Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Bible Sunday – Nehemiah 8:1-12

Yet another departure from the Sundays of Trinity this week as I base my reflections on Bible Sunday. I said last week that I’m not all that keen on Saints, but I am very keen on the Bible, so let’s see what it has to say about itself.

If I were choosing a Gospel to go with this theme, I would choose the Emmaus Road story from Luke 24, because both that and the Nehemiah reading concern both the power and the limitation of Scripture. Ezra reads from the Torah, the Law of Moses, to the assembled Jews who have returned from exile in Babylon, with dramatic effect. But this raises the question ‘Why?’ Why now do the people fall to their knees in worship and weep in penitence? They must have heard the Law read many times before. Yes, they had been in exile in a foreign land, but that doesn’t mean that they had forgotten the Law. It is usually recognised that the worship of the Synagogue started during the exile, when they could no longer attend the sacrificial worship of the Temple, and Synagogue worship was all about gathering round the Torah in order to learn to live well. Yet on this day, as the Scriptures were read, there was a dramatic effect. What was different?

The same dynamic is present on the Emmaus Road. The Stranger expounded the Scriptures to the two disciples, but it was not until later, as he broke bread, that they were allowed to see who he really was. Only with hindsight did they realise that their hearts had been burning as Scripture was expounded. In each case, it seems that Scripture alone was not enough. There had to be some added ingredient which meant that they wept and their hearts burned. Maybe that ingredient was the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Week by week, in thousands of churches across our land, the Scriptures are read and expounded, but with very little evidence of weeping or burning among those who hear. I wonder what people expect as readings are announced, as the sermon begins. And I wonder what readers and preachers expect. We have probably all known times when something from God’s Word has struck us, or spoken exactly into a situation we’re facing, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The Bible can be powerful, but so often it seems to be read and expounded with little visible effect on those who hear. Obviously each Sunday can’t be more special than the one before – that’s too much pressure for any church leader! – but might we hear Scripture better if we raised our expectations and prayed more earnestly for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the Liturgy of the Word?

But back to Nehemiah, and there does seem to be a progression through the passage which might shed some light on a strategy for raising the profile of Scripture in our churches. First of all, reading between the lines, there is a sense of hunger for the Word. The people gather, urge Ezra to bring out the scrolls, and listen attentively from day beak until midday, around six hours. No-one was going to tell him off if he went over his Anglican seven minutes. What might we do to help people feel hungry for Scripture?

Secondly, there is respect for the Word. As when we read the Gospel, people stand, but one senses not out of tradition, but out of genuine welcome and reverence. Rarely though do we complete this verse and bow with our faces to the ground at the sight of the Gospel book. Not all churches will go in for lavish Gospel Processions, but are there things we can do to foster this kind of respect?

Thirdly, there is a response to the Word. Conviction of sin sweeps through the crowd and weeping breaks out. I wonder what proportion of our preaching is about disturbing the comfortable as opposed to comforting the disturbed. The Torah is all about how you must live to honour God and please him, and the people clearly realised how far they had come from that kind of a lifestyle. It broke their hearts. Oh for more broken hearts in today’s church!

Finally though, at the urging of those who really got it, there was joy in the Word. Conviction of sin is great, because it leads you out of the dark corner, whereas condemnation for sin keeps you trapped there. The first is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Helper;  the second the work of Satan, the accuser. The people are filled with joy because they now understand both the holiness and the mercy of God. Note too that joy leads to generosity, as food and hospitality is shared.

Whether you will be preaching, reading or listening to Scripture tomorrow, let this passage inspire you to pray and prepare for God to speak. Whether weeping or burning, pray for the Holy Spirit to speak powerfully through the Word, to change lives, and to bring freedom and rejoicing.

Old Testament Lectionary

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Jeremiah 15:15-21

Now firmly into retirement, I have of course been reflecting on the ministry which has just come to an end, helped this last week by a stay with good friends who laboured with me in my first incumbency. You can’t help but ask questions about what it has all been about, what were the ups and downs, the triumphs and the disasters, and in particular who have I been as a leader?

I have always thought of myself as a teacher, and my dear readers will be able to assess the accuracy or not of this estimate. But my spiritual director used to say that my main gifting was a prophetic one. I could see what had to be done, I could see where a course of action might lead, I was deeply uncomfortable with compromise of any kind, and I was not afraid to tell inconvenient truths. Well, if that is me, I certainly know how Jeremiah felt.

Today’s passage is one of several Laments which occur in this book. We all know what it means to lament, but we may not know that lament is a liturgical form widely recognised in the Bible. It isn’t just a random few verses of moaning: it’s a journey with different phases.  There is usually a cry to God, a description of the particular suffering which the writer is going through, questions to God about why this is happening, condemnation of his enemies, fervent prayer for deliverance, a confession of trust, and sometimes some kind of a response from God. Of course not all elements are there in every single passage, and not necessarily in the same order, but this is the general pattern. Psalm 13 is one good example.

So what does this particular lament teach us, apart, of course from the fact that lament is a good, right and healthy response to suffering. Three things hit me about Jeremiah, and three about God.

Jeremiah’s honesty. It takes either a very brave constitution or a tremendous amount of suffering to enable one to accuse God of being a disappointment. That’s just what Jeremiah does in v.18, and elsewhere in the book, notably 20:7: ‘You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed.’ You’re not playing fair, O Lord – you’re a cheat and a bully! This might come as a shock to people who have been brought up always to speak nicely to God, but the real rawness of Jeremiah’s pain screams through his words, and we cannot but admire his honesty. We feel it, after all, so it won’t be any surprise to God if we pray it. And note too that Jeremiah is also honest about the other side of the situation: he knows that God is merciful (v.15). But that is exactly the problem – where is your mercy now?

Jeremiah’s passion. What exactly has got him into this mess? His passion for God, for justice, and for the people to whom he has been sent. V.16 explains that Jeremiah has been marked out as God’s, and his delight has been to serve him and to proclaim his words (v.16). Because of his prophetic calling he has made some choices, some sacrifices, and while he doesn’t begrudge them, he feels it grossly unfair that making those sacrifices has ended up in his being so depressed.

Jeremiah’s isolation. What is more, his calling from God has led to him being a lone voice, crying as it were in the wilderness where no-one appears to be able to hear him. His grasp of the seriousness of the situation leading up to the exile meant that he wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, and that laughter and levity were highly inappropriate (v.17).

So no wonder he screams out at the God who has put such a costly calling on his life. His honesty is a good example to any of God’s people who feel keenly the weight of their calling, especially when it leads to rejection and suffering, as Jesus in today’s Gospel knew it would. But while it can be a very healthy thing to rant at God, the downside is that he can be as honest back to you as you have been to him.

God’s rebuke. So God begins by calling Jeremiah to repent. Not, I don’t think, of his honesty, but of his doubts; the ‘Why do I bother when no-body takes a blind bit of notice?’ line of thinking he has got himself into. If you really want to be my prophet, as you claim, then speak words which are ‘worthy’ – the Hebrew yaqar means ‘weighty, influential, important’. In other words – man up! You’re not getting anything which does not go with the job, so stop whingeing about it and get on with being a prophet. This is exactly the sort of thing a prophet might say to others, so God is simply giving him a taste of his own medicine.

God’s protection. However, the God who called him into this prophetic ministry is on his side, and promises his protection (v.20-21). I’ll leave it to you to judge, as you read the rest of Jeremiah’s career, just what the cash value of that protection is, as those threatened by his words go to extraordinary lengths to try to shut him up. But as one Christian leader once said, ‘Christian ministry won’t harm you. It might kill you, but it won’t harm you!’ Like Jesus, we have to grasp the eternal dimension and have a firm faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting if we are to get through the suffering of this life.

God’s warning. I think the most important little phrase in this passage comes in v.19: ‘Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.’ The ultimate failure for prophets is to lose their cutting edge, to get sucked in to the very actions they are denouncing and to go soft on the sin they are calling people to reject. That is why we need prophets, as well as pastors and teachers, to lead the body of Christ. It isn’t the most comfortable calling, but God help us if that kind of voice is silenced.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 11 – Isaiah 51:1-6 (Related)

It’s a pretty well established opinion that the book of Isaiah which we have comes from three different authors and three different periods of history. In a nutshell part one (chapters 1 – 39) warns the people that if they don’t stop it they’ll end up in exile, part 2 (40 – 55) tells them that they are soon to come home from exile, and part 3 (56 – 66) asks the question ‘Now what?’ in the light of the previous two parts. Last week’s passage came from part 3, and reminded the people of Israel that their calling was to everyone, not just themselves. But now we have to make a mental leap backwards a few decades to imagine the people still in exile, far from home, and smarting at the punishment they are receiving. The good news, though, is that soon they’ll be home. The challenge often thrown out by the prophet who wrote this section is ‘Can you not believe it?’ This parallels the challenge thrown out by Jesus in the Gospel to his disciples: who do you really think I am?

We know something of the pain and bewilderment of the exiles, because several times the prophet quotes, no doubt from what he has heard on the streets, the plight of the people. 40:27 and 49:14 are two examples:

My way is hidden from the Lord,
my cause is disregarded by my God …
The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.

The prophet faces this despair head on, and our passage reassures the people that there will be an end to their troubles. So what does this passage say to us today?

We too are exiles, yes, in the sense that our real home is heaven and we’re not there yet, but also because we’re in exile from the life we used to know pre-Coronavirus. There is a widespread feeling (which of course you may or may not agree with – other political views are available) that we are in the grip not just of an evil little bundle of genetic material but also an incompetent (at best) or downright evil government who are completely out of their depth, headed for an isolated future as the laughing-stock of the world. Life as we knew it has been suddenly snatched away from us, we are unclear what the latest instructions are, and quite honestly we can see no end to it, with the threat of future spikes and a second (and third …?) lockdown on the cards. Whether or not this is God’s punishment on us is a question I won’t stop to debate now, but I do know, because like Isaiah I listen to what people tell me, that it’s really hard to see how on earth we’re going to get out of this. Yet the passage is full of reassurance and glowing promises for a glorious future. So the $64,000 question is this: is this God’s message to Britain today? To put it another way, just because you have a little plaque with Jeremiah 29:11 on your fridge or in a greetings card, does that mean that life for you is going to be great from now on? How do we discern which bits of the Bible are God’s words for us now?

Personally I think we have to remain a bit agnostic, but while to place the passage in its historical context does at least tell us about the Word of the Lord for the exiles, that isn’t the real point of this particular bit of part 2. It deals, I think, not so much with whether God is going to rescue them, but rather with whether or not they believe he can. And there’s the rub.

The people had not just lost their home and the life they once knew: they had lost faith in their God’s ability to do anything about it. That’s a much more serious problem. The prophet here is telling people that God will rescue them, but he’s also telling them that he can. We may not be sure about the first in our Covid-ridden world, but the prophet would, I believe want us to take note of the second. Like the exiles Christians have been praying fervently for God’s mercy on our land, for the removal of the virus, for the scientists to find an injection which will make us immune, and, in some cases, for us to learn whatever lesson it is God is trying to teach us through it. Will he? Dunno. Can he? That’s the real question, and Isaiah would tell us without a shadow of a doubt that he can.

That might not answer all our agonised questions, or bring back those we love and have lost to the virus, but it certainly ought to spur us on to prayer, to fervent crying out to God for his mercy on us.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 10 – Isaiah 56:1-8 (Related)

First of all, apologies for last week’s omission. I have now located my proper computer and I’m ready to rock and roll from the new house in Sheffield, surrounded though I am with other, as yet unpacked, boxes.

And so to Isaiah, and to the eternal question ‘Just who is God for?’ That’s the subject both for today’s Gospel and for our OT passage, which I have taken the liberty of unfilleting in order that it might make some sense. It might seem a silly question, although both theologically and practically it is a vitally important one. Theologically it is raised by the very idea of a ‘chosen people’, those whom in the OT God had apparently selected to be his own special possession, those who would have a relationship with him and a privileged position in his heart and purposes which other nations were not to share. Is God, then, as universal as we might think? And of course practically it is raised by our natural human tendency to want to be with ‘PLU’s – People Like Us – rather than those who are in some way different. This attitude has manifested itself down the ages through the middle-class culture of the British Church, through apartheid in Dutch South Africa, to denominational mistrust across the globe, and has done so with differing attempts at theological justification.

So let’s go back to basics. When God called Abraham back in Genesis 12, the call was twofold – to be a blessing and to bless. Right at the very start of the Jewish nation there was built in a universality which has always been God’s purpose for this people. But throughout the OT, and on into the New and the Church today, two things have happened. First of all God’s people have been too welcoming, and secondly they have not been welcoming enough.

From very early on the Jewish people formed relationships with other nations, usually either through intermarriage or political expediency, on their terms, not God’s. This inevitably led to false worship, idolatry, and of course idolatry inevitably leads to immorality, since only the True God, Yahweh, is a God or righteousness (far more, incidentally, in the Bible than he is a God of love). The OT prophets could see this happening and so they responded with all that stuff about separation from the nations around, and the need for purity and exclusivism. But that in turn led to a kind of arrogant superiority which made God’s people look down their noses not only at ‘foreigners’ but also at those of their own race whom they considered to be sinners. That’s the kind of attitude characterised by the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Again the prophets responded, this time with the opposite message, recalling the people to their original vocation to bless other nations, not just to receive God’s blessings for themselves. The classic example of this comes in Is 49:6.

The early Church had to battle with the same question, and it wasn’t until Acts 15 that they finally realised that you didn’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus, and then only after two dramatic interventions by the Holy Spirit. And all this in spite of Jesus’ quoting from our passage when he cleansed the Temple from those who were out to make money – significantly this market place was set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the nearest non-Jews could get to God. Yet still today, in so many ways, the Church is an exclusive organisation. Every church I have visited in my diocesan ministry has told me that it was a very welcoming place, yet most of the time I have been left standing like a lemon at the back with my coffee while everyone else talks to their friends. When I was a parish priest we tried to enforce a rule that after worship you weren’t allowed to speak to a friend before you had first spoken to someone you didn’t know.

Isaiah today reinforces the original message to Abraham – you are there to be a blessing to all. Even eunuchs, specifically banned from Israelite worship in Leviticus 21 and 22, are included in this dramatic reversal of Scripture – if they are welcome, anybody is.

Yet Isaiah is not taking one prophetic side against the other with his universality. He is very keen to make the point that this inclusion has to be on God’s terms, so that ‘outsiders’ are drawn to God, rather than ‘insiders’ being tempted away from him. Note the conditions Isaiah builds into this passage: maintaining  justice, not doing evil, binding oneself to God to minister to him and love him, and interestingly keeping the Sabbath, which is mentioned twice. This inclusion is not a watering down of the faith, but rather an invitation to all to experience its benefits.

It would be worth pondering three things: firstly, where in my church is there any kind of exclusion, any kind of fear of non-PLUs, any practical actions which ‘others’ might find offputting and unwelcoming? Secondly, where are the areas where our desire to be inclusive has compromised the gospel? And thirdly, might it be possible that like many many churches, we’re blind to our exclusion and kidding ourselves?