OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 15 – Amos 6:1a, 4-7 (Related)

My faithful followers will of course have noticed that I missed out last week’s OT Lectionary blog. This was of course out of respect for her Late Majesty, and not in any way because I completely forgot! But this week’s passage has taken me back to the sad events of last weekend, and the message of Amos is, I believe, as important as ever.

Our new PM, when she wasn’t busy reading from the Bible, was telling us that she ‘knows’ that our great country can pull through all its current crises. And at Her Majesty’s funeral and surrounding events there was a sense, and maybe on this occasion an appropriate one, that Britain really was Great under her reign. Certainly no-one, worldwide, does pomp and grief quite like our armed forces and the Church of England. Personally I found it all very moving, and for once was proud to be an Anglican, and almost proud to be English. But as we move towards the end of the period of mourning (a thoroughly biblical idea, by the way, that mourning should stop and we should move on after an appropriate period of time), our problems as a nation will still be there, with rampant inflation, food and fuel poverty for many, and continued divisions along so many different fault-lines. What was totally absent, both from the pep-talks of Mrs Truss and the celebrations of the life of Queen Elizabeth, was any sense that our problems might have something to do with our abandonment of God and with human sin, so ably demonstrated to us by our previous PM. If we are a proud and arrogant nation, recent events will sadly have reinforced this in us, paradoxically, in the light or our late monarch’s profound and public Christian faith.

If that’s how you see the state of the nation at the moment, then you’ll understand Amos completely. ‘Woe to you who are complacent!’ he thunders out in v.1. This is nothing less than a curse, pronounced with prophetic spiritual power, and believed to bring about what it said. He paints a picture of a nation where at least some of the people are living lives of luxury, not sleeping on the floor as most people did, not living off a veggie diet, not as a fad but because they simply couldn’t afford any meat, let alone the choicest. Some of the language of this passage hints at sacred idol feasts, but it may simply be describing drunken partying rather than false worship – we’re not sure about this. But either way the main point is the same: they did not grieve over the ruin of the nation (v.6). For them, as for today’s fat cats, millionaires and other figures of the élite, life was actually pretty good, even if the hoi polloi were starving and other nations were poised to attack. Eat, drink and be merry, and hope things would continue like that for the foreseeable. So it is left up to Amos to pronounce God’s opinion of the state of the nation, and his verdict is damning: your feasting and decadence will come to and end, and you will be the first to be taken off into captivity (v.7).

It has been said that if you like the book of Amos, you don’t understand it. The tone almost throughout is one of judgement on an arrogant nation which thinks it is doing fine, thank you very much. But there are three mistakes we can make in reading judgemental passages like this one. First of all, we can believe that God’s anger is the opposite of his love. This is an error which goes back at least to the 2nd century, and which led a heretic called Marcion to excise from his Bible all of the OT and all the bits of the NT which mention or quote from it, on the basis that the two testaments tell us about two different gods, the nasty angry one of the OT and the nice one, revealed to us by Jesus in the NT. God’s judgement is not the opposite of his love, it is the outworking of it, because people whom he loves are groaning in poverty because of the greed and arrogance of others. As a God of righteousness he cannot stand by and do nothing while his people suffer, at least not for long. He judges because he loves, and he judges those who fail to love.

Secondly, God’s judgement is not the same as his condemnation. He doesn’t like being angry, but he does love showing mercy. He would rather that sinners turned from their wickedness and lived. Judgement, therefore, is always aimed at repentance and change, not eternal rejection. That will come, but in his patience he wants to give us every possibility of turning back to him.

But thirdly, and most personally, judgement is not always about ‘them’, over there or back then. It is easy to see how sinful others are, but the real point is to use the Bible as a mirror in which to look at ourselves. Where does this passage reflect my sinful lifestyle, not just that of Israel two and a half thousand years ago. And what must we do which they failed to do?

Finally, in a shameless plug for my son, if you like House Music and our dear late Queen, you might like Steve’s tune which he has recently made public here. Do share it if you like it, and rejoice in the fact that, as Archbishop Justin said so clearly, if we are among God’s children, as she is, we will meet again. Goodbye and Thank You Ma’am. For everything.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 13 – Exodus 32:7-14 (Related)

One of the clichés I’m fed up of hearing is the oft-stated assertion that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change us. When we pray for something, it doesn’t talk God into giving it to us, but rather we talk ourselves into not wanting it after all! In a liberal and deistic Church where it is politically incorrect to suggest that God might actually do anything, we have lost sight of the power of direct and specific intercession to affect our lives and situations. So let’s have a look at this story of Moses the intercessor and see what the Bible actually says.

It’s worth saying that the whole incident was driven by fear, and that the people had every right to be afraid. Hunger and thirst were very real possibilities in the desert, and whether death came quickly or slowly it was a very real prospect. But as is so often the case, fear has distorted their perceptions of reality. First of all, they had distorted their view of Moses. In spite of his repeated assertions that it was God who was going to lead them to the Promised Land, they were fixated on him. It was all his fault: he had brought them out into the desert to kill them. As I write two Tory hopefuls are slugging it out to see who will be the Prime Minister to lead the nation out of the mess their party has got it into, and the more optimistic (or naïve) are hoping for a human leader who will make everything all right again, and stop them either starving or dying of hypothermia. If you put your faith in a human leader who then goes awol, there is a real panic.

Then they acted out of their distorted perception of who God was. They needed a god they could actually see, one they had made in their own image, and who would come to save them. Having cast the idol, they believed that it was this god, the one they had just made for themselves, who had and who would lead them. And finally they acted out of a distorted perspective of their whole situation, the whole journey they were on. The Hebrew uses two different words for their journey through the desert. Alah means simply to go from one place to another, like getting a bus to town, whereas yatza is a technical term for a slave being taken out of bondage and into freedom  – it’s the world used extensively in chapter 21 for the freeing of slaves. While God and Moses talk about yatza, the people only use alah. Their fear has made them lose sight of the fact that they are being set free: they merely see a long journey which isn’t going to end up much better than where they had come from.

So with these three distortions in mind, it is easy to see how God might just be a bit cross with them. This is where Moses the intercessor comes in. Note first that Moses doesn’t have his own mind changed. He is in no way tempted by the offer of becoming the father of a great nation instead of Abraham. Instead he argues with God, using three different techniques to drive home his prayers. He reminds God that they people are his: your people, whom you brought out of Egypt (v.11) It’s like a couple of parents saying ‘Look what your son has been up to!’ The people are not someone else’s; they are God’s.

Then he asks about the PR effects of mass destruction. What will all the people around think if you destroy your people? he asks. This just won’t look good on you. But finally, and this might just be the clincher, he claims God’s promises and his character. You’ve promised, and I know you’re not one who breaks promises. So God relents, and a much milder punishment is meted out (because God is righteous, and he can’t just tolerate wrongdoing.

Did God really mean to wipe out the whole nation? Or was he just testing Moses, inviting him to be the prophet he was meant to be, to stand in the gap in the wall and protect the people as Psalm 106 describes? One day we might find out, but the story as it stands encourages bold intercession. Put it alongside other biblical texts about the power of intercession, and it gives us, I believe, a strong encouragement to cry out to God in situations of evil and injustice, to claim God’s character and his promises, and to watch for the salvation of the Lord.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Related)

If you’re a fan of the rather gruesome 1996 film Trainspotting you’ll be familiar with the call to ‘choose life’ and Mark Renton’s decision ‘I chose not to choose life. I chose something else’, the ‘something else’ being heroin addiction, crime and degradation. In the previous three chapters of Deuteronomy Moses has been setting out for the nation, on the edge of the Promised Land, the choices they have, and the consequences of those choices. In this chapter, he urges them to choose life, which, in the light of the promised blessings and curses, seems a no-brainer. Yet they choose something else, again and again, and so do we. Why on earth are wrong decisions so attractive, and the right paths so difficult to walk in? Jesus himself urged his followers to go through the narrow gate rather than following the wide road towards destruction (Mt 7:13). Why do we constantly make choices which fly in the face of common sense, which we know will cause trouble, but we take them anyway?

One reason, I believe for this daft course of action, has to do with timescale. The consequences of wrong choices do come, but often they come slowly and gradually, rather than instantly. This gives us the impression that we have somehow cheated the system, that we have a kind of immunity which nobody else has. And for Christians it can lead us to believe that God is ‘tolerant’ and doesn’t really mean it when he promises the consequences, because he is after all a God of ‘unconditional love’. So the more we sin and get away with it, the stronger our belief grows that God doesn’t really mean what he says, or that it doesn’t apply to us. That is true of individuals, but we are also seeing the consequences nationally as our life seems to be falling apart.

I don’t know if you were struck reading today’s passage by the long-term nature of it all. There are references to the people’s children in v.2 and 19, for example. There is a reference in v.16 to increasing, in other words having families and descendants, and there is the promise that they will enjoy long life in the land in v.20. The promises of blessing are not short-term; neither are they just for the current hearers. They are about the nation and its long-term future. To steal Peter’s words, the promise is for you and for your children. So presumably the opposite is true. The fruits of disobedience will grow, but they will take time. The people will not live long in the land (v.18), but they will be there for some time before the consequences of their sin are made manifest. We might therefore see that one of the roots of sin is the desire for instant gratification. We want what we want now, and we’re not bothered about the longer-term consequences, either for ourselves or for others. Like Renton and his fellow addicts, we crave that fix now, and we’ve just got to have it.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus urges his followers and potential followers to count the cost, in other words to think ahead. He never promises an easy life for those who walk with him: in fact he promises the very opposite. We need, I believe, in our laudable attempts to evangelise by making the gospel appeal to people, to be careful that we help them to think long-term. People need the gospel not because it will make them feel better, or give them peace, or purpose, or any of the other feel-good factors which we so often promote and share testimonies about. People need the gospel because it’s true, and because it’s worthwhile, and because without it there will be eternal consequences. It seems paradoxical that the more we make the gospel attractive, the more the Church declines in numbers and in influence. But to acknowledge the difficulty of walking the right path, but to call people to it anyway, seems a far more Christ-like approach to evangelism.

So with Deuteronomy, and Moses’ pep-talk before the people finally cross into the land. We know, of course, the next bit of the story, and how the nation’s choice of something else rather than life led them into all kinds of trouble and eventually into captivity in Babylon while the land God promised them was reduced to rubble. Moses’ words ring down the years for us too. Choose life, because that’s the right thing to choose, even if we have to wait until our Promised Land to see the promised blessings.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 11 – Jeremiah 2:1-14 (Related)

We’ve had a few trips into the life and times of the prophet Jeremiah recently, but this week we find ourselves back at the start of his book, in what provides an intro to everything else he’s going to say, rather like the Abstract of a PhD Thesis which sets out the main arguments in order to help people decide whether they want to read all 250 pages or not. Chapter one is famously about his call and his reluctance to obey, and then comes the summary of his message. I’ve chosen to add on the three verses before our lectionary passage, since I believe there’s an important lesson there. Jeremiah, as we know, was the prophet whose task was to announce to the nation that downfall and captivity were inescapable, and he ministered around the time of the start of the Babylonian exile, around 600 BC. He was not a happy bunny, although his work is not without hope, but to this day we call a long passage or speech full of doom, gloom and misery a ‘jeremiad’.

He’s going to spell out in great detail exactly what it is that the nation has done wrong, but in his abstract he makes it simple. Israel has done four things wrong (not just the two he mentions in v.13.

They’ve lost that loving feeling. V.1-3 looks back to the wilderness period, when, according to God, they followed him through the desert with all the love and devotion of a newly married bride. Immediately we have an important paradox: just which Bible is God reading? If you’ve been following my ‘Wilderness Years’ series of podcasts (if you haven’t, you can find them here, or by searching RevJohnLeach blog on Spotify or iTunes) you’ll know that the story was anything but one of love and devotion. It was grumble central, with the people constantly moaning, grizzling, disobeying and rebelling, to the point where Moses wanted to end his own life. So how could God look back from Jeremiah’s time and see it all as such a positive period? The answer is that he forgave. And forgot. When we forgive people, we’re often left with a trace remembrance of what they did to us, and there’s a shadow which remains between us: can we really trust them again? There’s a wariness which creeps into the relationship (at times appropriately), and however much we say we forgive, we’re still cautious. Well God isn’t like that. He remembers our sins no more. When we’re tempted to feel that our relationship has been marred by something we’ve done, that since then God has been cautious towards us, that there’s a shadow between us, we’ve failed to understand how God forgives. If he can look back on those 40 miserable years and see them as the honeymoon period, he can certainly start off again with us and a clean sheet. But the problem here is that they had lost that first love, even if he hadn’t.

They’ve found fault with God. As so often in marriages, when the love and affection dies, the carping sets in. By this time they have arrived and settled in the promised land, but they have turned against the God who so lovingly led them there (v.5).

They’ve chosen new gods instead. V.13 uses that famous picture of a nation who have turned away from the clean sparkling water which God gives them, and dug their own wells which are full of mud and muck. The nation thought they could do without God, as has ours for decades, and now they are drinking the filth their own hands have produced. But there is another big big mistake, hidden in v.8:

They failed to carry out a reality check. As their fortunes declined, they never once stopped to ask the question ‘Why?’ Why is God no longer with us? Why has he deserted us? Why are the rich getting richer and the poor poorer? Why are other nations queuing up to invade us? Why are the streets no longer safe? Why is corruption rife? The people had got used to life as it was, and had failed to stop and ask ‘Why?’

Back in 2014 the C of E published a report called Anecdote to Evidence which was a research project into church growth. The headline from it came from Professor David Voas of UCL (our arch rivals at King’s London) who famously said this:

“There is no single recipe for growth; there are no simple solutions to decline … What seems crucial is that congregations are constantly engaged in reflection; churches cannot soar on autopilot. Growth is a product of good leadership (lay and ordained) working with a willing set of churchgoers in a favourable environment.”

It is this reflective attitude, rather than soaring on autopilot, doing what we’ve always done without ever stopping to ask ‘Is this working?’ which leads to church health, and it could have led to national health for Israel too, had they only been able to pause, think and change. Jeremiah’s great complaint is that they never even stopped to ask the question.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 10 – Isaiah 58:9b-14 (Related)

When the exiles returned from Babylon around 539 BC they found a land somewhat different from what the glowing promises of Deutero-Isaiah had led them to expect. It was not until 445 BC that Nehemiah succeeded in rebuilding the city walls, and for nearly 100 years people had quite literally been eking out a living in the dust and rubble of their once proud city. They also found people in the land. Not invaders who had come to conquer or colonise – who would want to colonise a heap of stones? – but rather those who had always lived in the land alongside them, but had not been to Babylon with them, presumably because they had no skills in which the Babylonians were interested. These ‘peasants’ were treated with disdain, because the only true Jews were now those who had been through the experience of exile.

The exiles must have felt disappointed, that God had somehow sold them a pup through Deutero-Isaiah’s words. They had come from frying pan into fire, and had been roasting for 100 years. Their hopes for God’s protection and provision, for the restoration of their national life, had been dashed, and they no doubt felt cheated. So the prophet re-articulates their hopes for them (v.10-12, 14) and identifies three issues which are coming between them and God’s blessing. It is an interesting cluster of issues, and to read the book of Nehemiah alongside this passage brings illumination and explanation.

First the prophet identifies pointing fingers and malicious talk. This may be about the ‘racism’ directed against those who had every right to live in the land, but who were now regarded as foreigners, and treated as nobodies. Hand in hand with this goes the oppression of the poor, and Nehemiah suggests that this was both the ordinary people’s oppression of the peasants but also the oppression of ordinary people by the small but privileged elite, who, according to Haggai, were creaming off funds given by Emperor Cyrus for rebuilding projects and using them to sustain extravagant personal  lifestyles.

The pointing fingers of the racists and the greed of the ruling élite are of course nothing new, but the prophet makes clear the link between national health and the people’s morality, and he blames their lack of fortunes directly on these two facets of their behaviour. Bu then he adds a third, which might seem surprising to us: sabbath-keeping.

The idea of the sabbath is a really important issue in the OT, and is of course enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Yet to our ears it seems a bit outdated, in a nation where people are forced to work so hard that Sunday is their only chance for recreation and rest, where shopping and sporting activities compete for our attention, and where mobility means that many people are away on holiday or visiting friends or family. So why pick on this issue as such a vital one for the health of the nation? There are some clues within v.13 which may help us to understand.

It is worth saying, of course, that Christians are not bound by Sabbath laws as the Jews would have been, and that the Christian Sunday is not the direct equivalent of the Jewish Saturday. But nevertheless the principle of Sabbath is a sound one, built in by God in his grace because we need it, and neglected at our peril. So what does v.13 teach us about the importance of Sabbath?

First of all, to break it is to do what we please. Sabbath is a reminder that as Christians we have submitted ourselves to the Christ by whom we were bought with the price of his blood, and we find wholeness and fulfilment in being in submission to him, not by doing whatever we feel like. Sabbath is about obedience. Secondly, to break the sabbath is to resent it. Amos 8:5 condemns those who regard the Sabbath as a nuisance because it gets in the way of money-making. To deliberately keep one day free from work and the pursuit of wealth is a weekly reminder of the importance of things other than money. Sabbath is a call not to live by bred alone, and to allow others to do the same. But behind these outward observations is something deeper. We are called to regard all this as a delight, not an imposition; a blessing and not a bit of a pain. Sabbath reminds us that God really does want to be good to us, whether it feels like that or not, and to throw his blessings back in his face, apart from anything else is downright rude. Joy in the Lord and triumph for the nation are to be found both in what we stop doing, but also in what we value doing.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 9 – Jeremiah 23:23-29 (Related)

This is a great passage to go with today’s Gospel, about Jesus bringing division rather than peace (Lk 12:49-56). Jeremiah is well known as a bit of a misery among the already dour OT prophets. The calling of God on him was a heavy one, and we know quite a bit more about his personal life that we do about those of other prophets. Since chapter 11 he has been in conflict with the ‘leaders of Judah’ or, as they are described, her ‘shepherds’. He has one message, and they don’t want to hear it. Things begin to hot up in chapter 21, where Jeremiah turns his attention onto his opponents. Today’s passage is part of this condemnation of those who claim that God is saying something different to them from what Jeremiah is hearing.

So what is this great divide all about? What controversy can possibly be causing all this trouble. What is it which causes the dramatic pronouncement of ‘Woe’ to these leaders in 23:1? This word signals a solemn curse, and has real power to it. Jesus pronounces woes on the towns around the Sea of Galilee in Luke 10, and if you visit the Holy Land today you simply won’t find those places. Woes matter! So what is such a serious issue all about? In a nutshell, the leaders wanted peace when in fact there was no peace. Jeremiah had been consistently warning the people that their abandonment of true worship and the consequent lack of moral standards would be met by God’s punishment as they were carried off into exile. But the leaders obviously had a vested interest in keeping that message off the public radar. They resented the idea that a new, true leader would come and dethrone them, and no doubt, as with all corrupt leaders through all time, they were profiting financially from unchallenged greed. So this upstart prophet was a threat to the status quo, and had to be stopped.

One strategy, of course, was to fight fire with fire. If they could produce their own prophets to say what they wanted, it was simply Jeremiah’s word against theirs. Produce enough of them and the majority, surely, would win. So the real question here is about how one discerns the authentic voice of God from the voices of self-interest and the status quo. Jeremiah’s defence is simply to claim that the false prophets were just that, and had not heard God, but were making things up to suit their own ends. He begins by reminding his hearers that God knows the false from the true, even if humans find it difficult at times. In our brief passage he makes three points about true versus false prophecy.

The first is that just because we claim, or even believe that a word has come from God, it might not have done. There is an interesting juxtaposition in v.25-26. The prophets are lying prophets, speaking from the delusions of their own minds, yet they claim to be speaking in God’s name. Just putting ‘Thus says the Lord …’ in front of a prophecy is no guarantee of its genuineness. Whether they really believed that they had the mind of God, or whether they were deliberately setting out to deceive is not clear, but it amounts to the same thing.

Secondly, false prophecy will tear God’s people apart. This is an OT equivalent of ‘by their fruits will you know them’. If so-called words from God lead people away from him, rather than back to him in repentance, they cannot possibly be the genuine article. And of course a real prophet would know that.

And thirdly Jeremiah asserts, with Jesus, that genuine prophecy is often tough to hear. In three clear pictures Jeremiah distinguishes true words from God as being like a consuming fire, a threshing machine to separate truth from lies, and a sledgehammer which cracks rocks open. None of these images is cosy or comfortable, any more than God is comfortable for those deliberately opposing or ignoring him.

So does that mean that God’s word to us will always be harsh and rebuking? Is it in the very nature of the prophetic that it is only there to tell us off? The answer, I believe, is ‘only if that’s what we need’. Like the Holy Spirit himself, prophecy is there to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. We can trust our God to say to us what we need to hear, when we need to hear it. True prophecy just feels right to those whose heart’s desire is to please God at any cost.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 8 – Genesis 15:1-6 (Related)

The cycle of stories about Abraham and Sarah contains two profoundly important conversations between God and Abraham, here and in Gen 18, where Abraham intercedes for the city of Sodom. In both cases Abraham appears a bit cheeky, if we’re honest, in the way he speaks to God. Whilst these conversations have been seen as authenticating holy boldness, is there more to them?

This conversation begins, though, with God, not Abraham. He tells Abraham not to be afraid, which raises the question of what or whom he might be afraid of. He has just rescued Lot, and perhaps fears a counter-attack and retribution from Lot’s enemies. But as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that God is addressing a much deeper fear. However, he begins by describing himself as Abraham’s shield and reward. The shield is a protective piece of armour, set between the attackers and the victim: God sets himself between Abraham and all that would harm him. As for the great reward, there’s the rub, which allows Abraham to voice his real complaint. In spite of God’s promise three chapters earlier, he has still not given Abraham a son and heir. So Abraham responds by saying (and I paraphrase) ‘It’s all very well that you plan to reward me, but you haven’t given me the one thing which I really need to make any sense of my life. It’s not that I’m not grateful, but without a son everything you give me will end up being left to my servant. So thanks, but when are you going to reward me with the very thing you promised but have not done?’

For many people there is that One Thing. For Christians who believe in a God who answers prayer, the dilemma is made even more difficult. They simply can’t put it down to ‘life stinks’ or bad luck or whatever. God has promised, but he hasn’t followed through. For many couples it is the same issue, that of childlessness. For some people if goes back even further: they long to find Mr or Miss Right but it just hasn’t happened. Many struggle with chronic health conditions, or unfulfilling work, or … You can fill in the blanks yourself, and maybe you can even fill in your own blank. Many do what Abraham feared, and go to the grave with unfulfilled promises. These are real pastoral issues for so many people.

This passage offers no false hope, but does, I think, make a couple of important points for those struggling with unfulfilled hopes and shattered dreams. The first, which will seem harsh, is to ask exactly what is it that God has promised? Sometimes we struggle because God hasn’t done what we would like, but when we think about it, he has never promised to. If I spend my days in unfulfilled longing for a Ferrari and a holiday cottage in Provence, I need to ask myself the question ‘When exactly did God promise me those things?’ Unanswered wishful thinking can be as painful as unanswered prayer, but it is not the same. God has not necessarily promised me all the things I would like him to have promised.

The second, though, is more positive. This is not just wishful thinking on Abraham’s part. He can look back to the day when God specifically said to him that he would make him into a great nation. He promised! So where is it? I’ve not even got one son, let alone a nation! It’s an audacious thing to say to God, but the response is for God to restate the promise in even more detail. Your nation will not come from Eliezer of Damascus – it will come from your own natural offspring. And when I say ‘nation’, I mean this many! Look at the stars above and the sands beneath your feet. That’s what I promised, and here and now I make that promise to you again.

Of course Abraham had to wait for this reiteration of the original promise to come to pass, and in the meantime he tried to make it happen himself, and had to hear the promise a third time, around 25 years after he first heard it. We are impatient creatures compared to God, and so many of our unanswered prayers are not because God has said ‘No’ but because he has said ‘Not yet!’ But if you have some Big Issue, and are sure that God has spoken to you and has promised, it’s OK to ask him to remake the promise to you, and to ask for confident patience as you wait for him to act.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 7 – Ecclesiastes 1:1 – 2:23 (Related)

‘There is nothing new under the sun’ the Teacher, called Qoheleth in the Hebrew, tells us in 1:9. As we encounter these ancient words of an Israelite philosopher from maybe 2300 years ago, we may be struck by the similarity of mood between his world and ours. There are two points in particular which may speak to us from this selection of verses (the Lectionary as usual fillets out much material which I have put back in for the purposes of this blog). In summary, Qoheleth proclaims everything meaningless (‘vanity of vanities’, 1:2 as it is most often remembered). Nothing new ever happens. He has tried wisdom, fun, building projects, sex, hard work, and found them all to be meaningless. So what is he to make of this world? There is a minor conclusion in v.24, but we have to wait until the end of the book to find out how we cope in a meaningless world (11:7 – 12:14).

It is worth asking, first of all, just what the terms ‘vanity’ and ‘meaninglessness’ mean. We tend to think of the words as totally negative, but the Hebrew hebel actually means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. The point isn’t that breathing is evil or pointless, but that it is ephemeral, and needs to be done again and again. To try to catch our breath, or to hold onto it, is a waste of time, literally like trying to catch the wind in our hands (1:14).

Our lectionary skips over many of these ephemeral activities, but concentrates in 2:17-23 on the world of work. How topical is that! As a result of the Covid pandemic and several lockdowns, many people have re-evaluated their working lives. A good friend is currently looking around for a new job because he simply can’t buy in to the American work-ethic of the company he works for, where in return for reasonable but not excessive pay they think they own every hour of his life. His church Men’s Group recently had a discussion about the insidious nature of the term ‘work-life balance’ which has insinuated itself into our vocabulary. It suggests that work and life are two different things which somehow have to be held in balance against one another, as though work wasn’t a part of life. Many many people have been offered by the pandemic a chance to re-examine their working lives and their value, and as a result have left jobs for a more healthy lifestyle. Qoheleth would approve! As a recent retiree, I can’t help but look back over my years of work and ask myself what it has all been about. 1:3-11 remind us that nothing we do will last (I would exclude evangelism from this) and that future generations will have to do it all over again. Rather than being the cynical and godless piece of philosophy which Ecclesiastes appears at a casual glance to be, it is actually profoundly up-to-date, and invites us to gain perspective, we might say ‘wisdom’, about all that we spend time and effort on.

The other point this passage makes for us is more of a negative one. It seems to pay little regard to the generations who will follow us, suggesting that they will just get on with life and make all the same mistakes we have made. Yet another agenda, bang up-to-date, challenges this. 1:7 tells us that the sea is never full, yet we know that it is getting much fuller, and one of the main concerns of our day is that we need to protect our planet not for ourselves, but for our grandchildren. The kind of me and now-centred thinking which Qoheleth suggests, is exactly that which, in the eyes of the environmentalists, is behind the apathy and the reluctance to make changes and sacrifices for the sake of generations to come.

So how then do we live in a world like this? In the end, Qoheleth is going to tell us to put God at the centre, which is great news, but in 2:24, just after our lectionary selection stops, he comes up with a temporary solution to help us cope with the meaninglessness of life. It’s a surprising one, and again curiously postmodern: eat, drink and be merry. Find pleasure where you can, for this too ‘is from the hand of God’. Stop looking like you’re sucking lemons, stop fighting the system, stop trying to save the universe singlehandedly, and gain satisfaction from the little moments of joy. This afternoon we’re off to our daughter’s (delayed) graduation a year after her qualification as a doctor. She’s not going to cure all the world of its ills, but we’re so proud of her doing what she can, and finding among the coaldust some beautiful diamonds here and there.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 5 – Genesis 18:1-10a (Related)

Today’s story is a well-known one, not least through its depiction in the famous Rublev icon and its application to the Trinity. But a close reading of the text might help us see through our familiarity and gain new riches from the story. As well as being seen as an early indication of God as Trinity, the story is also often interpreted to hold out the value of hospitality, although actually Abraham does very little, and in any case his actions would not be unusual in the Middle East. So Abraham offers to get the visitors something to eat, and then runs to tell Sarah to do the baking and a servant to prepare the meat. To be fair, though, he has just been circumcised, and so is probably glad of the sit down.

The story, though, is really about the announcement of the birth of his son Isaac. Sarah, who presumably is hearing this nonsense for the first time, responds with cynical laughter at what she hears as a cruel joke, but Abraham of course has heard this promise before, in Gen 12 and again in chapter 15. For 25 years he has known what God intended to do, and yet nothing has happened. I wonder how he heard the news? This time there is a specific time given, but I wonder whether 25 years of disappointment had soured his hope into cynicism, or whether he felt a jolt of excitement at the ‘OK, now is the time!’ nature of this particular announcement. The key question, which of course has been lopped off by our lectionary compilers, comes in v.14: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ The Hebrew word doesn’t just mean ‘difficult’. It can also mean extraordinary, marvellous and wondrous. Is there anything so outrageously wonderful that the Lord can’t manage it? Obviously not. Yet Sarah reacts with cynical laughter, which she goes on to deny, and Abraham apparently with tired resignation – ‘Here we go again! More impossible promises.’

Many of us will have waited, perhaps for decades, for God to come through for us, to answer our desperate prayers, to make good on something we believe he promised us years ago. Perhaps we have become cynical; perhaps our initial faith has tarnished into dull acceptance of the status quo, as hope has trickled away into the dry desert sand. Maybe, like Abraham, we have resorted to making it happen ourselves, yet finding that it hasn’t quite worked. Perhaps, when God does show up to make good his promises, we might fail to recognise him.

One of the most annoying mysteries of our faith is the refusal of the God whose Son told us to ask for anything and it will be done to act as we want him to when we want him to. So much of the Christian life is marked by frustration as we seek to hold onto biblical promises but find them to be apparently void in our case. For some this frustration has led to an abandoning of their faith, while of others our faith has morphed into something sadder and more cynical, as the clouds of reality have blotted out the sun of faith.

Yet for this couple God has shown up, even if 25 years later than they would have liked. The three travellers come to bring news that God is about to act, and Abraham’s generosity towards them comes long before he realises what they have come to give him. We can’t do anything about God’s slow pace in answering prayers, if at all. But we can maintain a softness of heart towards him, and others. We, the readers, are told that the three men are in fact the Lord (v.10) but it isn’t at all clear that Abraham recognised this divine visitation. Yet he treats them with kindness and respect. They are nowhere called angels, but he is certainly entertaining them unaware of who they really are. He may be disappointed and disillusioned, but it hasn’t turned him nasty. In fact the NT develops this theme, when Paul in Romans 5 extols the virtues of patience and perseverance in building character. We can’t control God, but we can choose how we react to frustration and unanswered prayer. Maybe we’ll see him come through for us eventually, or maybe it will all pale into insignificance when we meet him face to face.