What’s your problem? Numbers 12:1-16
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 2 – Isaiah 62:1-5
Welcome back to revjohnleachblog, and a happy New Year to you all, after a couple of weeks off. I haven’t been wasting my time though: I’ve finally submitted my PhD thesis for examination! But it’s good to be back with you.
If we were to write a plot and a dramatis personae or cast list for today’s little drama, we would find 5 ‘characters’ and a straightforward plot. But beneath the simplicity lies quite a complex passage with a pretty radical application. Let’s begin with the cast list. The first is ‘I’, the speaker who just will not shut up. Who is he or she? Probably the prophet, presumably speaking in the name of and at the command of our second character, The Lord. He is speaking no doubt to the people of Israel, but he is speaking about what will happen to the Land, our fourth ‘character’, with quite a leading role here. Finally, he is speaking about how ‘the nations’ will react. So these five characters or groups are the players on the stage, but what is the story?
The prophet seems to be expressing what the Lord is going to do, partly for the people but mostly for the land, and what the reaction of the nations around is going to be. God is going to make Israel’s righteousness and salvation (‘vindication’ is not the best translation of the Hebrew word used here) shine out like a flaming torch in the darkness. When the hostile nations see this righteousness, blazing out so that it can’t be missed in its attractive beauty, they are presumably going to seek the Lord, as they do in several other passages in Isaiah. The picture of a diadem in the Lord’s hand is a great one. You’d expect it to be on his head, but he seems to have taken it off and is showing it around to the nations as one would a beautiful gift or an Olympic gold medal or something. He is just so proud of his people, and he wants everyone to see them in their beauty. But it isn’t just humans who will see this epiphany: the Land itself will be healed. Deuteronomy has much material about physical theological geography. The relationship between land and people is a close one, and the land can be wounded by human sin, particularly the breaking of covenants or promises, false worship and bloodshed. So it has been, but the promise is of restoration is that what was once deserted will become delightful, and what was once desolate will become married and fruitful. Instead of the land harming the people and offending God, it will become a delight to both, as are a newly married couple to each other.
Sounds great, doesn’t it, but this happy ending isn’t a foregone conclusion. The fact that the prophet needs to keep on crying out until the nation’s righteousness blazes forth suggests that at the moment that isn’t happening. Rather than living in the kind of attractive holiness that will see others flocking to them to find where they got this wisdom from, they are in the situation where the prophet has to keep shouting to them, presumably until they stop acting evilly, thus polluting and harming the land, which in turn becomes hostile to them. While they continue to live lives which are harmful and toxic, the prophet has no option but to keep on with his carrot and stick oracles, promising a future which is so much better, but also warning what will happen if not. Theologically speaking the land can be saved when humans mend their ways.
Clearly there are vast implications here for our global ecological crisis. I often tell my students, somewhat controversially, that the biblical way to save the planet is to stop sinning on it, not the sins of throwing plastic into the sea (although that would certainly help) but rather by stopping the bloodshed, lying and false worship which is the real cause of the planet’s writhing in agony at the behaviour of its inhabitants. Maybe we need some prophets to start crying out with that message, rather than merely attempting, through fallen human plans, to tackle the symptoms whilst having completely lost any theology of sin, blame, punishment or repentance.
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Christmas Day – Isaiah 9:2-7
In the mediaeval Church, Christmas was celebrated as a time for turning everything upside down. In 12th century France there was one day when the sub-deacons, the lowest of the low in terms of church orders, were allowed to lead services, thus subverting for one day at least the deeply hierarchical structures of the Church. Apparently one bishop was less than keen on this idea, but grudgingly allowed the practice to continue, as long as the sub-deacons did not sing the Magnificat more than five times: their enjoyment of the mighty being cast down from their thrones appeared to need some curtailing. In England the tradition of the boy-bishop became popular: on St Nicholas’ Day (Dec 6th) a small choirboy was enthroned as the bishop until Holy Innocents’ Day (Dec 28th). He took up his place as the bishop stepped down from his throne during the words from the Magnificat above (there is no record of the boy being despatched on Holy Innocents’ Day, I’m glad to say). These quaint practices persist in some places, but the truth behind them is a profound piece of teaching for the Church at Christmas time.
It is this reversal, this turning upside down of the established order, which Isaiah presents to us in his oracle from chapter 9. It is a message of salvation for the nation, hemmed in by enemies greedy for their fertile land, and living with the darkness of uncertainty and insecurity. But then God shows up, and the sun comes out and burns off the fog, the breeze clears the smoke from the funeral pyres, and they can see clearly again. New fires are lit, as the enemies’ weapons and uniforms are burnt, and anything worth looting is divided among the victors. The people are thrilled, both at the peace which has been won for them, and the loot they’ve managed to nick. It’s a time of unrestrained joy. This is the picture which the prophet is painting for us, a celebration of the warrior God who has turned up to fight for them. But then suddenly and abruptly the picture changes. We’re no longer on the battlefield: now we’re in the maternity ward, greeting a newly born baby. What on earth is a baby doing in the middle of a battlefield?
In line with the hermeneutical ethos of this blog, I have to tell you that the passage may not have referred to a literal birth in its original context, but rather the accession of a new king. In ancient Egypt an enthronement was often referred to in these terms, and the new king would have been given ‘throne names’ such as those in v.6. One scholar suggested a missing fifth title, ‘Eternal Judge’, based on the evidence from Egypt. The titles are significant: ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ suggests the wisdom to rule well; ‘Mighty God’ is better translated ‘Divine Warrior’ and speaks of prowess in battle, with God’s help; ‘Everlasting Father’ is about the pastoral care given to the people under his rule, and ‘Prince of Peace’ suggests the ability to reign in a way which promotes peace, harmony and well-being among his subjects. Scholars have argued about whether this prophecy is about Josiah or Hezekiah, both of whom were positive rulers over Israel, but neither of whom completely lived up to expectations, leading to the enduring hope from this passage of a future Davidic king, whose reign really would last for ever. But however we interpret it, the passage, and the season of Christmas, remind us that this eternal victory will not be achieved through the belligerent might of warriors, but through the birth of a new baby and the crowning of a new king.
Today we gather round the manger to welcome the one we know to be that king, and we are reminded, in a proud, posturing and conflict-filled world, that the way of peace will never be discovered through self-aggrandisement and bloodshed, but rather through the holy zeal of the Lord Almighty, the Prince of Peace. May you know his peace in our troubled world this Christmas-time, and may we all hear once again his call to lives of humility and hope, until that time when his zeal will accomplish all that has been promised. May you become more than a conqueror: a peacemaker.
I’ll be taking a week off from blogging and podcasting, and this blog and my ‘Wilderness Years’ podcast will be back in January. Happy New Year, dear readers!
… and two steps back
Happy Christmas to all my listeners – I’ll be back to continue our journey through the Wilderness in the New Year
Off we go again! – Numbers 10:11-36
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For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 4 – Micah 5:2-5a – O Little Town of Bethlehem
Christmas and Easter are the times when any obscure OT passages in which people have seen echoes of the birth and death of Jesus are taken out of the cupboard and out of their context for use at our services. Micah 5 is one such text, with its references to Bethlehem and a new king. But of course you, as a faithful reader of RevJohnLeachBlog, know better, and as always we need to ask ourselves how the original writer of this passage would have expected the original hearers to have understood it. As we do that, some profound and topical truths will arise for us.
In its wider context the book is an oracle of judgement against both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms. This is of course a common theme – it was the prophets’ bread and butter to tell the people off. But interestingly Micah has a slightly different take. Yes, there is the usual condemnation of evildoing, covetousness and theft, although false worship is not a major theme for Micah. But as well as being tough on crime, he is also tough on the causes of crime. In chapter 3 he lays the blame squarely on the nations leaders, whose dishonesty has set the tone for the whole nation. So, in 5:1, too nasty to appear in our lectionary reading, the king is about to be struck on the cheek, a sign of complete disdain, which of course Jesus suffered too.
But them comes a promise. A new ruler is going to be born, and he’s going to come from Bethlehem. That, and the fact that he’s going to be born after a period of his mother’s labour (not an unusual way to be born) are both significant, and it is these motifs which can yield some surprising good news for us today. Bethlehem is of course the city of David, known (or rather not known) for its obscurity, but also for being the birthplace of the greatest and most godly king Israel had ever known. Even 1000 years before Mary sang the Magnificat God was in the business of exalting the humble and meek, and leaving the more likely-looking brothers, and the more likely looking city of Jerusalem, out of the picture. And the picture of labour is a picture of great pain and suffering, just like the awful time through which Israel was living, with enemies all round ready to pounce, and also the time through which we are living with a minute but powerful enemy keeping us all in a state of fear, and some of us in a state of bereavement and grief. But the whole point of labour is that it is temporary, and eventually brings forth new life and new hope. This king will be our peace.
I heard an interesting point of view expressed in the sauna at my gym this week. A group of men were discussing the latest revelations about partying and corruption in Downing Street, and one said that it was all being blown up out of all proportion by the media, and that the whole point of getting to the top of the tree was so that you could get the perks without bothering to obey the rules. With the gift of hindsight I realised how I should have reacted to that idea, but at the time I was too shocked to do anything. I have increasingly found myself interpreting 1 Timothy 2:1, that bit about praying for our rulers, not as I used to in terms of ‘Lord, bless them, give them wisdom …’ and so on, but rather ‘Lord, stop them!’ Cast down the mighty, O Lord, and exalt the humble and above all the honest! Micah would have agreed with this, but the motif of childbirth and labour gives us hope. This will not go on for ever, and when it is over something new but yet ancient will come forth. This is good news for us as we try to celebrate Christmas (if we’re allowed to this year) in the midst not just of an external viral enemy, but also the enemy within of lying, corruption and shamelessness, which it appears is in some ways trickling down from the leaders to the public, as of course is always the way whatever example out leaders set us, for good or ill. This won’t be allowed to go on for ever, and our ancient King will be born anew to judge all that is evil and to bring security and peace.
The Presence of God – Exodus 33:1-23
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For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 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, PSs or afterthoughts. 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, is similar, with the first two chapters pronouncing judgement not just on Israel but on the surrounding nations, but the final chapter changing mood and promising restoration. But is there something deeper going on here? Is the book actually about ‘The Day of the Lord’?
This idea first comes to light in the book of Amos, an 8th century prophet who predicted the fall of Israel to the Assyrians. The Day of the Lord is the time when God will come in judgement to punish evil and to wipe out all that pollutes the nation, when the humble will be exalted and the mighty cast down from their thrones. In the OT prophetic literature it is almost universally seen, in Amos’ words, as a day of darkness, not of light. Israel, who had expected vindication and a display of God’s favour, are going to be judged as severely as anyone else.
But there is some evidence that the idea of the Day of the Lord predates Amos and his contemporaries, and was formerly a joyful celebration of the coming of Yahweh in victory to his people, and of his love for them. If that is true, in the first biblical reference to it, in Amos 5:18-20, the idea is being radically turned on its head. To be sure God is coming, but not to show his love for the nation: rather he comes with punishment for its corruption, its false worship and its lack of concern for the poor. The Day of the Lord will not be a joyful celebration: it will be a day of profound weeping.
Zephaniah, who was prophesying around 635BC, continues in Amos’ style in his first two chapters, but then suddenly, in our passage, flips the idea of the Day of the Lord not on its head, but the right way up again, as he reminds the people of its original meaning, a day of great celebration as God comes to them, not to judge but to bless. So the nation should be singing, not wailing; God is with them, not against them; rejoicing over them in song, not rebuking their sinfulness. So perhaps this chapter is not a PS, but a restoration of balance in the nation’s understanding of The Day of the Lord. And yet judgement is not absent: as I have said many times before God is not tolerant. The rather sinister wounding ‘I will deal with’ those who oppressed the nation reminds us that God can never condone sin or turn a blind eye to it. But the nation is called back to its primary understanding of The Day of the Lord, as a display of God’s favour.
This little book, which features only rarely in our lectionaries, seems to me to sum up some of the tensions inherent in the season of Advent. The two themes of the incarnation at Christmas and the return of Christ as judge sometimes lie uneasily together, and we are called in this season to live with that tension. It isn’t that the nice Day of the Lord has replaced the nasty one. Both are true. It just depends on where you are standing. For some, the season is sinister and threatening: the traditional four themes of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell are things we’d rather not think about, or preach about. But for others the yearly expectation of Jesus’ birth really is something about which to be joyful. The negotiation of this tension, it seems to me, lies in our confidence as children of God. As those who are in Christ, who have given our lives to him and known the work of his Spirit, we have nothing to fear: our judgement day happened when we knelt at his cross and asked for his forgiveness. But for others, judgement will be a real event, when they will discover, maybe for the first time, that the God of righteousness simply cannot abide anything sinful or unclean. It is ‘the daughter of Zion’, those in relationship with God, who need not fear or let their hands hang down in shame, and who will be the subject of God’s delight. The rest, he will ‘deal with’. Advent invites us to ask where we stand. The answer to that question decides for us what the Day of the Lord will look like.
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 2 – Malachi 3:1-4
Perhaps the key cliché to emerge from the Covid pandemic is ‘The New Normal’. It suggests an acknowledgement that things will never be the same again, but that they will eventually settle down into some kind of living conditions with which we feel at least partially comfortable. An international crisis has to leave some effects in its wake, but, we hope, nothing too serious.
Israel too had suffered a corporate shock to the system, having seen their nation, and their Temple destroyed, and having been taken off into exile. How they must have longed for The New Normal. Eventually release was announced, through an unknown prophet responsible for the middle chapters of Isaiah, and before long they were back home trying to rebuild. Yet several biblical books, including Malachi, suggest that The New Normal wasn’t the bed of roses for which people had been hoping. It seems that the nation was in some kind of collective post traumatic stress disorder, and as a result thing had become fractured. The prophet Malachi deals with some of these fracture lines.
In chapter 1 the fracture between God and the people is addressed. They simply can’t believe he loves them. In particular the priests seem to have compromised by letting the worship of the Temple degrade into a kind of ‘anything will do’. Then in chapter 2 the fracture lines within marriage and family begin to show, with divorce rife and forbidden intermarriage with pagan women commonplace. Finally common justice has broken down, and the quest for wealth has led to individual selfishness and lack of concern both for God’s Temple and the poor. The final arrogant cry of this diseased people comes later in chapter 3 – what is the point of religion at all? What do we get out of it? Why bother?
So what is Malachi’s answer to a nation in PTSD which is falling apart and doubts just about everything? The answer comes in the middle of the book, in our passage. God is going to turn up, and like any royal visitor he will send a herald to prepare people for that coming. The Gospel quotes from a different OT passage, from Isaiah 40, but Malachi’s words were also seen as having been fulfilled by John the Baptist and his heralding of Jesus, the Messiah.
What is different here, though, is that Malachi is not addressing the people as a whole. His words are directed at the priesthood, the Levites, who, in the absence of the monarchy, seem to have become the national leaders, and therefore hold the responsibly for keeping the nation together through these fracture lines. The passage, if we include v.5 which rightly belongs with it but has been filleted out by the lectionary compilers, tells of two actions which God is about to take. Firstly, through his messenger, he is going to purify. Malachi uses two pictures, both to do with refining and purifying. Fuller’s soap was not like a bar of Dove: it was an alkali used to whiten rough cloth by bleaching out stains. And silver would have been heated in a crucible until the impurities had burnt off. However unpleasant the process, the end result was something much better than the original. God’s first desire appears to have been to sort out the people, heal their hearts from the trauma they had been through, and mend their fractured society. But the passage doesn’t end there, and the alternative is clearly set out, just as it was to be 300 years later by John the Baptist. Those who do not fear God enough to submit to his purification will be subject to his judgement for their occultism, adultery, lying and injustice, particularly to resident foreigners.
This Advent we have the opportunity to examine ourselves, to think about what needs healing in our relationships, with God and with others, and to choose which we would rather face, purification or judgement.
The Golden Calf – Exodus 32:1-35
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