Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent Sunday – Isaiah 64:1-9

Sorry to begin Advent on a downer, but this passage is all about disappointment. I wonder if any of us are feeling that as we look back over the Year of Our Lord 2020? As part of a longer Psalm of Lament (63:7 – 64:12), it is the nation’s cry of anguish because things hadn’t worked out as they expected. Situated after the return from exile in Babylon, as promised by the middle section of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55), this section, part of what is known as Third- or Tritio-Isaiah, is the response of the people to the fact that the glowing predictions of Deutero-Isaiah about Jerusalem being returned to its former splendour and prominence hadn’t quite come to pass, and that in fact life was all about hard slog and discouragement rather than triumph and glory.

It begins with a cry for God to do something, and preferably something dramatic, to show Israel’s enemies who’s boss (v.1-3). It moves onto an accusation: we have sinned because you have been absent. Like cheating spouses who blame their infidelity on a lack of attention from their other half, they tell God that if only he had been there for them they would have behaved (v.5-7). Then there seems to be a recognition, perhaps dawning gradually, that actually it is them, not the nations, which need God to turn up and make a difference. This leads to an admission that they were powerless to shape their own destiny, as powerless as a lump of clay, but nevertheless ‘we are all your people’ (v.8-9), so there ought to be hope, surely? It’s almost as if, in the composition of this passage, the prophet was coming to a dawning recognition of the real state of affairs.

So why had God apparently absented himself with such disappointing consequences? The clue, I think, lies in v.4: God acts for those who wait. As Christians I expect we know that most of our disappointment and frustration with God comes not because he hasn’t done something or other, but because he hasn’t done it yet. As believers in the resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth we know that in the end things will pan out fine; we really do believe that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purposes. But O my goodness isn’t it taking a long time? And there we have the absolute heart of Advent: it teaches us to wait. We know what’s coming, we believe it’s coming, so why on earth doesn’t it come? That’s the agonised cry of the Church for 2000 years: that’s the at times despairing cry of Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Of course we don’t really do waiting nowadays. Ever since the launch of the Access Card in October 1972, with its strapline ‘Taking the waiting out of wanting’, we have increasingly grown to expect everything instantly. If a web page doesn’t load within two seconds we don’t bother, and any social media post more than a few lines long is greeted with ‘tldr’. The charismatic renewal movement has been accused of ‘triumphalism’, which I define as ‘wanting our triumph now rather than later’. Yet God is definitely a God who makes us wait, and who promises to reward those who wait – eventually.

This year we have learnt a lot about waiting: for many there hasn’t been much else to do during lockdown, furlough or even redundancy. As I write we’re waiting to be told if and how we might celebrate Christmas this year, within our families and within our churches. We’re waiting for the magic vaccinations which will make this horrible thing go away and put life back to normal again. We’re waiting to see how the wonderfully prosperous life outside the EU we were promised will actually pan out. And yes, as we look back, we’re disappointed. Disappointed about our jobs, our livelihood, those cancelled holidays, marriages and get-togethers, and some of us above all are disappointed that those we love have died, sometimes without us being able to hold their hands as they went.

So what does this text tell us about our disappointments? The same as Advent tells u every year, although this year with much greater poignancy: wait. We’re powerless, ultimately, so all we can do is recognise that we’re in the hands of a skilled potter who is making something both beautiful and useful, but who is certainly taking his time to do it. Our job, yes, is to cry out in anguish ‘for goodness’ sake get on with it!’, but it is also to discern, see and wonder at what we’re becoming as we wait. It’s also about proclaiming triumphantly, but sometimes through gritted teeth, with v.9 ‘We are all your people.’

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Christ the King – Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

1 Timothy 2 urges us to be constant in prayer for our earthly leaders, and you can’t argue with that, although at times I find myself very tempted about what exactly to pray for them! Every night’s news brings further reports of our government’s failures, incompetence, downright lies, and internal warring. Even those who voted this lot in in order to get Brexit done seem to have grown quieter and quieter about its promised merits as we seem no closer to any kind of a deal which will lead to a prosperous future. Today, the Feast of Christ the King, reminds us that beyond fallible human leaders there is a real King who is both reigning and also getting ready to reign. Ezekiel 34 provides a helpful link between the reality of 2020 Britain and the coming reign of Jesus.

The chapter as a whole is an oracle of judgment against the rulers of Judah, and verses 1-6 list their shortcomings every bit as clearly as Laura Keunssberg does every evening with ours. The text is strangely up-to-date: they look after themselves while neglecting their duty of care for the poor; they have done nothing to heal the broken or comfort the sorrowing. They have ruled harshly and brutally, so that the people were lost and scattered, and they did nothing to bring them back together. For those reasons, says Ezekiel, God is against them. So what is he going to do?

Our reading starts here, in v.11: because of the failure of human rulers, he is going to come and do the job properly himself. Ezekiel then goes on to give us four characteristics of the reign of God as opposed to the current human rulers.

The people, not themselves.

The picture used throughout the chapter is of shepherds, those whose job is to care for, nurture and protect the sheep in their care. OT Kings are often seen in terms of shepherding, and it is no mere chance that the greatest king ever, David, began as a shepherd boy. When the Good Shepherd comes, he will not be interested in feathering his own nest (forgive the change of metaphor!) but will do what shepherds are meant to do: care for the flock, rescue them from danger, and bring them to good pasture. The lovely picture of them lying down in v.15 is reminiscent of Psalm 23, and provides a great picture of a nation at rest, free both from external oppression and internal anxiety.

Active, not passive.

God the King will actively seek out those who are lost and scattered, those who have lost their way or become excluded. Rather than not caring, like the earthly rulers, the new King will take the initiative and the lost will be found and the broken healed.

The community, not just individuals.

If there is one difficult or politically incorrect motif in this chapter, it is the words of judgement (which, surprise surprise, have been filleted out). But they have to be there, because the Shepherd King, who is totally committed to the flock and its wellbeing, has no choice but to deal decisively with anything or anyone who threatens their safety, and tragically it is the rulers who have become a danger to the people. Our King is paradoxically committed to each individual, but he is against anyone who threatens the life of the community. As I have said many times in preaching, God is not tolerant! He has to stop those who would harm his people, and he will.

Unity, not division.

Our reading ends with the vision of a united people, yes, brought back from exile to their own land, but also under the reign of one King who will bless them, not harm them. Under his reign there will be no Leavers and Remainers, no North/South divide, no Democrats and Republicans, nor any of the other divisions which have been allowed to wreck our world.

Historically this chapter marks the turning point on Ezekiel’s prophecy. Before chapter 33 he has written only in warning of the coming judgement, in the shape of the Babylonian exile. But the mood changes here as he begins for the first time really to talk about restoration. The coming of the new King, whom we know to be Jesus, and for which we are still waiting, holds out hope for healing and restoration, not just for poor and broken people, but also for a sick and divided world. What a hope! And, as we head into Advent next week, what a stimulus to prayer. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Bible Sunday – Nehemiah 8:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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