John 3:16 Part 2 – Understanding the Grammar
Epiphany 3 – Genesis 14:17-20
What on earth is this all about? Even a read of the whole chapter (which is always a good idea, as you will have become sick of me saying) only adds to the confusion. What is going on here, and how in any way will it be edifying for me to hear about it? Let me try to shed some light.
On one level this is a political story about two coalitions of kings trying to control the major trade route through the area. For kings, of course, think tribal chieftains: these are not great nations and mighty emperors we’re talking about here. But the group from the South had been ruled for 12 years by the group from the East, and they had had enough, so revolt ensued. The southern lot were roundly defeated by the eastern lot, and their towns were sacked and prisoners taken. But what is significant is that Lot, Abram’s nephew, who had chosen to go and live in Sodom, a proverbially evil place, was also captured, along with his worldly goods. Abram gets to hear about this, and so gathers a small army and sets out on what looks like a suicidal rescue mission. However, God is with him, and Lot and his goods are saved.
As Abram returns he is met by a jubilant King of Sodom, no doubt intent on thanking him for his rescue mission. But he is upstaged by the sudden appearance of Melchizedek, king of Salem (the same word as shalom – peace, and his name means ‘King of Righteousness’). The very different responses of these two contrasting kings is the crux of this story, which is actually about how Abram is going to live out the calling he received from God two chapters earlier. The King of Sodom and King Melchizedek sit on his shoulders like the little angel and demon you see in cartoons: which way will Abram choose to go?
The King of Sodom is business-like: let’s do a deal. I’d quite like to have back the people you rescued, but you can keep all the spoils. This sounds sensible: after all the spoils of war are normally due to the victor, and Abram can certainly live without a bunch of extra Sodomites. But Melchizedek’s approach is very different. He offers Abram bread and wine, here representing the simplest of ordinary food essential to life, and a blessing which is far more about God than it is about Abram. Abram chooses to refuse the riches offered to him by Sodom, not wishing ever to be beholden to a pagan king in the living out of his call from God. Apart from the legitimate expenses of the journey, he will have none of it, preferring the blessing of God and the simple provision he needs.
Melchizedek is mentioned a few more times in the Bible. In Psalm 110 he is mentioned as the originator of the priesthood which Christ came later to fulfil. The letter to the Hebrews explains in chapters 5 and 7 that Melchizedek’s priesthood is the original and best, and that the later priesthood based on the tribe of Levi is not the real thing, thus proving to Jewish Christians that Jesus is better than their previous faith to which they may feel temped to revert.
This strange story highlights a decision which all those who are called by God have to face. What do we have to do to remain faithful to that original call? And what’s in it for us? Interestingly this is a question raised by Peter in Mk 10. There is fortunately, little financial gain to be made from Christian ministry, but the question is about where our hears and sights are fixed, and how beholden we want to allow ourselves to become to what this world has to offer. Abram passes this test with flying colours: how are we doing?
John 3:16 Part 1 – Reading the Words
How to Lament Part 2
Psalms of Individual Lament:
3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89*, 120, 139, 141, 142.
Psalms of Corporate Lement:
12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129
Psalms of Penitence:
6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 2 – 1 Samuel 3:1-21
The first half of this chapter is a great Sunday School story: I can remember as a child loving the hymn based on it, James Burns’ Hushed was the evening hymn, set to Arthur Sullivan’s great tune. After that, though, it turns a bit nasty, so we keep that part out of the children’s ears, and safely inside those square brackets. But the chapter as a whole is a watershed for Israel, and a challenge for all who are positions of leadership today. To understand why, we’ll have to read around the passage a bit (never a bad idea).
Samuel, like so many other key leaders in the Bible, had been a miracle baby, and now as promised he was apprenticed to Eli the priest at the sanctuary in Shiloh. But around the key story we are given a lot more other information about the state of the nation at this time. 3:1 tells us that the word of the Lord and vision from him were rare, and interestingly the next verse tells us that Eli himself was virtually blind. But there was more to it than that. Whilst we have no record of Eli ever bringing prophetic messages from God, nor in fact doing very much at all in terms of his priestly leadership, he does seem to spend a lot of his time sitting around on a throne (4:13), and wringing his hands over the behaviour of his uncontrollable sons Hophni and Phineas. They too are priests, but are totally corrupt, pinching food from those bringing sacrifices, and raping any women they fancied. Eli hears reports from others about their behaviour, but can only rebuke this abuse of power in the mildest of terms. In addition his level of spirituality seems to be very low: he mistakes fervent prayer for drunkenness, in a way similar to some of the bystanders on the Day of Pentecost, and uncannily like some of the mockery levelled at charismatic Christians more recently.
Hannah, Samuel’s mum, had prophesied, in a way very similar to Jesus’ mum 1,000 years later, about God’s penchant for reversing people’s fortunes (2:7), bringing down the proud and powerful whilst exalting the meek. It is the first job of the her son as the fledgling prophet to proclaim that God is about to do just that to Eli’s family.
It is an uncomfortable calling to pronounce judgement, and one which is particularly out of fashion today in a church which has lost much of its prophetic edge and wants to be encouraging of pretty much anyone or anything. Yet we continue to reap the whirlwind from the behaviour of some of our leaders who, like Eli’s sons, use their positions to harm and abuse others. Samuel’s ministry is a hinge-point in the history of Israel, bringing to an end the corrupt period of the Judges and uniting the nation (for a while at least) under the monarchy. This story sets the tone for his future ministry as one who certainly could receive words and visions from the Lord, to great effect.
Over the years I have held several diocesan posts which have been about helping local churches to be healthy and effective. I have learnt two things from this kind of ministry: 1) it’s hard, and 2) effective churches are led by effective leaders. Most leaders have told me it’s hard in their particular patch, because it’s so urban, or because it’s so rural, or because it’s so middle-class … My conclusion is that it’s hard everywhere. But I have come to believe that leadership is key: it is rare to see an effective church with ineffectual or even downright corrupt leadership, and tragically I have seen plenty of both. The Bible encourages us to pray for our leaders, and that is needed today more than ever. But perhaps we also need to hear again some of the prophetic voices who call out bad behaviour and protect the Church from it in a way which Eli so manifestly failed to do.
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 1/The Baptism of Christ – Genesis 1:1-5
Let’s start with a bit of Hebrew geekery – Gen 1:1 is a bad translation! There is no ‘the’ before ‘beginning’, and the word ‘beginning’ is constructed to show that it is the beginning of something, not just ‘the beginning’. So a better translation might read ‘When God began to create …’ We are used to the idea that creation happened ex nihilo, or starting absolutely from scratch, but a careful reading of the text won’t allow that here. Formless and void though it may have been, the earth was in some sense already there. So was darkness, and so were some waters over which the Spirit was hovering. One Jewish tradition taught that God had practised already, and had rejected 974 attempts before finally getting it just how he wanted with the 975th, which is where we live. Whether or not we like this idea (and it does have a certain appeal), it is clear that God had been at work long before the big bang which started things off here. He had already prepared the raw materials before the actual creation of our world began.
Today as we remember the Baptism of Jesus, which launched him into his public ministry, we can also see that work had been going on before the big day. The Bible is largely silent about it, as it is about the pre-creation cosmos, apart from the tantalising glimpse Luke gives us of Jesus aged 12. Of course this particular vacuum has been filled abundantly with legends, like that of Jesus bringing clay birds to life and striking neighbours blind. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas makes delightful reading (just Google it to see the text), but fortunately is not within our canon of Scripture. All we get is the big day when his ministry is launched, and an awareness that God has been at work in him before that.
The other thing to note about Gen 1 is that it is a deeply polemical work, in other words it is written for something, but also against something. The chapter is generally thought to be a part of what is called the Priestly Code, probably written after the Babylonian exile to give a logical and orderly account of the creation. But it was written in the context of a nation which for a generation or more had been living with a different story, that of the Babylonian god Marduk cutting the evil sea-monster Tiamat in half and using the two halves to make heaven and earth respectively. Clearly the writers were very familiar with this story, and the people for whom it was written would have been very familiar with it too; indeed some of them may have believed it, along with the pantheon of other gods worshipped around them, represented by stars, sun, moon, trees and so on. There are interesting echoes: the Hebrew words for the ‘deep’ in v.2 is related to the name of Tiamat, and the separation in v.6 reflects the cutting in half of the monster. In other parts of the OT God chops up sea monsters or otherwise destroys them. But then, in a deeply subversive way, God goes on to create sun, moon, stars and the rest. They’re not gods: they were spoken into being and put there by our God! This is the truth, and you’d better believe it!
Another passage (which I would have chosen for the Epistle today if they had asked me) brings these two ideas together. Paul wrote in Gal 4:
When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.
God had been at work in and through his Son, but one day, on just the right day, the set time arrived, and Jesus manifested himself and began his ministry. But the word ‘repent’, with which that ministry began, means that his ministry was not just for something but also against something: all that is evil, unjust and destructive, all that we have put our faith in, all the myths which we have believed because all those around us believe them. Simeon had perceived this when he first me the baby Jesus. God had been at work in him preparing him for a ministry which would inevitably bring division, become a challenge, and call people to a crisis point, to a ‘make your mind up time’.
So Jesus’ baptism invites us to consider how God might already have been at work, in our lives, in our world, in the Covid pandemic, in Trump’s USA … and what we might be called to turn from in repentance so that the truth can restore our perspective and set us free.
How to Lament Part 1
Lament Form (eg Psalm 7)
John’s Nativity – John 1:1-14
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 4 – 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
It has been said that it was a bit of an embarrassment to the OT writers that it wasn’t David who had built the Jerusalem Temple – after all, as the greatest King Israel had ever known that would be highly appropriate. But the historical fact is that it was Solomon, so the very least they could do was paint it as David’s idea, and explain why he hadn’t actually followed through. The reason for that, according to this passage, was a prophetic oracle from Nathan. But there is a deeper level at which this story can be read, and one which is highly apt as we prepare to move from Advent into the Christmas season.
In the few chapters before this pericope, David has been anointed King over the tribe of Judah, been crowned in Hebron, conquered Jebus and established it as Jerusalem, the City of David, been crowned there as king of all Israel, defeated the Philistines once and for all, and brought the Ark of the Covenant into the City. Happy days! Now he is settled into his fine new palace and at rest, except for one nagging doubt – why should he have a house like this when God was still making do with a tent? So he decides to build him a house. Great idea, but God has other ideas – he doesn’t want David to build him a house – he wants to build David a house.
There’s a lovely picture in v.7 – ‘Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites …’ God doesn’t live in a house – he lives with his people. He walked with Abraham from Ur to Canaan; he walked into Egypt with Joseph’s family, and out again with Moses; he crossed the Red Sea with them, and even wandered around for 38 years in the desert with them. And all that time he was content to live as they lived. As we gaze again this year with adoration at the baby in the manger, what a picture of the incarnation that is to take with us! As we look back over the troughs and peaks of our own lives, God walked alongside us, even when we could only see one set of footprints. He never once demanded royal status, or a place to stay – he just wanted to be with us. And of course he’s with us now, in lockdown, in whatever Tier we happen to be stuck in, in our sadness this Christmas not to be with everyone we’d like to be with, in the anxieties (or joy) of stepping into an unknown Brexit … Emmanuel really is God is with us.
But for David there was still more. A play on the Hebrew word beth means that rather than David building God a house, a physical building, God planned to build David a house, a dynasty. The nation had just emerged from a turbulent period in their history, and the God who had walked with them through it all knew exactly what they needed: a home, roots, peace and justice, and above all rest. How is this going to become reality? Through David’s house, his dynastic line, which will be established forever.
We’re still waiting, of course, for the total establishment of God’s kingdom, which is both here but also not yet here, which breaks in now and then but is still only partial and provisional. But Advent hopes for, and Christmas promises, that great David’s greater Son will come and take up his reign in all its fullness, and that yearly remembrance should inspire our hopes and prayers, because after all, don’t we need a home, roots, peace and justice, and rest right now? We are called to live in the excruciating tension between the present reality and the future hope, and it is the job of the Holy Spirit, according to Ephesians 1, to keep us in that tension, like prisoners on a mediæval rack, stretched between hope and exhaustion. But the God who walked through the wilderness with his people walks with us today and into what we all hope and pray will be a better year ahead. May God’s hope, and even his joy, be yours this Christmas.
[I’ll be taking a rest myself from blogging over Christmas, so we’ll meet again in January.]
Advent 3 – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
This well-known passage immediately presents us with a question which is not easy to answer – just who is ‘me’? Who exactly has been anointed by the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord? The obvious answer seems to be the prophet, but a closer look at the language makes this a bit less certain. In fact there are several allusions which suggest that it might be more complicated than that. First of all the term ‘anointed’ is a royal term. So is the speaker a new King David, coming as promised in Is 11 to bring healing to a divided nation, and to rule with equity and justice? Or could it be God’s Servant from Is 42 – 53 who is coming to bring justice and care to the broken? Or maybe the reference to the Day of Jubilee from Lev 25 indicates that someone will be sent by the Spirit to sort out the economic imbalance within society – a financial as well as spiritual fix? Or does it all point to Jesus, who in Lk 5 quotes this passage as the manifesto for his ministry?
All of this points to a second question, which is much easier to answer – When? What is the context for this prophecy? The answer is almost certainly post-exilic Judah, a time and a place riddled with disappointment. Yes, they had been sent back to their homeland from exile, but things were very far from the glowing outcomes promised by earlier prophets. They may have rebuilt the city and the Temple, but they had signally failed to rebuild society, with its justice and respect and its economic stability. They may not have been prisoners any longer in Babylon, but they certainly felt trapped in their disappointment at the way things had turned out.
So the third question is this: what exactly was it that whoever had been anointed was coming to do? Interestingly the language is predominantly that of restoration of self-image. The current imprisonment, no doubt within living memory of the nation’s physical imprisonment in exile, had served to make the people feel miserable, ashamed and despairing. It is these feelings that the deliverer addresses, swapping comfort for mourning, beauty instead of dowdiness, joy for grief, and praise for despair.
Our nation might well be thought to be in a similar position as we approach the end of 2020, a year which will go down in history as one of the worst we can remember. We have been imprisoned by Covid, humiliated by Brexit, ruled by those who are generally considered to be at best incompetent and at worst thoroughly corrupt, riddled with shame at what our nation has become, and with fear about what it will become. Many people have been heard to say that they have become ashamed of being British, and whatever political views you may hold, it seems clear that no good is going to come from the downright lies which convinced people into isolationist policies four years ago. So what does Isaiah say to 2020 Britain?
The answer, I believe is threefold – wait, hope and praise. If the people were disappointed in the immediate aftermath of the return from exile, that was nothing to what was to come, as the nation was to be ruled over the next few centuries by one world power after another, and Jewish fortunes continued to decline. It was to be at least 400 years before Jesus the Messiah stood up in the Nazareth Synagogue and claimed these words for his own, and two thousand years on we are still waiting for their complete fulfilment. God lives in a completely different timescale from ours, the Psalmist tells in (90:4), and my goodness don’t we know it? The cry ‘How long, O Lord?’ is a frequent one in Scripture, and probably in our own lives too. Waiting in the darkness, in the words of Maggi Dawn’s song, is not an easy skill to cultivate, but actually we have little option. Keeping hope alive is not based on evidence: it is based solely on what God has said, and what we choose as an act of will to believe.
Waiting, hoping, but how do we pass the time while we’re doing those? It is interesting that although the fulfilment of the prophet’s words was not to come in the foreseeable future, the response is immediate. Verse 10 begins a song of praise which reads as though the promises of the first bit of the chapter have already come true. God has reclothed me, he has beautified me, new things are beginning to grow. That is faith in action, praising God for what he has said will happen before it does happen, as though it has happened. I love these words from Morning Prayer during the Kingdom Season:
Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all;
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of the age that is passing away,
may the glory of your kingdom
which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect the light of your glory this day
and so be made ready to come into your presence.
Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Blessed be God for ever.
‘The darkness of the age that is passing away’ is a powerful symbol. We might still feel shoulder deep in the muck of 2020, and we may yet sink deeper still, but to praise God for what he has promised, and to wait and hope for its fulfilment, is deep spirituality indeed.