OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Palm Sunday – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Jewish tradition has it that what we now call Psalms 113 – 118 were recited by the Israelites as they marched out of captivity in Egypt, and thus form a subsection of the Psalms called ‘The Egyptian Hallel’ (or ‘Praise’). In later Judaism they were recited during the Passover liturgy, and the Church today uses Psalm 118 particularly during Holy Week and Easter. Scholars who like to group the Psalms neatly by their genre have scratched their heads over this one, since it contains several different moods and flavours. The first few verses provide a call to corporate worship, but in verse 5 the mood changes as an individual expresses confidence in the Lord because of his deliverance from (unspecified) human attacks. Then in v.15 there is another expression and confidence which calls forth exuberant praise. In v.19 where our filleted lectionary reading picks the Psalm up again, there is a prayer both of thanksgiving for past deliverance and a prayer for future victory. Finally we have a call to gather in the sanctuary to worship God. The Psalm also resembles ‘Entrance Liturgies’, such as Ps 24, which would have been used at the gates of the Temple, although of course the Israelites escaping from Egypt would have no physical Temple for centuries, and not even the Tabernacle for a few months. So all in all, a bit of a mish mash.

But I wonder if a key to understanding this Psalm, and its use over the Easter period, lies in one particular Hebrew word: sha’ar, which means ‘gate’. Here it obviously refers to a physical gate, as the doorway into the sanctuary, into the presence of the God of Righteousness, through which only the righteous could pass. But the Temple would have had doors, not gates. So what’s the difference?

If you were to come to my house (and you’re all very welcome!) you would ring at our front door, which is famously opaque. Anything could be going on inside, and you would have no idea. But before that, you would have come through our front gate, which is about a metre high and made of wooden slats, so it forms no sight barrier at all. An Anglican collect for Easter Eve prays ‘that through the grave and gate of death we may pass to our joyful resurrection’. In other words, we can see through death to what awaits us as followers of him who was the firstborn of the dead. Many in our world see death as a door rather than a gate, and so dread it, having no idea what, if anything, lies beyond it. Others make up their own ideas: I took a funeral in Jersey where the family were convinced that Grandma had turned into a seagull, and throughout the service I felt really guilty in case it was her I had lobbed a stone at only the day before when she tried to nick my chips on the beach. Elsewhere we tell ourselves, somewhat unconvincingly in my experience, that ‘Death is nothing at all’, or that ‘I did not die’. Whether black dread or sentimental poems attempt to form our views on death, we have no need of them. Death isn’t a door, it’s a gate, and it’s a gate into something much more wonderful even than a visit to chez Leach, if that were possible. It’s a gate which we are meant to be able to see through.

This Psalm, therefore, is primarily a call to celebrate resurrection, though not in a way, in spite of our lectionary filleters, which ignores the harsh realities of pain and persecution. We can look over, and through, the gate of death confident that where our Lord has gone, we will follow. The appropriate responses to this fact are all expressed in the words of Psalm 118. We have suffered, and will continue to do so. But the Lord is our rescuer. We have known that in the past, and we will know it again in the future. Therefore we rejoice and give thanks, and call others to celebrate with us. We go together into God’s sanctuary, and we have past-fuelled hope for the future, because God’s love endures for ever.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 5/Passion Sunday – Ezekiel 37:1-14

There are some things which, once you have seen them, in the famous phrase, you can’t unsee. Try as we might (and this blog constantly aims to encourage us to try) to focus on the original meaning of OT passages, once we have seen Jesus, we can’t unsee him. The whole of the OT becomes a very different animal. Indeed, much of the writing of NT authors like Matthew and Paul is a wrestling with how we understand the Scriptures differently now that we have encountered the Word of God in Jesus. So today’s famous passage is often read in that light (and of course in the light of our culture of Enlightenment individualism) to speak of our individual resurrection on the last day. The question ‘Can these dry bones live?’ is answered with faith-filled enthusiasm ‘Of course!’ After all, don’t we proclaim that truth every week in our Creeds?

But to read this passage as a promise of individual resurrection is to miss its impact on the original hearers. They had watched as the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar had systematically taken away their three greatest theological foundations: The monarchy had been deposed as they came under foreign rule, the Temple had been torn down in front of their eyes, and the land had been overrun and conquered. They must have feared for the fourth foundation, the people of God. Indeed the unknown prophet we call Deutero-Isaiah was to wrestle with the question of whether or not they were still God’s chosen people in Isaiah chapter 40. So with all these institutions being torn down, what was there left to be certain about? And was there any hope at all of resurrection?

Just over 20 years ago a landmark book explored ‘Churchless Faith’, the growing phenomenon of people who had given up on church without having given up on God[1]. I am hearing that this trend is continuing, that there is an increasingly large group of people who no longer attend church, but are seeking to live out their Christian discipleship nevertheless. Indeed I was shocked to hear of a few famous people whom I would have regarded as among my heroes of faith who are now in this position. I can also see, if I’m honest, that in retirement I could so easily go down the same path. It’s really hard to belong to someone else’s church when you have previously led your own! And, of course, Covid has done nothing to help with this, since we managed for a couple of years to avoid meeting together pretty successfully. It seems on a bad day that Church has had its day, is increasingly irrelevant, and is busy tearing itself apart over battles which it lost 50 years ago. So what keeps me going? Why do I dutifully turn up each Sunday? And why do I hear so many people who do still go around moaning that it does them no good at all, and even leaves them more angry and frustrated?

The answer, I suppose, is that I do still somehow hang on to the belief that these dry bones can live. Ezekiel is at pains to tell us that the skeletons are ‘the whole house of Israel’ (v.11) This is not about individual reward at the end of time: it is about the institution of God’s people and all that fed and nurtured their faith. It is a central part of the spirit of our age that life, and therefore Church, is about me as an individual: it is there to satisfy me and make me feel good. Like a good consumer I can shop around if I don’t happen to like what is on offer at my current church, and I can even choose to stop shopping at all and grow my own. I think we have to see the current disenchantment with organised faith in this light. We are no longer happy to do anything out of a sense of duty if it doesn’t feel good doing it, but the Bible urges us to steadfastness and faithfulness, of the kind which Jesus displayed in Gethsemane and on the way to the cross. It certainly wasn’t going to feel good, but it was the right thing to do. I also can see that to cut myself off from God’s people, from the public reading of Scripture and the singing of his praises could well be for me (not of course for everyone, but certainly for me) the start of a slippery slope to giving up on my faith altogether. I am reminded of 1 Timothy 1 and the possibility of coming so far but ending up with a shipwrecked faith. So, without wishing to condemn anyone else, this is where I am at the moment, holding on but praying for sinews, flesh and above all the breath of the Holy Spirit to turn us once again into a mighty army. Maybe our discontent is God’s call to fervent intercession.

Sorry this is not a detailed exegesis of the passage (you can find previous attempts to do that here and here) but I think this is becoming an increasingly big issue, and is certainly live for me at the moment. Maybe it is for you too.

[1] Jamieson, Alan (2002) A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 4/Mothers’ Day – Ex 2:1-10

As I haven’t yet met a church which does Lent 4 as opposed to Mothers’ Day I have chosen for our consideration this week one of the two OT passages from the lectionary, the birth of Moses in Exodus 2. Like the alternative, 1 Samuel 1 (the birth of Samuel) it is meant to be an example of good motherhood, and as such ignores the more negative aspects of the celebration of this particular festival, like those who cannot become mothers, those who have lost mothers, or whose relationships with their mothers were abusive or toxic. It is a minefield for churches to negotiate, but this passage takes a different and more positive tack.

In context, this passage comes hot on the heels of the arrival of a new Pharaoh, to whom Joseph meant nothing. The memory of his saving of the nation during a time of famine had faded, and now the welcome guests of Israel had become troublesome immigrants, coming over here and talking our jobs etc etc. So they are put to work as slaves, and, as a final solution, all baby boys are to be killed at birth. So what is a good mother to do? Or rather, what is God to do?

Against this harsh narrative in Ex 1 comes a beautiful much softer story of a mother’s ingenuity in saving her son, who will one day save the people. But reading it in the English translation, we miss two important words, which give us a hint to a much deeper interpretation of the text. The author wants us to read the beginning of Exodus against the background of the beginning of Genesis. What this chapter gives us is not so much a salvation story as a brand new start.

The first word, in v.2 is (in the NIV and NRSV) ‘fine’. Moses’ mother sees that he is a fine baby, which doesn’t mean that he is a good baby, that is one who doesn’t cry too much, but rather that he is whole, appropriate and pleasing. The Hebrew word is the one used of God looking at what he has created each day and declaring it ‘good’. No doubt the author meant the readers to glance back to the creation story in Gen 1, as he signals that God is about to recreate his people. But this nuance is heightened as the author uses another word loaded with meaning. The word used for the basket in which  Moses is set afloat is the same word used of Noah’s Ark. The Flood narrative is another story of a new start, as God tries to deal with the evil which his good creation has become by saving one righteous family to reboot the human race. There are times when the only solution is to unplug it from the wall and plug it in again, and God is about to do that through this tiny baby.

So what about Mum? There are two main motifs here, I think. One is obviously about nurture, care, protection, ingenuity and all the other traditional attributes of a good mother. One can only imagine the anxiety with which she lived during those three months of trying to hide a crying baby from the earshot of the prowling soldiers. Even a little gurgle during his sleep must have had her on tenterhooks.

But the second attribute of good motherhood which is held up for us here is the ability to let go and trust God. We see that twice in these verses: once when she sets him off in his basket on the Nile, and again when he grew up and could be safely returned to Pharaoh’s daughter. Both of those events must have been heartbreaking for her, but in each case she knew when the time was right, and trusted that God would work out his purposes through her beloved son.

Having glanced back to see this text as a new creation story, we can’t help but glance forward to see echoes into the future as well as from the past. Mary must have felt that sword entering her soul as she had to let go of her baby and allow him to grow and fulfil his God-given calling, including his torture and death. But in Jesus too we have a new start story, a recreation through which the human race can be saved. Those who are mothers might well think about how they have had to let go and let God when it comes to their babies, and might well pray that their offspring will be used mightily by God.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 3 – Exodus 17:1-7

There are many ways in which one might approach this wonderful story from the Wilderness cycle. The people have escaped from Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and are now in the desert. They have known God’s miraculous provision of manna for them to eat, but now there is an even more pressing problem: they have nothing to drink. On a forced march, through the desert, in a temperature of nearly 50o, it has been estimated that with no water they would be unlikely to last more than seven hours. So the problem is urgent, to say the least. We often read this story as another one of the many ‘grumbling’ narratives to be found in Exodus and Numbers, but to be honest if I were them I might find myself grumbling, at the very least.

I want us to read the story from a different point of view. Moses the leader is one of my favourite OT characters, and over the years I have drawn much inspiration from him. As a leader myself, sometimes of grumbling people, I can’t help but feel for him. Quite apart from his own thirst, he felt keenly the responsibility for the people, as other grumbling stories clearly demonstrate. So what is he to do? Or, for our purposes, what is he to use to do it?

The first thing to note, though, is that there is a common thread which runs throughout the grumbling narratives. It goes like this: the people complain, Moses doesn’t know what to do, so he takes it all to God, then God works a miracle. We see that cycle several times during this period of Israel’s history. That challenges me. When faced with an intractable problem, is my first, immediate and instinctive reaction to pray? More often I confess that I’m likely to try to solve the problem myself, and then to drown in self-pity and single malt. I can’t help but wonder how many times I could have seen a miracle if only I had asked for one.

O what peace we often forfeit,
  O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
  Everything to God in prayer.

But I want to focus not on the people of this story, but the physical objects involved: a stick and a rock. Both of these can tell us deep truths about ourselves and God. When Moses talks to God, he fears that he is about to be stoned. The people have no water: in fact the have very little of anything in the desert. But they do have rocks, plenty of them, and Moses fears that they might begin to put them to use against him. But then he uses a rock to give the people drink.

God tells him to take his staff, and the storyteller is very keen that we know that this is the same staff with which Moses worked miracles in the past. He mentions the turning of the Nile into blood (v.5), the first of the plagues, but of course the same staff was used again and again, and used finally to open the Red Sea.

I think there are two key messages here. The first is that in times of trouble we need to refocus on what God has done in the past in order to build faith for the future. What has ‘God’s staff’ done for you in the past? How have you seen him solving problems, getting you out of scrapes, answering prayers, in the past? How does that encourage confidence in God for what you are going through now, and for what lies ahead?

The rock, though, gives us an even deeper message. The very things which Moses feared would bring him down turned out to be his salvation (and that of the people). We used to sing a worship song years ago which contained the line ‘He turns our weaknesses into his opportunities’. What is there in our vulnerability and fear which God might use ‘so that the glory goes to him’? Sometimes the very things we dread, if confronted, become our salvation. Moses, fearing for his life, nevertheless goes out in front of the people (v.5) and makes himself vulnerable to the expected stoning. This act of courage and obedience allows God to work through another rock and bring salvation to the people.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 2 – Genesis 12:1-4a

This snippet of God’s big story is tiny in proportion to the importance it has. On one level it tells the story of, and the reasons for, Abraham’s call, but actually it is a hinge passage on which turns the whole of the story of redemption. It marks four transitions:

1)         From myth to history

I can remember at my very liberal theological college much debate about when exactly history begins in the Bible: who was the first real historical character for whose existence there is evidence? It is generally reckoned that Genesis 1-11 are mythical in nature. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not true, but they are the stories Israel told in order to explain life, the universe and everything. How did we get here, and why is it all so beautiful and such a mess at the same time? Expecting it to answer scientific questions about cosmology is like asking when exactly Pandora opened her box, and whether it was made of wood or metal. That just isn’t the point of the story. But when we arrive at Genesis 12, we have a real character who actually lived.

2)         From judgement to salvation

From Genesis 3 onwards we have a catalogue of human rebellion against God, which involves murder, perverted sex, violence, corruption and arrogance. These chapters are perhaps summed up in 6:5 – ‘Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’ Even God’s attempts to wipe everything out and start again resulted in yet more sin. So God tries a different tack: he will chose for himself a righteous man to found a holy nation whose role is to call all the nations back to God and to obedience to him, so that the whole world can be in receipt of his blessings rather than under his judgement.

3)         From call to recall

In Gen 11 Abraham’s father Terah had left Ur in Mesopotamia with his family to move to Canaan, but they had settled on the way in the city of Haran, which was very similar in nature to Ur. So God had to call Abraham again in 12:1. Before he had been taken by his father, but now he has to go at God’s command, even leaving his father behind. Abraham is the patron saint of those who begin well with God but need to encounter him personally if they are not to settle down in a pretty similar place to the one from which they had set out, and of those for whom family faith needs to transition into personal faith.

4)         From all people to the chosen people

But with this new call came a new task. Up to now God has dealt with all people, all the nations who came into being with the scattering at Babel. But now his new plan is revealed. He desires to bless all nations, but he chooses to do it through one nation, Israel. And, being God, he chooses to found this nation from a couple unable to have children. Humanly speaking, Israel simply could not have come into existence: the fact that it did speaks of divine purpose from day one.

Abraham’s task is twofold: he is to be blessed and to bless. His family are to be the means through which all the nations of the earth are to be brought into relationship with God. The Jews are called to be waiters and waitresses of the good things of God to the whole world. Yet so often they, and the Christian Church which grew from them, want the first without the second, like waiters sitting and eating a meal themselves while others go hungry. In the OT the people are constantly being reminded that ‘it is too small a thing’ for them merely to work with their own nation, but rather they should be there to serve and bless others. Simeon recognised that the infant Jesus was not just to be for the glory of Israel, but also as a light for revelation to the Gentiles. Jesus cleansed the Temple from its narrow nationalism and reminded people that it was a house of prayer for all nations. And the NT Church needed some miracles, a dramatic vision and a General Synod before people realised that Jesus was for Gentiles as well as Jews. Today, whenever we run Church according to our own preferences and forget that we exist for the benefit of non-members we are heirs of this same sin: wanting blessing but not wanting to be a blessing.

In this season of Lent this raises questions about our observances: are they so that we will be blessed, or will they in any way bless others?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 1 – Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

This Sunday is the first of Lent, a period of penitence and reflection on our sins and lack of holiness. But what exactly do we mean by ‘sin’? If I were a fly on the wall, or could read people’s minds, I would love to know what was going on in people’s minds when we were praying the prayer of confession at the start of our communion services each week. I would be interested, not for the prurient pleasure of being a spectator on others’ peccadillos, but because I am interested in what exactly we count as sins needing confession. I suspect if I had such telepathic gifts I would observe a few lost tempers and harsh words, maybe some petty dishonesty with the biros at work, and even perhaps an excessive interest from some in Naked Attraction on Channel 4. It is fascinating to know what Christians think sin is, and today’s OT reading gives us what may be some new angles.

We know the story. God generously gives the man and woman everything to eat and enjoy, apart from just one tree. If we were led into a great library and told we could read any book we liked except this one, where would we all immediately head? It’s human nature. So all the other wonderful vegetation fades into the background, with all the focus on that one. However we read this story, talking snake and all, it tells us truths about human nature but also about the nature of sin as the Bible sees it.

Sin is doubting God. Helped, of course by the snake, who twists and misquotes God’s words, the couple are led to begin to believe that maybe God hasn’t been as all-blessing and generous as they had previously thought. Where there are limits they are for our good, just like speed limits on the motorway, but sin’s roots lie in questioning whether a good God has put limits in place for our safety, or whether he’s just being a bit of a killjoy. This story is often called ‘The Fall’, but I heard one theologian saying it would be better described as ‘The Rupture’, where the human race burst out of the health-giving limits to go where it should not have gone. Sin is fundamentally thinking that we know better than God.

Sin is entering into discussion. There’s a sense in which the battle is lost at the start of verse 2, when the woman tries to discuss the situation with the snake, and clarify the issues. Most of the time we don’t sin suddenly: we make choices after weighing up the options. You can’t win an argument with the devil, and Jesus knew this. There’s a real contrast with Jesus in today’s gospel and Eve’s attempts to argue the toss. Jesus refuses to countenance any discussion: he dismisses Satan’s temptations with terse phrases and concise Scripture quotations. When we start to explore sin or rationalise it, we’ve lost.

Sin is wanting more. That rupture occurs when we want more than it is right for us to have, or more than God has chosen to give us. The idea of ‘becoming like God’ in v.4 is an attractive one. One commentator on this passage suggests that the Hebrew for ‘knowing good and evil’ is not simply about knowing what’s right or wrong, but rather implies deciding for ourselves what is right or wrong, thus rejecting God’s reign over our lives and doubting that he knows best what’s good for us. Sin isn’t just about greed and covetousness. It’s about wanting, in Frank Sinatra’s immortal words, to do it my way.

Sin is putting desire above obedience. The final move which clinched the deal for the couple was seeing how nice it would be to eat the fruit. They had been told very clearly what they should do and not do, but all that went out of the window as they gazed on the forbidden fruit and imagined how wonderful it would taste. It was that final triumph of human desire over obedience to God which actually got the fruit into their mouths.

So that journey, of doubting God, arguing about it, wanting more and placing what we feel we want above what God has said, is the royal route to sin, which Jesus so steadfastly refuses to travel in the Gospel reading. Maybe Lent is a time to look more deeply, not just at what we have done to offend God, but why we did it and how we got to that point.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday Before Lent – Exodus 24:12-18

It takes all sorts … One day recently I received some really bad news, which completely shattered me. The next day I just wanted to get out of the house and go somewhere different to mope. We are fortunate enough to live close to the Peak District, so the obvious choice would have been to go out and find a mountain somewhere, or a beautiful vista which would lift me out of my depression and get me back in touch with the splendour and majesty of God as revealed in nature. But I didn’t fancy that, so I got out my bus pass and went instead to Doncaster.

Whilst (no offence) you may feel that Doncaster is a highly appropriate place for the depths of despair, it was, I admit, an unusual place to choose, however much it fitted my dismal mood. In the Bible, if you want to get away from it all you go out into the desert, and if you want to meet with God the place of choice is usually a mountain. There is something majestic about a mountain with its summit enrobed in cloud, and it is easy to see why people have glimpsed something of the divine in such scenes. Mountains in Scripture are places of encounter. To be invited up there by God is an incredible privilege. How much more then, is the invitation to stay up there with God.

It is so easy to telescope the biblical stories to fit in with our frantic 21st century Western lifestyles, but our passage challenges that with the details of the periods of time involved. Moses, responding to God’s invitation, goes up into the cloud, but then has to wait six days before God speaks. And when he does speak, the result is that Moses stays up there for 40 days, nearly six weeks.

Meeting God, like recovering from a severe shock to the system, takes time. But we live in a world where we want pain to go away instantly, and where we expect things to happen for us at the snap of our fingers. The period of 40 days we are about to enter could be a time to slow down, to give God quality time, in the hope of a life-changing encounter with him. Of course we’re dreadfully busy, and the world will stop turning if we don’t attend to business, but God has already thought of that. Aaron and Hur, Moses right- and left-hand men, can sort things out while he’s away. To be fair Aaron wasn’t going to make such a great job of that, but that’s another story. Lent can also challenge what I call ‘Saviour of the Universe syndrome’, the belief that if I don’t do it, it either won’t get done, or it won’t get done as well as I would have done it. In either case disaster would be the outcome. But what God wanted was a leader who knew him intimately, who would much rather stay in his presence than get on with the job down below. One day in God’s courts is better than a thousand at PCC meetings.

Lent, then, is a chance to refocus. When I was a vicar we deliberately dropped some of our activities and tried to avoid busyness, and the world didn’t end. There might be other ways in which we can clear the decks to give God quality time, and places to go which for us will provide encounter and healing. Lent reminds us that for the temperamental Marthas Mary has chosen more wisely.

But, as you’d expect, there’s a twist. If going up the mountain with God is a great thing, and resting there with him is a good thing to do, why, in our Gospel story, does Peter get told off for suggesting that very thing? Many a sermon has been preached about not trying to hold on to spiritual experiences and high spots by building huts to stay in. Of course both are true. Time on the mountain is designed to strengthen us for our day to day lives and ministries. We can give God time, and rest in him during Lent, but then, fortified by that experience, we have to get on with the task of proclaiming the good news that Jesus is risen and is Lord of all the earth.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

2 before Lent – Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

Different cultures at different times have sought to answer that great eternal question: How did we all get here? In the pages of our OT we have three such stories, each coming from a different time or place, and now in 21st century Britain we have a fourth. They are all ‘myths’, a technical term not for something which isn’t true, but rather for a story we use to tell us truths. We don’t have to believe the story, but what it tells us might still be useful. Neither are we meant to ask practical, scientific questions about it. We all know the story of Pandora’s box, and we all understand the truth that once evil is unleashed in a situation it is next to impossible to box it up again. But to ask when she actually opened the box, or whether the box was made of wood or metal, or whether the lid slid off or was hinged, is to miss the point altogether. That’s why so many non-Christians have found some of the Bible a big turn-off for them: they want to ask scientific questions about creation, while what the text presents is a completely different kind of literature.

The earliest myth we see in the OT is not Jewish, but Babylonian. No doubt Israel  came across this story while they were in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. The chief god Marduk was locked in mortal combat with Tiamat, a great sea monster, but managed to cut her in half, creating the heavens and the earth out of the two bits. Of course the Jews didn’t believe a word of it, but in the same way in which we might refer to Pandora’s box, they used this language to talk about their God. So the third account, which is our lectionary passage for this week, is based heavily on this Babylonian myth, except that it is Yahweh who fights against the chaos and evil. The word used in Gen 1:2 for ‘the deep’ is the same word as Tiamat, the name of the Babylonian sea monster, and in other places in the Bible the same creature is called Leviathan or Rahab. In each case we see her being killed, crushed or cut up by Yahweh. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘Only Jesus can put the lid back on Pandora’s box!’

But not content with that, the Genesis 1 account continues to use the Babylonian religion to demonstrate that actually Yahweh is the only God. All the things which were objects of worship, sun, moon, stars and so on, are really there because God put them there. They wouldn’t exist without him. So in fact this particular account is a piece of polemical writing, intended to attack an erroneous point of view. If any of you Israelites have in any way absorbed the worldview of the people amongst whom you are living in exile, you need to hear this: there is only Yahweh, and all the things which those people bow down to and worship are nothing at all. Anything which exists, in heaven or earth, is there because our God put it there. So don’t you ever forget that.

Just for completeness, the other two creation stories come from Genesis 2 and the 19th century. The story in Gen 2 dates from around 500 years earlier than today’s passage, when Israel thought they were the bee’s knees under David’s reign, when everything was going wonderfully well and humans were supreme in an age of prosperity and peace. Note how in Gen 2 the man is the centre of the story, while in Gen 1 God is. Adam is made first, and everything else is made for his pleasure, including, finally, his wife. In Gen 1 brings human beings onto the stage only at the very end of the process, both as the crown and climax of creation, but also almost as an afterthought. The different cultures which wrote these stories saw things very differently. The people at the time of Gen 1 were sadder and wiser, and hod a lot more humility.

And of course the myth we tell ourselves today is the story of evolution by natural selection, first propounded by Charles Darwin in 1859. This account is slightly different, in that we now have ‘science’ which tells us this is actually the true story, but personally I find this account every bit as unconvincing as the Jews found the story of sea monsters and gods. Evolution is taught as fact in our schools, while to my mind it is just another story which our age tells itself, emerging from a culture where we believe that the human race is god and that through our enlightenment and through science we can and will eventually know and therefore control everything, thus making any kind of religious God redundant. The ‘Big Bang’ theory is just that: a working hypothesis. We all know those pictures of evolving animals, but what we don’t have is any evidence not just for horses getting bigger, but for a butterfly turning into a giraffe. Evolution within species seems pretty self-evident, but between them it is a lot less convincing. So maybe Gen 1 is as relevant as ever as a piece of polemic, reminding us of our humble place in creation, and the reign of God over all the created world.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

3rd before Lent – Isaiah 58:1-12

In today’s Gospel Jesus explains his relationship with the Law and the Prophets, what we would call our Old Testament. So what better week to concentrate on the OT passage? To understand it properly, and to apply it to our own lives, we need as always to look at the context. The text comes from the third section of the book we call Isaiah, generally recognised to come from an unknown prophet known as Trito-Isaiah, or Third Isaiah. His predecessor Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, spoke to the people in exile in Babylon and announced that the covenant relationship with Yahweh was still on, and that he was about to act to free them from exile, and to take them back to their homeland, where the Temple would be rebuilt and they would enjoy a life of complete restoration and shalom – wholeness and harmony. But things didn’t exactly work out like that. Yes, the city walls and the Temple were rebuilt, but the national life wasn’t. Trito-Isaiah paints a picture of a society every bit as oppressive and unjust as that which caused them to go into exile in the first place, and his contemporaries like Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, and Habakkuk show us a society in a real mess. That kind of mess, I believe, is pretty similar to the way of the West in the 21st century, as we cope with those twin legacies of our enlightenment culture, introspection and individualism.

The chapter is laid out like a dialogue between God and the people. First of all Yahweh instructs the prophet to cry out against the people, and then the people respond with an angry question to God: why have we done all the right religious things but you haven’t answered our prayers? The rest of the chapter is God’s response to this accusation, along with glowing promises for the future if they only get things right. But the question is a good one: whey, when religious believers do all the right religious activities and disciplines, is life still in a mess?

First of all, I think we have to have some sympathy for the ‘devout’ Jews. They have lived through the national traumas of the destruction of their homeland and 50 years or so of exile. Yes, God has rescued them, but where exactly do they go from here? Do we need a Temple in order to worship? We’ve managed somehow while we were in Babylon. And what about the monarchy? If we haven’t got a dynastic king, who will be in charge? And how do we get over the national trauma we’ve lived through? We know from two years of covid how things are very different now, in so many ways, so just imagine how they would recover, or how the Ukraine as a nation will quite literally rebuild itself.

So the conditions are just right for a good bout of selfishness. Introspection is all about my own religious practices. I do all the fasting stuff which is required, because it’s apparently required of me. But coupled with individualism, I do it for myself, and I am blind to anyone else. These two sins, quite understandable in the context of post-exilic uncertainty, are what God condemns them for. Their fasting is self-seeking, and leads to conflict and violence. Their selfishness means that while they go through the motions they ignore the cries of the poor and hungry, including their own workers. I have seen churches act in the same kinds of ways when the chips are down and the future seems uncertain. Mission to the outside world goes out of the window, and all the energy goes onto keeping the religious show on the road, keeping the building open for two hours use on a Sunday morning, and making sure nobody messes with the liturgy.

But then God drops the bombshell – what I want is a different kind of fasting. One which cares about others rather than yourself. One which rolls up sleeves and works for the benefit of others and the downfall of injustice. One which loves others instead of pointing violent fingers. That’s the way to get your prayers answered, says God. Live like that and I’ll hear and answer and bless you. It’s all about priorities, and as Jesus might say, loving your neighbours as you love yourselves. And that means living for their benefit, not just your own.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Epiphany 4 – 1 Kings 17:8-16

One of the sermons I remember most clearly from my days growing up in a Baptist Church was on the text (and all the sermons were on a ‘text’) Mark 4:36 – ‘There were also other boats with him.’ Preachers seemed to delight in the obscurity of the verse God had supposedly given them, but this one really took the biscuit. The point was that it wasn’t just the disciples who benefitted from Jesus’ stilling of the storm. When God is alive and active it is not just about the church: there is what we might call ‘collateral blessing’. Other sailors who knew nothing of Jesus or his message were nevertheless helped and saved by Jesus’ ministry to his own people. When a local church is strong, the community is blessed. The story of Elijah which our lectionary gives us today is a kind of negative counterpart to this idea.

Back at the start of the chapter Elijah the Prophet has been called by God to confront the wicked and idolatrous King Ahab and to declare a drought throughout the land. Prophetic words had real power – just declaring something brought it into being. But the downside of a national drought is that the rain fails to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. But don’t worry, says God. There’s this little brook from which you can drink, and I’ve commanded some ravens to bring you food. Elijah isn’t immune from the drought, but he is cared for through it.

But then, presumably because of Ahab’s stubborn refusal to repent and restore water to his subjects, even Elijah’s little brook dried up. Again God spoke to him, and told him he had commanded a widow to feed him. So off he went to find her in the bustling North Western seaside town of Zarephath. The ravens, listed in Leviticus among the unclean birds, were replaced by a widow, among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the land. Her husband had died, and she only had a young son, unable to provide for her. We know nothing about her relationship with God, or whether or not she was expecting Elijah, but she too may well have been an innocent victim of the King’s evil intransigence. He obviously cared more about saving face himself than he did about the plight of his subjects. Who could imagine that the leaders of a nation would act like that? But the point is that both the righteous and the unrighteous suffer. Only through a miracle, though, are Elijah and the widow and her son provided for.

There is a fascinating resonance in this story with our own times, when many are going hungry and cold because of government policy, including Christians and non-Christians. If would be great if evil only ever rebounded on the heads of those who committed it, but life isn’t like that, and the innocent suffer along with (or at times instead of) the guilty. Yet we have seen God calling many who feel that they can ill afford it themselves to feed the hungry through foodbanks, and to clothe them and their children through clothes banks. We have seen a great upsurge in the way churches and secular organisations alike have responded to poverty, and it is often those at the poorer end of society who have been the most generous. And through it all, God has been at work. Back in the 1990s I was part of a church which ran what we would now call a foodbank, before anyone had heard of foodbanks, and the staff would testify to the regular multiplication of food by God. They know how many food bags they had prepared, but when they counted up the number of people who had come through the doors it often exceeded the resources they had ready. Their only explanation was that God had miraculously multiplied the food in their storeroom. This isn’t just a fairy story about Elijah: it is about God at work, as he is still at work today.

Note the contrast, though, with the Gospel reading for today, which has obviously driven the choice of this OT passage. Elijah received subsistence rations, just enough to keep him and his new family alive. But in the Messianic age to which this story points there is extreme abundance, more than a week’s worth of wine, not so that people can merely survive, but so that they can party like mad. We look to the time when evil and self-seeking will be ended once and for all, and when all God’s people will be fed at the heavenly banquet.