OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 – Genesis 22:1-18

This is an appalling story on so many levels. God demands a human sacrifice. That sacrifice is to be the longed-for son born miraculously to a barren woman of 90, as a direct result of his promise of a dynasty for Abraham. The way that the story is narrated slows down as we read through, building the tension until the dramatic climax when Abraham, knife in hand, is about to kill his own son, believing that God has told him to do so. What on earth is this all about? Is it a story of a cruel and heartless God, or Abraham’s misguided faith, or what?

On one level, this story (known in Jewish scholarship as the ‘Akedah’ or ‘binding’ of Isaac) is what is known as an aetiology, that is, a story told to explain a present reality. The OT is full of them, and they are easy to spot as they usually say something like ‘That is why that pile of stones is here to this day’. You can imagine a child asking a question, with the aetiology being told as the answer. This story became associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, and the child might have asked ‘Why do we cut up animals?’ The answer is that people used to cut up each other, until God stepped in and prevented that form of worship, substituting animals instead. Our culture’s animal rights agenda notwithstanding, the story immediately becomes something of an improvement. But I think there is something deeper going on, and we will have to look elsewhere for the key which unlocks it. But first, as always, a bit of context.

22:1 begins ‘Some time later’ or, in the Hebrew ‘After these things’. After what things? For many chapters God has been at work on Abraham. He begins by changing his name, and then through a series of encounters he tests Abraham’s relationship with him. He makes the promise of a naturally born son and heir, and Abraham’s reaction is incredulous laughter. He invites Abraham to intercede for the doomed cities, and he allows Abraham to lie about his wife to king Abimelek, rescuing Sarah just in time. Abraham’s faith in God is, to say the very least, a bit shaky. But by the time God steps in and rescues Isaac from the knife, he knows now that Abraham ‘fears’ him – the first time this word has been used about Abraham and God, although we have seen Abraham fearing death at the hand of local rulers because of his beautiful wife (Chs 12 and 20), and we have seen him afraid that God’s promise of a son could not be fulfilled without his and Hagar’s help. Abraham is not so much being invited to kill off his son, but rather his lack of trust in God.

But there is something else going on here, and the key is to be found in Gen 18:17. God sends three angels (?) to Abraham to warn his about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where his relative Lot was living. But God asks himself the poignant question ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’ The immediate meaning of this is the destruction of the evil cities, but many centuries in the future God was going to do something else: he was going to offer his one and only son, whom he loved dearly, as a sacrifice. All those years earlier God wanted to share with his friend what was on his heart: that’s what friends do, and that may be why James was later to describe Abraham as God’s friend (2:23). Abraham gained a unique insight into God’s eternal purposes as his friend shared his heart with him.

When I was working as a diocesan discipleship officer there was, as you might imagine, much debate over what discipleship really means, how we might define it and whether or not it might in any way be measured. Surely there is no greater relationship with God than one of profound friendship, in which we gradually, and often painfully, get to understand his heart as he understands ours. Yes, Christian growth is to some extent about becoming more like Jesus, breaking the grip of addictive sins on us (whatever our particular poison might be), knowing our Bibles better and all that, but Abraham would tell us that the bottom line is how well we know God and understand his heart. This is still a very difficult story, but to read it as an insight into God’s heart and emotions can at least help us to find a way into it.

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 4 – Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13

At the moment I am in the middle of facing one of the greatest challenges of my entire life. I refer, of course, to coving. Not Covid, although that has been a bit of a challenge too. No, coving. That polystyrene curvy stuff which goes round ceilings. For the last year we have been engaged in an almost complete renovation of our daughter’s house, and now it’s coving time. Having watched the jaunty YouTube video from B&Q, nothing seemed easier. What could possibly go wrong? If you live in a house with perfectly right-angled corners and straight lines everywhere, that is. But a 1900s Sheffield terrace isn’t quite like that, as we soon discovered. Many a time we would have had to rip the stuff off and start again, had it not in fact fallen off of its own volition. I’m sure nailing it up isn’t the right way to do it, but in the end it’s the only way which has worked. Here’s a tip: buy shares in Polyfilla!

Actually, I keep telling myself, there’s no shame in pulling stuff down and starting again if it isn’t working. In fact it’s the only intelligent course of action. It’s much better than bodging it up and hoping for the best. And that is what is going on in todays reading, the edited highlights of the Flood narrative. We tend, when thinking about this story, to see it as a story of destruction, of God’s anger, of his ruing the day he ever made the world. But it is also possible to read it in a different light, that of God realising that things just aren’t working, and so starting all over again.

The chapters from Gen 3 to 6 tell of the gradual decline of the world, from the first murder to the point in Gen 6: 5 where ‘The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’

And so a remake is required, and it is possible to see within the flood story an account of a new creation. What God had constantly called good in Gen 1, he now calls evil (in the verse above and in 6:12). He is deeply troubled about what the word has become – the Hebrew words means grieving, aching in his heart – almost as grieved, I’m sure, as I am about my coving. So he sets about a remake.

Creation, according to Gen 1, had begun when God separated the waters. Now he lets them flow back together again, with disastrous effect, before separating them again as the mountains begin to appear. This echoes forward to the future when again there will be the need for a remake, as the waters are separated to allow a rabble of slaves to find freedom and a new national identity.

God’s command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and populate the earth (Gen 1:28) is repeated to the flood survivors three times, in 8:17, 9:1 and 9:7. The original deal is still on, and God’s original purpose for the human race remains unchanged. And above all, the story reaffirms that humans, however imperfect and fallen, are still made in the image of God (9:6). These deliberate echoes of the creation narrative are not there just by chance. Clearly the story is written up deliberately to show the flood as a starting again of the human race, and with it comes the rainbow, signifying that God promises that the way of complete destruction by water, in other words the allowing of the waters of chaos to overwhelm the world again, the very opposite of creation, is no longer an option which God is allowing himself.

Today we give thanks for a God who is willing to begin again. As we continue to live through the Easter season, celebrating the destruction of Jesus by human evil but God’s raising of him to new life, we are aware of how much God has had to start again in our lives, to give us second chances because he is deeply grieved at our mistakes. And we look forward to the new heavens and earth, when all creation will be perfected, never to go wrong again.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 2 – Exodus 14.10–31; 15.20–21

What a wonderfully complex story for Low Sunday – maybe the Lectionary compilers assumed hardly anyone would be there to hear it anyway. It’s clearly a story of conflict, but actually there is so much going on here, and in fact there are several conflicts all weaving in and out of one another.

1)         Israel vs Pharaoh This is the most obvious level at which the fighting happens: the nation has been enslaved for generations, and treated with increasing brutality. In return Egypt has been harmed – there is always collateral damage when powerful leaders try to get things their own way, and God appears to have acted decisively on behalf of Israel. That is, until they are stuck by the sea, providing too much of a temptation for the defeated Pharaoh. But this stuckness leads to the second conflict

2)         Israel vs God As the people see the approaching chariots (a vast army, with 600 of ‘the best chariots’ plus all the rest), they must have felt that defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. They had finally escaped, but now here they were, backed not into a corner but into the sea. Their immediate reaction, which they revert to time and time again during the wilderness period, is to want to go back to Egypt, on the ‘Devil you know’ basis. But Moses, who has not yet at this stage heard enough of this grizzling to make him suicidal, simply encourages them to watch and see what God will do. Whether this was a statement born of a prophetic insight or blind faith is not made clear, but God does act, in a way which illustrates the third conflict

3)         Creation vs Chaos The story here, and the specific language with which it is told, cannot help but take us back to the creation narrative in Gen 1. Based on an old Babylonian myth, in which the god Marduk cuts the sea monster Tiamat into two pieces and makes the heavens and the earth from the halves, so God in Genesis divides the chaotic waters to make heaven and earth. Now he repeats the action, dividing the waters of the sea to create a new, emancipated nation. This story isn’t just about some escaped refugees: it’s about the eternal struggle between God’s creation, which is meant to provide the environment in which all life can flourish and be fruitful, and the forces of chaos which crush and mangle others, make the environment hostile, and bring ugliness and desolation. Pharaoh has clearly chosen the path of chaos in his treatment of the Israelites, so this is God fighting back on their behalf, striking a blow against all that is destructive in an attempt to free the people  into new life. But this action inevitably involves a fourth conflict,

4)         Love vs Justice When you heard or read this story, I’m betting there was a bit of you which felt uncomfortable joining in with Miriam’s songs of joy, and not just because of the tambourine. The destruction of God’s enemies in the OT has provided a great deal of controversy throughout the history of the Church, beginning with Marcion, a 2nd century heretic who taught that the cruel God of the OT was completely different from the nice Jesus of the New, a view which, although roundly condemned by the Church at the time, is alive and well – I heard a sermon saying exactly this only a few weeks ago. If you heard my talks on John 3:16 (here) you’ll have heard me challenge the idea of the ‘unconditional love’ of God, and suggest that a far more biblical picture is that God is a God of righteousness, who is incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair, and not a God of love who is incapable of doing anything nasty. And this debate isn’t just about the OT – the common idea that God would never condemn anyone eternally comes from exactly the same idea. There is a lovely Rabbinic tradition which says that when a couple of angels wanted to sing a song of praise in celebration of God’s victory, he forbade them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” Our prayer is that mercy will triumph over judgement, but when a people give themselves over so fully to evil, chaos and oppression that might not be possible, even if it brings tears to God’s eyes.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter Sunday – Isaiah 25:6-9

There are many different pictures of eternal bliss, not just in different faith, but even within the biblical tradition, whether it’s eternity with 72 virgins, merging like a drop into the cosmic ocean, or an everlasting Vineyard song-slot. If you haven’t already heard it, you can get a glimpse of my vision of heaven here. But another one which really appeals is the one set out in this passage – an all-you-can-eat buffet at which, miraculously, you won’t put on any weight.

The passage is part of a larger unit known as the Isaianic Apocalypse (Isaiah 24-27), which speaks into Israel’s desperate situation by proclaiming a vision of the future beyond their present sufferings, which, of course, would have included food shortages, as they were ravaged by one conquering empire after another. It’s natural to think of a better life in the form of a banquet. It’s ab great picture, particularly when we realise that food is not just about eating: it’s for being together, celebrating, marking special occasions, and even for mourning. I took my first funeral for over two years last week, and it was really strange not to be able to go on somewhere for a wake afterwards. We too live in a time when we have been conquered, not by a Babylonian army but by a tiny virus, and many in our country are going hungry, while all of us long for the kind of human togetherness we have been denied for over a year now. That’s our OT passage as we celebrated Easter Day, so what can it say to us today? As is so often the case, we can get at the meaning of a passage so much better when we look at it in its wider context.

First of all, the cross speaks into turbulent times. Verses 2-5 describe the devastation going on all around in a time of conflict, poor people needing a refuge, homeless people needing shelter, uproar and ruthlessness, and that’s just in the UK! God knows what is going on, and the cross of Jesus speaks into our situation, not around it. This passage is unashamedly about pie in the sky when you die, and I don’t have a problem with that. Reward is constantly used in the Bible as a motivator to good living (that’s a whole nother blog, but think about it: from the Beatitudes to Revelation, promises of reward are constantly held out to those who have lived faithfully.) The real point of application of this passages for Easter Day lies in v.8: God will swallow up death for ever. That happened at the empty tomb, it’s our reward too, with Jesus as firstfruits of those who have died.

Secondly, the cross tries to be inclusive. In the actual verses of our passage, the word ‘all’ is used five times: all peoples, all nations, all faces, all the earth. This is not just a narrow, nationalistic vision for Israel, but rather a welcome to the banquet for all who want and need to be there. The cross welcomes all who will stand under its shadow, all who want to partake of the richness of the spread.

But then there’s suddenly a jarring note, edited out, of course, by our lectionary compilers. Verses 10-12 show us that not everybody did want to come to the feast: the nation of Moab is singled out as one which Israel came to hate strongly after the Exile. They had consistently been hostile towards Israel, and their doom is declared in Is 15. How do we hold this in tension with the ‘all’s of v.6-9? Is God’s love not as unconditional as our verses suggest?

The cross, and the empty tomb, demand a verdict, and nowhere does the Bible pretend that there will not be those who decide the wrong way, and bear the consequences. Jesus told stories of people who had been invited to banquets but who chose not to turn up. This Sunday, of all the year, asks us what we believe, and this passage sets out the alternatives: banqueting hall, or muckheap?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Palm Sunday – Isaiah 50:4-9a

When I was at college about 200 years ago I developed a theory of preaching which has stood the test of time, and which I am now passing on to my students. I reckon there are three types of sermons. ‘OK’ sermons are … well … OK. Then there are ‘But how?’ sermons. You should all be praying a lot more than you are, but there is no help given about how I actually go about that, so that I’m left feeling even more guilty. And finally ‘So what?’ sermons are great on theological insight, and may have imparted to me some new information, but I am given no help in understanding what that actually means for my discipleship, and how it makes a difference. I remember as a student on placement explaining this to the congregation, and telling them that if I ever preached a ‘But how?’ or ‘So what?’ sermon, they were free to shout out the question. Of course this was too much of a challenge for the Youth Group, and one Sunday the inevitable happened. So I rose to the occasion and gave them an impromptu further 20 minutes of application, which cured anyone of ever shouting out again.

Today’s passage, from the third so-called ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah, couldn’t be accused of being ‘So what?’ In its wider context, the passage is an answer to the accusation from Israel in 49:14 that the Lord has forsaken and forgotten his people. No, says God through the prophet, far from it. The servant, a personification of the whole people, lists some of the things God has done, but then goes on to give application, which completely removes the ability of anyone to shout out ‘So what?’ The servant has been given an instructed tongue, so that with wisdom he can sustain the weary (v.4). God has spoken to him, and as a result he accepts persecution without the desire for revenge (v.5).  God helps him, so he sets his face with determination (v.7) Again, God helps him, so he does not fear being condemned (v.8) There words, spoken to an exiled nation who believe that God has forsaken them, form a double rebuke. It simply isn’t true that God has done nothing for you, but what have you done with what you have been given? How has God’s wisdom enabled you to encourage others, or have you just joined in with their whingeing? Are you able to treat your captors with mercy, and accept from God’s hand the punishment you so richly deserve, realising that it’s a fair cop? Are you flinty faced and looking for salvation, or has despair crept in a sapped your life away? And do you really believe that in the end you will be forgiven and vindicated?

Once we read the passage in that light, it becomes a bit easier to see why our lords and masters have chosen this as a passage for Palm Sunday, because the role of the Servant is so perfectly lived out in the next week of Jesus’ life. He is indeed going to be beaten and mocked, but today is the day when above all he sets his face firmly in the direction of all that suffering and goes out to meet it head on, believing that vindication will be his, which of course it was seven days later.

The real challenge, though, comes predictably enough in the verse after our set reading (again!). Who among you fears the Lord? The trust in him, and rely on him. And lest you fear that this is a ‘But how?’ blog, the next chapter tells them how to build their trust: by reminding themselves of their history and looking to their promised future.

We know that Jesus must have constantly looked to the Jewish Scriptures for inspiration and comfort: indeed the words of Psalm 22 were on his lips as he died. The words of Isaiah’s Servant Songs must have shaped his ministry profoundly. Today we are challenged both to welcome Jesus with praise and enthusiasm into our lives, but also to walk with him towards the cross, and ultimately to the resurrection.