The Cross Part 3: St Paul
The Cross Part 2 – Mark
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 2 – Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Last week our lectionary invited us to consider God’s covenant with Noah, and his promise never to flood the earth again. This week things move on, and Abram is the new partner in God’s purposes and their outworking through history. This time the covenant is a little less one-sided and unconditional: in v.1 Abram is instructed to ‘walk faithfully and be blameless’, echoing the description of Noah in 6:9, in sharp contrast to the rest of the human race. What’s in it for him? God promises him four things: descendants, a home, a new name, and a new badge. The third of these, the new name, is immediate. Abram the great father becomes Abraham the father of many, and Sarai the Princess takes on the much more honorific title ‘My Princess’. The fourth, circumcision, happens the same day (17:23), and functions in a way similar to the rainbow in Gen 9. It is an irreversible mark to remind not God but his people of the sacred relationship into which they have entered.
But what of the other two promises? Clearly they are not going to have happened before the end of that day. In fact they set the scene for much of the rest of the OT, and beyond. Their fulfilment is beset with obstacles to be overcome, dangers to be faced, and faith in God to be tested to the very limit. The first challenge is about the descendants part. Rather than the (to our culture illegitimate) son born to Hagar, Sarah’s servant, God promises that Sarah herself will give birth, an idea so ludicrous that Abraham falls about laughing. Even after, against all odds, Isaac is born, the next test is that God orders his sacrifice. And so the story goes on. The promise of the land as an eternal possession is even more difficult: first Abraham’s descendants must face famine, enslavement in Egypt, wandering in the desert, and finally the conquest of the Land against powerful enemies who, quite naturally, are not keen to be driven out. Even when it has been gained, the land is lost again, and the remaining Jews exiled to Babylon. Then it is occupied by one empire after another, and still today it forms a battleground between the descendants of Abraham’s two sons. So what of the covenant now?
The story serves to remind us of two things: that God’s promises are sure, and that they can be frustratingly slow in coming to fruition. Abraham’s faithless and cynical laughter must have been echoed hundreds of times down the centuries by people who had heard or sensed a promise which seemed totally impossible. Could God really make a ninety year old woman pregnant? Could he really feed them when the nearest grain store was in Egypt? Could he really free them from slavery, or from exile, or from Roman domination? These questions straddle both Testaments, and are alive and well in the Church today. Could God really get rid of Covid? Could he really provide for me the money I need, the job which has been snatched from me, a husband or wife at my age, healing from my cancer? The agonising questions go on, and maybe you have some in your life too. Are God’s promises meaningless? And if so, is he there at all?
Lent allows us, and in fact encourages us, to ask these kinds of questions. We’re used to thinking of it at a time when we focus on what we have done wrong to God – ‘Against you only have I sinned’, admits the Psalmist (51:40). But it is also a time for lament for what God has done to us, or what he has failed to do for us. The cry ‘How long, O Lord?’ echoes through the Psalms as people cry out in their frustration that God hasn’t just got on and done it, and can be used just as appropriately today in a world still waiting for the healing of all creation.
It is as though we are stretched on one of the mediaeval racks, with God’s covenant promises and his timing pulling us to bits from each end, and my goodness it hurts! I have no easy answers for you, other than describing how you might be feeling, acknowledging that others feel the same, and promising you that Easter is on its way. God seems to have set things up with frustration built in, presumably because he believes it is good for us, building character and strengthening our spirits. Lent encourages us to keep hanging on (as though we had much choice), but it also promises that just as God was faithful to Abraham, so he will be to his descendants for ever.
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 1 – Genesis 9:8-17
For the first three Sundays of Lent our Lectionary gives us a mini-series, exploring three covenants made by God with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. So we will need to begin with a quick review of what a covenant is, so that we can then go on to explore the unique features of each of these three, and what they can each tell us about our God and how we relate to him.
In the Ancient Near East covenants were two-a-penny. They were often made between two parties, and usually involved some kind of deal with a quid-pro-quo clause, although they were not often equal in nature. For example a conquering king might make a deal with those he has defeated not to destroy them completely as long as they don’t attempt to rebel. The covenant would require the agreement and compliance of both parties, even though the power balance was clearly unequal. In our world perhaps the most common form of covenant is marriage, and one hopes that this deal will be a little bit less one-sided! Covenants are usually sealed with some legal paperwork (or perhaps stonework), and perhaps other symbols, such as wedding rings.
God’s covenant with Noah isn’t in fact, with Noah alone, but with the human race and the animal kingdom. Unlike most covenants this one is completely one-sided: there are no demands at all on humans, but merely a promise from God. This is one reason why people talk about the ‘unconditional love’ of God, which you may have heard me try to debunk in my podcasts on John 3:16, although the word ‘love’ does not feature in this passage at all. Taken in context of the other two covenants which we shall be examining, this one is a great starter for ten. It reveals something important about God, and is a good foundation for the more typical forms of covenant to come. This one may look unconditional, but the others certainly aren’t. Indeed only two verses before our passage for today is a command for capital punishment for murder, so the text will not allow us to go overboard on unconditional love.
So what’s the deal? In context God has wiped out most of the world population of humans and animals in an attempt to purge evil from his beautiful world. It clearly didn’t work, as the very next paragraph shows that the hero, Noah, is no better than anyone else when he’s had a few tinctures. And two chapters later we see the human race in arrogant rebellion against God at Babel. But the promise is there anyway: never again will God wipe out life from the earth with a flood. That is important: God does not promise never to destroy the earth, only that he will never flood it again. The text emphasises two things about this deal: universality and eternity. The covenant is with ‘you and your descendants … and with every living creature’. Whilst we’re going to see next week a special covenant with one particular race, that isn’t the original and best. This is about all living creatures. And it is for ever: the words ‘never again’ are repeated for emphasis.
The sign, the ‘wedding ring’, for this deal is the rainbow, a powerful and beautiful symbol which has been reappropriated (or ‘hijacked’, some might say) by the campaign for a united South Africa, the Gay lobby, and more lately, for reasons which are not clear, by supporters of the NHS. The range of colours speaks of inclusion, as do the words which emphasise that this deal is for all life for all time, and from a meteorological pint of view rainbows happen at the conjunction of rain and sunshine, reminding us that clouds literally have a silver lining.
This covenant, then, forms a little oasis in the desert of human sin and divine judgement. But it does reveal one more important thing about God, the fact that he ‘feels’ for his world. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought of God as a ‘unmoved mover’, the one who causes stuff to happen but is completely untouched by any of it, perhaps like chess player who moves the pieces around but feels absolutely nothing for the pawn he has just sacrificed. The flood narrative, terrible though it is if we get beyond the Sunday School story and really wrestle with it theologically, reveals a very emotional God. He regrets, grieves, and now remembers. He draws up this covenant precisely because he has not simply washed his hands of the human race. He desires ongoing relationship with them, just as his Son is later going to be described as having chosen a Bride for himself for eternity.
Noah, then, offers us a paradox, one in which Christians live daily. God makes an unconditional promise to the human race, which demands nothing back from us, and yet he desires a response, a relationship, and, as we shall see soon, obedience. Christians talk about not being good in order to be saved, but being good because we have been saved. Noah introduces us to this idea by showing that the initiative first comes from God towards us, but we have to understand this alongside Abraham and Moses. So come back next week!
The Cross – Part 1 – St Luke
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Sunday before Lent – 2 Kings 2:1-12
Arnold van Gennep was a French folklorist who lived from 1873 to 1957, and is most famous for his work on ‘Liminality’, describing what have come to be called ‘Rites of Passage’, or little ceremonies we pass through when things change in our lives. He identified three stages, the pre-liminal, the liminal, and the post-liminal (‘limen’ is the Latin word for a doorway or threshold). So a marriage, for example, is a ceremony which moves a couple from being two distinct people to one couple. In the pre-liminal phase couples arrange the wedding, go shopping for stuff for their house, try on dresses and suits and generally think their way into being married. The actual wedding day is the liminal phase, and then post-liminal life is about making it all work out in reality rather than fantasy!
The transition from Elijah to Elisha as being the key prophet in Israel is a story of liminality par excellence. It isn’t just a journey through change: there’s a physical journey too. In fact the journey is a reversal of Joshua’s route into the Promised Land, as they retrace his steps across to the far side of the Jordan, and the next section is going to show us Elisha returning alone to begin his ministry.
As with a wedding, a funeral, childbirth, a move from Cubs to Scouts or any other rite of passage, there are more people involved than just the immediate protagonists. In this story there are three ‘characters’: Elijah, the outgoing incumbent, Elisha his successor, and the ‘company of the prophets’, a kind of theological college full of students for ministry. All of these ‘characters’ plays their part in the narrative. The company sound a bit insecure at the thought of an incoming boss, and don’t seem quite sure what to make of Elijah or the coming transition. Elijah seems to want to shake off Elisha – perhaps he feels that his ministry is being ended prematurely and wants to busy himself and put off the evil day. Or maybe he’s testing Elisha – just how committed are you to this task? Wouldn’t you rather just stay where you are and put your feet up? And Elisha doggedly follows his master, determined not to miss the spectacular departure, and keen to take over the role with the Spirit’s help.
Times of transition are never easy to negotiate, even when the rite of passage is entirely positive and hoped for. There’s insecurity in the air, anxiety about how we will all play our parts in the story, and what the post-liminal phase will hold. There will be sleepless nights with a new baby, desperate grief after the death of a loved one, fears about how we’ll cope at a new school, university or job …
Today represents the pre-liminal part of Lent, which is of course itself the pre-liminal part of Holy Week and Easter. So what will it be like? And especially what will it be like this year? Our church has invited us to a virtual imposition of ashes via YouTube, reminding us of the importance of touch and action in our faith and our worship. What can we ‘give up’ when we have already given up so much for the past year? What might we ‘take up’ when we’re either rushed off our feet with homeschooling and working from home, or we’re furloughed and have already found more time than we know what to do with for prayer and Bible-reading.
But no-one need have worried – this is a story of the action of God, not the action of human beings. The company seem to adjust well to their new boss, even though his style is very different from that of his predecessor. God clears the way for Elijah’s ascension, opening the river in a reversal of Joshua’s entry into the land, and, when challenged in v.14 he proves his presence with Elisha by letting him back in. God’s ministry is going to continue whatever, and no-one need worry about that.
Where would you put yourself in this story? I’m Elijah: recently retired but keen that anything I might have achieved in 40 years of ministry will continue to bear fruit, although I’m sure in some ways I had never expected. Some of us might be contemplating some kind of a new role, and feeling a bit anxious about it. Will we be up to the task? Like Elisha we might be hungry for the anointing which the Spirit brings: God knows that and grants his request. By the way the ‘double portion’ in v.9 doesn’t mean that Elisha wants to be twice as good at it as Elijah was – it simply means he wants to be the heir – the eldest son who gets twice as much as any other heirs, and who will take over the family business.
Or maybe you feel like you’re in the crowd scene, where others play the major parts and you have no option but to get caught up in it and have your life changed by the actions of others. I guess we’re all feeling that quite a bit at the moment as our lives are governed and restricted by a little virus too small to see.
But the message here is that through change and chance God still leads on, doing what he wants to do, appointing and disappointing people who will influence the lives of others, and working towards what we know will be the end of the story, the making of a new heavens and a new earth. Lent reminds us of the insecurity of this life, our addiction to sin, and our need to be changed and blessed by God. But maybe what we need most of all this year is to rest in the loving arms of a God whose purposes can never be thwarted, who is never surprised by what goes on in his world, and who has promised that whatever changes he will lead us through and weave everything together for good.
John 3:16 Part 4 – What does it imply?
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Second Sunday before Lent – Proverbs 8:1, 22-31
Proverbs is not the easiest book to read, nor to preach from. It can feel a bit like reading the Highway Code or something. It might be designed to keep us and others safe, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great work of literature. Chapter 8 is a hymn to Wisdom, personified as a wise woman, but we can understand it better if we take the time to read chapter 7 first, where Foolishness or Stupidity is also personified, but as an adulterous women or prostitute. A bit of a slag, all in all, we might say. So we are invited to compare and contrast.
It’s worth making the point that Wisdom in the OT is not intelligence. It’s less to do with having ‘PhD’ after your name than it is about knowing how to live well. The English word ‘streetwise’ or the French savoire faire capture the meaning better: it’s about the ability to know instinctively what’s the right thing to do in any situation. Folly, therefore, is its direct opposite.
These two ladies do, at first sight, have things in common. They both call out, trying to win our attention, and trying to get us interested in their wares. They are both, in their different ways, appealing. Folly is portrayed as a prostitute out to seduce senseless young men, who are drawn in by her wiles, but whose destiny therefore is death. By contrast Wisdom, also tries to get people’s attention that they might come to her, not for cheap thrills but for lasting treasure which leads to life. Wisdom is worth more than monetary riches, and will lead people to an inheritance far richer than the merely financial.
But the bulk of our selection today is about the origin of Wisdom. Indeed, she was around before creation began, before oceans or mountains, at God’s side while he brought the earth into being, and constantly praising him for it as each new day brought new things which God declared ‘good’. In fact the passage is one of unending praise. Wisdom does not moan, as other bits of the OT do, about the state of the world these days, about how broken everything is, about how the innocent can suffer and the rich prosper. She is one of those frankly annoying people who are unable to see anyone or anything other than in a positive light, whose lips are constantly full of God’s praises, and who can see his good hand in whatever it is that happens. So is this an invitation to that kind of superspiritual naiveté? Certainly Miss Wisdom has little in common with the prophetic tradition, whose role seems to be mostly about pointing out problems and trying to get people upset enough about them to try to change. In Wisdom’s world everything in the garden is rosy.
I wonder whether these two contrasting chapters are not about the ability to see evil or not, but rather about the standpoint from which we see it. In Miss Folly’s world things certainly are broken, so what the hell? Let’s go to bed. Let’s find what comfort we can for a while. Let’s grab some pleasure while we may, and ignore what’s right or wrong. But Wisdom’s approach is very different. Let’s just do the right thing. Let’s live well, and that will both celebrate and enhance the created goodness of our world. Let’s fear God, because that will make the world a better place. This chapter of the Bible may ignore the harsh realities of life on Earth, but the rest certainly doesn’t, and nor does the rest of Proverbs or other Wisdom literature such as Job and Ecclesiastes, and many of the Psalms. But maybe the best way to approach those problems is from the starting point of an awesome God who created a beautiful universe. To focus for just one chapter on the beauty of it all isn’t a naïve refusal to accept reality: it’s a refreshing and heart-healing reminder of the ultimate truth about who God is and what his world is coming to. As we feel more and more the stress of lockdown, the Mindfulness gurus have all sorts of advice about how we might be renewed and refreshed. Maybe a meditation on the pure unadulterated goodness of God might prove to be a real tonic.
John 3:16 Part 3 – What does it mean?
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 4 – Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Is this passage about an eschatological character or an exercise in succession planning? The Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought the former. When John the Baptist appeared, looking strangely like they imagined Elijah would have looked, they asked him if he was ‘The Prophet’. Apparently Moses’ words from Deut 18:15 had been understood to predict a coming person, and Jewish exegesis of the text had arrived at the conclusion that The Prophet was going to appear shortly before the coming of the Messiah. The Gospels certainly seem to have been written with this expectation in mind, so that John could fulfil it, at least as the Forerunner even if not The Prophet.
But perhaps Moses’ intentions were different. When a charismatic leader departs, retires or dies, there is often a sense of let-down as the nature of the organisation inevitably changes. So how do we ensure that the changes which need to be made can happen, without losing the good things which have been good and healthy in the past? Part of my work in the past was with Anglican parishes in vacancy, helping them to think through clearly what they were looking for in a new priest. The Anglican church is notoriously bad at succession planning, only in rare cases appointing a curate already in post as the new vicar, and all too often deciding that having had one kind of leader, for the sake of balance they now need someone very different. In my parish ministry I have seen both a complete disappearance of those things I had worked to hard to lead a parish into, and also really healthy continuation of my ministry into places I would not have been able to lead people myself. It’s all very hit and miss.
So one way of reading this text is to think of Moses giving his death-bed speech (which is what Deuteronomy purports to be) to a bunch of people about whom he is anxious that the journey they have started will be completed well. First of all he passes on some of the wisdom he has learnt as their leader, and in particular the contrast with the practices of the nations around them. This passage is preceded by a warning against the occult goings on of their neighbours, who, in their attempts to get guidance, go to such lengths even as child sacrifice. God’s way is very different, and his prophets will behave very differently. If this passage is in fact about the inauguration of the prophetic movement in Israel, then there are some clear lessons to be learnt, both about prophecy and the prophets themselves. If a charismatic leader gets replaced with an institution, which they inevitably do, then Moses wants the people to know how that institution will work well, continue to be directed by the voice of God, and continue the trajectory of the original leader. And in the days of renewed prophetic gifts as the Holy Spirit is poured out through the charismatic movement, there are some helpful guidelines here too.
The nature of the prophetic is very different from occultism. Divination, sorcery and the other behaviour of the nations is all about what humans want to know: prophecy is about what God wants to reveal. He cannot be manipulated or coerced into telling our fortunes. So it follows that the job of the prophet is not like their sorcerers. Moses is very clear that prophets speak only what God gives them to say, nothing more, nothing less. So his words are not to be ignored or cherry-picked.
But even more telling is the character and role of the prophet. If I had promised my congregations that God would raise up for them ‘a vicar like me’, I wonder what would have come into their minds? (Probs best not to ask!) So what would a prophet like Moses look like? Perhaps as humble as he was. Perhaps someone who was only too keen to delegate power and see the Spirit active in all the people, rather than himself alone? Yet maybe also someone not so non-directive as a leader that he would allow democracy to rule, so that the people could return to Egypt just to get their hands on the melons and garlic. Perhaps someone so powerful an intercessor that he could get God himself to change his plans? But also someone maybe so vulnerable that he could weep in despair before God at the sheer evil of the people, someone who needed support both emotionally and also at times physically. If that’s what Moses looked like, presumably prophets like him should be recognisably similar.
Above all, says Moses, in a way which is echoed in the NT, beware of false prophets, essentially those who speak as if from God without actually having heard from him. In an age when right-wing leaders are happy to use the Holy Bible as props in their propaganda machines, we ought to be wise and careful. That surely is what taking the Lord’s name in vain means.
So maybe this passage has more relevance than we thought. Rather than being about someone whom John the Baptist refused to be, maybe it gives some useful hints for the use of the Spirit’s prophetic gifts in the Church today.