Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
All three of today’s readings are in some sense about finding (or not) God. Hebrews 4 assures us that we always have complete access to God through Jesus our High Priest, while Mark 10 reminds us that even when we find him we might also find him too demanding, such that we want to lose him again. But poor old Job has a more basic and fundamental dilemma – he can’t find God at all.
A psychiatrist in a famous joke is trying to convince a delusional patient that in fact he isn’t dead. After much fruitless discussion he has an idea: he asks his patient if dead men bleed when cut. ‘Of course not’ came the reply. ‘Dead men don’t bleed!’ So the doctor grabs a nearby scalpel and plunges it into the patient’s arm. Seeing the blood starting to flow, the patient declared in alarm ‘I was wrong – dead men do bleed!’
Job is sitting in the ash heap, bereaved, afflicted and apparently abandoned by God, and as if that isn’t bad enough he has three friends trying to help him by telling him that it’s all his own fault, as we sometimes are today by well-meaning prayer ministry team members who have had it revealed to them by the Lord in a word of knowledge that there is some secret sin in our lives which is preventing us from getting healed. The ‘comforters’, annoying though they are, can’t on one level be blamed: they are upset because their friend’s suffering refuses to fit in with their world-view where all suffering has to be the direct result of personal sin. So they try to force Job to admit his guilt by browbeating him to confess it all, to agree with them that dead men do bleed after all. Difficult thought this proves to be, it is even harder for them to give in and admit that innocent people do suffer.
Job, though, is convinced of his innocence, which of course you could be in those days before Jesus came and complicated it all by saying that to think about it is just as bad as actually doing it. He knew only too well that he hadn’t committed adultery or anything like that, so his friends’ attempts to convince him that somehow he must have done were, understandably, rather annoying to him. So what he needed to do was to get things clear with God, who, he had every confidence, would agree with his take that in fact he was innocent. The problem was that God was nowhere to be found: wherever Job looked, there was nothing but absence.
You may have experienced something like this at some time in your life, and it can be mildly comforting to know that even this sense of complete abandonment has biblical precedent. But the key verse, I think, and the nearest we’ll get to a happy ending for a few chapters yet, comes right at the end of our text. God has terrified Job by his refusal to show up and vindicate him, yet (v 17) ‘I am not silenced by the darkness’. Anyone who has known severely depressed people will know that silence is the hallmark of despair, but Job has not yet got there. While he still has the strength and will to rant against God, he is still alive, and, paradoxically still has hope. It is when we decide simply to ‘curse God and die’ that we are really love. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
For a while when I was young and stupid I genuinely believed in UFOs, space aliens and the like, and I devoured books about so-called encounters with extra-terrestrial beings. (I was also genuinely convinced that Jimi Hendrix had come from another planet, since no human could play that well.) Ezekiel chapter 1was a kind of proof text for UFO-freaks, since what was described there was clearly a visitation from another galaxy. But if that vision, whatever it was, was not scary enough for Ezekiel, the start of the next chapter should have had him genuinely quaking in his sandals. His prophetic call, God tells him, is to a ‘rebellious nation’ (a phrase particularly used in this book), who will refuse to hear his message, and be obstinate and stubborn instead. It is one thing to feel a sense of reluctance when called to an admiring audience, but when you know from the outset that your ministry is going to be rejected it must take quite a bit of courage to begin it in the first place. However God wants to leave the people no excuse: they will at the very least know that a prophet has been among them, even if his words fall on deaf ears. They can’t say he didn’t warn them.
When we get to this passage church leaders and preachers automatically read it as though they are the prophets and their congregations, or at least some members of them, are the stubborn and rebellious ones who won’t do what they’re told. This may well be the case. I have a failed ministry under my belt, and it is easy for me to see myself as the prophet without honour, hounded out of town because my message was too uncomfortable. Sometimes as leaders we are called to speak hard words to stubborn people, although it goes without saying that being unpopular is not necessarily a sign that we are right and the others are rebellious. We might just be unpopular because we’re doing it wrongly! But to be able to confront as well as to comfort, to challenge as well as affirm, is an important tool in the leader’s toolbox.
But I wonder if there is another way of reading this passage which is less individual. As the church of Jesus Christ we are called to a prophetic role in wider society, and our voice is not always welcomed. As a townie working in a very rural diocese I’m struggling to understand rural spirituality, which appears to be very different from the urban version, although that does mean that I can look at the scene with new eyes and maybe see some blindspots more clearly. It seems to me that at its worst the rural church is all about joining in the ‘secular’ activities of the village (although I have been told off for using the term ‘secular’ because we’re all God’s children). As one priest put it ‘Of course we’re not here to evangelise the village’. Sadly many urban churches would agree with this sentiment.
The church often has a reputation for ‘ramming the Bible down people’s throats’ and the like, and we obviously can behave like that. But part of the calling of the whole people of God, surely, is to speak the unpopular, the challenging, the threatening word to a society which can be stubborn and rebellious with the best of them. They may not like us for it, but if we chicken out in favour of ‘niceness’ we are failing to be the church Christ calls us to be.
I said last week that it is generally reckoned to be the case that what we call the book of Isaiah is actually three books by three authors widely separated in time. Isaiah of Jerusalem, who is responsible largely for the first 39 chapters, warned the people about the danger of exile if they didn’t buck their spiritual ideas up, and of course they didn’t, and exile was indeed their lot.
We have already mentioned the exile when we were looking at Ezra and Nehemiah, but may I invite you for a moment to think yourself into the situation of those whose home city had been besieged and ransacked, and who had been carried off, with great violence, to become slaves and prisoners in a foreign land many hundreds of miles away. What must that have felt like? What hardships did they have to endure? And, perhaps worse, what theological agonising did they spend their time in? This certainly felt like punishment from God: Isaiah had been right all along.
But what are we to do about it now? Maybe our God simply wasn’t powerful enough to prevent Nebuchadnezzar from conquering us. Is there any point praying to him now? After all, we’re not in his patch any longer; maybe we should try praying to a god more local to here, Bel, Nebo or one of those the natives worship. And even if we could get through to Yahweh from 500 miles away, is he going to forgive us? Isaiah wasn’t wrong, if we’re really honest. We were a pretty rotten lot to God, after all he’s done for our people in the past. Maybe we’ve crossed the line. So is there any basis for hope? Or have we blown it once and for all with God? Have we broken our covenant relationship in a way which simply can’t be mended?
You can just imagine the agonised debating which took place, and the increasing despair with which they faced nearly 70 years of silence on God’s part.
Then suddenly, just as all hope must have virtually evaporated away, a new voice was heard in the land. A new prophet had been raised up by God, and his message was as different from that of Isaiah as chalk from cheese. Although we have 15 chapters of his work, actually it is only the first seven words which are really significant. We know nothing about the guy, except that scholars have christened him ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ which you must admit is catchy.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)
It is almost impossible to grasp the depth of relief with which people would have received these words, but to them the centuries would have echoed with resonances. From the earliest times the deal, the covenant with God and his chosen people had been expressed in the terms ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people’. You can find that phrase again and again in the OT. And now, in the midst of despair, the prophet was saying to those exiles ‘The deal is still on!’ Comfort my people, says your God. He goes on to explain that Israel’s’ sins have been paid for exactly: the word ‘double’ in 40:2 doesn’t mean twice as much as they really deserved, but double in the sense of people who are exactly alike. The punishment has fitted the crime exactly, no more, no less. The prophet then spends the next 15 chapters answering all their theological questions: of course Yahweh is still God, even in Babylon. God only allowed them to go into exile so that it would stop the degradation of their national life: in fact there is no other god, only him. He is the God of all creation, and these so-called Babylonian deities are nothing more than dead scraps of wood: how dare you think that he’s powerless? And the best news of all is that the people will return, the ruins of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and they will know blessing after their hardships. All the themes of the book are there in the first chapter, but all of it is well worth a read through, particularly by those who feel themselves to have a God who has given up on them.
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Usually it’s good to hear a passage read before listening to a sermon about it, but I have found that there is great impact from this particular text if you do it the other way round. It marks the transition from Isaiah of Jerusalem to so-called ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, who was writing around the end of the exile in Babylon. So why not just take a moment to think yourself into the world of his original hearers?
You’ve been snatched from your homeland and marched across the desert to a strange, foreign land with a weird language, an unknown culture, all kinds of alien gods. You are suffering from what sociologists nowadays would call ‘cultural dislocation’, with all its attendant anxiety. Some of you are working like slaves at hard physical toil, under taskmasters who can be extremely cruel.
But at a level deeper than the mere physical and mental pain there are a set of theological questions to be answered. What are we to make of God in this current situation? Prophets (like Isaiah) have been warning you that unless you turned back to God you’d be in trouble, but, hey, those prophets can get a bit grumpy: they need to lighten up a bit and enjoy life. Maybe they were right all along, and God has washed his hands of us. We know that God has been patient with us for years, but now maybe we’ve blown it once and for all. He’s used up all his mercy and now we’re on our own.
Or maybe there’s a different problem. Lots of the nations around us treat their gods as though they were in the Anglican parish system. Depending on where you live you have a different god looking after you. So while we were back home in Jerusalem Yahweh was our God, but now we’re in Babylon, have we moved out of his patch? Should we be praying to Bel, Nebo or one of the others to save us? We know our God is a mighty God, but maybe his power doesn’t extend this far.
Or is it about punishment? OK, we can now grudgingly admit that we might just have been a little bit naughty as a nation, and we know that God hasn’t always been pleased with us. But is this it now? Is he going to punish us for ever, with no hope of forgiveness or restoration?
You can just hear the agonised theological questioning, can’t you? And then, without warning, a new voice is heard in the land: a new prophet. We know nothing about him except what we can discern from his writings. But the message he brought, in fact the first sentence of the message he brought, swept away all their anxious questioning in one go.
‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God’
Doesn’t sound all that, does it, until you put in some italics:
‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God‘
When you look back through the OT there is a formula which is used again and again of the covenant relationship between God and Israel – ‘You will be my people and I will be your God.’ Isaiah deliberately uses this phraseology in his very first sentence, and the meaning is abundantly clear: the deal is still on! Whatever you’ve done, God’s mercy is still there for you. Imagine the relief!
But there is one more beautiful twist to this tale, and it hangs on the Hebrew word translated ‘double’ in v 2. The word Kiphlaim does mean ‘double’, but not in the sense of twice as much. If you have a ‘double’ it means that someone somewhere looks exactly like you do, a complete match. So the prophet is saying that the punishment you have received for your sins is the exact equivalent. It’s done, it’s over, appropriate sentence has been served, and there is no more debt to pay. You’re free! You’re going home!
The next 15 chapters merely unpack there themes further, but the real good news comes all in the first two verses.