Old Testament Lectionary 9th August Trinity 10 1 Kings 19:4-8

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

The study of the whole of 1 Kings 19, as an example of a nervous breakdown, burnout and depression, is a fruitful area for pastoral preaching. Today sadly we get a mere snippet, which has, I would argue, to be seen in the larger context of Elijah’s collapse and restoration.

First there is the request for the relief of death, a not uncommon motif in the Bible among leaders who find themselves facing opposition, conflict and personal attack. Who knows how many of the people in our churches week by week have prayed, or have been tempted to pray, like this? God’s response is to give him three precious gifts: sleep, food and drink, and a new purpose. When I used to be an avid fan of EastEnders, back in the days before I got a life, I used to be amused at the instinctive response to any problem, however small or large: ‘I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea!’ God appears to understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as he cares first for Elijah’s physical state. Those who are deeply depressed can easily neglect the basics of life, and God knows that his gentle surgery is best done on a rested person with some food inside them. File:Delftware plaque with the Prophet Elijah fed by the Ravens.jpg

Then God calls him on a journey, which is to prove to be a journey of recovery. God is going to listen to him (repeatedly), help him put things in perspective, and recommission him for further service, whilst giving him an apprentice with whom to share the load. This mixture of the practical, the logical and the emotional is the stuff of great counselling, and there is much to learn from this text about helping friends in need.

At a deeper level, though, this is a passage which gives permission and reassurance as well as practical guidance. In a church and indeed a nation where the standard response to ‘How are you doing?’ is ‘I’m fine!’ or ‘I’m good!’ depending on your age, we are allowed to see the depths of Elijah’s despair, as he asks God to do Jezebel’s work for her. Whilst continual miseries can get a bit pastorally wearing, everyone is allowed a rough patch, and even an extremely rough patch. It has always been my desire to lead church communities where reality is the name of the game, and where it is OK to admit weakness as well as strength.

Secondly God reassures him that his life and ministry are not yet over. Those who have been chased out of jobs or places like bullies like Jezebel, who use intimidation and fear to wear us down, will know the joy of hearing that God still has a role for us somewhere else, and some new companions to strengthen us along the way. When we have taken a dive, for a variety of reasons, it is good to know that there can be a way back, and that we have a God who is more concerned to keep us alive than we sometimes are ourselves.

Read the whole chapter – It’s fantastic stuff!

Old Testament Lectionary 26th July Trinity 8 2 Kings 4:42-44

Old Testament Lectionary 26th July Trinity 8 2 Kings 4:42-44

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

This small and relatively unknown periscope has obviously been chosen to tie in with Jesus’ feeding of the crowds in today’s gospel. It is a simple story, but hidden within it are two larger questions: just who is God, and who is his prophet?

This incident is the fourth miracle story since Elisha has taken over from Elijah as the ‘man of God’, and they function to prove his worthiness for the task. Even at the very start of his ministry Elisha seems to want to prove his worth: in 2 Kings 2:13 he takes Elijah’s cloak and throws down the challenge: ‘Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ the resulting division of the water confirmed that God was indeed with him and that Elijah’s mantle had literally fallen upon him. Then follow a series of miracles which validate this position, although they do seem to be of a different nature from Elijah’s: we might best describe them as being more domestic, although no less powerful. Raising from the dead is no mean trick.

File:Food 004.JPG

But it may be that we have a continuation in this story of another of Elijah’s miracles. It all hangs on the place from which the man comes to Elisha: Baal-Shalisha. It has been suggested that this town is to be identified with Bethlehem, which literally means ‘House of Bread’, the place from which David came, and in which the Messiah was later to be born. Bethlehem is indeed a place from which God feeds his people. But the name ‘Baal’ also suggests a place where a particular god had a temple or shrine in Canaanite worship. ‘Shalisha’ means ‘three’ or ‘third’, so this place is where the Lord or master over three was worshipped. Elijah’s clashes with the prophets of Baal are well-known and dramatic, but we might expect Elisha’s to be tamer although just as powerful. It would be typical of both prophets for Elijah to summon fire from heaven, but for Elisha to feed hungry people. So it may be the case that what we have here is a much more subdued ‘Mount Carmel-type’ contest to find out who is the real god. Does the bread come from Yahweh’s House of Bread, or from Baal’s Shalisha? And can Elisha, still proving himself as Elijah’s successor, win the contest in his own style?

Elijah has his enemies put to the sword, but Elisha instead brings life as the bread is used to feed starving people in a time of famine. In the gospels the miraculous feedings have a different point, as they demonstrate the authority of Jesus not just over sin and sickness but over fallen and hostile nature itself. Linked as it is to the stilling of the storm, it serves to reveal even more about who this Jesus is, and what authority he has. Perhaps this story of Elisha serves a similar purpose.

Reflections on Discipleship – Bold Holy Prayer

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …


Yesterday I had to celebrate Communion in our local cathedral, and the passage set by the lectionary was from Matthew 7, the bit where Jesus tells us that if we ask, seek and knock we’ll get what we want. There are actually quite a few passages like this in the gospels: I know, because I once had to do an seminar at Spring Harvest about them, and why they are manifestly not true. I don’t know about you, but I’ve prayed for loads of stuff and not got it, even with a mustard seed’s worth of faith. Neither have I ever thrown a mountain into the sea (although to be honest I’ve never tried). So what are we to make of these passages?


As always, we gain comprehension of biblical passages if we take the trouble to understand what the original readers would have understood. There was a strong tradition in Judiasm of the ‘bold holy pray-er’, someone who dared to ask God for the outrageous and because of his boldness got his prayer answered. The archetypal person in this tradition was Elijah, who brought drought and rain at his words, parted a river, and even called down fire from heaven. In the tradition his power came from a life dedicated to God, a life of sacrificial service, and a selfless commitment to God’s will. So when Jesus is commending to us the power of prayer, all this is in the background. It isn’t so much an invitation to getting whatever we want out of God as though he were a slot machine as a calling to Elijah-sized commitment. Then we’ll pray the kind of prayers which change nations, rather than ‘God bless my family and please can I win the lottery?’ prayers.


Neither is there any timescale ever given in these passages, although we tend to read them as meaning ‘immediately’. I have no doubt that Elijah’s bold holy prayers were prayed for years at a time. Recently my son visited Belfast for the first time, a place where his wife had studied at university. He came home having fallen in love with the city, which, although still scarred by the Troubles, has regenerated itself into a buzzing metropolis. He confessed to me that growing up in churches where I was the vicar he had got fed up with intercessions week after week for Northern Ireland, with no discernible results. But now he was able to see that those long-term faithful prayers had indeed been answered.


A friend had a similar experience when Desmond Tutu addressed the clergy of his diocese. ‘Your prayers changed South Africa’ Tutu shouted at them ‘but you don’t believe it! You have no faith!’ Disciples may not be those who go around planting mulberry trees in the sea, but they should be bold holy pray-ers, whose persistent and committed intercession can move metaphorical mountains, if not physical ones. And those prayers should be prayed out of lives of outrageous commitment to God’s world and his will.

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 15th Sunday before Lent 2 Kings 2:1-12

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

A commentary I read on today’s OT passage suggests that it is a story of boundary-crossings.

There is the obvious transition across the Jordan out of the Promised Land, but there is also the passing on of the prophetic anointing across generations, and the tearing open of the boundary between heaven and earth. As such it provides a helpful model of the transition which we are to make this coming week, from Ordinary Time into Lent.

Why is Elijah’s assumption into heaven to take place outside the boundaries of the Promised Land? We don’t know, but there is something about a prophet being without honour in his own land. As a parish priest I have known the freedom and creativity which comes simply from leaving my patch for a quiet day or a time of writing or preparation. Whether in the former El Tico’s in St Ouen’s Bay, at Dobbies’ Garden Centre or at a friend’s bungalow in the Wolds, there is freedom which I don’t feel at home. Maybe after all his conflict and confrontation Elijah had to get out of his ‘parish’ in order to be free to return to his Father. Maybe some kind of ‘getting away from it all’ will form a part of our Lenten refreshment, where we withdraw in order to return to our Father (although hopefully not permanently).

Elijah Elisha

The second motif is that of passing on the baton to his successor. Elisha is a willing pupil, reluctant to leave his master’s side for a second, and his request for a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit isn’t a request for twice as much, but rather that he officially become his heir. Lent is indeed a time for personal spiritual renewal and refreshment, but it might also remind us of our responsibility for others. What are we doing which will influence, train or disciple those around us, with whom we share a calling to speak and live the values of the Kingdom of God? Maybe for some of us it provides an opportunity to pass on some area of ministry in which we have found our identity to a new, perhaps younger, generation, never an easy thing to do if we have come to believe that we are saviours of the universe and that without us life as we know it simply cannot go on.

Thirdly, there is the heaven/earth boundary which is crossed as the river opens miraculously, as heaven sends down the fiery taxi to pick up Elijah, and most significantly as Elisha sees Elijah’s departure and is thus confirmed as his heir. Slightly after the end of our passage Elisha checks this out dramatically, as he strikes the river, calls out for the God of Elijah, and re-enters the battlefield.  Those who are keen on Celtic spirituality will be familiar with the concept of ‘thin places’, where the boundaries between heaven and earth seem to be particularly flimsy: maybe Lent is a ‘thin time’. As we give ourselves to deepening our discipleship, paying attention to our walk with God, and growing in our faith, maybe we will cross some boundaries ourselves, know a new anointing of the Holy Spirit, and re-enter that battle which is Christian living with new heart and new confidence in the God of miracles.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Kings

After David’s old age his son Solomon succeeds him as king, although not without some more intrigue as his brother Adonijah makes a claim to the throne. Solomon starts well, building the Temple which David apparently had it in his heart to build, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to its final resting place (at least until Indiana Jones got his hands on it), and asking God for wisdom rather than riches, which meant that he got both. But as is so often the case, the seeds of his own destruction were present right from the start. His reign ended in national disaster, and we can, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, see the beginnings of this malaise early in his reign. There is the matter of his many wives and concubines, which of course flies in the face of the Deuteronomist’s concern for purity and separation. And in 5:13 Solomon conscripts labour to get the Temple built; in 9:15 this is described as ‘forced labour’, and in 11:28 Jeroboam is put in charge of this workforce.

File:Jerusalem- Temple Mount (5727146439).jpg 

Jeroboam later meets a prophet who tells him that he is going to reign over 10 tribes, which does not please Solomon, so he flees into exile in Egypt until after Solomon’s death. Solomon’s son, rather confusingly called Rehoboam, takes over the throne, but pretty soon Jeroboam takes the 10 northern tribes and splits the kingdom. There are two issues: Rehoboam decides to continue his father’s policy of conscripted labour, except that he is going to be a lot more vicious with them than Solomon was. Jeroboam is proclaimed king by the disgruntled northerners, and, in order to make the split complete, and to keep his people from going back to Jerusalem to worship, he sets up two rival sanctuaries, at the extreme north and south of the northern kingdom in Bethel and Dan. As far as the Deuteronomist is concerned this is the ultimate sin, offending so deeply as it does again the law of centralisation of worship which we encountered in the book of Deuteronomy. From now on all the successive monarchs are going to be judged on whether or not they perpetuated worship at these rival shrines. It is significant that not only is the location of these shrines wrong: they are also centred around two golden calves. Sound familiar? So God’s requirements about where he is to be worshipped are broken, as is his prohibition of idolatry.


From now on we have two parallel stories with accounts of the reigns of the kings of Judah, in the south centred around Jerusalem, and of Israel, in the north based in Damascus, a troubled place to this day. But for all its apostasy the northern kingdom was not abandoned by God: his prophets were active, and the stories of Elijah and later Elisha show his desire to stand against evil and to call the people back to himself. There is outright confrontation with the evil king Ahab and his even more evil wife Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal, and again as Ahab tries to confiscate a vineyard belonging to Naboth.


Again the twin themes of the Deuteronomist can be seen as controlling factors in the way this history is written up. We can also see the power of bad seed to grow bad crops and bad fruit, and the tragic story reminds us of the need constantly to purify ourselves and our motives, lest something unhealthy and unholy grows from our well-intentioned but unwise motives. But there is even worse to come – don’t miss next week’s thrilling adventure.