit of housekeeping: if you’re a follower of the revjohnleachblog OT Lectionary blog, you’ll be used to seeing them on Saturday mornings. From now on I’m going to aim to get the posts up on Tuesdays (no promises!) just in case any preachers would like a bit of inspiration earlier in the week. When I have been in parish ministry it was my habit to use Tuesdays to prepare for the following Sundays, so in the unlikely event that anyone uses my ideas, you might want a bit more notice than Saturday mornings. So here goes.

There is an interesting dynamic between the two readings for Christ the King (my favourite festival of all, by the way). Jeremiah tells Israel that a new king is coming, and Colossians says that we already have one. Israel had been suffering for years under corrupt kings: Jeremiah’s previous chapter gives clear details. Kings who ought to have cared for their people like good shepherds, leading them to prosper and flourish, are neglecting the most vulnerable and needy, refusing fair pay for workers, and shedding innocent blood, and all the while accumulating riches for themselves and rejoicing in their opulent lifestyles (sound familiar?). Jer 22 contains oracles of judgement against such rulers, but that is only half the solution. Sometimes even a bad king is better than no king at all. So God’s plan is revealed in Jer 23, our passage. The false leaders are cursed (‘Woe!’) and will be removed and replaced with a new king, who will rule in equity and justice, and under whom the people will thrive. Christians know, of course, that God himself coming to reign is a promise fulfilled in Jesus, although Jeremiah didn’t understand that: he could only refer back to great David’s greater son. But the fact remains that 2500 years later we still live in a world where the picture painted in Jer 22 seems pretty accurate, and that is without the aggression and bullying of some countries towards others. The fact that Colossians tells us that Jesus is the supreme monarch doesn’t actually help much when you’re the one being oppressed. So what exactly was Jeremiah prophesying and hoping for?

There are four characteristics of the reign of God himself to come which are spelt out in v.5-6.

A reign of Righteousness

We use that word a lot, and not always positively, as for example in ‘self-righteousness’, a most unattractive characteristic in anyone’s book. So it’s worth reminding ourselves what that actually means. A righteous God is one who is completely incapable of doing anything wrong, or of ‘tolerating’ evil in any shape or form. A righteous reign, therefore, will be one from which anything at all evil will be banished. This is the kind of era pictured in the famous passage from Rev 21.

A reign of Wisdom

The new Davidic king, Jeremiah tells us, will rule wisely. Sometimes evil comes not because people are bad, but because they are stupid. Like the city of Jerusalem which Jesus criticises, they simply don’t understand what’s good for them, what will lead to peace. Evil does not always come from a conspiracy: cock-ups happen too!

A reign of Salvation

Again, as Christians we think of salvation in terms of individual salvation from the judgement of God, which guarantees us a place in heaven. The OT usage of the term, though, is much more prosaic. Ukraine needs saving from Russia, and any power which dares to come and fight with them or for them is their saviour. This is about national rescue and security, not a place in heaven because our sins have been atoned for.

A reign of Safety

Finally, living under our new king will bring safety as well as rescue, like a confidence in Ukraine that never again will Russia, or anyone else, be allowed to come against them or harm them. If rescue or salvation is the immediate benefit, then safety is the ongoing assurance of security.

Quite a promise, then, all in all. But like the Jews under Babylonian reign because of their own corrupt Jewish rulers, like the early Christians living under Roman and Jewish persecution, we today in our own difficult times can ask the question ‘But when?’ Where is this new King? What guarantee is there that these promises are anything other than wishful thinking? Doesn’t every society living through hard times invent a hope of a better world to come? Just look at the black slave spirituality which gave us songs like ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’. The worse things get, the more Christians have hung onto the hope of heaven. But is it just that, a hope, which, like the hope that we’ll have nicer weather next week, is probably not going to come true?

Christ the King Sunday reminds us that in fact that hope has already come true. Christ is reigning already, and although righteousness, wisdom, salvation and security seem far away, they are already in place in God’s plan, and one day will be manifested here on the new earth. What does it mean that Christ is king? It is the assurance that all these promises will one day be seen to have come true. There is nothing going on in our world which takes God by surprise, and which he is not capable of changing. It is that hope of the coming kingdom which has kept Christians faithful down the centuries. Today may it bring us the same certainty.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 3 / 2 before Advent / Remembrance Sunday – Malachi 4:1-2

As daily breadcrumbs go, this lectionary passage takes the biscuit at just two verses (actually one and a half, as the lectionary doesn’t want us to read the bit about frolicking calves). So we might be justified in expanding it a little to explore the book of Malachi as a whole, not least since it gets little attention elsewhere in our lectionary. But the occasion of Remembrance Sunday will complicate things further, so let’s see what Malachi might have to say to us.

Malachi, the last of the minor prophets, lived in the period when Israel had returned from exile in Babylon, and when Ezra and Nehemiah were busy rebuilding Jerusalem. Having come through the trauma of captivity, destruction and deportation, the people have resumed normal service, but of course that kind of a national trauma never leaves you the same. If Ukraine does ever get rebuilt, you can’t imagine those who watched the destruction and ran for their lives merely picking up where they left off. Malachi was concerned that although the people were avidly rebuilding their homes and cities, their relationship with God had taken a battering which urgently needed renovation too. So the book is a series of short sermons which address what he saw as some of the key issues in post-war society. The people had stopped believing that God loved them (understandably!) in 1:2-5. Because of that they were, perhaps passive-aggressively, offering sacrifices which, rather than being the animals without blemish, were the manky or crippled ones which were fit for nothing else (1:6-14). Then their family life was in a mess, with intermarriage which so often led people to compromise their worship of Yahweh alone, and divorce which left women particularly without any visible means of support (2:10-16). Of course there was also the perennial injustice against the poor by the rich and powerful (when hasn’t there been?) (2:17 – 3:5), and finally the purple passage from Malachi on tithing, which the people were refusing to do. Then comes our passage, in which the prophet talks about the great separation which is to come on the Day of the Lord, when the faithful remnant will know the love of God bestowed on them like the warmth of the sun’s rays, while warmth of a different kind will consume the evildoers, burning away their impurities as a farmer burns off useless stubble or a metalworker burns the impurities out of his precious metals in a crucible.

So a bit of a sorry picture, all in all, for the nation. War does that to people, but in particular the aftermath of war can be as injurious to faith as the war itself, if not more so. The churches of our land began to empty most quickly in the post-war period when on one level we had emerged from the trauma to a time when we had ‘never had it so good’. So although we live in a world where war is as common as it has always been, and the daily pictures of Ukraine haunt our TV screens, we might remember this weekend what war does to us long-term, because the hurt and pain do not stop once the final guns have been silenced. Yes, of course we remember those who paid with their lives for living at the wrong time and in the wrong place, and of course we salute the bravery and courage which was shown in the defence of our land and the halt of the evil of Nazism (not that soldiers had much choice, of course). But maybe we can remember too the damage that the trauma of war has done to the spiritual life of our nation, where greed, injustice, family breakdown and ignoring of God are rife. The Book of Malachi (and the OT) ends with two promises from God to his people: that judgement will surely come, but that it will not come without warning and time for amendment of life. The reappearance of ‘Elijah’, whom is identified with John the Baptist in the NT, will prepare the way for that judgement when Jesus himself will reappear on our earth. We can’t say we haven’t been warned!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 2 / 3rd before Advent – Job 19:23-27a

This short extract from Job is perhaps the purplest of passages from the book, and you probably didn’t read it without the Air from Handel’s Messiah ringing in your brain. In the context of Jesus it is a great affirmation of faith, but, as I constantly tell my students, a text cannot mean something which the original writer did not intend the original readers to understand it as saying. The whole point of this blog is to read the OT for itself, and not how the gospel, or the Gospel, tells us to read it. Sadly it has nothing to do with Jesus, and is not an early version of ‘I believe in the resurrection of the dead’. Our job is to uncover what Job meant by it, and what that may say to us today.

We can get into this by asking an important question: what does Job want from God? the answer is vindication. We’re used to the idea that even the best of us are miserable sinners, and we need to begin every meeting with God by apologising and having a priest tell us it’s OK again. But Job isn’t like that. Several times throughout the book he is declared completely innocent. Under the Jewish Law that was theoretically possible. In Psalm 17:3-5 the author tells God that however hard he probes he will find no sin in him. All that was before Jesus came along and complicated things by telling us that it wasn’t just doing bad things which is wrong: even thinking them is enough. So Job is innocent, and knows himself to be. Why then has God punished him so cruelly? What he needs above all is his day in court. He needs to stand before God and tell him how nasty and unjust he has been. All his friends can do is to tell him he’s mistaken, and that by definition God must be right and he must be a sinner. But Job knows that he isn’t, so God must be wrong.

But how do you get to tell God that? In a Law Court if the Judge and the accused are the same person, you know it isn’t going to end well for the prosecution. And even before that, will he be too overwhelmed at standing face to face with God that he won’t be able to set out his case coherently, or even at all? The book considers some alternative possibilities for Job: he might descend to Sheol and wait until God’s anger blows over (Job 14), or maybe a figure, either earthly or heavenly, will stand between them as arbiter (Job 9, 16). But in our passage there is another possibility, that a go’el or redeemer, often a close relative as in the Book of Ruth, will stand up for him, even after his death, and vindicate him.  And just in case his plight is forgotten, to have the case written down, not just on paper but carved in rock too, will make sure that future generations will know that he was innocent. But the best option is for him to see God face to face while he is still alive, so that the ranting against God’s injustice can be heard not through an intermediary but directly.

In the event, as we know, God does appear to him, and after a talking to Job withdraws his case. But the meaning so often given to this passage, that we can only expect vindication after death and through Jesus, could not be further from the original meaning, and can easily lead to the kind of quietism which tells suffering people that everything will be fine once they’ve died. Many people need redeemers now, and they need human ones, not pie in the sky when they die. Part of our sharing in the ministry of Christ is to stand alongside the broken, who may well feel that they have been broken unjustly, and argue their case against those with power and influence. This is not a text of quiet assurance: it is a call to action on behalf of those who simply have no other way of being heard or obtaining justice.