OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Pentecost – Numbers 11:24-30

Once again our lectionary compilers have given us Daily Breadcrumbs here, with only half the story and no context, so let’s begin with the whole chapter (always a good idea) and try to put it in context. The Israelites have just left Sinai after around a year camped there, and almost immediately there is trouble. The people start complaining again, causing God to send fire on them, which only abates when Moses intercedes (again!). Then off they go again, moaning not about their unspecified hardships as in v.1, but this time about the manna which God has graciously provided for them, to the point where they wish they were back in Egypt because they used to have melons and garlic. Moses hears the wailing, and so does God, who decides to act to help Moses with the lonely and heartbreaking job of leadership, a job which has made him ask God just to kill him and get it over with.

So God promises in v.16-18 to ease Moses’ burden by giving him other leaders to work with him. In the meantime God provides quail for the people to help with their monotonous diet of manna, but then we come to our passage, the fulfilment of the promise given earlier. 70 elders are called out and equipped with the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who dwelt within Moses. The result was a one-off prophetic ministry.

It is not easy to understand how this actually helped Moses, however. There is no record of the elders doing much more in terms of working with Moses to deal with his miserable people, and the fact that they ‘prophesied’ probably means something very different from either the work of the canonical OT prophets or current prophecy within the charismatic movement. It probably simply refers to some kind of ecstatic state which was believed to demonstrate the fact that the Spirit had been received, and we can only imagine what that kind of behaviour might have looked like. The non-attendance of Eldad and Medad seems merely to function as a set-up for the punch-line of this passage: ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (v.29)

So is this passage more than a set-up for Pentecost? The more common OT reading from Joel 2 looks forward to a time when all God’s people would have the Spirit on them, and in his speech Peter deliberately emphasises the universality of the gift of the Holy Spirit, quoting Joel as he does so. Or are we perhaps meant to notice the differences between Acts 2 and the OT work of the Spirit? Moses wishes that all God’s people could receive the Spirit, but they don’t, only 70 of them. They get worked up into a prophetic frenzy, but only once. And very little seems to happen after the initial experience of receiving the Spirit. There is jealously and the desire to protect the Spirit from those who don’t quite keep the rules, or maybe to protect them from the Spirit! And the whole event comes at a time of great disaster, when Moses has been brought to the point of suicide.

In Acts 2 we see a very different story. The disciples are filled with joy at the resurrection, ascension and promise of Jesus. The Spirit comes, and the result is visible and audible, as it always is when the Spirit comes on people in the NT, but the fruit is more than clear to see: 3,000 converts, followed by healings, deliverance, and even raising from the dead. And anyone can receive this Spirit, not just leaders or elders. Still today many are hesitant, and regard the power of the Holy Spirit as like a bare electricity wire from which we do well to keep as far away as possible. Yet in the NT we see Moses’ wish and Joel’s prophecy being fulfilled. Will we celebrate Pentecost on Sunday with great joy? Will we be there, or would we prefer to stay indoors? And will the celebration of the festival allow more effective ministry and more exuberant joy in the Church? We can only pray for the latter, for all God’s people without exception.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday After Ascension – Ezekiel 26:24-28

This week we are in a period of waiting, between Ascension and Pentecost. Just as the disciples spent these days in fervent prayer, so the Church has often used this time as a time of waiting and preparing for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with initiatives such as ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. But it is worth asking ourselves just what it is that we are waiting for. What exactly are we expecting to happen as we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost? I guess that will vary. For some, who already know and understand the Spirit and his gifts, it will basically be more of the same, with perhaps a chance to receive afresh, to be topped up with the Spirit, since we all leak. For others the story of Acts 2 remains a bit of a mystery, and a weird one at that, which engenders little in the way of expectation. I can remember being part of a team organising a Pentecost celebration in our local cathedral, and someone had the idea of showing children with sparkly (and now politically incorrect) shapes from the ceiling to represent the flames of fire coming down on their heads. When I suggested that we might just skip that and pray for them to receive the fire of the Spirit directly, I was greeted with stunned silence. We’re sometimes happier with the symbols that we are with the reality.

In an otherwise gloomy and negative book these few verses from Ezekiel speak of a people in waiting. The prophet has used the reality of their exile to blame them for getting into this mess through their own deliberate fault. As I have mentioned before, the prophet nowhere speaks of God’s love for his people as a motive for restoring them. But he does speak about four things God is intending to do in order to bring about their healing. Maybe there are some parallels with our waiting and our celebration of Pentecost, and how we might perhaps pray for the Church.

God will gather us

Sin often results in breaking and fragmenting, whether because of racism, sectarianism, or, in this case, displacement. God’s solution is not to try to ‘ban the boats’, but rather to gather people back together again and to give them a future. It has often been noted that Pentecost is a kind of reversal of Babel, where language caused the people to be scattered and separated, but now communication is restored through the Spirit’s gift. It is tragic that the work of the Holy Spirit has so often divided the Church, and so we wait prayerfully for his healing of our divisions and differences.

God will cleanse us

Sin pollutes us, and the image of sprinkling and cleansing, taken up in the sacrament of Baptism, is a major one in Scripture. Note that God never says ‘That’s OK’, but he does say ‘I forgive you’, which is a very different thing. Whilst the Israelites had committed many sins, it is interesting that it is idolatry which is specifically mentioned here. The prophet recognises that false worship leads inexorably to false living, so we pray for God’s church not just to be one, but also to be holy.

God will change us

Recently I have been teaching about discipleship and how we might measure it, how we can see whether in fact our ministry is helping people to grow more Christ-like. Two very different attempts to do this both contain one very similar metric. One calls it ‘perspective’, in other words how well people are growing to think and see things as God sees them, as the mind of Christ grows in them. It’s not so much ‘What would Jesus do?’ as ‘What would Jesus think?’ about any particular situation. And another scheme talks about ‘consequence’ the degree to which people’s so-called faith inspires them to live differently, and affects their finances, how they vote at elections, and so on. Discipleship is a long and gradual journey, a ‘long obedience in the same direction’ to quote Nietzsche, but here God promises a heart transplant which will change our desire to live for God, and to obey him. In a culture where we instinctively reject any authority, we might pray for a new heart for the Church, which gladly submits our all to God and to his purposes.

God will reaffirm the covenant

The words in v.28 about the relationship between God and his people are the standard form of the covenant, the ‘deal’ between us, and come again and again in the OT. They are going to be used again in Isaiah 40:1 when that prophet announces the return from exile to their homeland: ‘Comfort my people says your God.’ Ezekiel has roundly condemned the nation throughout his book for their sin, and yet God remains faithful and willing to give them a second chance (in fact an nth chance) to live in relationship with him. In spite of our sin, weakness, idolatry and compromise, the deal is still on! Perhaps that is our greatest prayer: that God will restore us to be the Church he has always intended us to be. Come, Holy Spirit!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Genesis 8:20 – 9:17

In the final part of this mini-series on the Flood narrative we come to the happy ending, although actually it is not that happy. We may have been struggling with the idea of a God who, in a fit of anger, regrets that he has made the world and destroys almost all of its inhabitants with a flood. We have used the picture of a divine reboot to get things running smoothly again, although without too much hope for anything different to happen in the future. God himself knows that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood’, so even his hopes must have been low. Yet this story is one of grace and patience, of a God who will try anything to restore the relationships which have been so tragically broken.

But first we need to get that grace in context. It is possible to read the story as though God woke up in a bad mood one morning and snapped his destructive fingers in a fit of pique. In fact the chapters from Gen 3 to 6, chapters which cover eight generations, show a continuous downward spiral, from Adam and Eve’s disobedience, Cain’s murder, through to the spiritual evil of the demonic Nephilim. God had put up with human sin for hundreds of years, and did not lightly come to the conclusion that drastic punishment was needed. But in the aftermath of that, his grace one more rises to the fore, as he makes a covenant with his creation.

The first thing to note is that covenants are made between parties who have a relationship. They are not like the dreadful ‘Married at first sight’ TV shows. The fact that God makes a covenant with all the created order is significant, since it implies relationship. In the 17th century a new philosophy arose, which saw God as the great Creator who had now finished his wonderful work and put it on the shelf, having nothing more to do with it, like a clockmaker who winds up his machine and leaves it to get on with it. God has no ongoing relationship with us or his world. As the Creator he is worthy of our respect, but not of our love or worship. Deism soon died out to be replaced by atheism, although it is still alive and well in the Masonic Lodge, the Scouting Movement and the Anglican 8 o’clock Communion service. The fact that God has relationship enough with his created world to make a covenant with it gives the lie to this heresy. Note too that it is all living creatures. We are used to thinking about God’s covenant with his chosen people, the Jews, but here his favour is for everyone, a favour which will be worked out finally when all nations come to worship at his footstool.

The second thing to note here, though, is that this covenant is entirely one-sided. Elsewhere in the Bible covenants are conditional. If you keep my commandments, I will bless you and be your God, that sort of thing. Not this one. This is purely about God’s desire not to wipe us all out again. This is pure grace, even though, as we have mentioned, God knows exactly what sinful human hearts are like. Any images we have of a grumpy and spiteful God need to be tempered by this truth. There are some regulations about what may and may not be eaten, and vegetarianism seems to be a thing of the past, and there is a reminder of the sanctity of human life which must not be ended by bloodshed and murder, but nowhere is God’s blessing stated to be dependant on these regulations.

The third significant feature of this narrative is the rainbow, which we so often misunderstand. While the rainbow is a natural feature which we all recognise, its significance here is often missed. The word ‘bow’ (qesheth) refers primarily to the weapon used in hunting and in warfare. It only carries the meaning of a rainbow because of the similarity in shape. So God is quite literally ‘hanging up his bow’ in the sky, in the same way we are used to a boxer hanging up his gloves. In other words, there will be no more fighting. The old song about ‘When you see a rainbow, remember God loves you’ misses the point entirely. The heavenly bow is a sign for God, not for us, which he will see and remember (zacar) his grace and mercy.

Of course as Christian readers of the OT we can see here a foreshadowing of that time when the Messiah came not to destroy his enemies but to show mercy on them through his death, knowing full well that most would turn away from him. As in so much of the OT, we see mercy triumphing over judgement. Hallelujah, what a saviour!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 – Genesis 8:1-19

This week we have part 2 of the flood narrative which we began last week. It’s a well-known story, and we enjoy the images of birds flying away, and a dove with an olive twig, which has become a universal symbol of peace and rest. Sadly our lectionary reading doesn’t quite complete the chapter, and there is an amusing irony in some of the animals who had been saved from a watery death, no doubt feeling relieved that they are safe back on dry land, then being chosen for sacrifices. But I want to take a slightly different tack this week, and focus on one idea, from a Hebrew word which occurs in v.1. The word is zacar (pronounced zaarkar) and it is usually translated ‘remember’. God remembered Noah.

This word is used 235 times in the OT, and some notable examples would be God remembering his people in slavery in Egypt (Ex 6), remembering Abraham when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed (Gen 19), and remembering Samson one last time (Judg 6). In our culture we usually think of remembering something which we have previously forgotten. We suddenly remember where we put our car keys, or someone’s birthday, or to pick up some milk from the shops on the way home. So the sense we get from our English translations is that God had forgotten Noah, presumably because he was preoccupied with other things, but then one day thought ‘Oh my goodness! Noah! I’ve left him floating around! Oops – better sort that one out!’  

But the Hebrew sense of zacar isn’t like that, you’ll be glad to hear. When God remembers someone, he decides that the time has come to act for their good, to help them. The only thing that God is capable of forgetting is our sin. Otherwise we’re all held constantly in his heart and mind. So why then do we sometimes feel that God has forgotten us? Even Jesus felt himself to be forsaken by his Father as he died on the cross. And why does God seem to decide to zacar us at odd times, and often after some delay? If you add up the dates from our passage, it took around seven and a half months before God allowed Noah and his family out of the ark. Even round the world cruises don’t usually last that long. If he hadn’t forgotten him, why did it take so long to remember him? Maybe you have lived through times when it appeared that you had slipped out of God’s memory. Maybe you have had to wait for him to focus back on you and do something. It’s one of the hardest times to live through, and those periods really do make us question whether or not God really loves us, or even if he is in any way interested in us.

Well, let me tell you the answer to that question: why does God appear to forget us? The answer is: I’ve no idea. Frankly that isn’t how I’d play it if I were God. But he does. He decides at times to bring us to the front of his attention and act for us, and at other times not to. Our problem is that we don’t like waiting, but it appears that sometimes God thinks that waiting is good for us, so his loving purposes for us mean that we don’t get instant answers to prayers of solutions to our problems. Just as Noah was left for months floating around aimlessly until God ‘remembered’ him, so we can be left bereft, sometimes for years, until one day God starts to act. That’s how it is, like it or not.

So that leaves us with a choice. We can rail against it, moan and complain, or perhaps we can stop praying about the situation altogether, deciding that there’s simply no point since God clearly has forgotten us, or has taken against us for some reason. Or we can work with him. We can choose to trust him, that he hasn’t forgotten us, and is quietly working out his purposes for us. In the words of Maggi Dawn’s song, we can ‘sing in the darkness, and wait without fear’, confident that sooner or later he will zacar us and act for our redemption from whatever is troubling us. At the end of the day, it comes down to what we believe about God, and whether we really are confident of his love, goodness and justice. Waiting for him to remember raises important questions, and can hold up a mirror to our faith, a mirror which it would be more comfortable not to look into.