OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christmas 2 / Naming and Circumcision of Jesus – Numbers 6:22-27

As a liturgist I love this prayer of blessing, and as a priest one of my favourite parts of taking a service is the end, not because it’s all over and I can go home, but because I get to bless the people. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) gave rise to what is called ‘Speech Act’ theory, in other words the idea that words can have real power not just to describe things, but also to affect things. If I say ‘Sugar is a white crystalline chemical’ that’s a statement of fact (although a philosopher might want to reply ‘What about demerara?’ but you get the idea). But if I say ‘Please could you pass the sugar?’ something happens as a result of my words. We might have a conversation about forgiveness, but if I say ‘I forgive you’ something between us changes. ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ is another piece of speech-act. On a purely psychological level we know only too well the power that our words can have over other people, to tear them down and cause them distress, or to build them up and encourage them. But when you add in the spiritual dimension, that words spoken in God’s name have real spiritual power to bless or curse, then you begin to realise how vitally important words are. When I pronounce the Blessing at the end of a service, or the Absolution at the beginning, something happens. These words which form our passage for today are really powerful and significant words.

Moses is told to give these liturgical words to Aaron and his priestly descendants, so that the words become the channel through which God’s blessing comes to them.  Interestingly the Hebrew ‘you’ here is singular: each ‘blessee’ is targeted individually. But it is interesting not just to see these words as a liturgical prayer, although it was, and was used in Jewish and Christian communities to conclude worship as blessings are today. But the words also give us an insight into what blessing actually looks like, what exactly it is that God wants for us. 1 John 4 tells us that ‘God is love’, but this prayer fleshes that out, as it describes what God, out of his love for each of his children, wishes to bestow on us.

The prayer has six petitions, and the Hebrew words used can fill out their meanings. Bless you is a summary word for all the many ways in which God wants to give us that which will make for our well-being. Keep you is really about protection from all the harmful things which might assail us as we journey through our lives. We might say ‘keep you safe’. Make his face shone upon you is what is known as an anthropomorphism, an attribution to God of human characteristics, in this case a human face. The shining or smiling face is a sign of benevolence, but it also reminds us that darkness is dispelled when the light comes. Be gracious to you gives the idea that none of this blessing is deserved, but rather comes because of the relationship which exists between God and the people who are his. This isn’t unconditional love, a completely non-biblical idea, because the words are for the blessing of God’s own people, those who have had God’s name put on them. But it is undeserved love, which God chooses to give just as any good father will love his kids, even when at times that is most certainly not what they deserve! Turn his face towards you is about God’s remembering of us, his attention towards us, with the intention of acting. In Exodus 3, when God calls Moses, he tells him that he has heard the groaning of his captive people and has ‘remembered’ them. The Hebrew word zacar doesn’t mean to remember something you had forgotten, like that diary appointment which had slipped from your memory but which you remembered just in time to get there. It means to bring to mind a job which needs to be done: ‘I remembered to put the bins out this morning’. This is the same: God looks in our direction with the intention of acting for our good. Give you peace uses the well-known word shalom which means more than just freedom from conflict or trouble. It refers to a whole range of things, such as success and prosperity, wellbeing, physical and emotional health, safety, protection, security, harmony within the family and friendships, and so much more. It’s pretty much anything good we might wish for. The passage ends with a repeat of its opening. God will set his name on us, and will do all the above, in other words bless them.

It is interesting that this text, which comes in a larger portion of Numbers where the people are gearing up for setting out after a year camped at Mt Sinai, is therefore a blessing for the journey. We might say ‘Have a good trip’ or ‘Drive safely!’ When we used to drive down to the South of France each year for our holidays we used to have a blessing which said ‘May all the tractors be behind you’. These words are about what God wants for them as they step out and venture their way through their lives, and so are great words as we step out into a rather scary and uncertain New Year. But linked with the circumcision of Jesus they remind us that his is the name above all names, and to bow the knee before him is the best possible way to find that shalom which is God’s desire for us. Happy New Year!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christmas Day – Isaiah 62:6-12

We have a wealth of choice for our Christmas readings, and I have randomly chosen the OT from Set II, initially, I must confess, because I was fascinated by the ‘sentinels’. This passage comes from part three of the book we call Isaiah, known as ‘Trito-Isaiah’ – chapters 56 – 66, and is probably set during the early years of the nation having returned from their Babylonian exile. Ten years ago next year I spent two weeks in hospital following major surgery for oral cancer. The first 48 hours I was in ITU, still feeling the effects of the operation and the massive amount of morphine they had pumped into me, but then I had another couple of weeks of gradual recovery and constant monitoring. All I wanted was to go home, preferably in time for my birthday (which didn’t happen, so we celebrated in the Costa Coffee in the hospital lobby). But the next day, when I did go home, I can remember the initial relief turning quickly to the boredom of a long road to recovery, via radiotherapy. If you’ve experienced anything like that, you’ll understand the prevailing mood of this period of Israel’s history. Although the people have come home, the glowing promises of health, wealth and prosperity have not quite worked out as Deutero-Isaiah (the writer of chapters 40 – 55) suggested they would. Once the immediate danger to life and limb had passed, a kind of general ennui seems to have settled on the people. They had rebuilt their city and the Temple, but they had not really rebuilt their relationship with God. Into this situation the prophet spoke.

Our passage feels like a bit of a mish-mash, but there is a coherence, even if some parts of it need a bit of exploration.

So why Christmas day for this reading? There is a well-known phenomenon known as the ‘blue Christmas’, a realisation that beneath the sometimes superficial jollity there can lurk all kinds of pain and sadness. The first Christmas since my husband died, or since my girlfriend dumped me; questions about whether I will live to see another Christmas, the pain of separation from family far away, or even the pain of being with family. What ought to be a time of peace, joy, goodwill and all the rest of it is in fact an anxious, fearful and disappointing time for many. In that sense our mood might not be that different from that of the returned exiles. So how does God speak into this situation?

He promises to hear

Just who the ‘sentinels’ or ‘watchmen’ from v.6 are is not clear. Previously Isaiah has referred to the leaders of Israel as watchdogs who can’t bark, as they persistently ignored the threats from nations around them and the prophets’ calls to repentance. But now things have changed, and God has placed new sentinels on the walls to cry out to him tirelessly until he hears and answers. This echoes the parables of the friend in the night and the importunate widow, which tell us that God wants us to pray without ceasing for the justice which so often eludes us. Like the watchmen, God will not rest until evil has been defeated, and that includes the evil which so troubles us at times.

He promises to restore

In another reversal the prophet alludes back to the message of Amos maybe 100 years earlier. Because of the nation’s corruption they will not live in the houses they have built for themselves, nor will they drink the wine they have grown and produced. But now God says that this will no longer be the case. This picture, of enjoying the fruits of their own labour, may be merely an illustration of all kinds of injustice which marred the land. Because of the intercessions of the watchmen God is going to act against corruption and selfishness, and in favour ow his own people.

He promises a mission

Here’s the twist at the end. There’s one little Hebrew word which is very easy to miss, but which I believe gives shape and purpose to the glowing promises of restoration which have made up our passage so far. God’s intention is to raise up a banner, a nes in Hebrew, a technical term in Isaiah particularly, which speaks of the restoration not just of Israel but also the nations. We have seen this motif in recent weeks: the flag is raised and the people flock to it, not just Israel but also those who have realised that God was right after all, and who want to learn righteousness from him. It is part of God’s gift of restoration to us that we are also called to be restorers, just as part of Elijah’s healing after his breakdown was a list of jobs to do for God. We have a mission, and many Christians will know that there is nothing more designed to blow away the blues than seeing people come to faith because of our ministry to them.

Christmas is a time when we have more opportunities than usual to raise the banner of Christ, as many people will come to our services and events in search of ‘atmosphere’. Isaiah calls us to be confident in God’s purposes, longing for his plans for restoration, and so to raise a banner of good news to those who most need to hear it.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 4 – Isaiah 7:10-17

If ever there was a passage to set off the QI General Ignorance klaxon, it’s today’s lectionary reading. We all know it’s a prophetic prediction of the virgin birth, right? Well, no it isn’t, but fortunately we do know in great detail what it is about, so let’s unpack that, and we might find there’s something helpful for us as we move from Advent into the Christmas period.

The first thing to note is that our reading begins ‘Again the Lord spoke …’ We have come in part way through a conversation, so we need to look back a bit to get the gist of what’s going on. Ahaz is the king of Judah, in the Southern Kingdom, and this happens around the 730s BC. Assyria, the latest great empire to arise, from the north east of Israel, is casting aggressive eyes southwards, and has already conquered Israel and Syria, and made their kings Pekah and Rezin puppet monarchs. But these two kings have had enough, and plan to rebel against Tiglath Pileser, king of Assyria. So they have invited Ahaz and the army of Judah to join them. Ahaz, however, has refused, and so Rezin and Pekah respond aggressively, and invade Judah, in the hope that they might bully Ahaz into joining their rebellion. Their plan is to scare the king into action, and quite naturally he is worried. He meets Isaiah the prophet, who seeks to reassure him, by telling him that these two nasty kings will soon have disappeared, along with their threat. Then Isaiah speaks again, and our passage begins.

It appears that Ahaz had been unconvinced, so Isaiah tells him to ask God for a confirmatory sign. But Ahaz is reluctant: maybe he knows from his nation’s history that putting God to the test seldom ends well. Also, he has another plan of his own: he intends to approach Tiglath Pileser himself and pledge allegiance to him if he rescues Judah from these two rebellious kings. But Isaiah insists, and tells him that God will give him a sign whether he likes it or not. This is where a careful reading of the text is important. There’s a young woman (the word needn’t mean ‘virgin’ in the technical sense) who has conceived (not ‘will conceive’) and is pregnant. Some commentators believe Isaiah is referring to his own wife, and it’s almost as though he is inviting the king to be present to witness the birth. Before this child is weaned, he insists, by around two years’ time, the two kings will have vanished and Judah will be safe (although he then goes on to tell Ahaz that the king of Assyria himself will then attack and besiege Jerusalem, but we’ll tiptoe quietly past that for now).

So what Advent hopes does this passage bring to us? Two, I believe. First of all, it reassures us that God knows and understands our weaknesses and failures, our battles and struggles. As a penitential season, Advent invites us to focus on our sins and shortcomings, and leads us to repent. It is good to be reminded that God already knows, and that he longs to speak into our warring emotions, our fears and our powerlessness, to confirm his purposes for us. Sometimes he wants to challenge our human plans and reveal his own, possibly counter-intuitive, ways of behaving. Simply to sit and wait in quiet faith while the country of which you are king is being invaded is not often seen as positive leadership, but that is exactly what God calls Ahaz to do. Advent suggests to us that our human plans might not be the same as God’s purposes for us, but that he longs to speak and direct our ways.

But secondly, the name of this miracle child is to be Immanuel, God with us. It is when we feel most alone, most overwhelmed and most helpless that we need to know this name of God. Advent draws our eyes towards that future when God really will be with us, and we with him, but it also celebrates the fact that that is already true. Not yet in it’s fulness, but nevertheless in reality. God has not left us comfortless, and he has not forsaken us. Advent encourages us to wait patiently for that time which we believe by faith will be ‘God with us’ face to face.

So Isaiah had no idea he was writing a proof text for the virgin birth. Of course NT writers could easily see his writing in the light of what actually happened, and read Mary back into it, but we do him, and ourselves, a disservice if we limit our understanding to that interpretation.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 3 – Isaiah 35

A couple of weeks ago our vicar asked during a sermon how one might sum up the message of the whole Bible in five words. He suggested just two ‘But God’. This would certainly have resonated with the early Acts speeches, where the phrase comes again and again: You crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. Our God is a God who reverses human sin and evil, folly and mischief, who rescues us from the consequences of our sin and stupidity and brings order again out of the chaos we have created. This is a major theme of Advent, as we rekindle hope in dark times, and await and pray for the return of Jesus as judge and general sorter-out of our world. But what might that actually look like? I have often referred to a kind of summary passage from Rev 21: a new heavens and a new earth will mean that death or mourning or crying or pain will be over and done with. But this chapter of Isaiah puts a bit more flesh on the bones, and talks about five different spheres of healing which will come about with the return of Jesus, although of course Isaiah was not prophesying about Jesus, but almost certainly about the return of the people from exile in Babylon and the restoration of their fortunes in a world of international oppression. As we have said before, Isaiah’s hopes for the people did not work out as he might have expected, and we are still waiting for our return from exile to the home where we really belong. But let’s look at the text through the lens of our Advent season, and see what hope it might engender in us.

1)       The Environment

You don’t have to be a Christian to be concerned about the deforestation of our planet, climate change, and all the other fears which have almost become a religion in our times. Activists glue themselves to motorways or hang up in bridges, and environmentalism is taught in our schools with all the fervour with which Christianity was taught in the past. I’m not a climate-change sceptic, but I am a bit sceptical about our human attempts to reverse anything much. The city of Jerusalem was naturally pretty well-watered, but you can imagine the exiles in the desert of Babylon thinking of their torn down and abandoned homeland as parched and dead. Promises of crocuses and cedar trees can be a powerful image of restoration, but for us the image has passed from being a metaphor into an ecological reality. Of course we must all do what we can, but the passage reminds us that our world is ultimately in the control of God, and is his to restore, a truth often underplayed by Christians today.

2)       The Fearful

Isaiah’s second promise is for those who have become fearful, and for whom the events of life have taken their debilitating toll. We are living through a mental health pandemic every bit as real as the Covid one, and any who have suffered from mental illness will know just how physically it can affect us. But there is something else here, I think. God will deal with their fear by vengeance and retribution. This speaks of physical, human enemies, not just psychological ones. The exiles will have known more than their fair share of bullying and oppression, and God promises healing through the removal of their enemies.

3)       The Sick

Healing will be physical as well as emotional, and I note with interest that the kinds of issues which are the subject of God’s healing intervention are what nowadays we would call disabilities. Again Isaiah is probably using these terms as metaphors for the political health of the nation, and the disabling sense of powerlessness which comes from captivity, but in our days when the Western Church has all but lost its Spirit-given ability to heal, and in which disability is celebrated, we may need to remind ourselves of God’s deeper agenda for wholeness.

4)       Nature

Verses 6b and 7 may be a reprise of v.1-2, but they may also take us somewhere deeper, in fact back to the creation itself. As a result of human disobedience nature became hostile to the human race: anything from weeds to wasps became a nuisance or worse to us. Isaiah holds out before his readers a vision of a renewed creation where humans, animals and plants live harmoniously together. This motif lifts the story out of being merely a prediction of rescue from exile, and places it within the eschatological tradition of a perfect world.

5)       The Lost and Sorrowing

Finally Isaiah takes his readers to a highway which again is more than just the desert road back to Jerusalem. Those who choose to walk in the way of holiness and obedience to God will find their way home, and will return with great joy to the place where they really have belonged all along. They will be untouched by the ravages of hostile nature and wicked people, and their bliss will be an eternal one.

Isaiah, and his hearers, could not really see much beyond the joy of their homecoming to the city of Jerusalem, but Advent gives us a longer perspective, as we reread his words in the light of our eternal home. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!