Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 3 – Jeremiah 28:5-9 (Related)

I know I sound like a stuck record but once again the lectionary has filleted this passage out of its context so as to make it almost incomprehensible. We really can’t make sense of v.5-9 without knowing what is going on in 1-4, and what is going to go on in 10-17. So let’s look instead at the chapter as a whole.

Just in the very early stages of the exile, when most of Israel was living as a vassal state under Babylonian rule, the prophet Hananiah, who is helpfully described by the heading in my Bible as a ‘false prophet’, goes public in the Temple with his prediction that this will all be over within two years, because God is going to break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon (a phrase which he repeats twice for emphasis). It is interesting to note what this will look like in detail: the Temple will be undesecrated again, the sacred articles nicked by Nebuchadnezzar will be returned, the king will be back on his throne, and those who have been deported will come back. In other words, everything will be back to normal. The brief period of oppression will have been a tiny blip in the fortunes of Israel, but life will soon carry on as before.

I’m writing this in the week when lockdown in the UK is being dramatically eased, and on the morning of a day when new charts demonstrate that the global pandemic of coronavirus is still peaking, even if here in England things are calming down a bit. We all want to get back to normal, even though some of us are wondering what the ‘new normal’ will look like. There is a natural human tendency to avoid pain and discomfort, and so it should be – we have names for people who deliberately go out to seek or inflict pain. So Hananiah represents the voice of this human tendency – don’t worry, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, and like Boris after Cumminsgate, we can all just ‘move on’.

But into this understandable human inclination to avoid hardship comes the voice of God, through the genuine prophet Jeremiah. Again, look closely at what he says. First of all he really wants Hananiah’s words to be true. He’d love it if this was going to pan out like that. Jeremiah has a reputation for being a bit of a misery, but he is no more keen on exile and slavery than the next man. However, he senses that God’s purposes are different – the rest of the chapter spells out his view on things. But he also notes something important. Many prophets in the past spoke the unpopular message of war, disaster and plague, and current events seem to be validating their message. Perhaps that is the job of prophets; that’s why we find them so difficult to cope with, and why so often we silence their voices. But what about those who speak peace instead? Jeremiah’s point is that like their more negative brothers and sisters their message needs to be validated by actual events. It isn’t the case that prophets never say good things or bring comfort: just look at Isaiah 40 – 55. But the test is what actually happens. And most of the time it is the prophets of doom who actually turn out to have been speaking from God.

This chapter, then, gives us a meditation on the nature of the prophetic, but also reminds us of an important biblical principle: suffering, unpleasant though it is, can do us good. It can be used by God to shape our characters, to correct our weaknesses, to reorientate our direction and realign our priorities. Everything within us as humans wants to avoid it, but the Bible constantly tells us of its value, and how we should seek the hand of God through it to draw us closer to him.

How have you been praying for our nation and our world during the pandemic? Like all of us I have, of course, been praying for it to go away and leave us alone, but more often I have found myself praying that we would learn the lessons God wants to teach us through it. To return to normal without that happening would be an even greater disaster, I believe.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 2 – Jeremiah 20:7-13 (Related)

I love a good courtroom drama, and my wife and I particularly love Judge John Deed (I think my wife particularly loves him!) I’m always struck by the swearing in of witnesses, who have to promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I wonder whether as Christians we do the same thing when we give witness to our faith?

Some readers may know that I’m in the final stages of doctoral studies which has meant a lot of thinking about charismatic-type worship, and in particular some analysis of what it is we’re singing in our worship songs. One of the common critiques of the worship-song culture is that it can paint the Christian life as rosy all the time. When we’re in God’s presence all our problems disappear; we’re walking in faith and victory; and there’s no guilt nor fear when we draw near – that kind of thing. Well Jeremiah could never be accused of such triumphalism!

In today’s OT reading we see an incredible outpouring of emotion by the prophet. Just have another look at what he’s saying about his relationship with God. The first, and most damning critique is that God has deceived him – we mentioned this a couple of weeks ago. God has played a nasty trick on him, lied to him in effect. As a result he is ridiculed, insulted, has become a reproach to all, especially his so-called friends, and what he wants to do above all is to run away. But even then he’s got no choice, because his prophetic calling burns like a fire within him, and he simply has no option but to keep on saying the very things which got him into this mess.

Some of us know the feeling. You try and do the right thing, and you get stick for it. I was bullied out of one parish in which I served, partly because I refused to collude with the ‘niceness’ which covered up problems and swept difficult issues under the carpet. Some of us have tried to maintain standards at work and got in trouble for it. Some of us may have blown whistles on wrong behaviour. And none of us has skin as thick or shoulders as broad as we’d like to think we have. And it hurts. Jeremiah moves on in v.11 but even then he is hardly an example of Christian charity – what keeps him going is the hope that one day God will raise his hand against his enemies, and they’ll stumble, fall and be completely and eternally shamed. No loving forgiveness there then.

Note also the amazing mood swings which Jeremiah exhibits. In v.7-10 he’s moaning about how awful he feels, then he’s holding out for the vengeance of God, then v.13 is a song of praise for the God who rescues him, and then in v.14, once again conveniently missed out by our lectionary, he’s cursing the day he was born. Hardly a picture of stability, and not often words which find their way into charismatic worship songs.

So what about us? How can this passage help us? Well, the liturgist in me recognises a form called ‘lament’, a well-known formula used often, for example in the Psalms, to get things off our chests. The formula is pretty standard: you complain against God, you explain why, but then you express your trust in him anyway, whether you feel it or not, as a way of defying what’s going on in the face of what you actually believe (or want to believe) about God. It’s raw, it’s painful and it’s real, and we don’t do nearly enough of it in Christian worship. We might be telling the truth when we sing about our wonderful lives of faith and victory, but we’re almost certainly not telling the whole truth. Or alternatively our worship is constantly so grovelly and miserable that we never break through to the praise: both are equally destructive. Today Jeremiah gives us permission to be miserable, to experience mental health issues, to feel abandoned and ashamed, but he also points us to the God who is, believe it or not, faithful and who will, in the end, vindicate us.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 1 – Exodus 19:2-8a (Related)

I’m writing this on my first day of retirement. I have served the Church of England I hope faithfully for 39 years, and now I’m free to do what I want. You can’t help, at a time like this, look back over your career. Yesterday a friend rang me to say ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ That was lovely, but to be honest at the moment all I can think of are my failures and defeats. I have often asked myself if I could do it all over again, would I go and do something very different, like being a lumberjack? I wonder if I had known what was to happen, I would have gone and done something less exciting, like Chartered Accountancy or something. Perhaps it’s better not to know, but there have been times when I have said to God, with Jeremiah ‘ You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived!’ (20:7). It can be quite hard training ordinands for their minitry on days when you feel you wouldn’t wish the C of E on your worst enemy!

I wonder if you noticed the deal in this story, which lies in the chapter before the Ten Commandments are given by God? He promises the privilege of being his special people ‘if you obey me fully and keep my covenant’. The people’s unanimous response is ‘We will do everything the Lord has said’. But only in the next chapter is the covenant, the deal, set out clearly. They’ve agreed to keep it, but they haven’t yet been told what it entails. Sounds a bit like joining the Masons, where you swear on your life not to reveal any ‘secrets’, but you only discover what secrets you’ve promised not to reveal until you progress through the ranks. So isn’t all this a bit unfair on God’s part?

Maybe the key idea here is ‘trust’, and the key verse v.4. ‘You yourselves have seen what I did.’ These people had a history with God, and in the light of that there is a fundamental understanding that he is for them, that he acts to bless them, that his purposes for them are good, not evil. When you trust someone you are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It just isn’t conceivable, after what they have been through, to believe that God isn’t going to act justly towards them. So they have no problem, in theory at least, with agreeing to this covenant deal without actually knowing in details what it means.

My son has a friend who has made his home in another country, where they have seen significantly less damage from the Covid pandemic. In reflecting on this, he contrasted his country with the UK, and decided that where he lived the people basically like, respect and trust the government, and so are happy to obey the lockdown rules, which significantly lowered the impact of the virus. Here the levels of trust in the government are under the floorboards, lying has become commonplace, and slogans have replaced strategies, and that’s without the eyesight-testing antics of the man who actually runs the country. Trust is vital for any society, and the Israelites trusted their God, and so were willing to commit themselves to him (although of course the reality became very different – God is far more trustworthy than the people were).

How are you with trusting God? What have you seen that he did? What have you got to look back on, times when God has proved his faithfulness and trustworthiness to you? How does that build your trust in him for the future? Are you able to give him the benefit of the doubt, even when his actions in your life seem decidedly doubtful? Maybe today is a day to look back, count your blessings, and recommit yourself to him for the future, come what may.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity Sunday   Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-31

OK, here’s a challenge – find the Trinity in the OT. Not easy, as you can’t even find much about the idea in the NT. In fact the ‘doctrine of the Trinity’ was forged out by the early church from the raw materials of Scripture and various heresies which got it wrong, and wasn’t finally sorted out for around 300 years. The idea gradually emerged as the only sensible way of expressing the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there had to be quite a few wrong turns and dead ends before it was sorted. So if we’re expecting either Testament to give us the fully developed doctrine, we’re going to be disappointed. And of course the whole thing is made so much harder by the fact that it all defies human logic, and simply can’t be comprehended.

So what can we say? Simply that the Bible provides the raw materials, the ideas with which the Early Christians had to wrestle, which eventually led to the doctrine of the Trinity. So what is there within today’s passage which points in the direction of Trinity?

The Father is pretty easy: the passage speaks to a bunch of people who had been in exile for decades, who believed that either their God wasn’t strong enough to rescue them, or that they were now out of his patch and so they would be better off praying to the local Babylonian gods, or that they had been so sinful that he had simply washed his hands of them once and for all. So what is a prophet to say into that situation? The chapter begins with the well-known ‘Comfort, comfort my people’ bit out of Handel’s Messiah, which deals with the third, and then moves on systematically to dismantle the other two ideas which the people had grasped, understandably but totally wrongly.

He begins with the power of God (v.12), then moves on to his universality (v.15-17, and v.21-26 which have been filleted out by our lectionary). There is no way we can believe that God is too weak or too far away to do anything. Although the language is not used here, this is a picture of God as universal Father, the God of power who reigns over our world. All of it.

But then in v.13 we get a reference to the Spirit, or ‘mind’ of God, the person who provides wisdom and purpose for the Father. ‘Who on earth do you think can tell God what to do?’ asks the prophet. The Spirit, the ‘mind’ or purposes of God is there beside him in a way which no humans are anywhere near being up to. Elsewhere in the OT the Spirit represents the power of God given to humans to help them in supernatural tasks, and, as we heard last week, poured out in the NT on all God’s people to equip them for mission. The Spirit, only partially revealed here, is the same Spirit whom the early disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost, and who is alive and well in the Church today.

But what about Jesus? While there are some odd passages in the OT which might be taking a forward look to the incarnation, and while there are many promises about the coming Messiah, the Jesus we know and love is not fully revealed in the OT. But what we do have in this passage is a section which explains something of the Father’s purposes for Jesus. In v.27 the prophet echoes the cry of the people’s hearts: ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, my cause is disregarded by my God’. he perfectly captures what it must have felt like to have spent 70 or so years in a foreign land, with prayers seemingly being ignored and cries for mercy going unheard. His response is to promise a time when God will step in to rescue, refresh, restored and bring new hope, promises which were fulfilled in the short term by the release of the exiles to return home to Jerusalem, in the medium term by the coming of the Messiah to open a new and living way to the Father and to pour out the Spirit on all Christians, and which will be fulfilled in the long term when Jesus returns, winds up history, and ushers in the new creation.

The problem with Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the Trinity is trying to understand it. Spoiler alter – you can’t! The real point is for us to live it, and today reminds us that we worship a God of ultimate power, believe it or not, a Spirit who is available to fill our lives and empower us as Christian disciples, and a Saviour who stepped into our world to bring healing, hope and purpose.

It is very easy at the moment, in the middle of a global crisis of health, economics, racism and so much more, to believe with those exiles that our cause is disregarded by our God. Let’s allow today to renew our faith and hope, to restore perspective, and to pray and worship even more fervently.

Coming soon:

With the arrival of Ordinary Time next week, when we no longer need to be restricted to the lectionary, I thought you might like a little extra teaching series, so I’m planning a series of podcasts on the letter to the Hebrews. Hope you like it!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Pentecost – Numbers 11:24-30

Who? Me?

Instead of the expected purple passage from Joel 2 for Pentecost, this year our lectionary gives us a less well-known passage from Numbers. At a basic level it’s about the gift of the Spirit for all, but at another level it’s quite different from Joel. He expresses the promise of the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit on all people: Numbers narrates the pouring out of the Spirit on 70 people, with the hope that everyone else could join in too. So what has this passage to say to us today as we celebrate and pray for Jesus’ gift of the Spirit?

As always, let’s begin by looking at this passage in its wider context. From the moment they left Egypt the people have been grizzling about this that or the other. No water, no food, too much of the same kind of food … They have created the golden calf for worship and debauchery; they have taken a dislike to the colour of Moses’ wife’s skin, they have rebelled against his leadership, and worst of all, they are soon to reject faithlessly God’s gift of the Promised Land, and sentence themselves to death in the desert. And yet right in the middle of all this, God chooses to pour out his Spirit on them. And he even chooses to pour out his Spirit on those who for whatever reason hadn’t been to church.

This is truly a story of inclusion. Many in today’s church feel that the Holy Spirit is for super-Christians, whether ordained or lay. But not for me – I sin sometimes (quite often if I’m honest), so I don’t deserve anything much from God. I’m glad that he somehow puts up with me, because that’s his job, but give me his Spirit? No way! This is a story for you – you have sinned, and you almost certainly will go on sinning, but that doesn’t stop you from receiving the Spirit of God’s power. Of course he would love it if you sinned less: one pastor used to say to his congregation ‘You’re not sinless, but you are sinning less!’ But that of itself does not mean that Pentecost isn’t for you, but only for those really spiritual Christians whom you both admire and possibly find a tiny bit weird too.

This is also a story of welcome. We’re not told why Eldad and Medad had stayed home that day, but clearly the unidentified young man felt it was inappropriate for them to be joining in the fun, and Joshua wanted Moses to shut them down immediately. You can imagine them thinking ‘What if this gets out of hand?’ The Spirit needs controlling, watching over in case He does something unauthorised. But Moses takes a different view – why doesn’t God just pour out his Spirit on everyone and be done with it? It’s the answer to this question, around 1300 years later on, the we’re celebrating today.

Many in today’s church feel that the Holy Spirit is for those who are on the inside, whether leaders in the church or the in-crowd which inevitably develops around them. They may, for a variety of reasons, not always be present in church, even before Corona lockdown. This is a story for you – wherever you are today, whatever you’re doing, however well or not you feel you fit into church: God can still pour out his Spirit on you. Today.

This is also an ongoing story. There’s a fascinating textual variant in the Hebrew at the end of v.25, which could either mean ‘they did not do so again’ or, rather confusingly ‘They did not stop’, continuing to prophesy. You pays your money, although most more modern versions tend to plump for the first reading. But there is something here too, I think, for many Christians today, who may in the past have experienced something of the power of the Holy Spirit, but have not done so again. It may have been a special moment, or it may have been a phase through which you passed, which you now look back on with some embarrassment, like that time you smoked weed at college, and have put behind you. This is a story for you, or at least it is if you read it along with that stuff from the New Testament about eagerly desiring the Spirit’s gifts (1 Cor 14:1) and being filled over and over again with the Spirit (Eph 5:18 – that’s what the Greek means, not just do it once and do not do so again).  The author of 2 Timothy tells his young protégé to ‘fan into flame the gift of God’ (2 Tim 1:6-7). Maybe today for some of us is a good day to ask God again to fill us with his Spirit, to rekindle in us love for him and power for service and mission. Sinner, misfit, jaded ex-charismatic – anyone can join in!

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday after Ascension – Ezekiel 36:24-28

For God’s sake!

Once again our lectionary compilers have had their filleting knives out and changed almost beyond recognition the message of Ezekiel, and certainly the message of these few verses, by ripping them out of their context, both in the whole book but also in the immediately surrounding verses. It’s the kind of lovely few verses you’re likely to see on a fridge magnet or in a birthday card from a Christian friend: the reality is quite different.

The first thing to note is that the book as a whole hardly ever mentions God’s love for his people; rather it constantly points the finger of blame – this exile is your fault, and your fault alone. But the second half of the book, which perhaps has these few verses as its epicentre, appears to be about restoration. ‘Don’t worry: I know you’ve been naughty but now I’m going to restore your fortunes, out of my great love for you, and make everything OK again.’ As such it is a lovely purple passage about God’s forgiving love. But in context it’s nothing of the kind.

In giving people new hearts, you see, God is in effect taking away their free will. He himself will make them obey his laws, because otherwise they simply can’t be trusted to live good lives. So the heart transplant will ensure that they have no choice but to chose the right thing, every time. It’s Ezekiel’s way of undoing Genesis 3, taking away the option to sin so that only goodness is available to them. What a screaming condemnation of the human heart, if that’s the only way we can live good lives!

So why does God choose this drastic path? This is where the filleting is at its most destructive, because God makes it perfectly clear in the verses surrounding our passage. In v.23 God explains that when he acts

I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.

He says the same thing in even stronger language in v.32:

 It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and dismayed for your ways, O house of Israel.

The reason that God is going to clean up his people’s act is not for them, but for him, and his reputation. The nations look at Israel and see only corrupt and nasty behaviour, and so God is mocked. But if his people have no choice but to live good and attractive lives, his honour will be magnified among the pagan nations.

These are hard words indeed, particularly from such an apparently lovely passage. This side of the cross we do know, of course, that a heart-transplant is possible, although we also know only too well that we still retain the option of living sinfully. But what the passage does challenge is our 21st century consumerist, therapeutic gospel, that Jesus came to make us all have a lovely time, to take away our burdens and troubles, and to sail us gently to heaven. If I behave badly, I may feel that I have let myself down. But what I often lose sight of is the way in which I have let the Church, and ultimately Jesus, down. From being a trusted institution in the past, the church has allowed public confidence in it and its ministers to become eroded, and much of this has to do the high-visibility child abuse accusations. It would be great if God were to remove from our hearts the ability to choose to harm or abuse others more vulnerable than ourselves, but the evidence is that he has not. Rather the NT paints Christian discipleship as an ongoing, life-long struggle against sin, as our unredeemed nature constantly tries to assert itself. When we let it, it is not just our victims who are harmed: it is God’s name, his reputation.

In these days of waiting and praying for the Spirit, perhaps joining in with the Thy Kingdom Come initiative, Ezekiel invites us to consider why we think we need the Holy Spirit. To make our worship-times feel even better? To see the world evangelised? To end poverty? Very laudable aims, but perhaps Ezekiel would remind us that the Spirit also comes to strengthen our resolve in that daily fight against sin. For God’s sake.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Gen 8:20 – 9:17

The New Normal

The flood story, of which we have our final thrilling instalment this week, is a story full of paradoxes. It is clearly presented as a new creation, a fresh start for the earth and the human race, but it isn’t really a case of washing everything nasty away and starting again from scratch, and certainly not of God washing his hands of us. As with the Corona pandemic, there is no doubt at all that when this is over things are going to be different – we will have to discover the ‘new normal’, and we don’t yet really know what that will look like.

So after the flood, things didn’t just go back to the way they were, they were different – indeed it almost seems that the unchanging God is different. Consider these paradoxes as we link the Flood narrative to the Creation stories:

  • The God who told the waters of chaos ‘So far but no further!’ and separated them has allowed them to return again, but has then got rid of them a second time.
  • The God who created the world and called it ‘very good’ now declares that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil’. And yet he commits himself to it.
  • The God who has saved the lives of animals now allows them to be sacrificed and eaten.
  • The God who has destroyed almost all human life now calls for the death penalty.
  • Once again, all creation is commanded to be fruitful and to multiply.

What are we to make of this paradoxical God? It would, of course, be complete heresy to describe the post-flood God as ‘sadder but wiser’ even though this passage has a bit of that feel to it. After all, he does regret having made the human race in the first place. But maybe the key here is to see the story less as a description of God, and more of a ‘Just so’ story for the human race. Theologians calls this kind of material ‘aetiological’ which simply means a story which explains a present reality. You can easily spot them in the OT when you read the phrase ‘to this day’. Why is there a pile of stones on this particular hill? Because that’s where something or other happened, and the stones are still her today to remind us about it. It’s helpful to think of a child asking you questions.

So what does this story, and in particular these paradoxes, tell us about the world today? You might not like some of these.

Evil is real. Don’t we just know that today? Well God’s known that for a very long time, and it doesn’t take him by surprise, as it did some of the OT prophets like Habakkuk. When we say ‘I never thought people could sink that low!’ God knows only too well just how low we can sink. And of course even Noah is going to take a tumble in the next section, which sadly the lectionary spares us. In spite of the Enlightenment stuff about man (sic) coming of age and all that, we’re all basically nasty unless we try hard not to be. It doesn’t come naturally. Why is it like that? It always has been, and God ‘found that out’ shortly after the creation.

Human life is sacred. It’s very non-PC nowadays, but God gives a clear mandate for capital punishment, and there are still those who think we have ignored this at our peril, and devalued the lives of those who have been murdered. Why do we put people to death (or, in our era, why did we?)? Because human life can’t be taken away with impunity – we’re all far too valuable for that to happen.

Animals don’t have ‘rights’ as humans do. Better not say any more about this one!

Nevertheless God remains committed to us. The word ‘covenant’ in v.9 and elsewhere is misleading – it’s a promise, because, unlike a traditional covenant, nothing is required from us. It’s all grace – God freely giving us what we don’t deserve. How can he do this, in spite of the above? Because we’re worth it!

God has hung up his bow. There are many pictures from the ancient world of warlike gods with bows and arrows, smiting their human subjects. God’s bow isn’t in his hands, it’s in the sky as both a reminder of the past and a promise for the future. Never again will he destroy the earth with a flood. The story portrays the rainbow as a reminder for God, just in case he ever feels tempted, but of course it’s actually for us. Why are there those colours in the sky? Because God is good, gracious, and always wants to restore relationship and give us a second chance, if we’re willing.

We now, of course, have a new covenant through the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. But how much of the above does that invalidate or make redundant? Discuss! What do you think?