Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 5 – Isaiah 55:10-13 (related)

It is almost universally accepted that the book which we call ‘Isaiah’ comes from three different authors and three different periods. The middle section, which today’s lection draws to a close, runs from chapters 40 – 55, and comes from the time close to the end of the exile, when after a period of letting his people stew and reflect on their unfaithfulness, God is finally going to comfort them, assure them that their sin has been paid for, and bring them home to Jerusalem. Having heard this message, the exiles, I would imagine, must have had mixed feelings. Relief, of course, particularly because of those six words with which this section (‘Deutero- or Second Isaiah’) begins: ‘Comfort my people says your God’. That phrase reflects the covenant deal which comes time and again throughout the OT – ‘You shall be my people and I will be your God’. The pronouns which the prophet uses here are vital. They emphasise, to a nation who no doubt felt that they had really blown it with God this time, and broken the covenant once and for all, that in fact the deal is still on. My people, your God. Phew – what a relief! Is there nothing we can do to offend God so much that he simply abandons us? Not according to this prophet.

But I wonder whether there was another side to the people’s reaction: we’ll believe that when we see it! Hope deferred, says Proverbs 13, makes the heart grow sick. When we suffer so much, and for so long, we really can abandon hope, and every promise of God’s goodness and redemption simply serves to rub our noses in our pain and distress. Cynicism is the sickness of heart which can so easily result. Singing those dreadful worship-songs in church, all about how good and wonderful God is, can be profoundly painful when that simply isn’t your experience. So perhaps just as the prophet began his work with words of comfort, he ends with words of assurance for the downtrodden and cynical. How can we believe these words? Answer: because they are God’s words, and they have power behind them.

The prophet uses a poem which attacks our senses to make the point as strongly and as emotionally as he can. We can feel the cool rain and the freezing snow, even in Babylon in the middle of a desert. We can smell the fragrance of seeds sprouting from damp earth, and of the baking bread, and we can almost taste it in our mouths. And when you are set free from your slavery, says the prophet, all creation is going to line the route home to cheer you on your way. Picture piles on top of picture as abundance surrounds the broken and dispirited people on their way back to their homeland. How can this ‘word’ be trusted? Simply because God said it. It is going to happen, and indeed so it did.

But before we all get carried away, spare a thought for today’s Gospel, the parable of the sower. Again there is a picture of abundance, with up to 100-fold return, but that isn’t the whole story. For Isaiah God’s word is effective full stop. But for Jesus’ sower it all depends on the soil. And there is one of the big paradoxes of the Christian faith. We have an almighty, all-powerful God who rules the universe and can do anything he likes, who simply speaks new things into existence. And yet he chooses to allow himself to be limited by us humans. He doesn’t always get his way: he wouldn’t have told us to pray ‘Your kingdom come’ if it was simply automatic. For those who suffer, who find themselves in all kinds of exiles, we have to live with the purposes of God, which he promises will surely come to pass, not happening because of human sin and rebellion. This paradox might drive us to despair, but it certainly ought to drive us to fervent prayer.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 4 – Zechariah 9:9-12 (Related)

As you will have noticed, I like to take our OT passages as a whole (and often as more than a whole as we place the allotted verses in a larger context). But this week I was struck by one phrase, and decided it was worth exploring. The phrase comes in v.12: ‘prisoners of hope’. What’s all that about then? Isn’t hope a good thing? How then can it imprison us? There’s something important here to explore, particularly from the context in which we’re all living at the moment.

To understand the phrase, we do, of course, have to look at the rest of the passage. It’s a prophetic oracle of restoration after exile, but the language is important. It uses what’s called the Zion tradition, a belief among earlier prophets that God would ride out as a mighty warrior to protect Jerusalem from her enemies. You can find this kind of language in the Psalms, notably  2, 46, 47 and 48, as well as in some prophetic books. When the Holy City is under threat God will rouse himself and come to her rescue, scattering and punishing her enemies and renewing his reign over them. This is the kind of language used in this passage, although of course the strange reference to donkeys makes us think immediately of Palm Sunday, a thought to which we shall return.

Well, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t explain why hope might become a prison. Here the context might help us. The nation, not her enemies, has been scattered. Jerusalem has been smashed down, and the nation has suffered abject defeat and captivity in exile. And contrary to expectations God apparently did not lift and finger to help: indeed many prophets have said that it was God himself who did the defeating and scattering.

And yet the Zion theology was still alive and strong. People were still hoping that the Divine Warrior might yet wake up and rescue them by smashing up their enemies. It is this very hope which keeps them prisoners, says Zechariah. The expectation that God will do what he has always done will not die, and so they are kept imprisoned, and, significantly, prevented from seeing any other outcome. They have put God in a box, and in so doing have boxed themselves in. In fact you can see that this hope has survived into the NT when the disciples ask Jesus, just before his ascension, ‘Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6). Jesus has tried to subvert this Zion Warrior tradition by the style of his entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but like many the disciples were kept prisoner by their hope, and simply hadn’t got the message that God was acting though Jesus in a new and different way.

This raises an important question for us. What from the past might be imprisoning us, and preventing us from expecting that God will do something new and different? I can remember as a keen young charismatic in the 80s hearing someone commenting that the frequent charismatic prayer ‘Lord, do it again!’ was a much less biblical prayer than ‘Lord, do something new!’ So often our imagination cannot stretch beyond more of the same, a repeat performance of what we have seen in the past. It is this limited vision which can make us into prisoners.

At a time when we are all longing to ‘get back to normal’ this might just be an important word from God to his Church. Zechariah describes this prison of hope as a ‘waterless pit’, a place of dryness, frustration and dashed expectations. God’s desire is to return us to a ‘fortress’, a strong place from where we can experience safety, confidence, and more blessing than ever before.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 3 – Jeremiah 28:5-9 (Related)

I know I sound like a stuck record but once again the lectionary has filleted this passage out of its context so as to make it almost incomprehensible. We really can’t make sense of v.5-9 without knowing what is going on in 1-4, and what is going to go on in 10-17. So let’s look instead at the chapter as a whole.

Just in the very early stages of the exile, when most of Israel was living as a vassal state under Babylonian rule, the prophet Hananiah, who is helpfully described by the heading in my Bible as a ‘false prophet’, goes public in the Temple with his prediction that this will all be over within two years, because God is going to break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon (a phrase which he repeats twice for emphasis). It is interesting to note what this will look like in detail: the Temple will be undesecrated again, the sacred articles nicked by Nebuchadnezzar will be returned, the king will be back on his throne, and those who have been deported will come back. In other words, everything will be back to normal. The brief period of oppression will have been a tiny blip in the fortunes of Israel, but life will soon carry on as before.

I’m writing this in the week when lockdown in the UK is being dramatically eased, and on the morning of a day when new charts demonstrate that the global pandemic of coronavirus is still peaking, even if here in England things are calming down a bit. We all want to get back to normal, even though some of us are wondering what the ‘new normal’ will look like. There is a natural human tendency to avoid pain and discomfort, and so it should be – we have names for people who deliberately go out to seek or inflict pain. So Hananiah represents the voice of this human tendency – don’t worry, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, and like Boris after Cumminsgate, we can all just ‘move on’.

But into this understandable human inclination to avoid hardship comes the voice of God, through the genuine prophet Jeremiah. Again, look closely at what he says. First of all he really wants Hananiah’s words to be true. He’d love it if this was going to pan out like that. Jeremiah has a reputation for being a bit of a misery, but he is no more keen on exile and slavery than the next man. However, he senses that God’s purposes are different – the rest of the chapter spells out his view on things. But he also notes something important. Many prophets in the past spoke the unpopular message of war, disaster and plague, and current events seem to be validating their message. Perhaps that is the job of prophets; that’s why we find them so difficult to cope with, and why so often we silence their voices. But what about those who speak peace instead? Jeremiah’s point is that like their more negative brothers and sisters their message needs to be validated by actual events. It isn’t the case that prophets never say good things or bring comfort: just look at Isaiah 40 – 55. But the test is what actually happens. And most of the time it is the prophets of doom who actually turn out to have been speaking from God.

This chapter, then, gives us a meditation on the nature of the prophetic, but also reminds us of an important biblical principle: suffering, unpleasant though it is, can do us good. It can be used by God to shape our characters, to correct our weaknesses, to reorientate our direction and realign our priorities. Everything within us as humans wants to avoid it, but the Bible constantly tells us of its value, and how we should seek the hand of God through it to draw us closer to him.

How have you been praying for our nation and our world during the pandemic? Like all of us I have, of course, been praying for it to go away and leave us alone, but more often I have found myself praying that we would learn the lessons God wants to teach us through it. To return to normal without that happening would be an even greater disaster, I believe.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 2 – Jeremiah 20:7-13 (Related)

I love a good courtroom drama, and my wife and I particularly love Judge John Deed (I think my wife particularly loves him!) I’m always struck by the swearing in of witnesses, who have to promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I wonder whether as Christians we do the same thing when we give witness to our faith?

Some readers may know that I’m in the final stages of doctoral studies which has meant a lot of thinking about charismatic-type worship, and in particular some analysis of what it is we’re singing in our worship songs. One of the common critiques of the worship-song culture is that it can paint the Christian life as rosy all the time. When we’re in God’s presence all our problems disappear; we’re walking in faith and victory; and there’s no guilt nor fear when we draw near – that kind of thing. Well Jeremiah could never be accused of such triumphalism!

In today’s OT reading we see an incredible outpouring of emotion by the prophet. Just have another look at what he’s saying about his relationship with God. The first, and most damning critique is that God has deceived him – we mentioned this a couple of weeks ago. God has played a nasty trick on him, lied to him in effect. As a result he is ridiculed, insulted, has become a reproach to all, especially his so-called friends, and what he wants to do above all is to run away. But even then he’s got no choice, because his prophetic calling burns like a fire within him, and he simply has no option but to keep on saying the very things which got him into this mess.

Some of us know the feeling. You try and do the right thing, and you get stick for it. I was bullied out of one parish in which I served, partly because I refused to collude with the ‘niceness’ which covered up problems and swept difficult issues under the carpet. Some of us have tried to maintain standards at work and got in trouble for it. Some of us may have blown whistles on wrong behaviour. And none of us has skin as thick or shoulders as broad as we’d like to think we have. And it hurts. Jeremiah moves on in v.11 but even then he is hardly an example of Christian charity – what keeps him going is the hope that one day God will raise his hand against his enemies, and they’ll stumble, fall and be completely and eternally shamed. No loving forgiveness there then.

Note also the amazing mood swings which Jeremiah exhibits. In v.7-10 he’s moaning about how awful he feels, then he’s holding out for the vengeance of God, then v.13 is a song of praise for the God who rescues him, and then in v.14, once again conveniently missed out by our lectionary, he’s cursing the day he was born. Hardly a picture of stability, and not often words which find their way into charismatic worship songs.

So what about us? How can this passage help us? Well, the liturgist in me recognises a form called ‘lament’, a well-known formula used often, for example in the Psalms, to get things off our chests. The formula is pretty standard: you complain against God, you explain why, but then you express your trust in him anyway, whether you feel it or not, as a way of defying what’s going on in the face of what you actually believe (or want to believe) about God. It’s raw, it’s painful and it’s real, and we don’t do nearly enough of it in Christian worship. We might be telling the truth when we sing about our wonderful lives of faith and victory, but we’re almost certainly not telling the whole truth. Or alternatively our worship is constantly so grovelly and miserable that we never break through to the praise: both are equally destructive. Today Jeremiah gives us permission to be miserable, to experience mental health issues, to feel abandoned and ashamed, but he also points us to the God who is, believe it or not, faithful and who will, in the end, vindicate us.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 1 – Exodus 19:2-8a (Related)

I’m writing this on my first day of retirement. I have served the Church of England I hope faithfully for 39 years, and now I’m free to do what I want. You can’t help, at a time like this, look back over your career. Yesterday a friend rang me to say ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ That was lovely, but to be honest at the moment all I can think of are my failures and defeats. I have often asked myself if I could do it all over again, would I go and do something very different, like being a lumberjack? I wonder if I had known what was to happen, I would have gone and done something less exciting, like Chartered Accountancy or something. Perhaps it’s better not to know, but there have been times when I have said to God, with Jeremiah ‘ You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived!’ (20:7). It can be quite hard training ordinands for their minitry on days when you feel you wouldn’t wish the C of E on your worst enemy!

I wonder if you noticed the deal in this story, which lies in the chapter before the Ten Commandments are given by God? He promises the privilege of being his special people ‘if you obey me fully and keep my covenant’. The people’s unanimous response is ‘We will do everything the Lord has said’. But only in the next chapter is the covenant, the deal, set out clearly. They’ve agreed to keep it, but they haven’t yet been told what it entails. Sounds a bit like joining the Masons, where you swear on your life not to reveal any ‘secrets’, but you only discover what secrets you’ve promised not to reveal until you progress through the ranks. So isn’t all this a bit unfair on God’s part?

Maybe the key idea here is ‘trust’, and the key verse v.4. ‘You yourselves have seen what I did.’ These people had a history with God, and in the light of that there is a fundamental understanding that he is for them, that he acts to bless them, that his purposes for them are good, not evil. When you trust someone you are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It just isn’t conceivable, after what they have been through, to believe that God isn’t going to act justly towards them. So they have no problem, in theory at least, with agreeing to this covenant deal without actually knowing in details what it means.

My son has a friend who has made his home in another country, where they have seen significantly less damage from the Covid pandemic. In reflecting on this, he contrasted his country with the UK, and decided that where he lived the people basically like, respect and trust the government, and so are happy to obey the lockdown rules, which significantly lowered the impact of the virus. Here the levels of trust in the government are under the floorboards, lying has become commonplace, and slogans have replaced strategies, and that’s without the eyesight-testing antics of the man who actually runs the country. Trust is vital for any society, and the Israelites trusted their God, and so were willing to commit themselves to him (although of course the reality became very different – God is far more trustworthy than the people were).

How are you with trusting God? What have you seen that he did? What have you got to look back on, times when God has proved his faithfulness and trustworthiness to you? How does that build your trust in him for the future? Are you able to give him the benefit of the doubt, even when his actions in your life seem decidedly doubtful? Maybe today is a day to look back, count your blessings, and recommit yourself to him for the future, come what may.