OT Lectionary Sept 20th Trinity 16 Jeremiah 11:18-20

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

This passage begins a section of Jeremiah’s prophecy which contains a series of laments. Jeremiah’s image is as a bit of a misery, living as he did during a time when the national life of Israel was unravelling, and which culminated in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians. Clearly he is deeply distressed about what he can see happening around him, and about what he sees as the inevitable destruction to come. But in this section we get a glimpse of a deeper sorrow: that of misunderstanding, betrayal and violence. This is a classic case of ‘Shoot the messenger’. It has been said that the foremost task of a leader is to define reality: sadly many people have no interest in reality and become deeply hostile towards those who try to make them see  what is going on and where things are headed. Jeremiah seems to feel that this betrayal is even worse because it comes from the people among whom he lives, the men of Anathoth. They ought to be his friends, but they have chosen to make an enemy of him.

God has somehow revealed to the prophet the plans of those who oppose him, and his punishment is clearly because of his godly calling and life. the unusual reference to the tree in v 19 may be an ironic reference to Psalm 1, where those who remain faithful to God, as Jeremiah clearly does, are likened to a flourishing tree. ‘Well, let’s chop that tree down!’ say his opponents. Jeremiah’s response is a cry both for vengeance and vindication, and God’s response, immediately after  our set section, is a promise of vengeance with a vengeance.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

Many church leaders will know this kind of opposition from those among whom God has called them to serve, and the severe pain of violent opposition from the very people who ought to be alongside him. Many will know the almost equally painful experience of passive-aggressive behaviour among other church members. We know from other passages (for example 20:7) that Jeremiah felt that God was as much to blame as his earthly enemies for his distress. And of course today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus himself was the victim of misunderstanding, hostility, and his Father’s will.

So what of the cry for vengeance? And of God’s promise to do exactly that? How does that square with the NT calls for us to turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies? Clearly God thinks it is an appropriate cry, since he agrees to do what the prophet begs him to do. The first thing to note is that Jeremiah’s cry is real. I’m never quite convinced by nice Christians who have been through hell but blithely say ‘But I forgave them!’ Some experiences are so damaging that the pain goes on for years afterwards, and it is only human for us to cry for punishment on those who have caused such pain to us and to our families. The Bible certainly seems to validate such cries for vengeance, but the NT adds a further dimension. My favourite definition of forgiveness is ‘the handing back to God of the right to punish.’ However much I might want my enemies to roast in eternal brimstone, I can choose to let God alone have the right to punish, knowing that ‘the judge of the earth will do right’. This sets me free from their power, and it also gives me the satisfaction of knowing that if it comes to it God can mete out much more severe punishment than I ever could. Forgiveness cannot simply mean having nice feelings toward those who have so damaged us, or even trusting them again. But to give back to God the right to deal appropriately with them is as good as it gets, and is a gloriously liberating choice to make.

Reflections on Discipleship – No Pressure!

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 …

 

During a long and boring but accident-prone print run this morning I happened to pick up a book helpfully left on the windowsill in our print room, a book of devotional thoughts from that great preacher C H Spurgeon. The book happened to fall open at July 3rd (today), which either means that someone else had just been devotional with it or God wanted to speak to me particularly. The verse for the day was, unpromisingly, Genesis 41:4:

 

‘And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows.’

 

Spurgeon went on to explain this verse in terms of the fact that times of spiritual gauntness quickly ate up the spiritually more healthy times. When he stayed close to God he made great strides forward, but the odd off-day quickly undid all the good that the good days had achieved, and set him back on his quest for true Christlikeness. His aim, he explained, was to make sure that every day was a spiritual high, and not to let any bad days or seasons undo all that he had achieved so far.

 

You can kind of see what he means, but even reading the passage made me feel exhausted! I am still pondering whether or not a) he is right, and b) whether this is a helpful kind of approach to discipleship to preach and teach around the Diocese. To me, it comes dangerously close to salvation by works, something which I would have thought that Spurgeon of all people would want to avoid teaching. It makes discipleship hard work, which on one level it is, but on another it shouldn’t be, since the Jesus whom we follow has a burden which is light. It also seems to negate those times when, according to the Bible, suffering does us good. I have grown as much, if not more, through times of spiritual aridity than I have through the good years.

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In any case, the definition of a disciple is someone who fails – you can see that again and again in the gospels. I’m not convinced that failure makes us slide back down the snake to square one: rather I think it can send us forward sadder but wiser. My God of infinite forgiveness doesn’t like to watch me fall, but when I do he is quick to restore, forgive and reinstate. So no pressure!

OT Lectionary May 31st Trinity Sunday Isaiah 6:1-8

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

Here it comes again – the Sunday preachers love to hate. How do we help people to understand the mystery of the Trinity? To be honest the OT doesn’t help, the Trinity not being much of a Jewish idea. In fact the Jews were so fiercely monotheistic, and you can see why when you look at their history and the problems false worship got them into. Much of their resistance to the infant church was the apparent belief in three different gods. Even the NT only hints at the doctrine, which was not formalised by the church until the 4th century. So the fact that Isaiah’s seraphim cried out ‘Holy’ three times does not of itself prove much, and it would be bad hermeneutics to suggest that it did.

For what it’s worth, whilst clover leaves and ice, water and steam go some way towards illustrating the Trinity, I prefer an aural rather than a visual aid – that of a musical triad. Each note of the chord is distinct, and each has a special purpose within the triad, but heard together they become much more than the sum of three individual notes. I’ll let you play around with that idea.

G Triad

I wonder, though, whether our job on this Sunday is to help people understand the doctrine of the Trinity? Hands up anyone who does understand it? Frankly it’s an impossible task, so it may be more productive instead to focus on what difference it makes in real life, to illustrate the doctrine rather than nail it down tightly for all to comprehend. If that’s the case, and as long as we understand that this is not what the passage means or is about, I believe we might find something helpful in Isaiah 6 after all, as a trinity of motifs lead to and facilitate Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

Firstly there is a God who calls. He is a God of holiness, majesty and power, reigning from his throne but affecting the earth too. It is he who calls human beings into his service.

Then there is the seraph who comes to Isaiah as he expresses his natural reluctance and lack of qualification for such a task. He is sent by God into Isaiah’s world to deal with the problem of human sin.

Thirdly there is the burning coal, which actually affects the cleansing and makes Isaiah ready and able for service. Of course it is highly fanciful to see in this trinity a reflection of the Holy Trinity, with the Father who reigns and calls, the Son who steps down into the human world to deal with sin, and the Spirit, who comes with burning flames to cleanse and equip God’s people. Of course, as with any illustration of the Trinity, there are limitations. The Son is of course more than an angel, and the Spirit more than a lump of coal. But to think ourselves into Isaiah’s position, and to meditate on our calling and obedience (or not), our experience of sin and forgiveness, and the touch of the Holy Spirit’s fire on our lives might be a profitable thing.

Old Testament Lectionary April 19th Easter 3 Zephaniah 3:14-20

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

This week we have another Easter-tide celebration of the victory of God, this time from around 700 BC, wedged in between the ministries of Isaiah of Jerusalem and Jeremiah. Whilst the book itself tells us that it is set in the reign of king Josiah, and is therefore a dire warning not just of exile but even of the possibility of utter annihilation for Israel, our passage is markedly different in tone, leading scholars to suggest that it might be a later, post-exilic addition to the book, celebrating (as does Deutero-Isaiah) the fact that punishment is over, sentence has been commuted and the people are free.

But there is a subtle change of tone from that of Deutero-Isaiah. Zephaniah does talk about forgiveness and restoration, but he talks much more about the victory of God over oppressive enemies. God, the king of Israel, the mighty warrior, has triumphed, and has rescued his battered and wounded people from all those who would hurt and harm them. The setting of the passage in the Easter season by our lectionaryists (I just made that word up) gives the cross and resurrection a much more Johannine feel. For John the victory comes on the cross, and not on Easter Sunday morning[1]. The cross is not a temporary triumph for human evil, which God has to undo by raising Christ from death (cf the frequent use of the term ‘but God’ by Luke in the Acts speeches). John’s Christ is not a sacrificial victim slain to atone for sins. He is the true king being crowned not after the cross and in spite of it, but on it. His cry ‘It is accomplished!’ says that it is all over, done and finished with.

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Zephaniah’s words of comfort to the exiles have this same kind of ring about them. Their need is less forgiveness and restoration than rescue. God comes not like a shepherd to regather his wandering lambs, but like a warrior to save them from the marauding wolves. The reign of God is less about forgiving sin than about defeating the Enemy behind it.

But Zephaniah takes it even further than this. In the one purple passage from this book, in 3:17, a text well loved by charismatics, God the mighty warrior is seen rejoicing and singing over his people. Considering the number of biblical passages about us singing to God, this comes as a fascinating reversal and a beautiful truth about the feel of our salvation, as opposed to a forensic account of how it works. In a famous passage in his 1990 book The Forgotten Father Tom Smail describes a rather grudging and grumpy acceptance of the returned prodigal son who is allowed back into the family home but only just, and must now carry on all interactions through his brother, as no personal contact is allowed with the father directly. Zephaniah neatly gives the lie to this approach, which I have found is surprisingly common among Christians who kind of know that they are forgiven but somehow can’t seem to manage to believe that God actually likes them in any way. Zephaniah tells us that God delights in us, and some of us need to hear that.

[1] You can hear me teaching on this here

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Isaiah Part 2

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.

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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.

OT Lectionary December 7th Advent 2 Isaiah 40:1-11

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.

OT Lectionary 28th September Trinity 15 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

 

Don’t you just love politicians? If they get something right they take the credit, but if they get it horribly wrong they just blame the previous government from the other side of the House, who, while they were in power, got the country into such a mess that it is taking ages for us to undo it and right all the wrongs of their administration. School children have a slightly less mature version of this: when caught out in some mischief the response can all too easily be ‘He made me do it, Miss!’

 

The people of Israel, in exile far from home in Babylon, are playing this game too. You can’t blame us, Ezekiel, for getting ourselves into this mess. It was all those previous generations who ignored God and lived evil and idolatrous lives who went off the rails, while we are now paying the price. That’s the meaning of the common proverb of the time about eating sour grapes.

 

Ezekiel needs to refute this opinion, and its underlying implication that God just isn’t fair. It’s easy to feel like that at times, but for God’s people the starting point must be that if there’s a dispute God must be right and we must be wrong, otherwise he is not God in any normal sense of the word. ‘Will not the judge of all the earth do right?’ asks Abraham in Genesis 18, obviously expecting the answer ‘Yes!’ But God is not just fair, he is merciful too, and again and again in this passage he holds out hope for forgiveness, if only his people will return to him in repentance.

 

This passage teaches us much about sin, guilt and forgiveness, much which many of us still need to learn. Firstly, that God remains unconvinced by the blame game. Ever since Adam told God that Eve had given him the fruit to eat, and she blamed it on the snake, the human race has tried to wriggle out of a sense of guilt and shame by putting the responsibility for it elsewhere. But this doesn’t wash with God, and never has. ‘The one who sins is the one who will die’, he explains in v 4.We all have individual responsibility for our actions, and we can never put the blame on someone else.

 

Secondly, it teaches us that we have choices to make, and that we must bear their consequences. Of course this doesn’t work in the short term, or else the Bible wouldn’t contain those agonising passages about why evil people appear to prosper while the innocent suffer. But in the scope of eternity our choices matter, whether they be choices to sin or to repent.

 

Thirdly, this text speaks, as we have said, of the mercy of God. Against the commonly–held view that God is only there to have fun smiting people at any excuse, Ezekiel affirms that God takes no delight in the death of anyone but, as the liturgy puts is, he would rather they turned from their wickedness and lived. God is neither a spoilsport nor a monster, and genuinely holds us his creatures in love, although never the indulgent kind in which it doesn’t matter what we get up to.

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Therefore, the text seems to ask, why on earth don’t we take advantage of that mercy? Why is it so deeply embedded into human nature that we’d rather moan at God and blame others than simply turn round and accept his forgiveness? Why does it seem the hardest thing in the world to put our hands up, admit our wrong, receive forgiveness and restoration? Have you noticed how often on the telly someone who has had something horrible happen to them or their family tells us that they feel ‘bitter’? And how rarely and how notable it is when someone expresses forgiveness to the perpetrators, someone like Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen? Why hang on to sin and bitterness when forgiveness is so much easier and more rewarding. If Christians haven’t learnt that lesson, what hope is there for the rest?