OT Lectionary Oct 11th Trinity 19 Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

All three of today’s readings are in some sense about finding (or not) God. Hebrews 4 assures us that we always have complete access to God through Jesus our High Priest, while Mark 10 reminds us that even when we find him we might also find him too demanding, such that we want to lose him again. But poor old Job has a more basic and fundamental dilemma – he can’t find God at all.

A psychiatrist in a famous joke is trying to convince a delusional patient that in fact he isn’t dead. After much fruitless discussion he has an idea: he asks his patient if dead men bleed when cut. ‘Of course not’ came the reply. ‘Dead men don’t bleed!’ So the doctor grabs a nearby scalpel and plunges it into the patient’s arm. Seeing the blood starting to flow, the patient declared in alarm ‘I was wrong – dead men do bleed!’

Job is sitting in the ash heap, bereaved, afflicted and apparently abandoned by God, and as if that isn’t bad enough he has three friends trying to help him by telling him that it’s all his own fault, as we sometimes are today by well-meaning prayer ministry team members who have had it revealed to them by the Lord in a word of knowledge that there is some secret sin in our lives which is preventing us from getting healed. The ‘comforters’, annoying though they are, can’t on one level be blamed: they are upset because their friend’s suffering refuses to fit in with their world-view where all suffering has to be the direct result of personal sin. So they try to force Job to admit his guilt by browbeating him to confess it all, to agree with them that dead men do bleed after all. Difficult thought this proves to be, it is even harder for them to give in and admit that innocent people do suffer.

Ilya Repin. Job and His Friends.

Job, though, is convinced of his innocence, which of course you could be in those days before Jesus came and complicated it all by saying that to think about it is just as bad as actually doing it. He knew only too well that he hadn’t committed adultery or anything like that, so his friends’ attempts to convince him that somehow he must have done were, understandably, rather annoying to him. So what he needed to do was to get things clear with God, who, he had every confidence, would agree with his take that in fact he was innocent. The problem was that God was nowhere to be found: wherever Job looked, there was nothing but absence.

You may have experienced something like this at some time in your life, and it can be mildly comforting to know that even this sense of complete abandonment has biblical precedent. But the key verse, I think, and the nearest we’ll get to a happy ending for a few chapters yet, comes right at the end of our text. God has terrified Job by his refusal to show up and vindicate him, yet (v 17) ‘I am not silenced by the darkness’. Anyone who has known severely depressed people will know that silence is the hallmark of despair, but Job has not yet got there. While he still has the strength and will to rant against God, he is still alive, and, paradoxically still has hope. It is when we decide simply to ‘curse God and die’ that we are really love. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

OT Lectionary Oct 4th Trinity 18 Genesis 2:18-24

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

At the end of the first account of creation in 1:31 God surveys his creations and declares that it is all good. But here, for the first time, in 2:18, God sees something which is not good: the solitary life of the man. So begins the story of Eve, of marital relationships, and of family life, about which Jesus has much to say in the gospel reading for today.

This passage is, of course, something of a red rag to the bull of feminism, but the language is carefully used to avoid any kind of pecking order (in spite of what later exegesis has made of it). The Hebrew ‘ezer (help) is almost always used of help from God, and thus denotes help from a superior above, rather than the aid of a junior assistant. But this might go the other way, and exalt the woman above the man, so it is qualified by the word which the NIV unhelpfully translates as ‘suitable’ for him, but which actually has the meaning of being ‘alongside’ him. So mutuality is the name of the game.

The naming of the animals demonstrates this same kind of mutuality with all creation. Naming implies dominion, but also care and respect, rather than domination. Those of us who have kids name them, and however bizarrely some might go about this task, it is still done out of love and reverence. Names can be used cruelly, but this is not the intention of living parents.

Michelangelo. The Creation of Eve.

The divine surgery uses an unusual word for the anaesthetisation, almost always used of God’s action on humans, and often for a period of divine revelation. But the result is a companion for mutual enjoyment. It is interesting that in the first account of creation in Genesis 1, the man and the woman are commanded to be fruitful (1:28), but there is no such command here. The sexual union which they are to enjoy seems to be completely divorced from procreation, but rather seems to be just for fun and pleasure. The final verse emphasises this: their life together was literally ‘shameless’.

This is a passage which is often used in the battle over appropriate sexuality, and of course Jesus uses it, in today’s Gospel reading, to speak about the danger and harm of divorce. The repeated emphasis on ‘male and female’ has been used heavily by the anti-gay-marriage lobby, and it is difficult to see how it cannot be taken as normative about what ‘marriage’ is, as indeed it has been for millennia. Whatever one thinks about gay partnerships, it is surely difficult to call them ‘marriages’.

But to sidestep this controversy, the passage has been seen as a foundational one for understanding God’s purpose for married relationships. They are to be based on mutual love, care and respect, they are to be shamelessly intimate, and they are meant to bring lifelong joy and companionship. In the next chapter we are going to see how it can all go wrong, and we are still living with those consequences in many tragic marriages today, where one partner or the other attempts to dominate or harm the other. We ignore God’s purposes at our peril.

OT Lectionary Sept 27th Trinity 17 Numbers 11

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Nostalgia, they say, isn’t what it used to be. When things get tough, everything from the past suddenly looks wonderfully attractive, even cucumbers, melon and garlic. Every church leader knows that, and many agree with it, while others, like Moses, have to contend with it again and again among the people they are called to lead.


Our passage today gives us a picture of church which is all too familiar. The people want to go backwards, and they remember the past selectively, focussing on the garlic but not on the slavery, the beatings, the sheer exhaustion and hopelessness of it all. The Devil you know is obviously preferable to the unknown future, and they feel insecure in spite of God’s promises to them, showing that here as in so many places the root problem is faithlessness. So upset are they that Moses can hear the sound of weeping, which is odd because it is usually the presence of onions, rather than the lack of them, which causes people to cry.

Just as the people turn on Moses in their distress, so Moses turns on God, pouring out to him his utter exhaustion with the task to which he has been called. In fact there are several occasions when Moses reaches the end of his tether, and it is fascinating to note (and I do intend to write a book about this one day) how each time Moses complains to God and asks that he might die rather than carry on with this miserable existence, his cries bring about divine and supernatural action. For those in any doubt this passage proves once and for all that God is male. According to all the Mars vs Venus literature when women are upset they want a hug, not a solution, whereas men simply want to get on and solve the problem, which is why blokes so often get it wrong. God does not say ‘There there’ to Moses: he acts, by anointing with his Spirit a task force who can share the burden with him.

But even this group don’t get it. Even with this spiritual anointing they are jealous for their position, and are peeved that two elders who didn’t turn up for the event had nevertheless been anointed. Moses himself makes a prophetic statement, which looks over the horizon to Pentecost, wishing that all of God’s people could receive his Spirit and become prophets.

Grumbling congregations, burnt-out leaders, jealous church officers; nostalgia for the past golden age, death wishes, despair: all these are sadly around as much as ever in today’s church. Even the other side of the cross and Pentecost we still hanker for the good old days, and often wear our leaders out doing so. This story challenges us to reflect on what we might be doing to those whom God has set over us. How terrible if we were causing them to despair of life itself. It also calls us to believe in the future which is coming, even if it seems aeons away, to look forward with faith and hope, and to walk together confidently under the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit.

OT Lectionary Sept 20th Trinity 16 Jeremiah 11:18-20

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

This passage begins a section of Jeremiah’s prophecy which contains a series of laments. Jeremiah’s image is as a bit of a misery, living as he did during a time when the national life of Israel was unravelling, and which culminated in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians. Clearly he is deeply distressed about what he can see happening around him, and about what he sees as the inevitable destruction to come. But in this section we get a glimpse of a deeper sorrow: that of misunderstanding, betrayal and violence. This is a classic case of ‘Shoot the messenger’. It has been said that the foremost task of a leader is to define reality: sadly many people have no interest in reality and become deeply hostile towards those who try to make them see  what is going on and where things are headed. Jeremiah seems to feel that this betrayal is even worse because it comes from the people among whom he lives, the men of Anathoth. They ought to be his friends, but they have chosen to make an enemy of him.

God has somehow revealed to the prophet the plans of those who oppose him, and his punishment is clearly because of his godly calling and life. the unusual reference to the tree in v 19 may be an ironic reference to Psalm 1, where those who remain faithful to God, as Jeremiah clearly does, are likened to a flourishing tree. ‘Well, let’s chop that tree down!’ say his opponents. Jeremiah’s response is a cry both for vengeance and vindication, and God’s response, immediately after  our set section, is a promise of vengeance with a vengeance.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

Many church leaders will know this kind of opposition from those among whom God has called them to serve, and the severe pain of violent opposition from the very people who ought to be alongside him. Many will know the almost equally painful experience of passive-aggressive behaviour among other church members. We know from other passages (for example 20:7) that Jeremiah felt that God was as much to blame as his earthly enemies for his distress. And of course today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus himself was the victim of misunderstanding, hostility, and his Father’s will.

So what of the cry for vengeance? And of God’s promise to do exactly that? How does that square with the NT calls for us to turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies? Clearly God thinks it is an appropriate cry, since he agrees to do what the prophet begs him to do. The first thing to note is that Jeremiah’s cry is real. I’m never quite convinced by nice Christians who have been through hell but blithely say ‘But I forgave them!’ Some experiences are so damaging that the pain goes on for years afterwards, and it is only human for us to cry for punishment on those who have caused such pain to us and to our families. The Bible certainly seems to validate such cries for vengeance, but the NT adds a further dimension. My favourite definition of forgiveness is ‘the handing back to God of the right to punish.’ However much I might want my enemies to roast in eternal brimstone, I can choose to let God alone have the right to punish, knowing that ‘the judge of the earth will do right’. This sets me free from their power, and it also gives me the satisfaction of knowing that if it comes to it God can mete out much more severe punishment than I ever could. Forgiveness cannot simply mean having nice feelings toward those who have so damaged us, or even trusting them again. But to give back to God the right to deal appropriately with them is as good as it gets, and is a gloriously liberating choice to make.

Old Testament Lectionary 13th September Trinity 15 Isaiah 50:4-9a

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

The themes of recognition and rejection shine through today’s gospel, from the end of Mark 7. These themes are well illustrated by our Isaiah passage. ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, the unknown prophet who spoke of the people’s release from Babylonian exile and their return to their homeland several times identifies the nation as God’s Servant, the idealised Jewish community who will carry out God’s will in addressing all nations with the news of his greatness and universal reign. In this passage he puts words into the mouth of that Servant, expressing on the people’s behalf something of that nature of that calling. There is much here from which church may learn, struggling as we are with our own calling in an age of increasing marginalisation. In a nutshell, the prophet tells them that God equips them, that opposition will be fierce, and that God’s final vindication will be sure.

The servant first of all is hungry for the voice of God. He knows what it is to hear from him, on a daily basis, and he understands that he has nothing to teach or speak if he has learnt nothing. We live in a time, as did Eli, when the word of the Lord is rare. Many Christians simply do not have any expectation that God will speak to them, few read the Word with any regularity, few expect the voice of the Lord to come to them through preaching or liturgy. In many church services where the Bible is read publicly, there is simply no expectation that people will have Bibles or want to follow. No wonder we have so little voice, and nothing to say to a confused world when we are not regularly being taught by God.

Hans Böhm als Prediger.jpg

This servant, however, does have things to say, but he realises that to say them will bring opposition. We’re not told from whom this opposition comes, but we know from experience that often it comes from the very people who are supposed to be, as it were, on our side. I love the definition of a leader as ‘one who defines reality’, but I also know only too well that to try to do this to people who would rather continue in happy fantasy can result in the ‘shoot the messenger’ syndrome. The images used of this opposition and punishment are from the world of public shaming: the beater stands above and behind the beaten in a position of power, and the removal of the beard, symbolising manhood, is about opening the victim to public shaming. Enemies do not play nicely!

But they will not have the last word. There is a combination of human determination and resilience (v 7b) and divine vindicating power (v 8-9) which mean that his will and purposes will ultimately prevail, even if to get there hurts. We’re still waiting, of course, for God’s final purposes for creation to be fulfilled, but the way we wait is important. We wait on tiptoe, we wait as those who know the last page of the story, and therefore we wait with resilience and with the truths of God on our lips.

Old Testament Lectionary 6th Sept Trinity 14 Isaiah 35:4-7a

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

We begin by noting two somewhat strange things about this passage. The first is that it reads much more like Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) than Isaiah of Jerusalem, in whose section of the whole book is it placed. It seems as though this chapter has become detached, although the bigger context demonstrates well why this might be an appropriate place for it. The second strange thing is why on earth our dear friends the lectionary compilers have whipped an odd three and a half verses out of a chapter which makes perfect sense, and which falls neatly into two halves midway through our passage.

In a bigger context still chapter 35 contrasts dramatically with the preceding chapter, an announcement of God’s judgement. Edom in particular is singled out for punishment, and there are vivid pictures of a thriving land reverting to desert under the Lord’s vengeance. By contrast, therefore, the Israelites in chapter 35 are to experience two events: God himself coming among them (v 1-6a) and the nation’s return from exile as the desert once again becomes fruitful (v 6b-10).

File:Desert Flowers (2371728015).jpg

One key word which links all these thoughts together is the word ‘vengeance’ in v 4. We usually tend to see rescue and vengeance as two equal and opposite things, which show God as nice and nasty respectively. But the Hebrew word naqam is more nuanced than that: it refers to judgement and punishment by a legitimate authority, and so that justice can be restored for those who have been treated badly. Sometimes you can’t have justice and liberation without punishment: Moses as well as Isaiah knew that.

Like many prophecies there is something of a telescope effect here. Just when are we to expect the fulfilment of these words? On an immediate level the text clearly refers to the return from exile in Babylon, and the language of highways and blossoming deserts is unmistakably linked to later passages such as chapter 40. But the healing of v 5-6 sounds more Messianic and even eschatological. Does ‘entering Zion’ in v 10 refer merely to the return to Jerusalem, or does it seek fulfilment much further ahead in the heavenly city? The Bible often uses this multi-staged approach, and seems to remain deliberately vague. Sometimes the small positives in our lives can point to a much bigger and eternal reality, and hope can sustain us and spur us on in our discipleship.

Note also the language of separation implicit in this passage, as it is throughout the Bible, making life very difficult for universalists. The fearful, the weak, the blind, deaf and lame are to the be recipients of God’s favour, while the unclean wicked fools will be excluded. Only the redeemed, those whom God has rescued, will enter Zion. We need to make sure that through Christ our Messiah we are those who will receive the restitution part of God’s naqam, and not the punishment.

Image: By Rennett Stowe from USA (Desert Flowers  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary Aug 30th Trinity 13 Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

I wonder if you were a space alien from the planet Tharg and you landed by mistake in Britain, whether your first and instinctive reaction would be to exclaim ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ Our passage today, along with the Gospel from Mark 7, is about the Law, and I have already discussed elsewhere what place the Law has in the lives of Christians who have been saved by grace. We concluded that the Law is meant to be a delight to God’s people, not because it restricts them but because it points the way to life and wisdom, the kind of savoir faire which helps us to live effectively. But today’s passage reminds us that this is not just an individual characteristic but a corporate one as well.

There is a common motif in the OT about the surrounding nations observing Israel and seeing them as wise and effective, and acknowledging that their god is indeed a good one. This thought lies at the heart of this passage: in v 7-8 the repeated cry of ‘what other great nation?’ displays the awe with which those outside Israel regard their national life. Would that that were true of 21st century Britain!

The Law is hallmarked by wisdom and justice. It is not to be tampered with according to personal taste, it needs guarding jealously and living out zealously, and above all it needs passing on to generations yet to come. Proverbs 24:34 tells us that ‘righteousness exalts a nation’, and it is clearly meant to exalt the nation in the eyes of other nations, so that they may see both the presence of God among us, and the goodness of that God.

File:Statue Of 'Justice' Old Bailey.jpg

But this is not just a nice idea. Our lectionary compilers have again filleted out the more awkward verses from v 3-5, but to reinsert them reminds us that actually this is a matter of life and death. We don’t just keep the Law so that we’ll look good, but that we may live. To ignore it is to dice with death – literally. Whether that is the quick death of idolators punished by God, or the long, slow death of a nation in moral decline, it is equally inevitable.

It is worth reminding ourselves, though, of the place of the whole book of Deuteronomy, which purports to be Moses’ final instructions as the nation enters a new phase, having left behind slavery and wandering. Now they are to become more of a settled nation, it is good to get the foundations in place as the new phase of life begins. In the final verse Moses urges the people to keep careful watch on themselves lest what he is telling them fades from memory. If you want to see what happens to nations which may be built on good foundations but which have lost the plot over the years, you have only to watch the news. This passage calls forth intercession from me, that God would have mercy on a nation well down the road of disobedience and decay.