OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 2 – Genesis 12:1-4a

This snippet of God’s big story is tiny in proportion to the importance it has. On one level it tells the story of, and the reasons for, Abraham’s call, but actually it is a hinge passage on which turns the whole of the story of redemption. It marks four transitions:

1)         From myth to history

I can remember at my very liberal theological college much debate about when exactly history begins in the Bible: who was the first real historical character for whose existence there is evidence? It is generally reckoned that Genesis 1-11 are mythical in nature. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not true, but they are the stories Israel told in order to explain life, the universe and everything. How did we get here, and why is it all so beautiful and such a mess at the same time? Expecting it to answer scientific questions about cosmology is like asking when exactly Pandora opened her box, and whether it was made of wood or metal. That just isn’t the point of the story. But when we arrive at Genesis 12, we have a real character who actually lived.

2)         From judgement to salvation

From Genesis 3 onwards we have a catalogue of human rebellion against God, which involves murder, perverted sex, violence, corruption and arrogance. These chapters are perhaps summed up in 6:5 – ‘Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’ Even God’s attempts to wipe everything out and start again resulted in yet more sin. So God tries a different tack: he will chose for himself a righteous man to found a holy nation whose role is to call all the nations back to God and to obedience to him, so that the whole world can be in receipt of his blessings rather than under his judgement.

3)         From call to recall

In Gen 11 Abraham’s father Terah had left Ur in Mesopotamia with his family to move to Canaan, but they had settled on the way in the city of Haran, which was very similar in nature to Ur. So God had to call Abraham again in 12:1. Before he had been taken by his father, but now he has to go at God’s command, even leaving his father behind. Abraham is the patron saint of those who begin well with God but need to encounter him personally if they are not to settle down in a pretty similar place to the one from which they had set out, and of those for whom family faith needs to transition into personal faith.

4)         From all people to the chosen people

But with this new call came a new task. Up to now God has dealt with all people, all the nations who came into being with the scattering at Babel. But now his new plan is revealed. He desires to bless all nations, but he chooses to do it through one nation, Israel. And, being God, he chooses to found this nation from a couple unable to have children. Humanly speaking, Israel simply could not have come into existence: the fact that it did speaks of divine purpose from day one.

Abraham’s task is twofold: he is to be blessed and to bless. His family are to be the means through which all the nations of the earth are to be brought into relationship with God. The Jews are called to be waiters and waitresses of the good things of God to the whole world. Yet so often they, and the Christian Church which grew from them, want the first without the second, like waiters sitting and eating a meal themselves while others go hungry. In the OT the people are constantly being reminded that ‘it is too small a thing’ for them merely to work with their own nation, but rather they should be there to serve and bless others. Simeon recognised that the infant Jesus was not just to be for the glory of Israel, but also as a light for revelation to the Gentiles. Jesus cleansed the Temple from its narrow nationalism and reminded people that it was a house of prayer for all nations. And the NT Church needed some miracles, a dramatic vision and a General Synod before people realised that Jesus was for Gentiles as well as Jews. Today, whenever we run Church according to our own preferences and forget that we exist for the benefit of non-members we are heirs of this same sin: wanting blessing but not wanting to be a blessing.

In this season of Lent this raises questions about our observances: are they so that we will be blessed, or will they in any way bless others?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 1 – Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

This Sunday is the first of Lent, a period of penitence and reflection on our sins and lack of holiness. But what exactly do we mean by ‘sin’? If I were a fly on the wall, or could read people’s minds, I would love to know what was going on in people’s minds when we were praying the prayer of confession at the start of our communion services each week. I would be interested, not for the prurient pleasure of being a spectator on others’ peccadillos, but because I am interested in what exactly we count as sins needing confession. I suspect if I had such telepathic gifts I would observe a few lost tempers and harsh words, maybe some petty dishonesty with the biros at work, and even perhaps an excessive interest from some in Naked Attraction on Channel 4. It is fascinating to know what Christians think sin is, and today’s OT reading gives us what may be some new angles.

We know the story. God generously gives the man and woman everything to eat and enjoy, apart from just one tree. If we were led into a great library and told we could read any book we liked except this one, where would we all immediately head? It’s human nature. So all the other wonderful vegetation fades into the background, with all the focus on that one. However we read this story, talking snake and all, it tells us truths about human nature but also about the nature of sin as the Bible sees it.

Sin is doubting God. Helped, of course by the snake, who twists and misquotes God’s words, the couple are led to begin to believe that maybe God hasn’t been as all-blessing and generous as they had previously thought. Where there are limits they are for our good, just like speed limits on the motorway, but sin’s roots lie in questioning whether a good God has put limits in place for our safety, or whether he’s just being a bit of a killjoy. This story is often called ‘The Fall’, but I heard one theologian saying it would be better described as ‘The Rupture’, where the human race burst out of the health-giving limits to go where it should not have gone. Sin is fundamentally thinking that we know better than God.

Sin is entering into discussion. There’s a sense in which the battle is lost at the start of verse 2, when the woman tries to discuss the situation with the snake, and clarify the issues. Most of the time we don’t sin suddenly: we make choices after weighing up the options. You can’t win an argument with the devil, and Jesus knew this. There’s a real contrast with Jesus in today’s gospel and Eve’s attempts to argue the toss. Jesus refuses to countenance any discussion: he dismisses Satan’s temptations with terse phrases and concise Scripture quotations. When we start to explore sin or rationalise it, we’ve lost.

Sin is wanting more. That rupture occurs when we want more than it is right for us to have, or more than God has chosen to give us. The idea of ‘becoming like God’ in v.4 is an attractive one. One commentator on this passage suggests that the Hebrew for ‘knowing good and evil’ is not simply about knowing what’s right or wrong, but rather implies deciding for ourselves what is right or wrong, thus rejecting God’s reign over our lives and doubting that he knows best what’s good for us. Sin isn’t just about greed and covetousness. It’s about wanting, in Frank Sinatra’s immortal words, to do it my way.

Sin is putting desire above obedience. The final move which clinched the deal for the couple was seeing how nice it would be to eat the fruit. They had been told very clearly what they should do and not do, but all that went out of the window as they gazed on the forbidden fruit and imagined how wonderful it would taste. It was that final triumph of human desire over obedience to God which actually got the fruit into their mouths.

So that journey, of doubting God, arguing about it, wanting more and placing what we feel we want above what God has said, is the royal route to sin, which Jesus so steadfastly refuses to travel in the Gospel reading. Maybe Lent is a time to look more deeply, not just at what we have done to offend God, but why we did it and how we got to that point.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday Before Lent – Exodus 24:12-18

It takes all sorts … One day recently I received some really bad news, which completely shattered me. The next day I just wanted to get out of the house and go somewhere different to mope. We are fortunate enough to live close to the Peak District, so the obvious choice would have been to go out and find a mountain somewhere, or a beautiful vista which would lift me out of my depression and get me back in touch with the splendour and majesty of God as revealed in nature. But I didn’t fancy that, so I got out my bus pass and went instead to Doncaster.

Whilst (no offence) you may feel that Doncaster is a highly appropriate place for the depths of despair, it was, I admit, an unusual place to choose, however much it fitted my dismal mood. In the Bible, if you want to get away from it all you go out into the desert, and if you want to meet with God the place of choice is usually a mountain. There is something majestic about a mountain with its summit enrobed in cloud, and it is easy to see why people have glimpsed something of the divine in such scenes. Mountains in Scripture are places of encounter. To be invited up there by God is an incredible privilege. How much more then, is the invitation to stay up there with God.

It is so easy to telescope the biblical stories to fit in with our frantic 21st century Western lifestyles, but our passage challenges that with the details of the periods of time involved. Moses, responding to God’s invitation, goes up into the cloud, but then has to wait six days before God speaks. And when he does speak, the result is that Moses stays up there for 40 days, nearly six weeks.

Meeting God, like recovering from a severe shock to the system, takes time. But we live in a world where we want pain to go away instantly, and where we expect things to happen for us at the snap of our fingers. The period of 40 days we are about to enter could be a time to slow down, to give God quality time, in the hope of a life-changing encounter with him. Of course we’re dreadfully busy, and the world will stop turning if we don’t attend to business, but God has already thought of that. Aaron and Hur, Moses right- and left-hand men, can sort things out while he’s away. To be fair Aaron wasn’t going to make such a great job of that, but that’s another story. Lent can also challenge what I call ‘Saviour of the Universe syndrome’, the belief that if I don’t do it, it either won’t get done, or it won’t get done as well as I would have done it. In either case disaster would be the outcome. But what God wanted was a leader who knew him intimately, who would much rather stay in his presence than get on with the job down below. One day in God’s courts is better than a thousand at PCC meetings.

Lent, then, is a chance to refocus. When I was a vicar we deliberately dropped some of our activities and tried to avoid busyness, and the world didn’t end. There might be other ways in which we can clear the decks to give God quality time, and places to go which for us will provide encounter and healing. Lent reminds us that for the temperamental Marthas Mary has chosen more wisely.

But, as you’d expect, there’s a twist. If going up the mountain with God is a great thing, and resting there with him is a good thing to do, why, in our Gospel story, does Peter get told off for suggesting that very thing? Many a sermon has been preached about not trying to hold on to spiritual experiences and high spots by building huts to stay in. Of course both are true. Time on the mountain is designed to strengthen us for our day to day lives and ministries. We can give God time, and rest in him during Lent, but then, fortified by that experience, we have to get on with the task of proclaiming the good news that Jesus is risen and is Lord of all the earth.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

2 before Lent – Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

Different cultures at different times have sought to answer that great eternal question: How did we all get here? In the pages of our OT we have three such stories, each coming from a different time or place, and now in 21st century Britain we have a fourth. They are all ‘myths’, a technical term not for something which isn’t true, but rather for a story we use to tell us truths. We don’t have to believe the story, but what it tells us might still be useful. Neither are we meant to ask practical, scientific questions about it. We all know the story of Pandora’s box, and we all understand the truth that once evil is unleashed in a situation it is next to impossible to box it up again. But to ask when she actually opened the box, or whether the box was made of wood or metal, or whether the lid slid off or was hinged, is to miss the point altogether. That’s why so many non-Christians have found some of the Bible a big turn-off for them: they want to ask scientific questions about creation, while what the text presents is a completely different kind of literature.

The earliest myth we see in the OT is not Jewish, but Babylonian. No doubt Israel  came across this story while they were in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. The chief god Marduk was locked in mortal combat with Tiamat, a great sea monster, but managed to cut her in half, creating the heavens and the earth out of the two bits. Of course the Jews didn’t believe a word of it, but in the same way in which we might refer to Pandora’s box, they used this language to talk about their God. So the third account, which is our lectionary passage for this week, is based heavily on this Babylonian myth, except that it is Yahweh who fights against the chaos and evil. The word used in Gen 1:2 for ‘the deep’ is the same word as Tiamat, the name of the Babylonian sea monster, and in other places in the Bible the same creature is called Leviathan or Rahab. In each case we see her being killed, crushed or cut up by Yahweh. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘Only Jesus can put the lid back on Pandora’s box!’

But not content with that, the Genesis 1 account continues to use the Babylonian religion to demonstrate that actually Yahweh is the only God. All the things which were objects of worship, sun, moon, stars and so on, are really there because God put them there. They wouldn’t exist without him. So in fact this particular account is a piece of polemical writing, intended to attack an erroneous point of view. If any of you Israelites have in any way absorbed the worldview of the people amongst whom you are living in exile, you need to hear this: there is only Yahweh, and all the things which those people bow down to and worship are nothing at all. Anything which exists, in heaven or earth, is there because our God put it there. So don’t you ever forget that.

Just for completeness, the other two creation stories come from Genesis 2 and the 19th century. The story in Gen 2 dates from around 500 years earlier than today’s passage, when Israel thought they were the bee’s knees under David’s reign, when everything was going wonderfully well and humans were supreme in an age of prosperity and peace. Note how in Gen 2 the man is the centre of the story, while in Gen 1 God is. Adam is made first, and everything else is made for his pleasure, including, finally, his wife. In Gen 1 brings human beings onto the stage only at the very end of the process, both as the crown and climax of creation, but also almost as an afterthought. The different cultures which wrote these stories saw things very differently. The people at the time of Gen 1 were sadder and wiser, and hod a lot more humility.

And of course the myth we tell ourselves today is the story of evolution by natural selection, first propounded by Charles Darwin in 1859. This account is slightly different, in that we now have ‘science’ which tells us this is actually the true story, but personally I find this account every bit as unconvincing as the Jews found the story of sea monsters and gods. Evolution is taught as fact in our schools, while to my mind it is just another story which our age tells itself, emerging from a culture where we believe that the human race is god and that through our enlightenment and through science we can and will eventually know and therefore control everything, thus making any kind of religious God redundant. The ‘Big Bang’ theory is just that: a working hypothesis. We all know those pictures of evolving animals, but what we don’t have is any evidence not just for horses getting bigger, but for a butterfly turning into a giraffe. Evolution within species seems pretty self-evident, but between them it is a lot less convincing. So maybe Gen 1 is as relevant as ever as a piece of polemic, reminding us of our humble place in creation, and the reign of God over all the created world.