Old Testament Lectionary 28th December Holy Innocents Jeremiah 31:15-17

 

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of the things which makes me sad is the fact that we rarely get to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It rarely hits a Sunday, and even then it sort of spoils the mood, coming as it does so close on the heels of Christmas. I’ve always wanted to read this Jeremiah passage and then play the congregation a recording of Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky. I’m aware of course that my sadness in not being able to do this is nothing compared to the sadness of parents watching their children get slaughtered, which of course many parents are still having to do today.

So what are we to make of this vitally important and horribly tragic story? I’m writing this the day after 132 children were slaughtered in Pakistan by Taliban gunmen, which reminds us that this is not just a Bible story. I’m also writing whilst engaging with the results of the Church Growth Research Survey. At a recent conference we heard one of the researchers tell us that the problem wasn’t children leaving church, but children never starting. Within generations numbers are fairly static: it’s just that we’re having less and less impact on new generations, and that we’ll die of old age if we don’t do something to re-engage pretty quickly. Elsewhere I’ve been blogging on the importance of discipling children. All these things coming together have led me to what I believe is an important insight: the Enemy hates children.

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However you conceive of the devil (and personally I have no problems believing in him as a real being), he does seem to take delight in harming children, especially those who are going to be significant later. Both Moses and Jesus narrowly escaped neo-natal slaughter, which is more than can be said for the other infants at the time, whom he presumably regarded as collateral damage if he could wipe out these two key leaders. More recently we’ve been doing his work for him as millions of unborn lives have been ended, sometimes as little more than a form of contraception. And now he can use terrorists with guns.

That, of course, is a bit extreme, but he can do it in subtler ways too. If he can use parents who don’t feel that passing on their beliefs is important, and a combination of multi-faith confusion and New Age wooliness to kill children’s faith, then that’s a job well done. And as the figures for the C of E tell us, he isn’t doing a bad job of it.

I wonder how the more upbeat second half of today’s passage will have come across to cruelly bereaved parents? ‘Keep your voice from weeping’ sounds like jolly advice from someone who could do with some basic counselling lessons. ‘There is a reward, and you will get them back’ may sound like hollow words. But when God utters them, it’s different, and we have to listen. Like all of us I find these stories, both biblical and contemporary, shockingly appalling. But I have no option but to believe that ‘there is hope for your future’. This passage is in a typical biblical ‘lament’ form – taking the bad news seriously without glossing over the real pain and anguish, but moving towards hope. The Enemy has always had evil people (and sometimes just misguided people) to do his filthy work for him, but he will not have the last word, however real the grief he can cause now. We simply have to hold on to Jesus’ words ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’. As a church we are there to sit in the ashes with grief-stricken people, but not to leave them there with no hope.

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Mothering Sunday Ex 2:1-10

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, but if you’d rather use the Lent 4 readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4F

At first sight this story seems more like child abuse than a model of good motherhood: Jochebed bungs her baby in a basket, floats him in a river, and then gives him up for adoption to a foreigner. This sounds like something the Daily Mail would do an exposé on! But of course we know more than this, and her risky actions were designed to save her baby, not to endanger him. In fact he was already in quite enough danger: a people in slavery were quite deliberately being culled by a paranoid Pharaoh as means of controlling the population explosion. I won’t dwell on the seven million children slaughtered in the name of ideology and freedom since the 1967 Abortion Act, but even when children do survive birth there are many parts of the world where they are unlikely to last very much longer.

So what does this story tell us about motherhood? There is something deeply wired in to human parents which seeks to protect their vulnerable children, at least into the vast majority of parents. It still shocks us to hear about mothers who sell their toddlers to sex traders in order to fund their drug habits, and long may it continue to do so. But Jochebed is a good mother, and takes considerable risks first of all to hide her baby, not an easy job as most babies I know like to have their say! Then in committing him to the waters she is talking another risk: who will find him first, a human or a crocodile? And if a human, one who is moved to compassion by his innocent vulnerability, or a nasty one? It could all have gone horribly wrong, but she had no choice.

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But underneath this story is a deeper one about a mother trusting God. To the Egyptians the Nile was a sacred river, almost a god itself. It was this god who once a year flooded and gave them the rich water for their crops. So it could be that Jochebed had lost her faith in Yahweh, and had lost the plot and gone native. Maybe she was trusting the Egyptian gods to preserve her son’s life. I don’t think so. I reckon she knew that her God, the true God, was able to save her son, and by placing him in the Nile she was almost making a statement that, in the words of the song, ‘our God is greater’. And of course not only did God use this greatest of leaders to free his people from the slavery which had been their lot for so long, but he even arranged it so that Jochebed got paid for it.

Jesus himself was later to be protected from the death-threats of a paranoid monarch. Today we might give thanks for that protective care wired into us by a loving God, pray for those who are under threat, and for those sad mothers whose circumstances have taken from them the ability to care and protect as our Father does us.