OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20

We are well used to the idea that biblical books can have bits added to them later. The last part of Mark 16 and John 21 look very much as though they are additions, afterthoughts or PSs. Indeed what we call the book of Isaiah is almost universally accepted to consist of three parts, written respectively before the Babylonian exile, towards its end, and after Israel had resettled in Judea. Todays book, Zephaniah, looks very much the same. The passage set for us is in stark contrast to the rest of the book, which predates the Exile, and which promises the most severe judgement on a nation which worships false gods, whose leaders are corrupt, where violence and fraud are rife, and where, worst of all, nobody seems that bothered. The prophetic oracles which form the bulk of the book, written to people who tacitly assume that God is powerless to do anything to stop their corruption, promises judgement perhaps more severe than anywhere else in Scripture, with echoes of Noah’s flood, when not just people but also animals will be destroyed completely, to the great anguish of all who see it. But then, in a complete contrast, comes our section, from chapter 3. After the nation has been purified (3:9), great rejoicing will follow, not just on the part of the people, but also by God himself. On one level this looks like the equivalent of the middle section of Isaiah, when the sadder but wiser exiles are promised a homecoming and forgiveness (Is 40 – 55), but it does raise an interesting question for us, a question which lies at the heart of all theology: just what is God like? Do the two halves of this book give us two different answers? And following on from that is another question: what does God think of us?

Chapter 3 reveals a God who is forgiving (3:15), protecting (3:16), encouraging (3:17), and caring (3:19). Yet earlier in the book God is destructive, punishing and outraged by human sin. What has changed? The whole book seems to pivot around 3:9 – Jerusalem and the peoples around will be purified. Haughtiness and pride will be cut out, leaving only humility and obedience. So what does this say about God, and about his attitude to us?

Once while I was working in an Anglican parish, at our weekly staff meeting, one of the leaders there confessed that although he had been brought up to believe that God loved him, because after all that was his job, he never really felt that God liked him that much. That comment opened the floodgates, and in a group of people most of whom had been brought up in somewhat strict and severe ‘reformed’ denominations, we agreed that it did seem quite hard to believe that God was pleased with us. (Someone, a bit provocatively, asked the question ‘At what point did you come to believe that he liked you?’ to which I found myself answering ‘When I became an Anglican.’) Yet this passage speaks in the most extravagant terms of God’s sheer delight over his people. Many of the terms used, in the Psalms among other places, of extravagant human worship of God are here used the other way round: he takes great delight in us, and even sings over us (3:17), giving us honour and praise (3:20). The extravagance of God’s anger and judgement seem to be matched by the extravagance of his delight in those he has purified and reshaped in humility and obedience. So is God subject to severe mood swings, or can we reconcile these two halves of this little book?

The answer, it seems to me, can be found in our view of God. Elsewhere I have suggested that the Church has been mistaken in majoring on describing God as a God of love, when actually far more commonly in the Bible he is described as a God of righteousness, in other words a God completely incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair. If that’s true, it would be highly ironic if, in condemning people who weren’t that bothered that the nation was going down the pan (3:12), God joined in and merely ‘tolerated’ the state of affairs. You ought to be feeling something about this, he says, and what you ought to be feeling is complete outrage! Let me show you what that looks like! The extreme wrath of God in the first half of the book is modelling what any right-minded Jew should be feeling, and it’s strong stuff indeed. And the important thing is that he’s feeling it not because he hates the people, but because he loves them. He can see what all this idolatry, viciousness and corruption is doing to people, including those who are at the forefront of committing it, and he doesn’t like what he sees. So he’s going to do something about it – he’s going to purify the people, so that his natural rejoicing over them need not be compromised by their sin. He’s going to remove everything unlovely about them, and them express his love in singing and jubilation.

For those of us who have been purified by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from death, those of us in whom evil and sin has been defeated (even if it hasn’t quite vanished altogether yet) this is an exciting section, and a real answer to any questions we may be harbouring about how keen he is on us. But for those who continue to perpetrate evil, oppress others, and believe that God is powerless to do anything about it (1:12), it’s a different story. Oh the joy of being people of the resurrection!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Kingdom 3/2nd before Advent – Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

How would you feel if you were suddenly told that Jesus was coming back tomorrow? I can remember as a child growing up in the Baptist Church being absolutely terrified of Jesus’ return. I somehow picked up the idea that my eternal destiny would depend on what I happened to be doing at the moment Jesus appeared (I don’t think this is official Baptist theology). Not only did this belief lead to a very insecure life; it also taught me to sin quickly, thus reducing the statistical likelihood that I would be caught out like a thief in the night. As I’ve grown up, I have corrected my doctrine, but also, if I’m honest, lost that sense of urgency and immediacy. The people of Zephaniah’s age, possibly the 630s BC, also seem to have lost their sense of urgency, other than a vague awareness that the Day of the Lord will come one day eventually, and that it will mean Israel coming out on top again and the nations around them getting their come-uppance.

So Zephaniah’s dramatic message comes at them like a double whammy. He begins with an onomatopoeic Hebrew word translated ‘Listen!’ or ‘be silent!’ but actually more like ‘Hush!’. The Day of the Lord is coming any time now, and when it comes they will be the first to be judged. That judgement is described in the most dramatic detail: the filleted verses 8-11 describe crying and wailing as God begins with royal officials (perhaps those ruling during the years before King Josiah was old enough to reign) and then moves on to those who wear foreign clothes, possibly the vestments used in pagan worship. Next in line, somewhat inexplicably, are those who leap over the threshold of the Temple (?), and then the market traders. After that God will go through the darkest corners of the city with a powerful torch, seeking out those trying to hide in the dark corners, and those who are so complacent that they don’t even bother to hide. Plunder and destruction will be the order of the day, as God comes to punish and destroy.

Now with such an encouraging message many of our Marcionite tendencies immediately spring into action. As with the 2nd century heretic, we take comfort from believing that of course that is the OT God, the nasty judgemental one, not the nice Jesus we have in the Gospels. But this just won’t do, because Jesus too came as judge. John the Baptist’s heraldic warnings spoke of the coming wrath, of a chopping down and a burning up. Jesus begins his ministry (at least in John’s Gospel) by cleansing the Temple from all who bought and sold instead of praying, and continues with teaching about judgement, separation and punishment. We can’t get away with saying that Zephaniah’s words passed out of date at the beginning of Matthew: the OT God and the NT Messiah have the same judging role.

But something is different. Jesus does something which Zephaniah never did. He did something you’ll never see Judge John Deed doing. Yes, they both pronounce sentence, but Jesus takes it further: he gets down from the judge’s bench and enters the dock, and goes on to die a criminal’s death, our criminals’ death.

So corrupt leadership, false worship, superstition and unjust moneygrabbing are all soundly condemned, and will be punished, but lurking in this list of doom is one little phrase which might just the most frightening of all. Perhaps the greatest punishment will be reserved for those who say to themselves ‘The Lord will do nothing, neither good or bad’. What is really going on here is the loss of belief in an active God and a moral God. Once you lose that, you really have lost the plot. Remember these are not atheists or pagans: these are God’s chosen people. Heaven help us when we convince ourselves that God doesn’t care how we live, or that even if he does he’s powerless to do anything about it. What on earth kind of faith does that leave us with?

So as we approach Advent, when we traditionally focus on judgement and being ready so we’re on the right side of it, Zephaniah shouts out to us ‘Hush! Shut up and listen!’ Have the right theology to see God for who he really is, the righteous judge who will have no truck with anything impure, and have the right humility to cry to him for mercy. Have the right lifestyle which is one of gratitude for Jesus’ having taken our sins and given us his righteousness.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Remembrance Sunday – Amos 5:18-24

When I found this passage set for Remembrance Sunday this year I was slightly surprised, as I had expected an earlier chapter of Amos. I have preached on more than one occasion to churches full of British Legion members and Veterans on a text from the previous chapter, 4:10:

I killed your young men with the sword,
    along with your captured horses.
I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps,
    yet you have not returned to me,’
declares the Lord.

But this reading seems to be more about the relationship between worship and social justice than war or conflict. How might it speak into today’s ceremonies of remembrance? As is so often the case, we can make so much more sense of the passage by reading it against the background of the whole book, which can be seen as being about ‘us and them’.

The situation is that the nation is enjoying peace and prosperity, at least on the surface. However underneath it is corrupt, with injustice rife, contempt for the poor rampant, and the rich élite enjoying life at the expense of the downtrodden peasantry. Amos is called by God to the unenviable task of warning the nation that God is not going to put up with this for much longer. In a masterly piece of rhetoric he begins with the surrounding nations, with oracles of condemnation for Israel’s neighbours. You can just hear the Israelites cheering as all those foreigners are cursed and their punishments predicted. Us and them, and ‘they’ are going to get what they so richly deserve. But then Amos comes closer to home, and predicts the downfall of Judah. This time the cheering is a little more nervous. ‘They’ are after all our hated neighbours the other side of the North/South divide, but at the end of the day they are still Jews, God’s supposedly chosen people. But then with a final dramatic twist of the knife, Amos pronounces a similar curse on Israel herself, the very nation who had seen themselves as superior to all those foreigners out there.

This piece of rhetoric sets the tone for the rest of the book, where those who felt themselves so superior to the others begin to feel the burning heat of God’s judgement on them.  Our passage begins with a highly significant term: the ‘Day of the Lord’. In Jewish thought this was the coming time when God would ride into town and sort everything out, smashing up the foreigners and placing Israel back where they belonged as top dogs. They couldn’t wait! But Amos’ message was a startling one: when God does intervene, it will be to punish you, not to save you. In the ‘us and them’ battle, you are actually no better than them. You will be punished as violently as anything you wish on your enemies.

I have never been a pacifist. In my teenage years we had a minister at our Baptist church who had been a forces chaplain, and had spent some time in Belsen. I can remember, as clearly as the day he said it, that he could never be a pacifist because when he saw what Hitler was doing, he knew he had to be stopped. That has stayed with me, and although my own tangles with the Armed Forces were nothing more than a short-term RAF chaplaincy while the proper one was sent off to the Falklands War, I have always believed that sometimes war is indeed justified. But what is never justified is the superior ‘us and them’ attitude which so often accompanies war, the xenophobia which is hostile even without official hostilities having been declared, nor the racism which would like to see ‘them’ get their come-uppance while we prosper. The fact is, we are no better than anyone else: the fascism which exploded in Hitler’s Germany, for example, is not very far under the surface of our own nation at the present time. As a country we do well to imitate not the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, but the heart-broken sinner who realised much more clearly than did his theologically-informed oppo that actually we are all in dire need of God’s mercy, both ‘them’ and ‘us’.

So today, yes we shall remember, and we will give thanks for those who fought to save our country and most of the rest of Europe. But we should do so humbly, and in a way which acknowledges that the seeds of anger, violence and destruction lie buried within each of us, and sometimes not all that deeply buried. Perhaps this year it is a good thing that the pageantry of the Cenotaph procession will not be happening. Maybe it will help us to remember in a way which is more humble, more forgiving, and more wary lest we become the very thing against which our grandparents fought.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

All Saints Day – Psalm 34:1-10

Oh dear – I’ve got a real problem this week – the lectionary doesn’t give us an OT reading. So, in order to prevent myself being sued under the Trades Descriptions Act, I’ve decided to go with the next best thing – Psalm 34. After all, Psalm 34 is strictly speaking in the OT, even if that isn’t how it functions liturgically. So here goes.

This Psalm is what is known by Psalm scholars as an individual thanksgiving, one of 15 in our Psalter. It’s helpful, if you belong to that kind of a church, to think of it as a testimony. When I was a parish priest I learnt from a visit to a friend who was an Episcopalian Rector in Florida a great way to start a Sunday service: he sent a server out with a roving mic and asked the congregation ‘What has God been or done for you this week such that you have come to worship him today?’ A few people would then stick up their hands and briefly tell their stories of God’s goodness. When we started doing that back in Coventry it really lifted the worship. Other denominations make even greater use of testimony, and that is what is going on here in this Psalm.

The person testifying purports to be David, and his testimony is of a particular incident in his life, which you can read about in 1 Samuel 21. Whether David actually wrote this is a matter of dispute, particularly as the story as 1 Samuel tells it has David going mad in front of King Achish, not Abimelek as here, although of course it’s easy for anyone to misremember details.

The other interesting thing about this Psalm is that it is an acrostic, with each verse beginning with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. We have seven such Psalms, as well as other parts of the OT. What this means is that this isn’t a speech someone thought up at the start of a service: it’s a clever piece of literary art which has been put together with great creativity to the glory of God.

So why this Psalm for All Saints’ Day? I confessed a couple of weeks ago that I am not all that keen on the celebration of Saints’ Days, because for all their stories are supposed to inspire us to greater things they often actually end up making us feel deskilled and useless. But this Psalm is different, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is a Psalm about God, and not merely the testifier. Every one of our 10 verses mentions the Lord, apart from v.5 which merely uses a pronoun. So many Saints’ stories, and so many of our more contemporary testimonies, tend to focus on what we have done, but this passage leaves us in no doubt at all that the Lord is the one to whom the glory is due. Some human testimony might be the better for a bit more of such an emphasis.

Secondly, though, where there is human activity, it is not exactly exemplary. In order to escape with his life David pretends to be mad, dribbling and raving until they sling him out. Hardly something to be particularly proud of. One big problem with testimony is that it can tell only the good bits, which again can be deskilling for ordinary people. I can remember when we used the words above at the start of our worship there were lots of good stories shared, and a few great ones, but what sticks in my mind is the occasions when someone said something like ‘I’ve had a dreadful week and God has seemed a million miles away but I’ve come to worship him this morning anyway’. We rarely hear the more negative aspects in our hagiographical preaching: this Psalm is real, and much more flattering to God than to the story-teller.

But thirdly I particularly like v.2-3, where the author gives his testimony but then invites all of us to join in with him in glorifying and exalting God. This is the exact opposite of the way much preaching on the Saints goes, where they are held up as heroes and heroines who are out of our reach. It invites us in, rather than merely inviting us to watch and dream. It expounds the biblical truth that all Christians are Saints, and rejects the double-decker approach which our twin festivals of All Saints and All Souls have emphasised, that there are ordinary Christians who feebly struggle while real saints in glory shine. Those saints who have gone ahead of us, according to Hebrews 11, are egging us on, waiting with bated breath for us to join them in exalting the Lord. They want nothing more than to see us joining in with their praise.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

S Luke  – Isaiah 35:3-6

Uncharacteristically I’ve chosen to go with St Luke today, rather than Trinity 19. I’m not big on Saints’ days – I’ll tell you why in a moment – but it seemed appropriate as new and even more confusing lockdown regulations have just been announced and we have as many hospitalisations as we had when lockdown was first introduced back in the Spring. Dr Luke would be having a field day if he were alive now!

As always our lectionary gives us a mere snippet of the passage which really ought to be read at the very least from verses 1 to 10 (sorry to sound like a cracked record on this – it’s almost as though we’re trying to get away with as little Scripture in our services as possible). In the next fortnight I’ll be teaching my students at the Lincoln School of Theology about exegesis, and the importance of asking the right questions of a passage. So let’s begin with two: where? and when?

Isaiah answers the first very clearly: the desert or wilderness (v.1). The setting for this passage, described by two Hebrew words in parallel is a vast place of desolation, parched and arid. These words are used in the OT as deep symbols, just as we talk today about finding ourselves in the wilderness. It’s a place where we can feel alone and abandoned, where we can easily get lost, a place which is scary and evil. Nothing grows there, and there is neither food nor water to sustain us, but dangerous animals lurk threateningly. In later thought it is the place where demons live, where Jesus himself went to be tested. But it is also a place of encounter with God, where wisdom may be gained and God’s care and provision experienced. Many Christians who have suffered would testify to the value of the desert in their spiritual growth.

It is into this arid landscape that the glory and splendour of God are going to appear. That will make all the difference, to the land itself, as dryness gives way to fruitfulness and beauty, and to the people, who will find healing and restoration. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dumb will shout praises, and the lame will dance for joy.

That’s the ‘Where?’ question, but what about ‘When?’ Suddenly Isaiah goes very quiet. We just don’t know, and probably neither did he. All this wonder and joy will come to pass, but we have not a clue when, exactly.

This is a passage, therefore, for people who are suffering and have no idea how long this is going to go on for. Isaiah gives no predictions, not even a clue, but at the same time he is absolutely clear that  things will change. You may or may not share our Prime Minister’s unshakeable belief that together we will beat this virus, but Isaiah’s confidence is not based on wishful thinking or the Blitz spirit: he knows that God is going to show up, and he alone will turn wilderness weeping into joy and jubilation.

But all that is by way of background: we’ve hardly touched the verses actually set in our lectionary. And there we find a bit of a surprise. I wonder how you read verses 3-4? Is this God speaking to you, telling you to buck your ideas up? Did you find those verses comforting? Well I’m afraid that isn’t what the text says. It isn’t a comfort – it’s a commission. You – God’s people – are to get out there and start telling feeble-handed, weak-kneed, frightened people that there’s no need to fear, because God is coming. When? No idea, but he is. He’s coming to save you. These are not words of comfort to scared and weary wilderness dwellers. They are words of challenge to those who live with others in the wilderness but can see beyond its boundaries. The sand and the sun have not blinded our sight; the sickness and desolation have not robbed us of hope. We believe and trust in God.

Maybe this, then, is why this OT reading is coupled with today’s Gospel, the sending out of the 72 to teach and heal. The reason I’m not that keen on celebrating saints is that while I understand we’re supposed to look to their example and be encouraged to emulate them, in real life I reckon they do more to de-skill us than inspire us. I’ve heard quite a few sermons which have left me feeling ‘I could never in a million years do anything like that!’ Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that? Too much sainthood can leave ordinary Christians like us feeling even more useless. But Isaiah’s message to us today is surely an encouraging one – you, who are living with all your friends and family in the same wilderness, not knowing how long this is going to last, can think differently about it. You can be those whom God uses to strengthen others. Not because you have some great insight into when God is going to act, but simply because you believe he will.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 18 – Isaiah 25:1-9

This week’s OT reading gives us a tale of two cities. They are two very different cities, and Isaiah contrasts them in order to give an important message about God.

The first city is unnamed (v.2). So what do we know about it? It was a stronghold of foreigners, and it has been completely and permanently destroyed. The lack of a name for the city only adds to the sense that it has not only been destroyed, but almost forgotten. It is hardly worth mentioning.

Is there anything else we can know about this heap of ruins? Archaelologists have suggested that it was near Jerusalem, at a place called Ramat Rahel, where ruins have been found from this period, the late 7th century BC. For over 100 years Judah had been a vassal state to Assyria, and in line with their strategy for world domination the Assyrians built cities which served as outposts for their empire. Judah had paid dearly for her survival, but suddenly they were free. A new empire, that of Babylon, had taken over the world stage, and Assyria crumbled, along with its cities. It is this removal of the nation’s oppressors which is being celebrated in this hymn of praise.

We know that Assyria as a nation was cruel, enjoyed torture, and operated a scorched earth policy over most of its conquests, although obviously Judah was prosperous enough to be worth taxing rather than destroying. So when Isaiah moves on to his second city, the contrast could not be greater. This city is not named either, but there is no need to name it. It is the city on this mountain (v.6, 7, 11), right here where we are in Jerusalem. But beyond Jerusalem is the eternal city for which it stands, God’s apocalyptic kingdom, the heavenly Zion.

Zion is portrayed as a great banquet (personally one of my favourite images of heaven!) and the language used describes a Michelin 5 star rated feast: the words for aged wines contrast it with the everyday plonk, and the best of meats is literally marrowfat, which might not sound that appealing but was actually a great delicacy in that culture. But the real point here is not so much quality but quantity. This all-you-can-eat buffet is for all peoples, and particularly those who come from places of shame, disgrace and mourning. All are welcome to find healing and joy. Assyria demands and destroys: Zion welcomes and nourishes.

The Israelites were very well aware of the hand of God working through the rulers of this world and directing their paths for his purposes, so they clearly saw the rise of Babylon as a saving act of God. The ruined city became a monument to God’s power and a promise for the future, when all enemies, all that brings shame and defeat, would be destroyed by him. But there is even better news yet. There is something else on the menu at this feast: death.

The image of death being swallowed up is one which has passed into Christian imagery and liturgy. It seems to be used here deliberately, in the context of eating and drinking. At the moment our graves swallow us up, but God promises a time when death will be consumed by victory.

Whatever victories we have seen in your Christian life, whatever answered prayers or times of great closeness to God, Isaiah encourages us to see them as picture of the future. ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord; we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’ (v.9). And don’t forget this first part of that verse ‘In that day they will say …’ If you are still in a place of defeat, shame and disgrace, hold on to the experience of Judah, and let this tale of two cities lead you faithfully and joyfully towards the third.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – Isaiah 5:1-7 (related)

‘The Song of the Vineyard’ – the title by which this passage is known, seems at first sight to be a fairly straightforward allegory or parable, and undoubtedly forms the basis of Jesus’ parable in Mt 21, today’s Gospel. But on closer examination it is not so simple. There are at least three different genres or styles of writing represented in these few short verses, with twists and turns in the plot as we go along. A love song becomes an international treaty, which ends as a courtroom drama. But the message is the same – frustration.

The love song is about the prophet’s beloved, who turns out to be God. The fact that Isaiah can speak of God in these terms, and go on in the middle section to speak as from God, reflects his prophetic calling. He is the one in a close relationship of love with his Lord, and he really feels his pain. One can imagine a Blues singer announcing his next song as ‘for all those who have lost someone you love’. It is a song about love which starts well but goes sour as that love is rejected.

But as the song continues, there is a sudden switch of mood. In the ancient Near East covenants would commonly be made between nations, and the form of words often contained a list of the benefits which the stronger party had bestowed on the weaker, used as a kind of moral blackmail: ‘You owe me!’ Verse 2 is in exactly this form: ‘Look at all I’ve done for you, all I’ve given to you!’ says God to Israel. But the result isn’t a relationship of obedience and mutual respect, and the King is deeply disappointed. So what is to be done?

Again the style switches abruptly, and now we are in the courtroom, with Israel both in the dock but also in the jury box. The jury are invited to judge between themselves and God, and clearly the prophet’s hope is that confronted with this parable they will get the point and repent, just as King David did when confronted by the prophet Nathan’s parable of the rich man and the lamb in 2 Samuel 12. But nothing is forthcoming, so in verses 5 and 6 sentence is passed by the judge. And what a dreadful sentence it is to be! In a threefold act of judgement God is going to remove protection, care and nourishment from the nation. In an act reminiscent of the Flood story God is going to remove the boundaries which hold back evil from the world, just as the waters which he had divided and forbidden to come any further were suddenly released with such destructive effects. He will stop his care for the nation, stop the weeding and pruning which any gardener knows are essential if chaos is not to take over. And he will stop the nation’s nourishment, the gentle rain which waters and brings life. We are all in desperate need of these three elements of God’s sustaining love for his people, so to have them removed is punishment indeed. Woe betide any nation or people from whom God removes his protection, care and nurture.

The final verse explains the allegory, as though there were any doubt, and uses two pairs of Hebrew words to ram home the message poetically. God looked for justice (mishpat) but found only bloodshed (mishpach): he looked for righteousness (zedakah) but instead heard a cry of despair (ze’akah).

As his prophet, Isaiah feels deeply God’s frustration and disappointment that the nation to whom he had given so much, and from whom he expected so much, had produced nothing but manky fruit. So great is his pain that he is willing to allow the Vineyard to be destroyed.

I can remember a staff meeting in one of the parishes in which I served at which the discussion led to an admission that many of us felt that while God loved us (that was his job, after all) he didn’t actually like us very much, and rather resented our feeble attempts to be his people. Many of us, if we were really to admit it, basically feel that God is frustrated and angry with us. But we might picture Jesus on the cross, the Father’s protection from the angry Jews and Romans removed, his care gone as his Son feels totally abandoned, and Jesus’ thirst for drink which is met only with bitterness. Jesus, even more beloved to the Father than his Vineyard, his people, is punished in our place so that we are set free to produce righteousness and justice.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 16 – Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 (Related)

In today’s reading Ezekiel is demolishing a false argument which he (and of course God) has heard the Israelites ‘proverbing’ (literally) – repeating something which has passed into common usage because it appears to ring true. It sounds as though he is hearing the repetition of this proverb, which is being quoted as fact. The people really do believe that children are punished for their parents’ sins. More specifically, to put this into context, they have seen the Northern Kingdom of Israel destroyed by Assyria, but now the prophets are saying that they, in the South, are headed in the same direction. Seeking to justify themselves, they are blaming God for punishing them because of the sins of the previous generation. It is this false thinking, and what flows from it, which God, through his prophet, has to challenge. The argument is a bit complex, so let’s take it to bits, and add back in the verses (v.5-24) which the Lectionary has filleted out, so that we can make sense of it.

1)            Reward is personal

Ezekiel challenges head-on the notion that Judah is being punished for Israel’s sin. ‘Stop repeating that!’ he says. ‘The one who sins is the one who will die.’ Of course we all know that many children’s lives are tragically marred by their parents’ lifestyle, their abuse or their neglect, sometimes resulting in a new generation of abusers. In that sense the sins of the fathers are indeed visited on their children (Ex 20:4). But that isn’t the point here, as the prophet goes on to explain in the missing verses of this chapter.

2)            Repentance is possible

He goes on to tell the tale of three generations of people. Grandad lives a holy life, and refuses to commit any of the list of classic sins, such as false worship, adultery, robbery, usury and so on. Surely he will be declared righteous by God? Of course – no-one could dispute that. But then his son, Dad, goes completely the other way, and commits every sin in the book. What will God think of him? Again, it’s obvious – he’ll be condemned and punished (note that here Ezekiel isn’t discussing the problem of the innocent suffering while the guilty appear to go free. He’s talking about the ultimate fate of individuals under God’s judgement). But then his son, generation no. 3, sees the evil life of his Dad and follows the righteous way of Grandad instead. He’s going to be OK, surely? So the idea of punishment for your parents’ sins is a nonsense in this story. The moral is obvious – stop regarding yourselves as victims of the choices of others, and choose to do what’s right yourself. If you do end up being punished, it can only possibly be because of your own sin.

3)            Responsibility is liberating

Back to the Lectionary, and here comes the good news. To choose to accept responsibility for your own sin, to repent of it, and to live as God demands, is the best thing you could possibly do. To admit our culpability is not to walk around with our guilt hanging round our necks like a millstone, or to live and look perpetually as though we were miserable sinners: rather it is the way to rid ourselves (v.30) of our offences. The NRSV mistranslates v.25 slightly – the way of the Lord is not unjust. It is unfathomable – it just doesn’t make sense, and it’s that mystery of God’s grace which they are struggling with. That translation makes sense of the repetition of the word takan in the rest of the verse. Their thinking is not ‘unjust’; it’s daft! It just doesn’t make sense. God is gracious, and is pro-life (v.32), in the sense that he loves it when anyone turns to him and starts living justly. No way is he going to punish them, even if their parents were as evil as you can get. So man up, take responsibility for your own sins rather than claiming to be victims, and you’ll get a new heart and a new spirit. You’ll change: you’ll become a new person inside, and that will be the most liberating thing ever.

In a church in which the preaching (and expectation) of repentance has almost completely gone out of the stained-glass window, maybe we need to hear again the good news contained in this chapter.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 14 – Genesis 50:15-21 (Related)

On a first reading today’s passage, and that of the accompanying gospel from Matthew 18, are both about forgiveness. But in fact there is so much more to it that that. I want to encourage us to read it today from the point of view suggested by the Romans 14 Epistle (although I would have preferred Philippians 2) about seeing things through another’s eyes.

The story is straightforward. Joseph’s brothers, who, you will remember, have chucked him in a pit, sold him as a slave, and reported his death to his Father Jacob, are expecting Joseph to act as they would have done now that dear old Dad, the glue in this dysfunctional family, has died. Their guilty consciences are still expecting punishment, and now is the time, they fear. And, it has to be said, Joseph has not always treated them with total kindness. But the bottom line is that they expect he will act out of cruelty and revenge, as they did all those years ago. So they make up a story about Jacob’s final wishes, just to cover their backs.

Joseph, though, will have none of it, and would have forgiven them, the passage suggests, even without the supposed words of Jacob from beyond the grave. He puts flesh onto the bare bones of the idea of forgiveness with three things: humility, understanding and action. Maybe we, as those commanded (and indeed threatened) to forgiveness by the Gospel, can gain some insight into what this might actually look like.

Humility – ‘Am I in the place of God?’ asks Joseph. God alone is the one able to forgive or not, although of course as Jesus’ followers we do have the power to bind or loose on earth, whatever that means! To refuse to forgive is to attempt to hold on to some kind of power over people, and that is not our job. Forgiveness requires the humility to believe that ‘It is [God’s] to avenge – [he] will repay’ (Deuteronomy 32:35) and to let go of the desire to punish and leave it up to him.

Understanding – ‘God intended it for good’. Just as it is up to the person injured to choose to forgive – it can’t simply be demanded of you – so it is the privilege of the person injured to see things not from our own point of view but from God’s. Imagine how hurtful this comment would have been had it come from the brothers! ‘It was fine to sling you in a pit because God has brought good out of it!’ Please don’t ever say anything like this to someone who has been mistreated. But it is Joseph’s privilege to understand the hand of God even through the pain. I preached on this passage on my final Sunday at the church which I had been forced to leave through having been bullied out, and I made the point that there is a great difference between the perfect will of God and the redemptive will of God. Only the victim can articulate this kind of understanding, but it does remind us that God is greater than our pain.

Action – ‘I will provide for you’. Again the brothers can only think of what they would do in his place, but Joseph reassures them and in doing so puts his money where his mouth is. His forgiveness is not going to be mere words: he is going to take deliberate action to bless those who have sinned against him. Sometimes, of course, this is neither possible nor desirable. Sometimes you just have to get out and go as far away as you can – we’ll consider trust in a moment. But since their paths had to keep crossing, Joseph decided to bless rather than to curse.

So let’s end with perhaps the most important aspect of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. Are they to be trusted? When we have been hurt by someone else, is it possible to rebuild trust? In fact this whole paragraph is about trust, or the lack of it. The brothers have apparently been reconciled to Joseph in chapter 45, but they clearly don’t trust him an inch if they think that now Dad has died he can finally get the vengeance he has been brewing up. And Joseph’s articulation to them of his humility, understanding and actions in the future are clearly meant to rebuild trust between them. So when well-meaning Christians tell damaged people that they just have to let go, forgive and be reconciled, is this sound advice, or yet another barb in the whipping they have already received?

The answer is ‘It depends’. I love that line in Romans 12 (where the Deuteronomy bit about vengeance is quoted by Paul: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (12:18). Clearly it isn’t always possible, and doesn’t always depend on us. My advice to a victim of repeated domestic violence, for example, would be to get out now and get away. Trust is what got you those repeated beatings in the first place: you trusted someone who was untrustworthy. But at other times, yes, trust can and should be rebuilt. But it takes time – note that Joseph promises to provide for the brothers and their children.

But trust is not to be confused with forgiveness, and the two are not interdependent. If you have heard the command to forgive to include restoration, you might have felt deeply upset, and even scared, by today’s Gospel, if you have not found reconciliation to be possible. You clearly can’t have forgiven them, or you’d be best mates now. So no way is God going to forgive you. But if we redefine forgiveness as we did above, as the deliberate choice to place someone who has harmed you into God’s hands for him to punish, that is completely different from liking or trusting them. It’s much more about letting go and walking away than hugging them and making up. The second isn’t always possible: the first is a choice any of us can make.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 13 – Ezekiel 33:7-11 (Related)

I recently taught a course on Christian initiation at the theological college where it has been my pleasure to work, and I expressed the opinion that virtually all of the problems of the church today had at their root poor and unbiblical practices in initiation, or what has to happen in order for people to join the Church. In particular the notion of repenting, which lies at the heart of both the OT and the Gospel set for today, has, I suggested, gone completely out of fashion, so that everybody is welcome to baptism and to church membership with no questions asked, and no requirement of any change of lifestyle. The constant preaching of repentance by the prophets, John the Baptist,  Jesus himself, and the Apostles, has been soft-pedalled almost out of existence. This appears, in my experience, to be as true for Alpha converts as for those pressganged onto the PCC by the vicar because we need a new treasurer.

The word ‘you’ rings like a refrain through our passage as Ezekiel is reminded by God about the nature of his calling: he is to be like a smoke alarm sounding off to the nation warning them of danger. His job is to make the noise: it is the people’s responsibility to take notice, or to wave something in front of the alarm or press the off button. If people choose to ignore it and die of smoke inhalation, that can’t be blamed on the alarm.

There is an interesting contrast with v.2 of this chapter, where God calls the people to appoint a watchman to warn of coming attackers, and v.7 where it is God, not the people, choosing the watchman. This task is too important to be left to democracy! But while this passage gives us an interesting insight into the role of the prophet – to call out evil and to challenge the people to repentance, it would be too easy to read it merely as a piece of Ezekiel’s autobiography which has nothing to say to us. It is the Gospel passage which broadens out this calling from odd individuals (sometimes very odd!) to the Church as a whole. It simply won’t do to take the ‘I must mind my own business’ line: Christian behaviour and discipleship are not about individual choices. We are the body of Christ, and our Christian life is to be lived together. You only have to look around to see the damage done to the Church’s reputation by a small number of child abuse cases. I can’t help but wonder how often the policies described in Matthew 18 have ever been used in local churches. Or indeed how often new converts are told that that might be if necessary.

But coming back to Ezekiel, we might ask the question ‘Why?’ What’s the point of God sending a warning if the exile is going to happen regardless? There is an answer to that question in v.11, in some words which have become liturgical for Anglicans. God will do all he can to save people from death and destruction. He hates it when people flap their spiritual tea towels at the prophets to get the noise to stop. That poignant final question, ‘Why will you die, house of Israel?’ expresses God’s deep longing for right living in the face of a human refusal to listen and take heed of the warnings. We may not all be called and commissioned like Ezekiel into a specific prophetic ministry, but we are all part of a church which needs to put more beef into repentance than a quick prayer at the start of a service. We need to be encouraging one another to lived changed lives.