OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday after Ascension Day – Ezekiel 36:24-28

Whilst it is a bit of a miserable book, blaming the people of Israel for their behaviour which led them into exile in Babylon, there are a few passages about blessing and restoration, such as this passage for today. But before we go ‘Ahhh, that’s lovely!’ too readily, there are a few things we ought to know, and a few harsh lessons for us to learn from this seemingly benign post-Easter message.

The first thing is that nowhere in the entire book does the prophet speak of God’s love for the people. That may seem shocking, but the message is reinforced if we read on a few verses: God tells the people in no uncertain terms ‘I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!’ (v.32) This is not about the people: it’s about God’s reputation. When he does restore their fortunes, the next few verses tell us, it is so that ‘the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ (v.36)

Of course the love of God for his people is not absent from the biblical accounts, but it is worth asking the question as to why it doesn’t feature big-time in Ezekiel. But there is yet worse to come: the only way that God is going to be able to present to the world a holy, cleansed people is by taking away their free will! A new heart and a new will is going to replace their stubborn hears and wills, so that they will simply be unable to sin. The precious gift which was given in the Garden of Eden, but which led to so much disaster, is going to be taken away. The oft-repeated idea that God did not make us to be robots is going to be proven wrong: we will have no option but to obey him.

Suddenly this passage has taken on a chilling aspect, and while like all texts it has to be read in the context of the whole Bible, there are maybe some things for us to learn from what it actually says. I am currently doing a piece of work on the way in which some modern churches have sold out to the gospel of consumerism and therapy. In other words, God is there to make me feel better, to answer all my prayers, and to fill me with joy and peace. I have listened in several churches to testimonies from people who have found faith through some kind of evangelistic course, and without exception their stories have been about finding healing, confidence, a better self-image, calm and peace in difficult situations, and so on. Since I met Jesus, my life has felt better. Not once did I hear anyone bewailing their sinful lifestyle and rejoicing in forgiveness, or people having been sent out in costly service to the world as a result of their conversion. And certainly never once have I heard anyone saying that they had become convinced that the gospel was, quite simply, the truth. Now of course Jesus does give peace and all the rest of it, certainly in the immediate post-conversion honeymoon period, but when we preach a gospel which only promises those things, rather than the suffering and persecution which Jesus promised, it is not surprising that people can be headed for a fall.

So Ezekiel reminds us that God is not there for us: we are there for him. His reputation is at stake, and he will do what it takes to protect it, even from the behaviour of his people. I have recently completed another five or six hours of safeguarding training. Don’t get me wrong – we need to do this, but my goodness how tragic that we need to. The church has become a byword for child abuse. You only have to listen to any stand-up comedy and it’ll come up sooner or later, and God’s reputation has been dragged through the mud, because of the behaviour of a small but significant number of people who were more concerned about their own appetites than about the reputation of their Lord.

Of course none of us would ever do anything so terrible as that, but it is worth asking the question ‘What is it that I do do which causes God’s name to be dishonoured?’ Even something as simple as choosing to speak to our friends after church rather than approaching those newcomers can result in people telling others ‘I tried church, but nobody seemed to want me there, so I won’t bother again.’ We used to sing that it was all about you, Jesus. We still do have free will – let’s make sure that it is all about him.

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Isaiah 55:1-11

I must confess that I absolutely love this passage. I am also a great fan of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. For any who haven’t heard of this model, it’s basically a way of dividing the human race up into 16 different personality types, and then using insights about yourself in areas as diverse as your marriage, your working life, parenting, spirituality, preaching, and even which Bible books you prefer. I have found it immensely helpful over the years, but I can still remember the retreat I went on when we were sorted out into our types (no hats were involved) and taught what it all meant and how it might be applied. The climax of the weekend was when we were put into groups of the same personality type. I have rarely felt so comfortable in my life, being with a small group of people who thought in exactly the same way as I did. Each group was given two sheets of flipchart paper, and asked to write two things: what we would most like to say to the world, and what we would most like to hear the world saying to us. It took us all of 10 seconds to come up with ours: we would like to say ‘Trust us, we know what we’re doing!’ and we would most like to hear ‘You were right all along!’ I’ll never forget that moment.

This passage, which dates from the end of Israel’s exile and which promises liberation and return to their homeland, has Israel’s enemies saying to her ‘You were right all along!’ It is one of several passages in the OT where those who have not been part of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh come flocking to his people to receive from his riches, his wisdom and his blessing because they have seen Israel’s splendour. Zechariah 8:23 is a great example: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”’ I love the idea of those who have rejected God finally getting it, and saying to the Christians ‘You were right all along!’

As a visionary I’m very good at seeing what’s wrong with things, and as a thinker I like to believe that I’m always coming up with workable solutions for improvement. But as an introvert I rarely show my working-out, so that the net result is that like John Lennon people often say I’m a dreamer. We’re all very well aware that we live in a Church which, at least in the West, is far from effective, is in desperate need of an overhaul, and is being increasingly marginalised by the world around, with fewer and fewer people apparently having any interest at all in what we have to say. Add into the mix a year of lockdown when we have been unable to do one of the main things we think we do know how to do, and everything seems to be up in the air. So the promise of people coming to us and saying ‘People of God, what must we do?’ seems a highly remote one. Show us how to be saved, teach us the wisdom to live well, and share with us your splendour and God’s blessings. Yeah, right. Not going to happen.

And yet the promise of this text is that it will, and I for one find this immensely comforting as I come to terms with the decline of the organisation I have given most of my life for. I take home two things from this passage. The first is the importance of personality in reading Scripture. All of us will have different bits, books, or passages which we most love, and that isn’t a sin: it’s because of how God has wired each of us up uniquely. That of course doesn’t let us off the hook from exploring other passages which we are less immediately drawn towards, or which we find downright difficult. But to enjoy those passages which most speak to us because of who God has made us can be a real tonic for our spirituality.

But the second thing this to listen to the message of this text, especially when we are tempted to feel despair at the state of the Church and the state of the world because of the state of the Church. I pray fervently towards that promised day when people will flock to us to say ‘You were right all along!’

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 – Genesis 22:1-18

This is an appalling story on so many levels. God demands a human sacrifice. That sacrifice is to be the longed-for son born miraculously to a barren woman of 90, as a direct result of his promise of a dynasty for Abraham. The way that the story is narrated slows down as we read through, building the tension until the dramatic climax when Abraham, knife in hand, is about to kill his own son, believing that God has told him to do so. What on earth is this all about? Is it a story of a cruel and heartless God, or Abraham’s misguided faith, or what?

On one level, this story (known in Jewish scholarship as the ‘Akedah’ or ‘binding’ of Isaac) is what is known as an aetiology, that is, a story told to explain a present reality. The OT is full of them, and they are easy to spot as they usually say something like ‘That is why that pile of stones is here to this day’. You can imagine a child asking a question, with the aetiology being told as the answer. This story became associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, and the child might have asked ‘Why do we cut up animals?’ The answer is that people used to cut up each other, until God stepped in and prevented that form of worship, substituting animals instead. Our culture’s animal rights agenda notwithstanding, the story immediately becomes something of an improvement. But I think there is something deeper going on, and we will have to look elsewhere for the key which unlocks it. But first, as always, a bit of context.

22:1 begins ‘Some time later’ or, in the Hebrew ‘After these things’. After what things? For many chapters God has been at work on Abraham. He begins by changing his name, and then through a series of encounters he tests Abraham’s relationship with him. He makes the promise of a naturally born son and heir, and Abraham’s reaction is incredulous laughter. He invites Abraham to intercede for the doomed cities, and he allows Abraham to lie about his wife to king Abimelek, rescuing Sarah just in time. Abraham’s faith in God is, to say the very least, a bit shaky. But by the time God steps in and rescues Isaac from the knife, he knows now that Abraham ‘fears’ him – the first time this word has been used about Abraham and God, although we have seen Abraham fearing death at the hand of local rulers because of his beautiful wife (Chs 12 and 20), and we have seen him afraid that God’s promise of a son could not be fulfilled without his and Hagar’s help. Abraham is not so much being invited to kill off his son, but rather his lack of trust in God.

But there is something else going on here, and the key is to be found in Gen 18:17. God sends three angels (?) to Abraham to warn his about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where his relative Lot was living. But God asks himself the poignant question ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’ The immediate meaning of this is the destruction of the evil cities, but many centuries in the future God was going to do something else: he was going to offer his one and only son, whom he loved dearly, as a sacrifice. All those years earlier God wanted to share with his friend what was on his heart: that’s what friends do, and that may be why James was later to describe Abraham as God’s friend (2:23). Abraham gained a unique insight into God’s eternal purposes as his friend shared his heart with him.

When I was working as a diocesan discipleship officer there was, as you might imagine, much debate over what discipleship really means, how we might define it and whether or not it might in any way be measured. Surely there is no greater relationship with God than one of profound friendship, in which we gradually, and often painfully, get to understand his heart as he understands ours. Yes, Christian growth is to some extent about becoming more like Jesus, breaking the grip of addictive sins on us (whatever our particular poison might be), knowing our Bibles better and all that, but Abraham would tell us that the bottom line is how well we know God and understand his heart. This is still a very difficult story, but to read it as an insight into God’s heart and emotions can at least help us to find a way into it.

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OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 4 – Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13

At the moment I am in the middle of facing one of the greatest challenges of my entire life. I refer, of course, to coving. Not Covid, although that has been a bit of a challenge too. No, coving. That polystyrene curvy stuff which goes round ceilings. For the last year we have been engaged in an almost complete renovation of our daughter’s house, and now it’s coving time. Having watched the jaunty YouTube video from B&Q, nothing seemed easier. What could possibly go wrong? If you live in a house with perfectly right-angled corners and straight lines everywhere, that is. But a 1900s Sheffield terrace isn’t quite like that, as we soon discovered. Many a time we would have had to rip the stuff off and start again, had it not in fact fallen off of its own volition. I’m sure nailing it up isn’t the right way to do it, but in the end it’s the only way which has worked. Here’s a tip: buy shares in Polyfilla!

Actually, I keep telling myself, there’s no shame in pulling stuff down and starting again if it isn’t working. In fact it’s the only intelligent course of action. It’s much better than bodging it up and hoping for the best. And that is what is going on in todays reading, the edited highlights of the Flood narrative. We tend, when thinking about this story, to see it as a story of destruction, of God’s anger, of his ruing the day he ever made the world. But it is also possible to read it in a different light, that of God realising that things just aren’t working, and so starting all over again.

The chapters from Gen 3 to 6 tell of the gradual decline of the world, from the first murder to the point in Gen 6: 5 where ‘The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’

And so a remake is required, and it is possible to see within the flood story an account of a new creation. What God had constantly called good in Gen 1, he now calls evil (in the verse above and in 6:12). He is deeply troubled about what the word has become – the Hebrew words means grieving, aching in his heart – almost as grieved, I’m sure, as I am about my coving. So he sets about a remake.

Creation, according to Gen 1, had begun when God separated the waters. Now he lets them flow back together again, with disastrous effect, before separating them again as the mountains begin to appear. This echoes forward to the future when again there will be the need for a remake, as the waters are separated to allow a rabble of slaves to find freedom and a new national identity.

God’s command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and populate the earth (Gen 1:28) is repeated to the flood survivors three times, in 8:17, 9:1 and 9:7. The original deal is still on, and God’s original purpose for the human race remains unchanged. And above all, the story reaffirms that humans, however imperfect and fallen, are still made in the image of God (9:6). These deliberate echoes of the creation narrative are not there just by chance. Clearly the story is written up deliberately to show the flood as a starting again of the human race, and with it comes the rainbow, signifying that God promises that the way of complete destruction by water, in other words the allowing of the waters of chaos to overwhelm the world again, the very opposite of creation, is no longer an option which God is allowing himself.

Today we give thanks for a God who is willing to begin again. As we continue to live through the Easter season, celebrating the destruction of Jesus by human evil but God’s raising of him to new life, we are aware of how much God has had to start again in our lives, to give us second chances because he is deeply grieved at our mistakes. And we look forward to the new heavens and earth, when all creation will be perfected, never to go wrong again.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20

We are well used to the idea that biblical books can have bits added to them later. The last part of Mark 16 and John 21 look very much as though they are additions, afterthoughts or PSs. Indeed what we call the book of Isaiah is almost universally accepted to consist of three parts, written respectively before the Babylonian exile, towards its end, and after Israel had resettled in Judea. Todays book, Zephaniah, looks very much the same. The passage set for us is in stark contrast to the rest of the book, which predates the Exile, and which promises the most severe judgement on a nation which worships false gods, whose leaders are corrupt, where violence and fraud are rife, and where, worst of all, nobody seems that bothered. The prophetic oracles which form the bulk of the book, written to people who tacitly assume that God is powerless to do anything to stop their corruption, promises judgement perhaps more severe than anywhere else in Scripture, with echoes of Noah’s flood, when not just people but also animals will be destroyed completely, to the great anguish of all who see it. But then, in a complete contrast, comes our section, from chapter 3. After the nation has been purified (3:9), great rejoicing will follow, not just on the part of the people, but also by God himself. On one level this looks like the equivalent of the middle section of Isaiah, when the sadder but wiser exiles are promised a homecoming and forgiveness (Is 40 – 55), but it does raise an interesting question for us, a question which lies at the heart of all theology: just what is God like? Do the two halves of this book give us two different answers? And following on from that is another question: what does God think of us?

Chapter 3 reveals a God who is forgiving (3:15), protecting (3:16), encouraging (3:17), and caring (3:19). Yet earlier in the book God is destructive, punishing and outraged by human sin. What has changed? The whole book seems to pivot around 3:9 – Jerusalem and the peoples around will be purified. Haughtiness and pride will be cut out, leaving only humility and obedience. So what does this say about God, and about his attitude to us?

Once while I was working in an Anglican parish, at our weekly staff meeting, one of the leaders there confessed that although he had been brought up to believe that God loved him, because after all that was his job, he never really felt that God liked him that much. That comment opened the floodgates, and in a group of people most of whom had been brought up in somewhat strict and severe ‘reformed’ denominations, we agreed that it did seem quite hard to believe that God was pleased with us. (Someone, a bit provocatively, asked the question ‘At what point did you come to believe that he liked you?’ to which I found myself answering ‘When I became an Anglican.’) Yet this passage speaks in the most extravagant terms of God’s sheer delight over his people. Many of the terms used, in the Psalms among other places, of extravagant human worship of God are here used the other way round: he takes great delight in us, and even sings over us (3:17), giving us honour and praise (3:20). The extravagance of God’s anger and judgement seem to be matched by the extravagance of his delight in those he has purified and reshaped in humility and obedience. So is God subject to severe mood swings, or can we reconcile these two halves of this little book?

The answer, it seems to me, can be found in our view of God. Elsewhere I have suggested that the Church has been mistaken in majoring on describing God as a God of love, when actually far more commonly in the Bible he is described as a God of righteousness, in other words a God completely incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair. If that’s true, it would be highly ironic if, in condemning people who weren’t that bothered that the nation was going down the pan (3:12), God joined in and merely ‘tolerated’ the state of affairs. You ought to be feeling something about this, he says, and what you ought to be feeling is complete outrage! Let me show you what that looks like! The extreme wrath of God in the first half of the book is modelling what any right-minded Jew should be feeling, and it’s strong stuff indeed. And the important thing is that he’s feeling it not because he hates the people, but because he loves them. He can see what all this idolatry, viciousness and corruption is doing to people, including those who are at the forefront of committing it, and he doesn’t like what he sees. So he’s going to do something about it – he’s going to purify the people, so that his natural rejoicing over them need not be compromised by their sin. He’s going to remove everything unlovely about them, and them express his love in singing and jubilation.

For those of us who have been purified by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from death, those of us in whom evil and sin has been defeated (even if it hasn’t quite vanished altogether yet) this is an exciting section, and a real answer to any questions we may be harbouring about how keen he is on us. But for those who continue to perpetrate evil, oppress others, and believe that God is powerless to do anything about it (1:12), it’s a different story. Oh the joy of being people of the resurrection!

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 2 – Exodus 14.10–31; 15.20–21

What a wonderfully complex story for Low Sunday – maybe the Lectionary compilers assumed hardly anyone would be there to hear it anyway. It’s clearly a story of conflict, but actually there is so much going on here, and in fact there are several conflicts all weaving in and out of one another.

1)         Israel vs Pharaoh This is the most obvious level at which the fighting happens: the nation has been enslaved for generations, and treated with increasing brutality. In return Egypt has been harmed – there is always collateral damage when powerful leaders try to get things their own way, and God appears to have acted decisively on behalf of Israel. That is, until they are stuck by the sea, providing too much of a temptation for the defeated Pharaoh. But this stuckness leads to the second conflict

2)         Israel vs God As the people see the approaching chariots (a vast army, with 600 of ‘the best chariots’ plus all the rest), they must have felt that defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. They had finally escaped, but now here they were, backed not into a corner but into the sea. Their immediate reaction, which they revert to time and time again during the wilderness period, is to want to go back to Egypt, on the ‘Devil you know’ basis. But Moses, who has not yet at this stage heard enough of this grizzling to make him suicidal, simply encourages them to watch and see what God will do. Whether this was a statement born of a prophetic insight or blind faith is not made clear, but God does act, in a way which illustrates the third conflict

3)         Creation vs Chaos The story here, and the specific language with which it is told, cannot help but take us back to the creation narrative in Gen 1. Based on an old Babylonian myth, in which the god Marduk cuts the sea monster Tiamat into two pieces and makes the heavens and the earth from the halves, so God in Genesis divides the chaotic waters to make heaven and earth. Now he repeats the action, dividing the waters of the sea to create a new, emancipated nation. This story isn’t just about some escaped refugees: it’s about the eternal struggle between God’s creation, which is meant to provide the environment in which all life can flourish and be fruitful, and the forces of chaos which crush and mangle others, make the environment hostile, and bring ugliness and desolation. Pharaoh has clearly chosen the path of chaos in his treatment of the Israelites, so this is God fighting back on their behalf, striking a blow against all that is destructive in an attempt to free the people  into new life. But this action inevitably involves a fourth conflict,

4)         Love vs Justice When you heard or read this story, I’m betting there was a bit of you which felt uncomfortable joining in with Miriam’s songs of joy, and not just because of the tambourine. The destruction of God’s enemies in the OT has provided a great deal of controversy throughout the history of the Church, beginning with Marcion, a 2nd century heretic who taught that the cruel God of the OT was completely different from the nice Jesus of the New, a view which, although roundly condemned by the Church at the time, is alive and well – I heard a sermon saying exactly this only a few weeks ago. If you heard my talks on John 3:16 (here) you’ll have heard me challenge the idea of the ‘unconditional love’ of God, and suggest that a far more biblical picture is that God is a God of righteousness, who is incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair, and not a God of love who is incapable of doing anything nasty. And this debate isn’t just about the OT – the common idea that God would never condemn anyone eternally comes from exactly the same idea. There is a lovely Rabbinic tradition which says that when a couple of angels wanted to sing a song of praise in celebration of God’s victory, he forbade them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” Our prayer is that mercy will triumph over judgement, but when a people give themselves over so fully to evil, chaos and oppression that might not be possible, even if it brings tears to God’s eyes.