OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

3rd before Lent – Isaiah 58:1-12

In today’s Gospel Jesus explains his relationship with the Law and the Prophets, what we would call our Old Testament. So what better week to concentrate on the OT passage? To understand it properly, and to apply it to our own lives, we need as always to look at the context. The text comes from the third section of the book we call Isaiah, generally recognised to come from an unknown prophet known as Trito-Isaiah, or Third Isaiah. His predecessor Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, spoke to the people in exile in Babylon and announced that the covenant relationship with Yahweh was still on, and that he was about to act to free them from exile, and to take them back to their homeland, where the Temple would be rebuilt and they would enjoy a life of complete restoration and shalom – wholeness and harmony. But things didn’t exactly work out like that. Yes, the city walls and the Temple were rebuilt, but the national life wasn’t. Trito-Isaiah paints a picture of a society every bit as oppressive and unjust as that which caused them to go into exile in the first place, and his contemporaries like Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, and Habakkuk show us a society in a real mess. That kind of mess, I believe, is pretty similar to the way of the West in the 21st century, as we cope with those twin legacies of our enlightenment culture, introspection and individualism.

The chapter is laid out like a dialogue between God and the people. First of all Yahweh instructs the prophet to cry out against the people, and then the people respond with an angry question to God: why have we done all the right religious things but you haven’t answered our prayers? The rest of the chapter is God’s response to this accusation, along with glowing promises for the future if they only get things right. But the question is a good one: whey, when religious believers do all the right religious activities and disciplines, is life still in a mess?

First of all, I think we have to have some sympathy for the ‘devout’ Jews. They have lived through the national traumas of the destruction of their homeland and 50 years or so of exile. Yes, God has rescued them, but where exactly do they go from here? Do we need a Temple in order to worship? We’ve managed somehow while we were in Babylon. And what about the monarchy? If we haven’t got a dynastic king, who will be in charge? And how do we get over the national trauma we’ve lived through? We know from two years of covid how things are very different now, in so many ways, so just imagine how they would recover, or how the Ukraine as a nation will quite literally rebuild itself.

So the conditions are just right for a good bout of selfishness. Introspection is all about my own religious practices. I do all the fasting stuff which is required, because it’s apparently required of me. But coupled with individualism, I do it for myself, and I am blind to anyone else. These two sins, quite understandable in the context of post-exilic uncertainty, are what God condemns them for. Their fasting is self-seeking, and leads to conflict and violence. Their selfishness means that while they go through the motions they ignore the cries of the poor and hungry, including their own workers. I have seen churches act in the same kinds of ways when the chips are down and the future seems uncertain. Mission to the outside world goes out of the window, and all the energy goes onto keeping the religious show on the road, keeping the building open for two hours use on a Sunday morning, and making sure nobody messes with the liturgy.

But then God drops the bombshell – what I want is a different kind of fasting. One which cares about others rather than yourself. One which rolls up sleeves and works for the benefit of others and the downfall of injustice. One which loves others instead of pointing violent fingers. That’s the way to get your prayers answered, says God. Live like that and I’ll hear and answer and bless you. It’s all about priorities, and as Jesus might say, loving your neighbours as you love yourselves. And that means living for their benefit, not just your own.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 4 – 1 Kings 17:8-16

One of the sermons I remember most clearly from my days growing up in a Baptist Church was on the text (and all the sermons were on a ‘text’) Mark 4:36 – ‘There were also other boats with him.’ Preachers seemed to delight in the obscurity of the verse God had supposedly given them, but this one really took the biscuit. The point was that it wasn’t just the disciples who benefitted from Jesus’ stilling of the storm. When God is alive and active it is not just about the church: there is what we might call ‘collateral blessing’. Other sailors who knew nothing of Jesus or his message were nevertheless helped and saved by Jesus’ ministry to his own people. When a local church is strong, the community is blessed. The story of Elijah which our lectionary gives us today is a kind of negative counterpart to this idea.

Back at the start of the chapter Elijah the Prophet has been called by God to confront the wicked and idolatrous King Ahab and to declare a drought throughout the land. Prophetic words had real power – just declaring something brought it into being. But the downside of a national drought is that the rain fails to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. But don’t worry, says God. There’s this little brook from which you can drink, and I’ve commanded some ravens to bring you food. Elijah isn’t immune from the drought, but he is cared for through it.

But then, presumably because of Ahab’s stubborn refusal to repent and restore water to his subjects, even Elijah’s little brook dried up. Again God spoke to him, and told him he had commanded a widow to feed him. So off he went to find her in the bustling North Western seaside town of Zarephath. The ravens, listed in Leviticus among the unclean birds, were replaced by a widow, among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the land. Her husband had died, and she only had a young son, unable to provide for her. We know nothing about her relationship with God, or whether or not she was expecting Elijah, but she too may well have been an innocent victim of the King’s evil intransigence. He obviously cared more about saving face himself than he did about the plight of his subjects. Who could imagine that the leaders of a nation would act like that? But the point is that both the righteous and the unrighteous suffer. Only through a miracle, though, are Elijah and the widow and her son provided for.

There is a fascinating resonance in this story with our own times, when many are going hungry and cold because of government policy, including Christians and non-Christians. If would be great if evil only ever rebounded on the heads of those who committed it, but life isn’t like that, and the innocent suffer along with (or at times instead of) the guilty. Yet we have seen God calling many who feel that they can ill afford it themselves to feed the hungry through foodbanks, and to clothe them and their children through clothes banks. We have seen a great upsurge in the way churches and secular organisations alike have responded to poverty, and it is often those at the poorer end of society who have been the most generous. And through it all, God has been at work. Back in the 1990s I was part of a church which ran what we would now call a foodbank, before anyone had heard of foodbanks, and the staff would testify to the regular multiplication of food by God. They know how many food bags they had prepared, but when they counted up the number of people who had come through the doors it often exceeded the resources they had ready. Their only explanation was that God had miraculously multiplied the food in their storeroom. This isn’t just a fairy story about Elijah: it is about God at work, as he is still at work today.

Note the contrast, though, with the Gospel reading for today, which has obviously driven the choice of this OT passage. Elijah received subsistence rations, just enough to keep him and his new family alive. But in the Messianic age to which this story points there is extreme abundance, more than a week’s worth of wine, not so that people can merely survive, but so that they can party like mad. We look to the time when evil and self-seeking will be ended once and for all, and when all God’s people will be fed at the heavenly banquet.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 3 – Isaiah 9:1-4

There is a somewhat tenuous link between today’s Gospel in Matthew 4 and this OT passage, but in keeping with the usual style of this blog we’ll try to think about the passage in its original context rather than merely as a rooting of an OT quotation in the new. We’re in the 730s BC, and the mighty and cruel nation of Assyria is on the move. The first 12 chapters of Isaiah deal with this threat to Israel, and in particular chapters 6 – 9 tell of two nearby kings, Rezin and Pekah, forming an alliance to try to resist the approach of Assyria, and attempting to persuade King Ahaz of Israel to join them. The prophet warns Ahaz against this course of action, and suggests that there is a third alternative to either war of subjugation by Assyria, that of simply trusting in God’s promises of salvation. However, in the latter part of chapter 7 Isaiah appears to change his mind, and perceives Assyria as God’s instrument of judgement on a nation which has abandoned God and sought counsel elsewhere. The result will be thick darkness for the Israelites, with the end of chapter 8 painting a gloomy (literally) picture of the fate of a nation which has turned to the occult rather than to their God. It is in this context that the promises of hope in out passage fall.

The promises may seem a bit obscure to us, but they look back into Israel’s history and would make perfect sense to those to whom they were addressed. The enlargement of the nations was part of God’s original promise to Abraham. Spoils of battle would be divvied out amidst great rejoicing after a victory in war, and a good harvest would similarly be treated as an occasion for great delight and security. The defeat of Midian under Gideon was a story of liberation when God acted supernaturally on behalf of his people against unbelievable odds, ending threat and oppression and bringing freedom. God had a great track record of hearing his people’s desperate cries, so why the need to turn to mediums and spiritists when the chips are down? The ultimate promise, of course, lies in the words which follow and which we have all no doubt heard over the past few weeks. It is the promise of Immanuel, God-with-us, which is as true in the darkest of times as in the nice ones.

There are two questions posed by this text: why does God allow darkness in the first place, and where do I look for help when the chips are down? I have just finished marking a set of essays from my Key Stage 4 RE pupils, and it is fascinating how they see God as there to make everything nice and to take away anything threatening or nasty. The fact that there are wars or that people suffer becomes a tremendous stumbling block for some of them, even as far as disproving the existence of any god, since things would self-evidently be better if he (or she) actually existed. Yet as Christians we know better. We know that God has done something about suffering, he is doing something, and he will do something in the end. We also know that it is how we endure suffering which is far more important than whether we do, and the Bible promises great blessings and spiritual growth for those who cope with suffering well. God doesn’t always remove pain, but he does grow us through it.

These ideas of course are anathema to a comfortable society in which we want everything to go our way now. So we’ll do whatever we can to get rid of the pain and hardship, including trying to drown our sorrows in our addictions, or seeking dodgy ways of finding healing. It is natural, of course, just to want to make the pain go away, and I for one am very grateful for the gift of anaesthetics during my 18 hour operation and in its aftermath. But at a deeper level the Bible often rebukes people who look anywhere they can for help while God is there with open arms waiting for them to turn to him. The key, I think, is co-operation, and the question is ‘Lord, what are you doing with me right now, and how can I join in?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 2 – Isaiah 49:1-7

As I write, I’m preparing to lead a Vision Weekend for a church in the Netherlands, a shortened version of a course I used to run in my last job. I had the task of constructing the Sunday morning Eucharist around the theme of vision, with congregational activity rather than a sermon, yet adhering quite closely to the expected Common Worship order for Communion. So I found myself writing liturgical texts based around the theme of ‘vision’ (texts which are, of course, reverent and seemly and neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter). In particular the penitential section was interesting: we shall be confessing our lack of vision and our ability only to see what is, rather than what could be. This tension is exactly that which is discussed in our OT reading this week, as the ‘Servant of the Lord’ is addressed by God about both his ministry and his feelings about it.

The Servant (and there is still scholarly disagreement about exactly who he is, whether an individual or the nation of Israel as a whole), in the second of his ‘songs’ is feeling discouraged. He has been given a big vision by God, and he was called long ago and polished up in God’s hands until he was ready to begin his work, work which would display God’s splendour. But those big hopes, it appears, have been dashed, and his wonderful ministry, he feels, hasn’t amounted to very much at all. Retirement was for me, and I suspect for many others, a time to look back and ask some painful questions about how much all our hard work for God has actually achieved. I have worked for 70-odd hours a week for 38 years, but what difference has all that really made to anyone? How is the Church any different just because I have been around? Of course I could point you to a few people who have found faith, and continued to grow in discipleship, through my ministry, and a few students of mine have graduated and become ordained, but is that it? Really? In the same way the Servant here expresses his sense of exhaustion and discouragement at what his life has actually been worth. So how does his Master respond?

In reverse order, God seems to do three things for his Servant. The first is to show empathy. V.7 is God putting into his own words how the Servant is obviously feeling: despised and abhorred. God gets it: ministry is hard, and encouragements few. Jesus was to find that to be true in spades, and Moses could have told him about it too, as could so many of the prophets. There’s no sense of rebuke from God though, no ‘Stop whingeing and get on with it’. He just understands. But he isn’t going to play let’s pretend, and he isn’t going to lower the pass mark to make everything OK after all. In fact he raises the stakes, by giving his Servant a new task. You may feel that the job has been too hard, but I’m telling you it was too small. Merely to attempt to declare my splendour to your own people is far too insignificant a job. I’m giving you a bigger role, not just domestic but international. There is a recurring theme in Isaiah about all the nations coming to see in the end that the Jews had been right, and streaming to learn wisdom from them and from him. Kings and princes will come to acknowledge his ministry (v.7b).

But how is all thin going to happen? Because of the Servant’s calling. How will a worldwide ministry grow from such unpromising beginnings? Because, says God, I have ordained it. When I called you, when I nurtured you and prepared you, I knew what I was doing. Didn’t I form you to be my servant from before your birth? Haven’t I strengthened you along every step of the way? That’s because I have purposed all this to happen, and even though you haven’t seen it all yet, and neither have we, What God says happens, eventually. The tenses are interesting: God has called, called and strengthened, but kings and princes will stand up and bow down, because of the Lord. The Servant’s call is renewed, and the outcomes are certain, if not visible yet.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 1 / The Baptism of Christ – Isaiah 42:1-9

Having been brought up in the Baptist denomination and only having come more lately to Anglicanism, you might imagine that baptism was an issue for me. I had been baptised at the age of 18, after years of battling with the feeling that I wasn’t ‘ready’ yet, and certainly not ‘good’ enough to take this step. So when I finally joined the C of E, in order to prepare for ordination, all that I had to do was to get confirmed. The battle here was less theological and more practical. I could not be ordained if I wasn’t confirmed, so I had to suck up any theological scruples I had and get on with it.

Only later did I have the theological tools to analyse what I actually believed about baptism, and to understand that Baptist and Anglican understandings of the rite are very different. I had been brought up to believe that baptism was all about nailing my colours to the mast, and making a public statement of what I believed and how I would live. It was about me giving two things: my commitment to God, and my witness to everyone around me. I later realised that in Anglican theology baptism is not about what I give: it’s about what God gives.

Whether or not we interpret the Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah as being about Jesus or about the nation of Israel as a whole (my preference is for the second), there are some clues in this passage, the first of the Servant Songs, about how God relates to his people and what being his people entails. Baptism, like this passage, is fundamentally about two things: God’s delight in us, and our calling from God.

The two are brought together in the first verse, which forms a kind of abstract or summary of the whole text. It begins with God’s delight in his servant. It starts with relationship. Now that I am retired and have a large garage I have been collecting tools: last Christmas I got a chopsaw, and for my birthday in June I got a bench grinder. I love using these tools; you might even say I delight in them, but I certainly don’t have any relationship with them. I own them and use them, and that’s it. Elsewhere in the OT we see God using other nations to do his will. Both Assyria and Babylon are servants of God to punish the Northern and Southern Kingdoms respectively for their apostasy and disobedience. Later God will call Cyrus, King of Persia, his ‘Messiah’ because he is going to conquer Babylon and thus let the exiles return home. But these nations do not inspire delight in God. Israel/Jesus his servant is different. The relationship is not primarily like a tool to a carpenter, but rather a loving devotion.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a job to do. In Anglican thinking about baptism, the ceremony is actually our ordination to ministry. Often we expect there to be a gap of many years between the time when we are baptised into Christ and when a very few of us might receive a vocation to public ministry and leadership. This is not a biblical pattern. St Paul on the Damascus Road is both converted and called at the same moment. He doesn’t have 20 years to think about it!

So the role of the servant, in whom God delights, is to delight God through his ministry. This forms the rest of our passage. The content is justice, the greatest desire of God’s heart, and the method is not to shout about it but to work for it. He will work with gentleness, fanning into flame those whose passion is almost extinguished, and he will not be discouraged himself, but will work tirelessly until justice fills the earth. Note the dual focus of the servant’s ministry: to God’s people themselves, but wider than that to the Gentiles too. The servant has both a teaching and an evangelistic ministry.

A tall order? The final part of the passage tells us two things, about what God will do, and who he is. We are not alone in our calling to work for the justice and righteousness of God’s kingdom. He takes us by the hand and leads us; he fills us with the power of his Spirit, and he covenants to remain faithful to us.

Finally God tells us about just who it is who wants this kind of relationship with us. He is not some little tinpot idol, unable to see what it going on or what is coming. He is the real deal, the eternal God, the only one worthy of praise, and the only one worth serving.

Had I been a Methodist rather than a Baptist I would have used the beginning of each new year to renew my covenant with God, and to recommit myself to his service. Anglicans have now pinched the famous Covenant prayer and put it in Common Worship. If you use this prayer in your service this Sunday, maybe you can let Isaiah’s words fuel your recommitment to God’s service, and your personal relationship with him.