Habakkuk Part 3 – 2:1-20
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 14 – Genesis 50:15-21 (Related)
On a first reading today’s passage, and that of the accompanying gospel from Matthew 18, are both about forgiveness. But in fact there is so much more to it that that. I want to encourage us to read it today from the point of view suggested by the Romans 14 Epistle (although I would have preferred Philippians 2) about seeing things through another’s eyes.
The story is straightforward. Joseph’s brothers, who, you will remember, have chucked him in a pit, sold him as a slave, and reported his death to his Father Jacob, are expecting Joseph to act as they would have done now that dear old Dad, the glue in this dysfunctional family, has died. Their guilty consciences are still expecting punishment, and now is the time, they fear. And, it has to be said, Joseph has not always treated them with total kindness. But the bottom line is that they expect he will act out of cruelty and revenge, as they did all those years ago. So they make up a story about Jacob’s final wishes, just to cover their backs.
Joseph, though, will have none of it, and would have forgiven them, the passage suggests, even without the supposed words of Jacob from beyond the grave. He puts flesh onto the bare bones of the idea of forgiveness with three things: humility, understanding and action. Maybe we, as those commanded (and indeed threatened) to forgiveness by the Gospel, can gain some insight into what this might actually look like.
Humility – ‘Am I in the place of God?’ asks Joseph. God alone is the one able to forgive or not, although of course as Jesus’ followers we do have the power to bind or loose on earth, whatever that means! To refuse to forgive is to attempt to hold on to some kind of power over people, and that is not our job. Forgiveness requires the humility to believe that ‘It is [God’s] to avenge – [he] will repay’ (Deuteronomy 32:35) and to let go of the desire to punish and leave it up to him.
Understanding – ‘God intended it for good’. Just as it is up to the person injured to choose to forgive – it can’t simply be demanded of you – so it is the privilege of the person injured to see things not from our own point of view but from God’s. Imagine how hurtful this comment would have been had it come from the brothers! ‘It was fine to sling you in a pit because God has brought good out of it!’ Please don’t ever say anything like this to someone who has been mistreated. But it is Joseph’s privilege to understand the hand of God even through the pain. I preached on this passage on my final Sunday at the church which I had been forced to leave through having been bullied out, and I made the point that there is a great difference between the perfect will of God and the redemptive will of God. Only the victim can articulate this kind of understanding, but it does remind us that God is greater than our pain.
Action – ‘I will provide for you’. Again the brothers can only think of what they would do in his place, but Joseph reassures them and in doing so puts his money where his mouth is. His forgiveness is not going to be mere words: he is going to take deliberate action to bless those who have sinned against him. Sometimes, of course, this is neither possible nor desirable. Sometimes you just have to get out and go as far away as you can – we’ll consider trust in a moment. But since their paths had to keep crossing, Joseph decided to bless rather than to curse.
So let’s end with perhaps the most important aspect of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. Are they to be trusted? When we have been hurt by someone else, is it possible to rebuild trust? In fact this whole paragraph is about trust, or the lack of it. The brothers have apparently been reconciled to Joseph in chapter 45, but they clearly don’t trust him an inch if they think that now Dad has died he can finally get the vengeance he has been brewing up. And Joseph’s articulation to them of his humility, understanding and actions in the future are clearly meant to rebuild trust between them. So when well-meaning Christians tell damaged people that they just have to let go, forgive and be reconciled, is this sound advice, or yet another barb in the whipping they have already received?
The answer is ‘It depends’. I love that line in Romans 12 (where the Deuteronomy bit about vengeance is quoted by Paul: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (12:18). Clearly it isn’t always possible, and doesn’t always depend on us. My advice to a victim of repeated domestic violence, for example, would be to get out now and get away. Trust is what got you those repeated beatings in the first place: you trusted someone who was untrustworthy. But at other times, yes, trust can and should be rebuilt. But it takes time – note that Joseph promises to provide for the brothers and their children.
But trust is not to be confused with forgiveness, and the two are not interdependent. If you have heard the command to forgive to include restoration, you might have felt deeply upset, and even scared, by today’s Gospel, if you have not found reconciliation to be possible. You clearly can’t have forgiven them, or you’d be best mates now. So no way is God going to forgive you. But if we redefine forgiveness as we did above, as the deliberate choice to place someone who has harmed you into God’s hands for him to punish, that is completely different from liking or trusting them. It’s much more about letting go and walking away than hugging them and making up. The second isn’t always possible: the first is a choice any of us can make.
Habakkuk Part 2 – 1:1 – 2:1
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 13 – Ezekiel 33:7-11 (Related)
I recently taught a course on Christian initiation at the theological college where it has been my pleasure to work, and I expressed the opinion that virtually all of the problems of the church today had at their root poor and unbiblical practices in initiation, or what has to happen in order for people to join the Church. In particular the notion of repenting, which lies at the heart of both the OT and the Gospel set for today, has, I suggested, gone completely out of fashion, so that everybody is welcome to baptism and to church membership with no questions asked, and no requirement of any change of lifestyle. The constant preaching of repentance by the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and the Apostles, has been soft-pedalled almost out of existence. This appears, in my experience, to be as true for Alpha converts as for those pressganged onto the PCC by the vicar because we need a new treasurer.
The word ‘you’ rings like a refrain through our passage as Ezekiel is reminded by God about the nature of his calling: he is to be like a smoke alarm sounding off to the nation warning them of danger. His job is to make the noise: it is the people’s responsibility to take notice, or to wave something in front of the alarm or press the off button. If people choose to ignore it and die of smoke inhalation, that can’t be blamed on the alarm.
There is an interesting contrast with v.2 of this chapter, where God calls the people to appoint a watchman to warn of coming attackers, and v.7 where it is God, not the people, choosing the watchman. This task is too important to be left to democracy! But while this passage gives us an interesting insight into the role of the prophet – to call out evil and to challenge the people to repentance, it would be too easy to read it merely as a piece of Ezekiel’s autobiography which has nothing to say to us. It is the Gospel passage which broadens out this calling from odd individuals (sometimes very odd!) to the Church as a whole. It simply won’t do to take the ‘I must mind my own business’ line: Christian behaviour and discipleship are not about individual choices. We are the body of Christ, and our Christian life is to be lived together. You only have to look around to see the damage done to the Church’s reputation by a small number of child abuse cases. I can’t help but wonder how often the policies described in Matthew 18 have ever been used in local churches. Or indeed how often new converts are told that that might be if necessary.
But coming back to Ezekiel, we might ask the question ‘Why?’ What’s the point of God sending a warning if the exile is going to happen regardless? There is an answer to that question in v.11, in some words which have become liturgical for Anglicans. God will do all he can to save people from death and destruction. He hates it when people flap their spiritual tea towels at the prophets to get the noise to stop. That poignant final question, ‘Why will you die, house of Israel?’ expresses God’s deep longing for right living in the face of a human refusal to listen and take heed of the warnings. We may not all be called and commissioned like Ezekiel into a specific prophetic ministry, but we are all part of a church which needs to put more beef into repentance than a quick prayer at the start of a service. We need to be encouraging one another to lived changed lives.
Old Testament Lectionary
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 12 – Jeremiah 15:15-21
Now firmly into retirement, I have of course been reflecting on the ministry which has just come to an end, helped this last week by a stay with good friends who laboured with me in my first incumbency. You can’t help but ask questions about what it has all been about, what were the ups and downs, the triumphs and the disasters, and in particular who have I been as a leader?
I have always thought of myself as a teacher, and my dear readers will be able to assess the accuracy or not of this estimate. But my spiritual director used to say that my main gifting was a prophetic one. I could see what had to be done, I could see where a course of action might lead, I was deeply uncomfortable with compromise of any kind, and I was not afraid to tell inconvenient truths. Well, if that is me, I certainly know how Jeremiah felt.
Today’s passage is one of several Laments which occur in this book. We all know what it means to lament, but we may not know that lament is a liturgical form widely recognised in the Bible. It isn’t just a random few verses of moaning: it’s a journey with different phases. There is usually a cry to God, a description of the particular suffering which the writer is going through, questions to God about why this is happening, condemnation of his enemies, fervent prayer for deliverance, a confession of trust, and sometimes some kind of a response from God. Of course not all elements are there in every single passage, and not necessarily in the same order, but this is the general pattern. Psalm 13 is one good example.
So what does this particular lament teach us, apart, of course from the fact that lament is a good, right and healthy response to suffering. Three things hit me about Jeremiah, and three about God.
Jeremiah’s honesty. It takes either a very brave constitution or a tremendous amount of suffering to enable one to accuse God of being a disappointment. That’s just what Jeremiah does in v.18, and elsewhere in the book, notably 20:7: ‘You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed.’ You’re not playing fair, O Lord – you’re a cheat and a bully! This might come as a shock to people who have been brought up always to speak nicely to God, but the real rawness of Jeremiah’s pain screams through his words, and we cannot but admire his honesty. We feel it, after all, so it won’t be any surprise to God if we pray it. And note too that Jeremiah is also honest about the other side of the situation: he knows that God is merciful (v.15). But that is exactly the problem – where is your mercy now?
Jeremiah’s passion. What exactly has got him into this mess? His passion for God, for justice, and for the people to whom he has been sent. V.16 explains that Jeremiah has been marked out as God’s, and his delight has been to serve him and to proclaim his words (v.16). Because of his prophetic calling he has made some choices, some sacrifices, and while he doesn’t begrudge them, he feels it grossly unfair that making those sacrifices has ended up in his being so depressed.
Jeremiah’s isolation. What is more, his calling from God has led to him being a lone voice, crying as it were in the wilderness where no-one appears to be able to hear him. His grasp of the seriousness of the situation leading up to the exile meant that he wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, and that laughter and levity were highly inappropriate (v.17).
So no wonder he screams out at the God who has put such a costly calling on his life. His honesty is a good example to any of God’s people who feel keenly the weight of their calling, especially when it leads to rejection and suffering, as Jesus in today’s Gospel knew it would. But while it can be a very healthy thing to rant at God, the downside is that he can be as honest back to you as you have been to him.
God’s rebuke. So God begins by calling Jeremiah to repent. Not, I don’t think, of his honesty, but of his doubts; the ‘Why do I bother when no-body takes a blind bit of notice?’ line of thinking he has got himself into. If you really want to be my prophet, as you claim, then speak words which are ‘worthy’ – the Hebrew yaqar means ‘weighty, influential, important’. In other words – man up! You’re not getting anything which does not go with the job, so stop whingeing about it and get on with being a prophet. This is exactly the sort of thing a prophet might say to others, so God is simply giving him a taste of his own medicine.
God’s protection. However, the God who called him into this prophetic ministry is on his side, and promises his protection (v.20-21). I’ll leave it to you to judge, as you read the rest of Jeremiah’s career, just what the cash value of that protection is, as those threatened by his words go to extraordinary lengths to try to shut him up. But as one Christian leader once said, ‘Christian ministry won’t harm you. It might kill you, but it won’t harm you!’ Like Jesus, we have to grasp the eternal dimension and have a firm faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting if we are to get through the suffering of this life.
God’s warning. I think the most important little phrase in this passage comes in v.19: ‘Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.’ The ultimate failure for prophets is to lose their cutting edge, to get sucked in to the very actions they are denouncing and to go soft on the sin they are calling people to reject. That is why we need prophets, as well as pastors and teachers, to lead the body of Christ. It isn’t the most comfortable calling, but God help us if that kind of voice is silenced.
Habakkuk Part 1 – Introduction
Hebrews Part 10 – Better Church – Hebrews 13
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 11 – Isaiah 51:1-6 (Related)
It’s a pretty well established opinion that the book of Isaiah which we have comes from three different authors and three different periods of history. In a nutshell part one (chapters 1 – 39) warns the people that if they don’t stop it they’ll end up in exile, part 2 (40 – 55) tells them that they are soon to come home from exile, and part 3 (56 – 66) asks the question ‘Now what?’ in the light of the previous two parts. Last week’s passage came from part 3, and reminded the people of Israel that their calling was to everyone, not just themselves. But now we have to make a mental leap backwards a few decades to imagine the people still in exile, far from home, and smarting at the punishment they are receiving. The good news, though, is that soon they’ll be home. The challenge often thrown out by the prophet who wrote this section is ‘Can you not believe it?’ This parallels the challenge thrown out by Jesus in the Gospel to his disciples: who do you really think I am?
We know something of the pain and bewilderment of the exiles, because several times the prophet quotes, no doubt from what he has heard on the streets, the plight of the people. 40:27 and 49:14 are two examples:
My way is hidden from the Lord,
my cause is disregarded by my God …
The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.
The prophet faces this despair head on, and our passage reassures the people that there will be an end to their troubles. So what does this passage say to us today?
We too are exiles, yes, in the sense that our real home is heaven and we’re not there yet, but also because we’re in exile from the life we used to know pre-Coronavirus. There is a widespread feeling (which of course you may or may not agree with – other political views are available) that we are in the grip not just of an evil little bundle of genetic material but also an incompetent (at best) or downright evil government who are completely out of their depth, headed for an isolated future as the laughing-stock of the world. Life as we knew it has been suddenly snatched away from us, we are unclear what the latest instructions are, and quite honestly we can see no end to it, with the threat of future spikes and a second (and third …?) lockdown on the cards. Whether or not this is God’s punishment on us is a question I won’t stop to debate now, but I do know, because like Isaiah I listen to what people tell me, that it’s really hard to see how on earth we’re going to get out of this. Yet the passage is full of reassurance and glowing promises for a glorious future. So the $64,000 question is this: is this God’s message to Britain today? To put it another way, just because you have a little plaque with Jeremiah 29:11 on your fridge or in a greetings card, does that mean that life for you is going to be great from now on? How do we discern which bits of the Bible are God’s words for us now?
Personally I think we have to remain a bit agnostic, but while to place the passage in its historical context does at least tell us about the Word of the Lord for the exiles, that isn’t the real point of this particular bit of part 2. It deals, I think, not so much with whether God is going to rescue them, but rather with whether or not they believe he can. And there’s the rub.
The people had not just lost their home and the life they once knew: they had lost faith in their God’s ability to do anything about it. That’s a much more serious problem. The prophet here is telling people that God will rescue them, but he’s also telling them that he can. We may not be sure about the first in our Covid-ridden world, but the prophet would, I believe want us to take note of the second. Like the exiles Christians have been praying fervently for God’s mercy on our land, for the removal of the virus, for the scientists to find an injection which will make us immune, and, in some cases, for us to learn whatever lesson it is God is trying to teach us through it. Will he? Dunno. Can he? That’s the real question, and Isaiah would tell us without a shadow of a doubt that he can.
That might not answer all our agonised questions, or bring back those we love and have lost to the virus, but it certainly ought to spur us on to prayer, to fervent crying out to God for his mercy on us.
Hebrews Part 9 – Better Living – Hebrews 12
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 10 – Isaiah 56:1-8 (Related)
First of all, apologies for last week’s omission. I have now located my proper computer and I’m ready to rock and roll from the new house in Sheffield, surrounded though I am with other, as yet unpacked, boxes.
And so to Isaiah, and to the eternal question ‘Just who is God for?’ That’s the subject both for today’s Gospel and for our OT passage, which I have taken the liberty of unfilleting in order that it might make some sense. It might seem a silly question, although both theologically and practically it is a vitally important one. Theologically it is raised by the very idea of a ‘chosen people’, those whom in the OT God had apparently selected to be his own special possession, those who would have a relationship with him and a privileged position in his heart and purposes which other nations were not to share. Is God, then, as universal as we might think? And of course practically it is raised by our natural human tendency to want to be with ‘PLU’s – People Like Us – rather than those who are in some way different. This attitude has manifested itself down the ages through the middle-class culture of the British Church, through apartheid in Dutch South Africa, to denominational mistrust across the globe, and has done so with differing attempts at theological justification.
So let’s go back to basics. When God called Abraham back in Genesis 12, the call was twofold – to be a blessing and to bless. Right at the very start of the Jewish nation there was built in a universality which has always been God’s purpose for this people. But throughout the OT, and on into the New and the Church today, two things have happened. First of all God’s people have been too welcoming, and secondly they have not been welcoming enough.
From very early on the Jewish people formed relationships with other nations, usually either through intermarriage or political expediency, on their terms, not God’s. This inevitably led to false worship, idolatry, and of course idolatry inevitably leads to immorality, since only the True God, Yahweh, is a God or righteousness (far more, incidentally, in the Bible than he is a God of love). The OT prophets could see this happening and so they responded with all that stuff about separation from the nations around, and the need for purity and exclusivism. But that in turn led to a kind of arrogant superiority which made God’s people look down their noses not only at ‘foreigners’ but also at those of their own race whom they considered to be sinners. That’s the kind of attitude characterised by the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Again the prophets responded, this time with the opposite message, recalling the people to their original vocation to bless other nations, not just to receive God’s blessings for themselves. The classic example of this comes in Is 49:6.
The early Church had to battle with the same question, and it wasn’t until Acts 15 that they finally realised that you didn’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus, and then only after two dramatic interventions by the Holy Spirit. And all this in spite of Jesus’ quoting from our passage when he cleansed the Temple from those who were out to make money – significantly this market place was set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the nearest non-Jews could get to God. Yet still today, in so many ways, the Church is an exclusive organisation. Every church I have visited in my diocesan ministry has told me that it was a very welcoming place, yet most of the time I have been left standing like a lemon at the back with my coffee while everyone else talks to their friends. When I was a parish priest we tried to enforce a rule that after worship you weren’t allowed to speak to a friend before you had first spoken to someone you didn’t know.
Isaiah today reinforces the original message to Abraham – you are there to be a blessing to all. Even eunuchs, specifically banned from Israelite worship in Leviticus 21 and 22, are included in this dramatic reversal of Scripture – if they are welcome, anybody is.
Yet Isaiah is not taking one prophetic side against the other with his universality. He is very keen to make the point that this inclusion has to be on God’s terms, so that ‘outsiders’ are drawn to God, rather than ‘insiders’ being tempted away from him. Note the conditions Isaiah builds into this passage: maintaining justice, not doing evil, binding oneself to God to minister to him and love him, and interestingly keeping the Sabbath, which is mentioned twice. This inclusion is not a watering down of the faith, but rather an invitation to all to experience its benefits.
It would be worth pondering three things: firstly, where in my church is there any kind of exclusion, any kind of fear of non-PLUs, any practical actions which ‘others’ might find offputting and unwelcoming? Secondly, where are the areas where our desire to be inclusive has compromised the gospel? And thirdly, might it be possible that like many many churches, we’re blind to our exclusion and kidding ourselves?