OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 3 – Job 38:1-11 (Related)

Retirement brings many joys: one of them is box sets. Lockdown has of course helped with this, but we do like our thrillers. Recently we’ve watched two. The first had an ending which was, quite frankly, an anti-climax. We’d worked out who did it very early on, but discounted that character as being far too obvious. But the second twisted and turned, and until we got to the final session it could have been anybody. That was, of course, far more satisfying.

The end of the book of Job could be seen as a bit of an anti-climax too. Job had lost everything, literally, and the temptation is set out in 2:9 – why doesn’t he just curse God and be done with it all? So the question is set up: is he only living in obedience to God because God has blessed him, or can he continue to praise him even when he has nothing left? Then follow 36 chapters of agonised theology as his so-called friends try to convince him of their pre-formed beliefs in a just God and an orderly universe.

Finally we reach chapter 38, which is God’s reply. It begins in a way which is pretty standard in other Near Eastern texts from the time, as God is pictured as a master architect who has built the universe from carefully-drawn plans. But then there is a twist, as a much more female-inspired image is used, that of God giving birth to the sea and quickly wrapping it up in tight garments, and placing the new baby in a cot from which it can’t escape. It is in this second, much rarer image, that really challenges belief. The sea is often thought of as evil and hostile. This may come from a Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma Elis, where the god Marduk battles again Tiamat, a writhing sea monster, defeats him, cuts him in half, and makes heavens and earth our of each half. The Israelites, of course, didn’t believe a word of it, but that didn’t stop them from alluding to the story, just as we might talk about Pandora’s Box without necessarily believing in it as historical truth. You can see echoes of it in Genesis 1, some of the Psalms and in Isaiah. So what Job 18 appears to be saying is that God gave birth to chaos, an idea so outrageous as to beggar belief. Chaos isn’t in the universe by accident, or because of some great cosmic mistake: it has always been a necessary part of the master plan. I’m reminded of a programme I watched a few years ago which said that lightning strikes and forest fires were vitally important for the Earth’s ecology, just as death is for animals and humans. In Scripture God can and does use natural phenomena for punishments, but by no means always.

The chaotic, the destructive, the unpredictable, therefore, is woven into the material of the universe. Once we get this, much of the agonised wrestling with human suffering is made redundant. The ‘Why me?’ questions can be answered simply and honestly ‘Why not?’ We don’t after all, have any divine right to a comfy life. This is just where Job’s friends got it so horribly wrong, as they couldn’t shake off the cause and effect mindset: if I’m suffering, it’s because I have done something wrong. And if I haven’t done anything wrong, I shouldn’t be suffering. God says to Job, and of course Job knew it all along, that it doesn’t work like that. Stuff (or worse!) happens. Two chapters further on God is going to tell Job to be more behemoth, a large mythical creature which looks and behaves suspiciously like a hippo, and which is one of the most powerful of beasts. ‘Man up!’ says God in effect. Be more like him! We may feel this is not the most helpful pastoral approach to those suffering loss and bereavement, but as a piece of metaphysics it works perfectly. The world is chaotic, it always has been, and always will be. Get used to it and stop taking it personally!

Well, OK, but how does that help? Is the Christian Gospel no more than ‘Stop whingeing and worship God’? No, because there is hope, not that this world will suddenly start behaving itself and making life nice for us, but because it, and its destructive elements, will pass away. If we only have hope for this life, wrote St Paul, we are more pitiful than anyone. But there is good to come, to which the evils of this world are not worthy to be compared. We look for, yearn for, agonise for, the new heavens and earth where death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more (Rev 21). And, fascinatingly, there will no longer be any sea.

If you’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook and tell your chums. Ta!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 2 – Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Related)

The event of the Exile of Judah in the 6th century casts a long shadow in both directions throughout the OT. Before it happens the people are warned again and again about the possibility, and during and afterwards there is a sense that everything has changed, and can never be the same again. 2 Kings 25 tell the tragic story of Nebuchadnezzar’s end game, and he is indeed a master strategist. Twice before his greed to conquer Judah has been thwarted by their forming alliances with the powerful nation of Egypt, but this time he is not going to let them slip through his fingers. He is concerned to dash all hopes of a future for the nation, so he publicly shames their king, Zedekiah, by blinding him, after having had his sons his sons killed in his sight. The monarchy and David’s dynasty are no more: there can be no restoration, no hope. He also burns down the Temple and destroys the city walls: the people will have no worship, nor any protection from the hostile world around. He is deliberately trying to cause as much displacement as he can, in order to wring from God’s people any last drops of hope for the future.

Many today are feeling a similar sense of displacement from the world in which they felt at home. Britain no longer belongs in Europe, and from the Eurovision Song contest to Sausages the hostility of the nations from whom we have chosen to separate ourselves is increasingly being felt. We no longer feel we can trust a word which issues from the mouths of any politicians, the Royal family is in disarray, social problems are on the increase, and all of that is made infinitely worse by the continuing onslaught from a microscopic virus which has besieged us as Nebuchadnezzar did Jerusalem, and which shows signs of renewing its attack. So what theological resources does Ezekiel offer us for such times of social dislocation?

First of all, he gives validity to grief. The natural and appropriate response to being in such a mess is tears, rage, despair, and the whole gamut of feelings which come with any bereavement. Jeremiah is the prophet par excellence who articulates our grief for us, but Ezekiel has this kind of lament as a theme too. It’s not just OK to feel like we do, it’s perfectly natural. Jeremiah is quick to silence those who try to pretend that this is just a blip, or that things will be OK simply because we’re Jewish (or English). I wonder to what degree these kinds of emotions are allowed to be felt and expressed in our public worship in church.

But secondly, and this is where we focus in on our passage, this chapter speaks of the sovereignty of God over all that is going on for us. The chapter uses a series of parables or allegories to show that God knows what he is doing, and that he is perfectly capable of regrafting a small part of a tree into a new and fruitful setting, where it will both flourish itself, but also provide shelter for others who choose to nest there. Known in other parts of the OT, from Noah to Isaiah and Elijah, as ‘remnant theology’, this motif demonstrates again and again that God will never let his people vanish completely from the face of the earth, and that from the last remaining bits of a dying tree new growth and flourishing can spring forth. The mountain on which it is to be planted is significant too: it clearly symbolises Mount Zion, the home of both Israel and the Lord himself. It has lain desolate for decades, but it is soon to be the place of restoration.

But the third motif is perhaps the most powerful. There, in a place of security, God’s people will be free to stop worrying about enemies and concentrate instead on being that blessing to all nations which was part of God’s original call to Abraham all those centuries ago. In a church which, post-Covid, is in many places fearing for its existence, and in others continuing to sing the songs about walking in faith and victory, this text gives a reminder to our true calling, the calling which has been ours since the beginning. We are to call dislocated and fearful, angry people home.

If You’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 1 – Genesis 3:8-15

If you come from the same church background as I do, then you might have noticed what a big deal ‘intimacy’ with God is nowadays. In fact part of my PhD thesis is about exploring what exactly this terms means, why it has become so important, and whether there is any scriptural warrant for seeing intimacy as the be-all-and-end-all of worship. I think the idea has come from the influence of the Vineyard denomination, which, as well as having planted numerous churches in the UK, has also heavily influenced those from mainstream denominations, especially Anglicans. This passage suggests to us that in fact intimacy with God is a mixed blessing.

Gen 3 is wonderfully anthropomorphic; in other words it depicts God as though he were human, or at least as though he had human characteristics. The man and woman can hear the sound of God walking in the garden, maybe scrunching through some leaves or something. God takes this walk in the time of the cool evening breeze, as all who live in hot climates would. God speaks, and questions them, curses the land and the snake, and later makes skin clothes for them, which implies that death has entered the animal kingdom. Yes, it does all go horribly wrong, but the picture at the beginning is one of true intimacy with a God who walks and talks with them. What makes the difference is human sin. The God who, one gets the impression, has often met up with them at the end of a day’s work, suddenly meets them in a different place. He has to go searching for them, and the presence of God which they had previously enjoyed becomes now ominous and threatening, so that they feel the need to hide.

One result of the couple’s desire to ‘be like God’ (v.5) is that they do become like him, in that they gain an awareness of the dark side of life. Some commentators on this passage see it as a ‘coming of age’ story, where Adam and Eve lose their child-like innocence and suddenly realise that the world is actually an awful place, red in tooth and claw, rather like a child suddenly becoming aware of pain and hurt. I’m not convinced that’s what the passage means, but it is a fact that a mature adult awareness of the world does mean that we have somehow to cope with the bad things. But we also need, I believe, to realise that many of the bad things are our own fault, and that perhaps instead of seeking to sing ourselves into that ecstatic moment of intimacy with God, we ought to be thinking a bit more about our role in the sin of the world. And I don’t mean just our personal sin: many of what passes for ‘invitations to confession’ in our churches are overwhelmingly individualistic: let’s take a moment to think about all the bad things I have done this past week. Unlike Isaiah we’re quick to think of ourselves as individuals of unclean lips, but we seldom think of ourselves as members of a community of unclean lips (Is 6:5).

Of course, we live on the other side of the cross, and we do have access to God, because our sin has been forgiven and our guilt taken away once and for all. But I do wonder if in our quest for magic moments of ‘intimacy’ we might have domesticated God and downplayed our tendency to go on sinning. After all, as the author to the Hebrews reminds his Christian friends, it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31). An old and marginally heretical worship song we used to sing told us that ‘there’s no guilt, no fear, as I draw near’. Maybe there should be a bit more!

If You’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Pentecost – Ezekiel 37:1-14

This purple passage from Ezekiel may be the only bit of the whole book with which modern-day readers feel familiar (unless we are fans of Pulp Fiction, in which case 25:17 might be familiar). It begins with two questions, one which God asks the prophet, but also one which we ought to ask ourselves, even though the answer is taken for granted in the text. ‘Can these bones live?’ is the obvious question, but the other is less clear: ‘What caused these dry bones to be in the valley?’ In order to answer that question, we have to be familiar with the book of Ezekiel so far, and the life of its writer.

Ezekiel has lived through a two year siege of his city, Jerusalem, with all the attendant stress, hardship, famine and sickness. After a year in lockdown everyone is paying attention nowadays to mental health, and rightly so, but imagine two years of the kind of lockdown which leads to starvation and eventual captivity, with a threatening and cruel army just over the wall. He has heard reports from his exile in Babylon of the destruction of the Temple, where he served as a priest and even in exile expected that he would return to his duties sooner or later. He has seen in action the legendary cruelty of the Babylonians as they tortured the captives. He has seen the death of his beloved wife, but has been told by God not to mourn, as a sign to the people not to mourn for their city, now razed to the ground. And perhaps the worst of all, he has seen in a vision the glory of God, symbolising his presence among his people, depart from the Temple. Put it like that, and piles of dry bones might well describe how you see life, and the future. So no wonder the despairing answer to God’s question ‘Can these bones live?’ is ‘Your guess is as good as mine, O Lord.’

We do, of course, have a human tendency to want to skip the nasty bits of life and head for the positive bits. We’re not comfortable with death, and we’re allergic to pain, so lets head for the nice passages, which offer us a hope and a future and the drying of our tears. There’s nothing wrong with that: anyone who enjoys pain is rightly branded as a bit weird. But liturgically we can do the same if we long for Easter Sunday without entering into the full horror of Holy Week, and celebrate Pentecost without first asking ‘Why do we so need the power of the Holy Spirit?’ Only if we see ourselves, and the Church, as God sees us; only if we are aware of the dryness and deadness of so much of what we do can we really appreciate how much we need the new life which Pentecost promises and the Spirit brings. To really appreciate our need cuts through ideas such as Pentecost being the Patronal Festival of those funny charismatics, but it’s not for me, thanks very much! Elsewhere the exalted Christ asks self-satisfied members of his church to realise how poor, naked, pitiful and blind they are, and to come to him for healing (Rev 3:17). We can’t afford to ignore Pentecost.

The restoration of the mighty army happens in two stages, and that has something to teach us too. The word ‘Zombie’ is not in the Bible’s vocabulary, but the reality here is that people brought to life by God are really the undead, walking around but with no life in them, until the second touch of his Spirit, breathed into them, brings them fully alive. It was the practice of the Early Church first to baptise new converts following their repentance and belief, and then to pray for them to receive the Spirit. The C of E has institutionalised this into Confirmation, and separated it into a second and much later ceremony, and some Pentecostal churches teach that a ‘Second Blessing’ of the Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues, is necessary for full salvation. But whilst it may be wrong to separate Baptism and the Holy Spirit, the fact is that there are plenty of undead Christians walking around with no practical experience of receiving the Spirit at all. When that happened in the book of Acts, the Apostles immediately did something about it, and prayed for the people concerned to be filled with the Spirit, so that what flowed from their mouths, whether praise, prophesy or tongues, gave evidence to anyone present that they really had received the Spirit. Maybe today there are those who will want, on this feast of Pentecost, to ask God for that filling with his Spirit, or to ask to be refilled (because we leak!) so that we can come fully alive in Christ.

If You’re enjoying my blogs and podcasts, please give me a ‘Like’ on facebook. Ta!