OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 4 – Genesis 7

In 2018 The Large Hadron Collider (or ‘Colliderscope’, as my son used to call it) had some major problems and was shut down for maintenance. On one radio programme they had an interview with one of the chief scientists, who was trying to explain what it was all about, and why he thought the machine had failed. Quite helpfully, I felt, the interviewer asked him whether, before embarking on expensive renovations, they had simply tried unplugging it from the wall and plugging it in again. We all know that can work, right? Well, the flood narrative in Genesis 6 – 9 seems to be the equivalent of God doing that with the world he had made, but which had gone sadly wrong. The problem, according to Gen 6:11-12, was about human corruption and violence, and God saw no option other than a hard reboot.

Did it happen? There is apparently some archaeological evidence for a vast flood in the ancient Middle East, and there is certainly no shortage of stories, from different cultures, of a great flood and some survivors in a boat. The most widely known is called The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it dates from around 2700 BC in Babylon, although scholars reckon that it might be a rewriting of a much earlier story. Just as this story took and used earlier traditions, so it has been suggested that the biblical story of Noah is a rewriting of the Epic, with, of course, only one God rather than a pantheon, and Noah replacing the Babylonian hero Utnapishtim. It seems as though different cultures thought and theologised differently about the same event. It is useful to compare our story with that of Utnapishtim, and so to learn what was distinctive about a Jewish retelling of the story.

In the Epic there are many gods, and they seem to be unsure about what they should do about the evil in the world. Eventually they decide on the watery reboot, but one god isn’t really happy about this decision, and so appears to Utnapishtim and tells him to make a boat in order to escape. This he does, and after not two but three birds have been released (a dove, a swallow and a raven) the boat lands and sacrifices are made to the gods. At this point we discover that in fact the gods themselves have very mixed feelings about what they have done to the human race, and not all are sure that the decision was the correct one.

So what is distinctive about the Jewish retelling of this story? First of all it comes as no surprise that there is one God and one alone. This monotheism is perhaps the central creedal statement of Judaism, expressed in the Shema: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ It certainly makes life more decisive if you don’t have to run your decisions past a committee! YHWH is clear in his condemnation of sin and of those who unrepentantly proliferate it, just as he is clear that the righteous will be on the receiving end of his mercy.

A second indication of the mercy of God, which contrasts with the capriciousness of so many pagan deities, is that he tries the reboot knowing that it will not be successful. Indeed the first thing which happens after God makes the new covenant is that Noah goes on a bender and ends up shaming himself in front of his sons. This is hardly an auspicious start for the new humanity, but God holds to his covenant and continues to bless the human race, although once again they turn against him. I have said many times before that God’s love is never unconditional, but it is often unrequited.

The next point of interest is that God has a heart for all of his creation, not just humans. That he desired to save all the species he has made is significant, and there is much in Jewish theological thinking about the significance of the land, which can be either blessed or marred by what humans do on it. One fact that the contemporary green movements seem to have missed is that the best way to protect the planet, according to the OT, is not to sin on it. You don’t hear many people protesting about that!

But note finally that as dramatic and as ethically difficult as this story is, there are actually several times when God attempts to reboot his people. The exodus, the entry into the Promised Land and the return from exile are all portrayed as significant new starts in the relationship between God and his people, and of course the resurrection of Jesus is the one event in history which provides a new opportunity to begin again. So maybe this story is not so strange or difficult after all: maybe it prefigures the way in which God is going to show his faithfulness to his own people again and again.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20

When I arrived at one of my parishes to take up my post as vicar I inherited a curate who had been in post some time. ‘You need to understand’, she told me fairly early on, ‘that in living memory people in this church have only ever heard one sermon: Jesus loves you and everything is fine!’

Last Sunday morning I preached at my home church on the Acts passage, from chapter 2 (See? I can do NT when I have to!). I used Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost as a typical example of kinds of things the earliest Christians were preaching, and I noted first of all that the idea of preaching ‘the love of God’ is simply absent, not just from the Acts sermons but also pretty much from all of the NT. Then I noted that the theme which ran throughout the Acts sermons was the command to repent. I questioned whether we have made the gospel so nice that it has lost its cutting edge, and whether people deep down don’t want to be told ‘Jesus loves you and everything is fine’, but would rather know that there is the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and change. It certainly seemed to work in the 1st century!

But I was challenged by one person who said, in effect, that sometimes all we need is to know that we are loved. As a priest I was charged at my ordination and the start of each new post to ‘proclaim [the gospel] afresh in each generation’. Might it be the case, I was asked, that our generation doesn’t want to hear about repentance, but only about How much God loves them? Personally I wasn’t convinced, but it is a good question, and there are signs that in today’s OT reading there is some evidence that a classic OT idea, that of ‘The Day of the Lord’ was being framed afresh.

The idea of the Day of the Lord was apparently widely held long before Amos first mentioned it in chapter 5. He is clearly addressing people who thought they knew what the Day of the Lord meant, and believed it would be a day of great rejoicing, when God came to them in power to punish their enemies and make them top nation. But Amos subverts this, and proclaims woe on those who believe that when God comes it will be for a knees-up. Rather, he says, it will be a day of darkness and catastrophe, as God comes to judge the injustice and idolatry of the nation. He is certainly proclaiming the idea afresh for his current generation.

Zephaniah too summons the people to repent, with dire warnings of punishment and destruction when God appears, to ‘sweep away everything from the face of the earth’ (1:2). Even Jerusalem, the city of God, will be consumed, along with the whole world, ‘by the fire of my jealous anger’ (3:8). But then suddenly, and without warning, the Day of the Lord is proclaimed afresh afresh, in the oracle of celebration which forms our reading, and which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book. Now God’s turning up will be an occasion for rescue, singing and festivity. It’s a very upbeat message, ideal as we continue to live through the Easter period. God’s coming to his people will mean forgiveness for sin, purification, defeat for enemies, and encouragement, as God sings to his people just as they usually sing to him. Naturally there are scholars who dislike these kinds of sudden U-turns in Scripture, and suggest that this final section of the book is a later appendix, perhaps celebrating the return from exile in Babylon. They may well be right, but the question is raised for us about what the Spirit might be saying to the Church today, and how that relates to the Bible’s message as a whole. We all know the feeling that now and again ‘God really spoke to me through that passage – it was just what I needed to hear!’ We also know the feeling that having heard the Bible we are left cold and feel that there was nothing there which spoke or connected. This underlines, I think, the responsibly of preachers and teachers to discern what God is wanting to say to people now. The gospel doesn’t change, but the nuances of it may well do, and the particular facets which will speak now may not be the same as those which spoke yesterday. It is our job, as preachers, to feed people with the whole counsel of God, but we won’t do all of it every week, so it is vital that we give people what they need now, even if that is not exactly what they would like every single time.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 2 – Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.’ (Ex 15:21)

We’re probably used to this verse, to the point where we might even have lost the shock value of its complete political incorrectness. The complex story of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, told in chapter 14, goes beyond being a goodies vs baddies story. The language and the imagery used in the Hebrew text make it clear that this is not just an escape story: it’s actually about the struggle between creation and chaos. Back in Genesis 1 God begins his creation by confronting darkness and chaos, dividing the water (a potent symbol of chaos, as you will have seen if you have been an a dark beach during a night-time storm). The first man and woman are told to be fruitful, and are given meaningful work to do, working in harmony with what call ‘creation’. The writers of this story make it clear that what they want us to see in this story is a new creation, which is necessary because of the oppressive and chaotic reign of Pharaoh. The Israelites are indeed multiplying, but seeing that as a threat Pharaoh tries to limit their fruitfulness by killing their babies. Meaningful and enjoyable work is replaced by back-breaking slave labour. Pharaoh is asked nicely to stop it and let the people go, but in the end the only thing which will force his hand and break his hard-heated will is a series of events in which God uses the things he has originally created for destruction, and ultimately death. Finally the last barrier, the water of the Red Sea, is divided in two, with dry land appearing. But then it flows back, and the entire Egyptian army is wiped out.

There is an old rabbinic tradition which has angels around God’s throne wanting to sing songs of praise before their Lord, but being rebuked as God says “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?”[1] What about loving your enemies? But the fact is that sometimes the only way for some people to receive freedom from oppression is for some other people to die. Oppressive empires are not disembodied entities, they are people selling their souls to evil, and refusing to act justly or mercifully. If you were to ask the people of the Ukraine how they would feel about the possibility of Vladimir Putin’s demise, I suspect there might be a few tambourines coming out. I doubt whether holocaust survivors shed too many tears after Hitler’s death in 1945. So when God worked his salvation for his people, it had to happen through the demise of other people, just as later the return from exile came because of the death of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and the defeat of his oppressive nation by the Persians. Only as an evil empire is undone can a new age dawn. The Exodus really is a new creation, with nature itself working both destructively and creatively in the formation of a new people of God, the fulfilment of his promises to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

Much Christian thought and indeed liturgy draws on the events of Ex 14 and 15 and sees in Jesus, and particularly in the Easter story, a new creation.

‘Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us: so let us celebrate the feast’,

begin the Easter Anthems. The baptism liturgy contains links between the water of the Red Sea and that in the font or baptistry, and some more of Paul’s writings remind us that like the Israelites we have been saved through water. But, as we would expect, Jesus’ working of the new creation has some important differences. It is not some cruel dictator who has to die in order that people can be free and recreated. It is Jesus himself, the sinless Son of God, and then, secondarily, it is us ourselves who have to die to sin so that we can be born anew to God. The Easter Anthems continue:

‘See yourselves therefore as dead to sin:  and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.’

Our old sinful nature, the bit of us which rejects God and his rights over us as our Creator, has to be drowned so that we can rise to new life. Shed no tears for the old you: the new creation is here, won by Jesus on the cross. And pray for the eventual destruction of all that is evil and all those who unrepentantly pursue it.

[1] b. Sanhedrin 39b

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter Day  – Jeremiah 31:1-6

Part 2 of this week’s OT Lectionary blog celebrates Easter Day with a slightly more joyful and positive message for the Church. Like passages from Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah 31 is an oracle of restoration, which looks beyond the current situation of exile and suffering to a more glorious future, in other words a kind of resurrection. Like Isaiah 40, it begins with a reaffirmation that the covenant deal is still on, that, in the words which echo back to the covenant with Abraham, God will be their God and they will be his people, a reassuring statement for those who must have felt that they had gone beyond the pale with God, who had disowned them and banished them out of the land he had promised and given to them. No, say both Jeremiah and Isaiah, the relationship is still on. The resurrection of Jesus similarly promises to his people that nothing can separate us from his love, apart, of course, from our own deliberate and persistent rejection of it.

But the rest of our text for today spells out in more detail what that deal actually means, and resurrection rings through it, as Jeremiah lists six ingredients, or gifts we are given because of the victory of God over the evils which captivate us, and the forgiveness of the sins which enslave us.

We can enter rest. This is the equivalent of the ‘comfort’ which Isaiah promised to the exiles, an end to anxiety and the assurance of good things to come, which mean that we need be anxious about nothing. Our sins are forgiven and our hard service over.

We can be loved. God’s love is everlasting and constant, even though at times it is unrequited. For  God’s people, the good news is, in the words of the old adage, if you feel far away from God, it is you who have moved. God’s love is not unconditional, but it is available, and always will be while we are on this earth.

We are drawn. If something has come between us and God, if we have experienced some kind of exile, it is not up to us to find our way back home, any more than the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable had to sort herself out and come back to the shepherd. Like the lost son’s father, God is out looking for us, and runs to welcome us back into the family.

We are rebuilt. Like the exiled Jews we have all know times when things all around us have collapsed. It might be bereavement, illness, some enormous failure from which we feel we can never recover, but the good news is the same. If even death itself can be overturned, there is nothing, nothing, which cannot experience resurrection and rebuilding. Therefore

We can be joyful. We might not quite be up to dancing with tambourines, but the Bible is full of promises of the restoration of those who are weeping and mourning, as a down payment towards the time when sadness and misery will forever be things of the past.

We can be fruitful. One of the main curses of the exile was having to leave the land, which throughout the OT is seen as a gift from God, and a place of fruitfulness, thanks to its position in the fertile crescent. For an people of an agrarian culture the Israelites must have found living in the desert a difficult experience, as indeed it had been for them as slaves in Egypt. The prophet promises fruitfulness for those who may well have felt that were wasting their lives away. Resurrection holds out to those who feel that their lives are a waste of time the promise of purpose, effectiveness and results. We really can make a difference.

We can be attractive. We are so often used, as members of Christ’s Church, to being marginalised, or as we considered three days ago, despised and rejected. The prophets have many passages on the time when rather than hate us and our God, people will flock to us to find wisdom and to feast on the good things which God offers us. Resurrection tells us that not only will we make it to Zion, the heavenly sanctuary, but many other will too, because of the witness of our words and lives.

Happy Easter!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Good Friday – Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

Two for the price of one this week, as this post will concentrate on the Good Friday OT, and a second on Easter Sunday.

On this day of all days, as we gaze upon Christ on the cross, we can see in this ‘Servant Song’ from Deutero-Isaiah a picture of Jesus, the servant on whom God has laid the iniquity of us all. That is certainly how many of the NT writers read the passage, and when the Ethiopian eunuch was puzzled by it, Philip used the text to explain the good news of Jesus. Of course by now you are all sick of me telling you that the OT isn’t primarily about Jesus, but rather that  people, having met and understood Jesus, could not help but see foreshadowings of him in the Jewish Scriptures, even if he was not their primary or original meaning. There are suggestions that the Servant of Isaiah was not an individual but the despised and rejected nation of Israel, as a whole, a nation which had suffered through exile and slavery but whom God would soon rescue and use to bring good news to the nations of the world. This is certainly how many Jewish commentators have understood the passages.

But I recently read a commentator who had an interesting twist on the Servant Songs, and this one in particular, which I believe can illuminate the place of Israel at the time, and which can also help us to reflect on the marginalisation of the Church in our day. His work began by looking for differences, rather than similarities between Christ and the Servant. Did the Servant, for example, actually die? While there is some language about death, slaughtered lambs and so on, the text doesn’t actually mention the death of the Servant. There is also the material on the Servant’s disfigured appearance. People were appalled to see the state of him, and we usually read this as the state of Jesus’ face after the Roman soldiers had beaten him up. But the Hebrew words are used elsewhere not of violent physical injury, but rather of disfiguring illness. We know the fear which people in biblical times had of anything which looked like leprosy, believing it to be highly contagious. Not only was it unpleasant to look at: it was positively dangerous to get too close. So the reaction would be to despise and reject such a sufferer, and to hide one’s face from him. Not only did he have to live with physical suffering: he also had the social stigma of his disability. Perhaps the eunuch really related to this. And if that was so, the whole idea of him being a sacrificial victim to take away sin was completely ruled out, as sacrifices had to be without blemish. So it could be that too close an identification of Jesus with the Suffering Servant simply won’t work.

So let’s return to the corporate identification of the Servant with Israel as a people, with a calling to bring forgiveness and reconciliation between God and the nations. Clearly not every individual was disabled or disfigured, but might Isaiah have been suggesting that the rejection of Israel, and her forced incarceration in Babylonian exile, was similar to the social stigma and isolation which someone with a disfiguring disease would have experienced within Israel? The less politically correct might still today describe as ‘a leper’ someone who was for whatever reason socially outcast and unattractive. It is certainly true that throughout history Jewish people have been ostracised and hated, as both Shakespeare and Hitler would know. Nevertheless Israel as a nation were God’s people, and had a calling to look outwards in mission to gather all peoples to the worship of the one true God.

I’m not saying this is the only, or even the correct, interpretation of these texts, but I find it illuminating as I reflect on the place of the Church in 21st century Western society. People both hate us and reject us; our reputation is at rock bottom, and, like Israel, we thoroughly deserve much of it, for our irrelevance, our corruption and our compromise with the spirit of the age. It is interesting to read Is 53 as not about Jesus but about us, partly because like a mirror the text shows us to ourselves as we really are, but also because it reassures us that we are still God’s people, that our mission and his love for us remains intact, and that nothing which has happened is outside the mysterious purposes of God. It can encourage us to believe that however despised God’s Church may be, we will eventually see the light of life and be satisfied.