OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

3rd before Lent – Isaiah 58:1-12

In today’s Gospel Jesus explains his relationship with the Law and the Prophets, what we would call our Old Testament. So what better week to concentrate on the OT passage? To understand it properly, and to apply it to our own lives, we need as always to look at the context. The text comes from the third section of the book we call Isaiah, generally recognised to come from an unknown prophet known as Trito-Isaiah, or Third Isaiah. His predecessor Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, spoke to the people in exile in Babylon and announced that the covenant relationship with Yahweh was still on, and that he was about to act to free them from exile, and to take them back to their homeland, where the Temple would be rebuilt and they would enjoy a life of complete restoration and shalom – wholeness and harmony. But things didn’t exactly work out like that. Yes, the city walls and the Temple were rebuilt, but the national life wasn’t. Trito-Isaiah paints a picture of a society every bit as oppressive and unjust as that which caused them to go into exile in the first place, and his contemporaries like Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, and Habakkuk show us a society in a real mess. That kind of mess, I believe, is pretty similar to the way of the West in the 21st century, as we cope with those twin legacies of our enlightenment culture, introspection and individualism.

The chapter is laid out like a dialogue between God and the people. First of all Yahweh instructs the prophet to cry out against the people, and then the people respond with an angry question to God: why have we done all the right religious things but you haven’t answered our prayers? The rest of the chapter is God’s response to this accusation, along with glowing promises for the future if they only get things right. But the question is a good one: whey, when religious believers do all the right religious activities and disciplines, is life still in a mess?

First of all, I think we have to have some sympathy for the ‘devout’ Jews. They have lived through the national traumas of the destruction of their homeland and 50 years or so of exile. Yes, God has rescued them, but where exactly do they go from here? Do we need a Temple in order to worship? We’ve managed somehow while we were in Babylon. And what about the monarchy? If we haven’t got a dynastic king, who will be in charge? And how do we get over the national trauma we’ve lived through? We know from two years of covid how things are very different now, in so many ways, so just imagine how they would recover, or how the Ukraine as a nation will quite literally rebuild itself.

So the conditions are just right for a good bout of selfishness. Introspection is all about my own religious practices. I do all the fasting stuff which is required, because it’s apparently required of me. But coupled with individualism, I do it for myself, and I am blind to anyone else. These two sins, quite understandable in the context of post-exilic uncertainty, are what God condemns them for. Their fasting is self-seeking, and leads to conflict and violence. Their selfishness means that while they go through the motions they ignore the cries of the poor and hungry, including their own workers. I have seen churches act in the same kinds of ways when the chips are down and the future seems uncertain. Mission to the outside world goes out of the window, and all the energy goes onto keeping the religious show on the road, keeping the building open for two hours use on a Sunday morning, and making sure nobody messes with the liturgy.

But then God drops the bombshell – what I want is a different kind of fasting. One which cares about others rather than yourself. One which rolls up sleeves and works for the benefit of others and the downfall of injustice. One which loves others instead of pointing violent fingers. That’s the way to get your prayers answered, says God. Live like that and I’ll hear and answer and bless you. It’s all about priorities, and as Jesus might say, loving your neighbours as you love yourselves. And that means living for their benefit, not just your own.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 4 – 1 Kings 17:8-16

One of the sermons I remember most clearly from my days growing up in a Baptist Church was on the text (and all the sermons were on a ‘text’) Mark 4:36 – ‘There were also other boats with him.’ Preachers seemed to delight in the obscurity of the verse God had supposedly given them, but this one really took the biscuit. The point was that it wasn’t just the disciples who benefitted from Jesus’ stilling of the storm. When God is alive and active it is not just about the church: there is what we might call ‘collateral blessing’. Other sailors who knew nothing of Jesus or his message were nevertheless helped and saved by Jesus’ ministry to his own people. When a local church is strong, the community is blessed. The story of Elijah which our lectionary gives us today is a kind of negative counterpart to this idea.

Back at the start of the chapter Elijah the Prophet has been called by God to confront the wicked and idolatrous King Ahab and to declare a drought throughout the land. Prophetic words had real power – just declaring something brought it into being. But the downside of a national drought is that the rain fails to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. But don’t worry, says God. There’s this little brook from which you can drink, and I’ve commanded some ravens to bring you food. Elijah isn’t immune from the drought, but he is cared for through it.

But then, presumably because of Ahab’s stubborn refusal to repent and restore water to his subjects, even Elijah’s little brook dried up. Again God spoke to him, and told him he had commanded a widow to feed him. So off he went to find her in the bustling North Western seaside town of Zarephath. The ravens, listed in Leviticus among the unclean birds, were replaced by a widow, among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the land. Her husband had died, and she only had a young son, unable to provide for her. We know nothing about her relationship with God, or whether or not she was expecting Elijah, but she too may well have been an innocent victim of the King’s evil intransigence. He obviously cared more about saving face himself than he did about the plight of his subjects. Who could imagine that the leaders of a nation would act like that? But the point is that both the righteous and the unrighteous suffer. Only through a miracle, though, are Elijah and the widow and her son provided for.

There is a fascinating resonance in this story with our own times, when many are going hungry and cold because of government policy, including Christians and non-Christians. If would be great if evil only ever rebounded on the heads of those who committed it, but life isn’t like that, and the innocent suffer along with (or at times instead of) the guilty. Yet we have seen God calling many who feel that they can ill afford it themselves to feed the hungry through foodbanks, and to clothe them and their children through clothes banks. We have seen a great upsurge in the way churches and secular organisations alike have responded to poverty, and it is often those at the poorer end of society who have been the most generous. And through it all, God has been at work. Back in the 1990s I was part of a church which ran what we would now call a foodbank, before anyone had heard of foodbanks, and the staff would testify to the regular multiplication of food by God. They know how many food bags they had prepared, but when they counted up the number of people who had come through the doors it often exceeded the resources they had ready. Their only explanation was that God had miraculously multiplied the food in their storeroom. This isn’t just a fairy story about Elijah: it is about God at work, as he is still at work today.

Note the contrast, though, with the Gospel reading for today, which has obviously driven the choice of this OT passage. Elijah received subsistence rations, just enough to keep him and his new family alive. But in the Messianic age to which this story points there is extreme abundance, more than a week’s worth of wine, not so that people can merely survive, but so that they can party like mad. We look to the time when evil and self-seeking will be ended once and for all, and when all God’s people will be fed at the heavenly banquet.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 3 – Isaiah 9:1-4

There is a somewhat tenuous link between today’s Gospel in Matthew 4 and this OT passage, but in keeping with the usual style of this blog we’ll try to think about the passage in its original context rather than merely as a rooting of an OT quotation in the new. We’re in the 730s BC, and the mighty and cruel nation of Assyria is on the move. The first 12 chapters of Isaiah deal with this threat to Israel, and in particular chapters 6 – 9 tell of two nearby kings, Rezin and Pekah, forming an alliance to try to resist the approach of Assyria, and attempting to persuade King Ahaz of Israel to join them. The prophet warns Ahaz against this course of action, and suggests that there is a third alternative to either war of subjugation by Assyria, that of simply trusting in God’s promises of salvation. However, in the latter part of chapter 7 Isaiah appears to change his mind, and perceives Assyria as God’s instrument of judgement on a nation which has abandoned God and sought counsel elsewhere. The result will be thick darkness for the Israelites, with the end of chapter 8 painting a gloomy (literally) picture of the fate of a nation which has turned to the occult rather than to their God. It is in this context that the promises of hope in out passage fall.

The promises may seem a bit obscure to us, but they look back into Israel’s history and would make perfect sense to those to whom they were addressed. The enlargement of the nations was part of God’s original promise to Abraham. Spoils of battle would be divvied out amidst great rejoicing after a victory in war, and a good harvest would similarly be treated as an occasion for great delight and security. The defeat of Midian under Gideon was a story of liberation when God acted supernaturally on behalf of his people against unbelievable odds, ending threat and oppression and bringing freedom. God had a great track record of hearing his people’s desperate cries, so why the need to turn to mediums and spiritists when the chips are down? The ultimate promise, of course, lies in the words which follow and which we have all no doubt heard over the past few weeks. It is the promise of Immanuel, God-with-us, which is as true in the darkest of times as in the nice ones.

There are two questions posed by this text: why does God allow darkness in the first place, and where do I look for help when the chips are down? I have just finished marking a set of essays from my Key Stage 4 RE pupils, and it is fascinating how they see God as there to make everything nice and to take away anything threatening or nasty. The fact that there are wars or that people suffer becomes a tremendous stumbling block for some of them, even as far as disproving the existence of any god, since things would self-evidently be better if he (or she) actually existed. Yet as Christians we know better. We know that God has done something about suffering, he is doing something, and he will do something in the end. We also know that it is how we endure suffering which is far more important than whether we do, and the Bible promises great blessings and spiritual growth for those who cope with suffering well. God doesn’t always remove pain, but he does grow us through it.

These ideas of course are anathema to a comfortable society in which we want everything to go our way now. So we’ll do whatever we can to get rid of the pain and hardship, including trying to drown our sorrows in our addictions, or seeking dodgy ways of finding healing. It is natural, of course, just to want to make the pain go away, and I for one am very grateful for the gift of anaesthetics during my 18 hour operation and in its aftermath. But at a deeper level the Bible often rebukes people who look anywhere they can for help while God is there with open arms waiting for them to turn to him. The key, I think, is co-operation, and the question is ‘Lord, what are you doing with me right now, and how can I join in?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 2 – Isaiah 49:1-7

As I write, I’m preparing to lead a Vision Weekend for a church in the Netherlands, a shortened version of a course I used to run in my last job. I had the task of constructing the Sunday morning Eucharist around the theme of vision, with congregational activity rather than a sermon, yet adhering quite closely to the expected Common Worship order for Communion. So I found myself writing liturgical texts based around the theme of ‘vision’ (texts which are, of course, reverent and seemly and neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter). In particular the penitential section was interesting: we shall be confessing our lack of vision and our ability only to see what is, rather than what could be. This tension is exactly that which is discussed in our OT reading this week, as the ‘Servant of the Lord’ is addressed by God about both his ministry and his feelings about it.

The Servant (and there is still scholarly disagreement about exactly who he is, whether an individual or the nation of Israel as a whole), in the second of his ‘songs’ is feeling discouraged. He has been given a big vision by God, and he was called long ago and polished up in God’s hands until he was ready to begin his work, work which would display God’s splendour. But those big hopes, it appears, have been dashed, and his wonderful ministry, he feels, hasn’t amounted to very much at all. Retirement was for me, and I suspect for many others, a time to look back and ask some painful questions about how much all our hard work for God has actually achieved. I have worked for 70-odd hours a week for 38 years, but what difference has all that really made to anyone? How is the Church any different just because I have been around? Of course I could point you to a few people who have found faith, and continued to grow in discipleship, through my ministry, and a few students of mine have graduated and become ordained, but is that it? Really? In the same way the Servant here expresses his sense of exhaustion and discouragement at what his life has actually been worth. So how does his Master respond?

In reverse order, God seems to do three things for his Servant. The first is to show empathy. V.7 is God putting into his own words how the Servant is obviously feeling: despised and abhorred. God gets it: ministry is hard, and encouragements few. Jesus was to find that to be true in spades, and Moses could have told him about it too, as could so many of the prophets. There’s no sense of rebuke from God though, no ‘Stop whingeing and get on with it’. He just understands. But he isn’t going to play let’s pretend, and he isn’t going to lower the pass mark to make everything OK after all. In fact he raises the stakes, by giving his Servant a new task. You may feel that the job has been too hard, but I’m telling you it was too small. Merely to attempt to declare my splendour to your own people is far too insignificant a job. I’m giving you a bigger role, not just domestic but international. There is a recurring theme in Isaiah about all the nations coming to see in the end that the Jews had been right, and streaming to learn wisdom from them and from him. Kings and princes will come to acknowledge his ministry (v.7b).

But how is all thin going to happen? Because of the Servant’s calling. How will a worldwide ministry grow from such unpromising beginnings? Because, says God, I have ordained it. When I called you, when I nurtured you and prepared you, I knew what I was doing. Didn’t I form you to be my servant from before your birth? Haven’t I strengthened you along every step of the way? That’s because I have purposed all this to happen, and even though you haven’t seen it all yet, and neither have we, What God says happens, eventually. The tenses are interesting: God has called, called and strengthened, but kings and princes will stand up and bow down, because of the Lord. The Servant’s call is renewed, and the outcomes are certain, if not visible yet.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 1 / The Baptism of Christ – Isaiah 42:1-9

Having been brought up in the Baptist denomination and only having come more lately to Anglicanism, you might imagine that baptism was an issue for me. I had been baptised at the age of 18, after years of battling with the feeling that I wasn’t ‘ready’ yet, and certainly not ‘good’ enough to take this step. So when I finally joined the C of E, in order to prepare for ordination, all that I had to do was to get confirmed. The battle here was less theological and more practical. I could not be ordained if I wasn’t confirmed, so I had to suck up any theological scruples I had and get on with it.

Only later did I have the theological tools to analyse what I actually believed about baptism, and to understand that Baptist and Anglican understandings of the rite are very different. I had been brought up to believe that baptism was all about nailing my colours to the mast, and making a public statement of what I believed and how I would live. It was about me giving two things: my commitment to God, and my witness to everyone around me. I later realised that in Anglican theology baptism is not about what I give: it’s about what God gives.

Whether or not we interpret the Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah as being about Jesus or about the nation of Israel as a whole (my preference is for the second), there are some clues in this passage, the first of the Servant Songs, about how God relates to his people and what being his people entails. Baptism, like this passage, is fundamentally about two things: God’s delight in us, and our calling from God.

The two are brought together in the first verse, which forms a kind of abstract or summary of the whole text. It begins with God’s delight in his servant. It starts with relationship. Now that I am retired and have a large garage I have been collecting tools: last Christmas I got a chopsaw, and for my birthday in June I got a bench grinder. I love using these tools; you might even say I delight in them, but I certainly don’t have any relationship with them. I own them and use them, and that’s it. Elsewhere in the OT we see God using other nations to do his will. Both Assyria and Babylon are servants of God to punish the Northern and Southern Kingdoms respectively for their apostasy and disobedience. Later God will call Cyrus, King of Persia, his ‘Messiah’ because he is going to conquer Babylon and thus let the exiles return home. But these nations do not inspire delight in God. Israel/Jesus his servant is different. The relationship is not primarily like a tool to a carpenter, but rather a loving devotion.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a job to do. In Anglican thinking about baptism, the ceremony is actually our ordination to ministry. Often we expect there to be a gap of many years between the time when we are baptised into Christ and when a very few of us might receive a vocation to public ministry and leadership. This is not a biblical pattern. St Paul on the Damascus Road is both converted and called at the same moment. He doesn’t have 20 years to think about it!

So the role of the servant, in whom God delights, is to delight God through his ministry. This forms the rest of our passage. The content is justice, the greatest desire of God’s heart, and the method is not to shout about it but to work for it. He will work with gentleness, fanning into flame those whose passion is almost extinguished, and he will not be discouraged himself, but will work tirelessly until justice fills the earth. Note the dual focus of the servant’s ministry: to God’s people themselves, but wider than that to the Gentiles too. The servant has both a teaching and an evangelistic ministry.

A tall order? The final part of the passage tells us two things, about what God will do, and who he is. We are not alone in our calling to work for the justice and righteousness of God’s kingdom. He takes us by the hand and leads us; he fills us with the power of his Spirit, and he covenants to remain faithful to us.

Finally God tells us about just who it is who wants this kind of relationship with us. He is not some little tinpot idol, unable to see what it going on or what is coming. He is the real deal, the eternal God, the only one worthy of praise, and the only one worth serving.

Had I been a Methodist rather than a Baptist I would have used the beginning of each new year to renew my covenant with God, and to recommit myself to his service. Anglicans have now pinched the famous Covenant prayer and put it in Common Worship. If you use this prayer in your service this Sunday, maybe you can let Isaiah’s words fuel your recommitment to God’s service, and your personal relationship with him.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christmas 2 / Naming and Circumcision of Jesus – Numbers 6:22-27

As a liturgist I love this prayer of blessing, and as a priest one of my favourite parts of taking a service is the end, not because it’s all over and I can go home, but because I get to bless the people. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) gave rise to what is called ‘Speech Act’ theory, in other words the idea that words can have real power not just to describe things, but also to affect things. If I say ‘Sugar is a white crystalline chemical’ that’s a statement of fact (although a philosopher might want to reply ‘What about demerara?’ but you get the idea). But if I say ‘Please could you pass the sugar?’ something happens as a result of my words. We might have a conversation about forgiveness, but if I say ‘I forgive you’ something between us changes. ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ is another piece of speech-act. On a purely psychological level we know only too well the power that our words can have over other people, to tear them down and cause them distress, or to build them up and encourage them. But when you add in the spiritual dimension, that words spoken in God’s name have real spiritual power to bless or curse, then you begin to realise how vitally important words are. When I pronounce the Blessing at the end of a service, or the Absolution at the beginning, something happens. These words which form our passage for today are really powerful and significant words.

Moses is told to give these liturgical words to Aaron and his priestly descendants, so that the words become the channel through which God’s blessing comes to them.  Interestingly the Hebrew ‘you’ here is singular: each ‘blessee’ is targeted individually. But it is interesting not just to see these words as a liturgical prayer, although it was, and was used in Jewish and Christian communities to conclude worship as blessings are today. But the words also give us an insight into what blessing actually looks like, what exactly it is that God wants for us. 1 John 4 tells us that ‘God is love’, but this prayer fleshes that out, as it describes what God, out of his love for each of his children, wishes to bestow on us.

The prayer has six petitions, and the Hebrew words used can fill out their meanings. Bless you is a summary word for all the many ways in which God wants to give us that which will make for our well-being. Keep you is really about protection from all the harmful things which might assail us as we journey through our lives. We might say ‘keep you safe’. Make his face shone upon you is what is known as an anthropomorphism, an attribution to God of human characteristics, in this case a human face. The shining or smiling face is a sign of benevolence, but it also reminds us that darkness is dispelled when the light comes. Be gracious to you gives the idea that none of this blessing is deserved, but rather comes because of the relationship which exists between God and the people who are his. This isn’t unconditional love, a completely non-biblical idea, because the words are for the blessing of God’s own people, those who have had God’s name put on them. But it is undeserved love, which God chooses to give just as any good father will love his kids, even when at times that is most certainly not what they deserve! Turn his face towards you is about God’s remembering of us, his attention towards us, with the intention of acting. In Exodus 3, when God calls Moses, he tells him that he has heard the groaning of his captive people and has ‘remembered’ them. The Hebrew word zacar doesn’t mean to remember something you had forgotten, like that diary appointment which had slipped from your memory but which you remembered just in time to get there. It means to bring to mind a job which needs to be done: ‘I remembered to put the bins out this morning’. This is the same: God looks in our direction with the intention of acting for our good. Give you peace uses the well-known word shalom which means more than just freedom from conflict or trouble. It refers to a whole range of things, such as success and prosperity, wellbeing, physical and emotional health, safety, protection, security, harmony within the family and friendships, and so much more. It’s pretty much anything good we might wish for. The passage ends with a repeat of its opening. God will set his name on us, and will do all the above, in other words bless them.

It is interesting that this text, which comes in a larger portion of Numbers where the people are gearing up for setting out after a year camped at Mt Sinai, is therefore a blessing for the journey. We might say ‘Have a good trip’ or ‘Drive safely!’ When we used to drive down to the South of France each year for our holidays we used to have a blessing which said ‘May all the tractors be behind you’. These words are about what God wants for them as they step out and venture their way through their lives, and so are great words as we step out into a rather scary and uncertain New Year. But linked with the circumcision of Jesus they remind us that his is the name above all names, and to bow the knee before him is the best possible way to find that shalom which is God’s desire for us. Happy New Year!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christmas Day – Isaiah 62:6-12

We have a wealth of choice for our Christmas readings, and I have randomly chosen the OT from Set II, initially, I must confess, because I was fascinated by the ‘sentinels’. This passage comes from part three of the book we call Isaiah, known as ‘Trito-Isaiah’ – chapters 56 – 66, and is probably set during the early years of the nation having returned from their Babylonian exile. Ten years ago next year I spent two weeks in hospital following major surgery for oral cancer. The first 48 hours I was in ITU, still feeling the effects of the operation and the massive amount of morphine they had pumped into me, but then I had another couple of weeks of gradual recovery and constant monitoring. All I wanted was to go home, preferably in time for my birthday (which didn’t happen, so we celebrated in the Costa Coffee in the hospital lobby). But the next day, when I did go home, I can remember the initial relief turning quickly to the boredom of a long road to recovery, via radiotherapy. If you’ve experienced anything like that, you’ll understand the prevailing mood of this period of Israel’s history. Although the people have come home, the glowing promises of health, wealth and prosperity have not quite worked out as Deutero-Isaiah (the writer of chapters 40 – 55) suggested they would. Once the immediate danger to life and limb had passed, a kind of general ennui seems to have settled on the people. They had rebuilt their city and the Temple, but they had not really rebuilt their relationship with God. Into this situation the prophet spoke.

Our passage feels like a bit of a mish-mash, but there is a coherence, even if some parts of it need a bit of exploration.

So why Christmas day for this reading? There is a well-known phenomenon known as the ‘blue Christmas’, a realisation that beneath the sometimes superficial jollity there can lurk all kinds of pain and sadness. The first Christmas since my husband died, or since my girlfriend dumped me; questions about whether I will live to see another Christmas, the pain of separation from family far away, or even the pain of being with family. What ought to be a time of peace, joy, goodwill and all the rest of it is in fact an anxious, fearful and disappointing time for many. In that sense our mood might not be that different from that of the returned exiles. So how does God speak into this situation?

He promises to hear

Just who the ‘sentinels’ or ‘watchmen’ from v.6 are is not clear. Previously Isaiah has referred to the leaders of Israel as watchdogs who can’t bark, as they persistently ignored the threats from nations around them and the prophets’ calls to repentance. But now things have changed, and God has placed new sentinels on the walls to cry out to him tirelessly until he hears and answers. This echoes the parables of the friend in the night and the importunate widow, which tell us that God wants us to pray without ceasing for the justice which so often eludes us. Like the watchmen, God will not rest until evil has been defeated, and that includes the evil which so troubles us at times.

He promises to restore

In another reversal the prophet alludes back to the message of Amos maybe 100 years earlier. Because of the nation’s corruption they will not live in the houses they have built for themselves, nor will they drink the wine they have grown and produced. But now God says that this will no longer be the case. This picture, of enjoying the fruits of their own labour, may be merely an illustration of all kinds of injustice which marred the land. Because of the intercessions of the watchmen God is going to act against corruption and selfishness, and in favour ow his own people.

He promises a mission

Here’s the twist at the end. There’s one little Hebrew word which is very easy to miss, but which I believe gives shape and purpose to the glowing promises of restoration which have made up our passage so far. God’s intention is to raise up a banner, a nes in Hebrew, a technical term in Isaiah particularly, which speaks of the restoration not just of Israel but also the nations. We have seen this motif in recent weeks: the flag is raised and the people flock to it, not just Israel but also those who have realised that God was right after all, and who want to learn righteousness from him. It is part of God’s gift of restoration to us that we are also called to be restorers, just as part of Elijah’s healing after his breakdown was a list of jobs to do for God. We have a mission, and many Christians will know that there is nothing more designed to blow away the blues than seeing people come to faith because of our ministry to them.

Christmas is a time when we have more opportunities than usual to raise the banner of Christ, as many people will come to our services and events in search of ‘atmosphere’. Isaiah calls us to be confident in God’s purposes, longing for his plans for restoration, and so to raise a banner of good news to those who most need to hear it.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 4 – Isaiah 7:10-17

If ever there was a passage to set off the QI General Ignorance klaxon, it’s today’s lectionary reading. We all know it’s a prophetic prediction of the virgin birth, right? Well, no it isn’t, but fortunately we do know in great detail what it is about, so let’s unpack that, and we might find there’s something helpful for us as we move from Advent into the Christmas period.

The first thing to note is that our reading begins ‘Again the Lord spoke …’ We have come in part way through a conversation, so we need to look back a bit to get the gist of what’s going on. Ahaz is the king of Judah, in the Southern Kingdom, and this happens around the 730s BC. Assyria, the latest great empire to arise, from the north east of Israel, is casting aggressive eyes southwards, and has already conquered Israel and Syria, and made their kings Pekah and Rezin puppet monarchs. But these two kings have had enough, and plan to rebel against Tiglath Pileser, king of Assyria. So they have invited Ahaz and the army of Judah to join them. Ahaz, however, has refused, and so Rezin and Pekah respond aggressively, and invade Judah, in the hope that they might bully Ahaz into joining their rebellion. Their plan is to scare the king into action, and quite naturally he is worried. He meets Isaiah the prophet, who seeks to reassure him, by telling him that these two nasty kings will soon have disappeared, along with their threat. Then Isaiah speaks again, and our passage begins.

It appears that Ahaz had been unconvinced, so Isaiah tells him to ask God for a confirmatory sign. But Ahaz is reluctant: maybe he knows from his nation’s history that putting God to the test seldom ends well. Also, he has another plan of his own: he intends to approach Tiglath Pileser himself and pledge allegiance to him if he rescues Judah from these two rebellious kings. But Isaiah insists, and tells him that God will give him a sign whether he likes it or not. This is where a careful reading of the text is important. There’s a young woman (the word needn’t mean ‘virgin’ in the technical sense) who has conceived (not ‘will conceive’) and is pregnant. Some commentators believe Isaiah is referring to his own wife, and it’s almost as though he is inviting the king to be present to witness the birth. Before this child is weaned, he insists, by around two years’ time, the two kings will have vanished and Judah will be safe (although he then goes on to tell Ahaz that the king of Assyria himself will then attack and besiege Jerusalem, but we’ll tiptoe quietly past that for now).

So what Advent hopes does this passage bring to us? Two, I believe. First of all, it reassures us that God knows and understands our weaknesses and failures, our battles and struggles. As a penitential season, Advent invites us to focus on our sins and shortcomings, and leads us to repent. It is good to be reminded that God already knows, and that he longs to speak into our warring emotions, our fears and our powerlessness, to confirm his purposes for us. Sometimes he wants to challenge our human plans and reveal his own, possibly counter-intuitive, ways of behaving. Simply to sit and wait in quiet faith while the country of which you are king is being invaded is not often seen as positive leadership, but that is exactly what God calls Ahaz to do. Advent suggests to us that our human plans might not be the same as God’s purposes for us, but that he longs to speak and direct our ways.

But secondly, the name of this miracle child is to be Immanuel, God with us. It is when we feel most alone, most overwhelmed and most helpless that we need to know this name of God. Advent draws our eyes towards that future when God really will be with us, and we with him, but it also celebrates the fact that that is already true. Not yet in it’s fulness, but nevertheless in reality. God has not left us comfortless, and he has not forsaken us. Advent encourages us to wait patiently for that time which we believe by faith will be ‘God with us’ face to face.

So Isaiah had no idea he was writing a proof text for the virgin birth. Of course NT writers could easily see his writing in the light of what actually happened, and read Mary back into it, but we do him, and ourselves, a disservice if we limit our understanding to that interpretation.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 3 – Isaiah 35

A couple of weeks ago our vicar asked during a sermon how one might sum up the message of the whole Bible in five words. He suggested just two ‘But God’. This would certainly have resonated with the early Acts speeches, where the phrase comes again and again: You crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. Our God is a God who reverses human sin and evil, folly and mischief, who rescues us from the consequences of our sin and stupidity and brings order again out of the chaos we have created. This is a major theme of Advent, as we rekindle hope in dark times, and await and pray for the return of Jesus as judge and general sorter-out of our world. But what might that actually look like? I have often referred to a kind of summary passage from Rev 21: a new heavens and a new earth will mean that death or mourning or crying or pain will be over and done with. But this chapter of Isaiah puts a bit more flesh on the bones, and talks about five different spheres of healing which will come about with the return of Jesus, although of course Isaiah was not prophesying about Jesus, but almost certainly about the return of the people from exile in Babylon and the restoration of their fortunes in a world of international oppression. As we have said before, Isaiah’s hopes for the people did not work out as he might have expected, and we are still waiting for our return from exile to the home where we really belong. But let’s look at the text through the lens of our Advent season, and see what hope it might engender in us.

1)       The Environment

You don’t have to be a Christian to be concerned about the deforestation of our planet, climate change, and all the other fears which have almost become a religion in our times. Activists glue themselves to motorways or hang up in bridges, and environmentalism is taught in our schools with all the fervour with which Christianity was taught in the past. I’m not a climate-change sceptic, but I am a bit sceptical about our human attempts to reverse anything much. The city of Jerusalem was naturally pretty well-watered, but you can imagine the exiles in the desert of Babylon thinking of their torn down and abandoned homeland as parched and dead. Promises of crocuses and cedar trees can be a powerful image of restoration, but for us the image has passed from being a metaphor into an ecological reality. Of course we must all do what we can, but the passage reminds us that our world is ultimately in the control of God, and is his to restore, a truth often underplayed by Christians today.

2)       The Fearful

Isaiah’s second promise is for those who have become fearful, and for whom the events of life have taken their debilitating toll. We are living through a mental health pandemic every bit as real as the Covid one, and any who have suffered from mental illness will know just how physically it can affect us. But there is something else here, I think. God will deal with their fear by vengeance and retribution. This speaks of physical, human enemies, not just psychological ones. The exiles will have known more than their fair share of bullying and oppression, and God promises healing through the removal of their enemies.

3)       The Sick

Healing will be physical as well as emotional, and I note with interest that the kinds of issues which are the subject of God’s healing intervention are what nowadays we would call disabilities. Again Isaiah is probably using these terms as metaphors for the political health of the nation, and the disabling sense of powerlessness which comes from captivity, but in our days when the Western Church has all but lost its Spirit-given ability to heal, and in which disability is celebrated, we may need to remind ourselves of God’s deeper agenda for wholeness.

4)       Nature

Verses 6b and 7 may be a reprise of v.1-2, but they may also take us somewhere deeper, in fact back to the creation itself. As a result of human disobedience nature became hostile to the human race: anything from weeds to wasps became a nuisance or worse to us. Isaiah holds out before his readers a vision of a renewed creation where humans, animals and plants live harmoniously together. This motif lifts the story out of being merely a prediction of rescue from exile, and places it within the eschatological tradition of a perfect world.

5)       The Lost and Sorrowing

Finally Isaiah takes his readers to a highway which again is more than just the desert road back to Jerusalem. Those who choose to walk in the way of holiness and obedience to God will find their way home, and will return with great joy to the place where they really have belonged all along. They will be untouched by the ravages of hostile nature and wicked people, and their bliss will be an eternal one.

Isaiah, and his hearers, could not really see much beyond the joy of their homecoming to the city of Jerusalem, but Advent gives us a longer perspective, as we reread his words in the light of our eternal home. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 2 – Isaiah 11:1-10

One of the things I use in my teaching is the klaxon sound from the ‘General  Ignorance’ section of TV quiz QI. Contestants are asked questions to which the answers seem obvious, but when they (invariably) get them wrong the screen flashes with their wrong answers and a loud klaxon announces their stupidity, to the audience’s collective delight. I often use this device in my lecturing work, and today’s passage provides a classic example of its application. If I were to ask you to whom the prophet is referring in talking about the shoot from Jesse’s stump, I suspect you would immediately answer ‘Jesus!’  Well at that point the klaxon would go mad!

Last week we thought about the situation into which Isaiah was writing. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians who had to all intents and purposes wiped the nation out. Now they  had turned their attention southwards, and Jerusalem had been besieged. It was a desperately scary time in Judah’s history, yet the prophet could speak out a vision of what lay beyond the present troubles. He paints what we might be tempted to call a somewhat fanciful picture of the peace and harmony which was to come, when even the natural enemies of the animal kingdom would live together without feeling the need to eat one another. And, as we mentioned last week, the foreign nations of the world would stream to Jerusalem to learn from the God of the Jews. All this was going to come through a new king, from the Davidic line, who, as a Spirit-filled leader would rule with wisdom, justice and equity. So as Christians today we naturally think ‘Jesus’. Isaiah’s contemporaries, however, would hear him very differently.

A new king, Hezekiah, had recently come to the throne, and the nation’s hopes lay in him. He had set out on a series of reforms, attempting to rid the nation of idolatry, renewing the worship through the priestly and Levitical ministries, calling the rich influencers back to the true worship of God, and restoring the welcome to outsiders at Judah’s worship festivals. These policies appeared to be going down well, and the more spiritually-minded Jews welcomed even more of the same, which would help them to achieve Isaiah’s dream. His words must have been heard as a prediction for the continuation of Hezekiah’s just reign.

Yet ultimately this was not to happen, and Hezekiah failed to provide the magic bullet which would bring in this idyllic existence. His reign ended not in total disaster, but in some less that helpful ways, and the nation’s decline was not ultimately halted. Rather than the remaining stragglers from the North finding a home in Judah,  Jerusalem was destroyed and the people went into exile in Babylon. Whatever good he might have achieved, Hezekiah did not turn out to be the Saviour of the Universe for whom the people had hoped. Still today we are waiting for this glorious state of affairs to become reality, but with the benefit of hindsight we now do believe that only king Jesus, when his reign is fully manifested. So maybe no klaxon after all.

During Advent we focus on that future reign of Jesus, and the glorious life of the world to come, but this passage gives us a profound and vital message as we too live through a period of great threat and crisis. In particular it warns us against pinning our hopes onto any human leader, a trait which has been common in our culture since the 17th century. Now that we have scientists, we can easily believe that in their hands lies the healthy future of our planet. Or we can pin our hopes onto the next leader, whether red, yellow or green, who will get rid of this evil lot and turn our fortunes. The more a nation lets go of God, the more human solutions are the only options. Yet like Hezekiah all of them will ultimately fail, because like all of us they have feet of clay.

Advent, then, provides for us a healthy reminder that no human being is up to the job of being Saviour of the Universe. It reminds us of our need of a Saviour with more than merely human power and authority. It reminds us to look not to human resources, but to God’s throne in heaven from where he will ultimately come and reign in the new heavens and new earth. Yes, we pray for our human leaders, but above all we pray for the reign of God to be manifest among us. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus. Our hope is in nothing less.