OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Palm Sunday – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Jewish tradition has it that what we now call Psalms 113 – 118 were recited by the Israelites as they marched out of captivity in Egypt, and thus form a subsection of the Psalms called ‘The Egyptian Hallel’ (or ‘Praise’). In later Judaism they were recited during the Passover liturgy, and the Church today uses Psalm 118 particularly during Holy Week and Easter. Scholars who like to group the Psalms neatly by their genre have scratched their heads over this one, since it contains several different moods and flavours. The first few verses provide a call to corporate worship, but in verse 5 the mood changes as an individual expresses confidence in the Lord because of his deliverance from (unspecified) human attacks. Then in v.15 there is another expression and confidence which calls forth exuberant praise. In v.19 where our filleted lectionary reading picks the Psalm up again, there is a prayer both of thanksgiving for past deliverance and a prayer for future victory. Finally we have a call to gather in the sanctuary to worship God. The Psalm also resembles ‘Entrance Liturgies’, such as Ps 24, which would have been used at the gates of the Temple, although of course the Israelites escaping from Egypt would have no physical Temple for centuries, and not even the Tabernacle for a few months. So all in all, a bit of a mish mash.

But I wonder if a key to understanding this Psalm, and its use over the Easter period, lies in one particular Hebrew word: sha’ar, which means ‘gate’. Here it obviously refers to a physical gate, as the doorway into the sanctuary, into the presence of the God of Righteousness, through which only the righteous could pass. But the Temple would have had doors, not gates. So what’s the difference?

If you were to come to my house (and you’re all very welcome!) you would ring at our front door, which is famously opaque. Anything could be going on inside, and you would have no idea. But before that, you would have come through our front gate, which is about a metre high and made of wooden slats, so it forms no sight barrier at all. An Anglican collect for Easter Eve prays ‘that through the grave and gate of death we may pass to our joyful resurrection’. In other words, we can see through death to what awaits us as followers of him who was the firstborn of the dead. Many in our world see death as a door rather than a gate, and so dread it, having no idea what, if anything, lies beyond it. Others make up their own ideas: I took a funeral in Jersey where the family were convinced that Grandma had turned into a seagull, and throughout the service I felt really guilty in case it was her I had lobbed a stone at only the day before when she tried to nick my chips on the beach. Elsewhere we tell ourselves, somewhat unconvincingly in my experience, that ‘Death is nothing at all’, or that ‘I did not die’. Whether black dread or sentimental poems attempt to form our views on death, we have no need of them. Death isn’t a door, it’s a gate, and it’s a gate into something much more wonderful even than a visit to chez Leach, if that were possible. It’s a gate which we are meant to be able to see through.

This Psalm, therefore, is primarily a call to celebrate resurrection, though not in a way, in spite of our lectionary filleters, which ignores the harsh realities of pain and persecution. We can look over, and through, the gate of death confident that where our Lord has gone, we will follow. The appropriate responses to this fact are all expressed in the words of Psalm 118. We have suffered, and will continue to do so. But the Lord is our rescuer. We have known that in the past, and we will know it again in the future. Therefore we rejoice and give thanks, and call others to celebrate with us. We go together into God’s sanctuary, and we have past-fuelled hope for the future, because God’s love endures for ever.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 5/Passion Sunday – Ezekiel 37:1-14

There are some things which, once you have seen them, in the famous phrase, you can’t unsee. Try as we might (and this blog constantly aims to encourage us to try) to focus on the original meaning of OT passages, once we have seen Jesus, we can’t unsee him. The whole of the OT becomes a very different animal. Indeed, much of the writing of NT authors like Matthew and Paul is a wrestling with how we understand the Scriptures differently now that we have encountered the Word of God in Jesus. So today’s famous passage is often read in that light (and of course in the light of our culture of Enlightenment individualism) to speak of our individual resurrection on the last day. The question ‘Can these dry bones live?’ is answered with faith-filled enthusiasm ‘Of course!’ After all, don’t we proclaim that truth every week in our Creeds?

But to read this passage as a promise of individual resurrection is to miss its impact on the original hearers. They had watched as the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar had systematically taken away their three greatest theological foundations: The monarchy had been deposed as they came under foreign rule, the Temple had been torn down in front of their eyes, and the land had been overrun and conquered. They must have feared for the fourth foundation, the people of God. Indeed the unknown prophet we call Deutero-Isaiah was to wrestle with the question of whether or not they were still God’s chosen people in Isaiah chapter 40. So with all these institutions being torn down, what was there left to be certain about? And was there any hope at all of resurrection?

Just over 20 years ago a landmark book explored ‘Churchless Faith’, the growing phenomenon of people who had given up on church without having given up on God[1]. I am hearing that this trend is continuing, that there is an increasingly large group of people who no longer attend church, but are seeking to live out their Christian discipleship nevertheless. Indeed I was shocked to hear of a few famous people whom I would have regarded as among my heroes of faith who are now in this position. I can also see, if I’m honest, that in retirement I could so easily go down the same path. It’s really hard to belong to someone else’s church when you have previously led your own! And, of course, Covid has done nothing to help with this, since we managed for a couple of years to avoid meeting together pretty successfully. It seems on a bad day that Church has had its day, is increasingly irrelevant, and is busy tearing itself apart over battles which it lost 50 years ago. So what keeps me going? Why do I dutifully turn up each Sunday? And why do I hear so many people who do still go around moaning that it does them no good at all, and even leaves them more angry and frustrated?

The answer, I suppose, is that I do still somehow hang on to the belief that these dry bones can live. Ezekiel is at pains to tell us that the skeletons are ‘the whole house of Israel’ (v.11) This is not about individual reward at the end of time: it is about the institution of God’s people and all that fed and nurtured their faith. It is a central part of the spirit of our age that life, and therefore Church, is about me as an individual: it is there to satisfy me and make me feel good. Like a good consumer I can shop around if I don’t happen to like what is on offer at my current church, and I can even choose to stop shopping at all and grow my own. I think we have to see the current disenchantment with organised faith in this light. We are no longer happy to do anything out of a sense of duty if it doesn’t feel good doing it, but the Bible urges us to steadfastness and faithfulness, of the kind which Jesus displayed in Gethsemane and on the way to the cross. It certainly wasn’t going to feel good, but it was the right thing to do. I also can see that to cut myself off from God’s people, from the public reading of Scripture and the singing of his praises could well be for me (not of course for everyone, but certainly for me) the start of a slippery slope to giving up on my faith altogether. I am reminded of 1 Timothy 1 and the possibility of coming so far but ending up with a shipwrecked faith. So, without wishing to condemn anyone else, this is where I am at the moment, holding on but praying for sinews, flesh and above all the breath of the Holy Spirit to turn us once again into a mighty army. Maybe our discontent is God’s call to fervent intercession.

Sorry this is not a detailed exegesis of the passage (you can find previous attempts to do that here and here) but I think this is becoming an increasingly big issue, and is certainly live for me at the moment. Maybe it is for you too.

[1] Jamieson, Alan (2002) A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 4/Mothers’ Day – Ex 2:1-10

As I haven’t yet met a church which does Lent 4 as opposed to Mothers’ Day I have chosen for our consideration this week one of the two OT passages from the lectionary, the birth of Moses in Exodus 2. Like the alternative, 1 Samuel 1 (the birth of Samuel) it is meant to be an example of good motherhood, and as such ignores the more negative aspects of the celebration of this particular festival, like those who cannot become mothers, those who have lost mothers, or whose relationships with their mothers were abusive or toxic. It is a minefield for churches to negotiate, but this passage takes a different and more positive tack.

In context, this passage comes hot on the heels of the arrival of a new Pharaoh, to whom Joseph meant nothing. The memory of his saving of the nation during a time of famine had faded, and now the welcome guests of Israel had become troublesome immigrants, coming over here and talking our jobs etc etc. So they are put to work as slaves, and, as a final solution, all baby boys are to be killed at birth. So what is a good mother to do? Or rather, what is God to do?

Against this harsh narrative in Ex 1 comes a beautiful much softer story of a mother’s ingenuity in saving her son, who will one day save the people. But reading it in the English translation, we miss two important words, which give us a hint to a much deeper interpretation of the text. The author wants us to read the beginning of Exodus against the background of the beginning of Genesis. What this chapter gives us is not so much a salvation story as a brand new start.

The first word, in v.2 is (in the NIV and NRSV) ‘fine’. Moses’ mother sees that he is a fine baby, which doesn’t mean that he is a good baby, that is one who doesn’t cry too much, but rather that he is whole, appropriate and pleasing. The Hebrew word is the one used of God looking at what he has created each day and declaring it ‘good’. No doubt the author meant the readers to glance back to the creation story in Gen 1, as he signals that God is about to recreate his people. But this nuance is heightened as the author uses another word loaded with meaning. The word used for the basket in which  Moses is set afloat is the same word used of Noah’s Ark. The Flood narrative is another story of a new start, as God tries to deal with the evil which his good creation has become by saving one righteous family to reboot the human race. There are times when the only solution is to unplug it from the wall and plug it in again, and God is about to do that through this tiny baby.

So what about Mum? There are two main motifs here, I think. One is obviously about nurture, care, protection, ingenuity and all the other traditional attributes of a good mother. One can only imagine the anxiety with which she lived during those three months of trying to hide a crying baby from the earshot of the prowling soldiers. Even a little gurgle during his sleep must have had her on tenterhooks.

But the second attribute of good motherhood which is held up for us here is the ability to let go and trust God. We see that twice in these verses: once when she sets him off in his basket on the Nile, and again when he grew up and could be safely returned to Pharaoh’s daughter. Both of those events must have been heartbreaking for her, but in each case she knew when the time was right, and trusted that God would work out his purposes through her beloved son.

Having glanced back to see this text as a new creation story, we can’t help but glance forward to see echoes into the future as well as from the past. Mary must have felt that sword entering her soul as she had to let go of her baby and allow him to grow and fulfil his God-given calling, including his torture and death. But in Jesus too we have a new start story, a recreation through which the human race can be saved. Those who are mothers might well think about how they have had to let go and let God when it comes to their babies, and might well pray that their offspring will be used mightily by God.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 3 – Exodus 17:1-7

There are many ways in which one might approach this wonderful story from the Wilderness cycle. The people have escaped from Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and are now in the desert. They have known God’s miraculous provision of manna for them to eat, but now there is an even more pressing problem: they have nothing to drink. On a forced march, through the desert, in a temperature of nearly 50o, it has been estimated that with no water they would be unlikely to last more than seven hours. So the problem is urgent, to say the least. We often read this story as another one of the many ‘grumbling’ narratives to be found in Exodus and Numbers, but to be honest if I were them I might find myself grumbling, at the very least.

I want us to read the story from a different point of view. Moses the leader is one of my favourite OT characters, and over the years I have drawn much inspiration from him. As a leader myself, sometimes of grumbling people, I can’t help but feel for him. Quite apart from his own thirst, he felt keenly the responsibility for the people, as other grumbling stories clearly demonstrate. So what is he to do? Or, for our purposes, what is he to use to do it?

The first thing to note, though, is that there is a common thread which runs throughout the grumbling narratives. It goes like this: the people complain, Moses doesn’t know what to do, so he takes it all to God, then God works a miracle. We see that cycle several times during this period of Israel’s history. That challenges me. When faced with an intractable problem, is my first, immediate and instinctive reaction to pray? More often I confess that I’m likely to try to solve the problem myself, and then to drown in self-pity and single malt. I can’t help but wonder how many times I could have seen a miracle if only I had asked for one.

O what peace we often forfeit,
  O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
  Everything to God in prayer.

But I want to focus not on the people of this story, but the physical objects involved: a stick and a rock. Both of these can tell us deep truths about ourselves and God. When Moses talks to God, he fears that he is about to be stoned. The people have no water: in fact the have very little of anything in the desert. But they do have rocks, plenty of them, and Moses fears that they might begin to put them to use against him. But then he uses a rock to give the people drink.

God tells him to take his staff, and the storyteller is very keen that we know that this is the same staff with which Moses worked miracles in the past. He mentions the turning of the Nile into blood (v.5), the first of the plagues, but of course the same staff was used again and again, and used finally to open the Red Sea.

I think there are two key messages here. The first is that in times of trouble we need to refocus on what God has done in the past in order to build faith for the future. What has ‘God’s staff’ done for you in the past? How have you seen him solving problems, getting you out of scrapes, answering prayers, in the past? How does that encourage confidence in God for what you are going through now, and for what lies ahead?

The rock, though, gives us an even deeper message. The very things which Moses feared would bring him down turned out to be his salvation (and that of the people). We used to sing a worship song years ago which contained the line ‘He turns our weaknesses into his opportunities’. What is there in our vulnerability and fear which God might use ‘so that the glory goes to him’? Sometimes the very things we dread, if confronted, become our salvation. Moses, fearing for his life, nevertheless goes out in front of the people (v.5) and makes himself vulnerable to the expected stoning. This act of courage and obedience allows God to work through another rock and bring salvation to the people.