The days between the Ascension and Pentecost are increasingly being marked in the Anglican church as a novena, or nine days, of prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Better late than never, I suppose, but as we seek to reflect and live out that period of prayer to which the first believers devoted themselves I sometimes wonder what we are expecting to happen. How will we know when the Holy Spirit has come? I reckon that when tongues of fire and strange languages broke out among them on the day of Pentecost it wasn’t just the onlookers who were amazed and perplexed. I’m sure the believers got more than they were bargaining for.
So we seek to sanitise the Holy Spirit. I can remember being part of a team planning a children’s Pentecost celebration in our cathedral, at which it was suggested that we might cut out thousands of little red, yellow and orange bits of sparkly paper and drop them from the roof onto the children gathered below, and set up some huge fans to blow everyone around. Having just written a book on how children can receive the Spirit and his gifts as well as adults can, I suggested that we might just pray for the children to be filled with the Spirit, a suggestion which went down like air con in an igloo. Symbolism is much safer if it protects us from the real thing. We want the Spirit, but we don’t want to be charismatic, for goodness’ sake!
So apart from tongues, what might praying for the coming of the Spirit result in? Ezekiel has a slightly different take, although one which potentially might be equally disturbing. This text is aimed at those languishing in Babylonian exile as a result of their idolatry, and as God puts his Spirit in them they can expect a radical turnaround. The ‘before’ picture is one of scattered people, far from home, with hard hearts, filthy from their rubbing up against detestable idols, the sort, for example, to which you sacrifice your own children. But the gift of the Spirit will bring homecoming, cleansing, a heart transplant, and a restoration of their relationship with God. So radical will this U turn be that people will even want to keep God’s laws, rather than regarding them as a bit of a killjoy nuisance.
Ezekiel’s vision of the work of the Spirit is essentially a moral one, after which polluted and compromised people will not only behave themselves but will even want to behave themselves. The naughty delight in sin will lose its appeal for them, and they will be 100% devoted to God.
So for what do we think we’re praying as we seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s church? Spectacular gifts? More position and power in today’s society? The ability better to serve the needs of our communities? More bums on seats? Ezekiel would tell us that God has different priorities, although none of the above is a bad thing for which to pray. Essentially, says Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit is in the business of bringing holiness. If you’re the kind of Christian who sort of enjoys a bit of sin now and again, and believes that God isn’t that bothered, be careful what you pray!
Hold on to your hats folks – this is where prophecy gets seriously weird. Although Isaiah of Jerusalem wins the prize for the Bible’s first streaker (a prize later taken from him by St Mark) Ezekiel wins every award for strange behaviour. A rough contemporary of Jeremiah, his ministry also spanned the time running up to the exile and continued with the displaced Israelites. His writings look as though they might come from a priest, with a great concentration on God’s holiness and an emphasis on the Temple and its worship, particularly in his final four chapters which set out a vision for the renewed temple. The first 33 chapters warn the people that exile and punishment are inevitable, but then as Ezekiel joins the exiles in slave labour his message becomes one of comfort, hope, and a new vision for the future.
But while Deutero-Isaiah presents his prophecies in beautiful language, Ezekiel is more often to be found acting them out, using symbolic behaviour to communicate with the Israelites. Even his original call is strange: the vision of what has been described as a flying saucer is one of the most famous, and most weird, sections of the book. He is straight into his symbolic ministry: he has to eat the scroll which he sees in a vision, with words of mourning and lament on it, and then he has to enact the siege of Jerusalem using a lump of clay, and iron pan, and a stove fuelled by human poo, whilst lying still for 430 days. Following that he has to give himself a haircut, weigh out his hair into three parts, and do various things with it all round the city. I’m guessing that his public image might have left a little to be desired.
Yet his message, whether or not anyone got it, is the same as that of his contemporaries: by their behaviour the people have offended against the holiness of God, and so are due for the most severe of punishments. God has turned against his own people, and his glory, the symbol of his presence among them, is seen departing from the temple. There is a change of gear as chapter 34 begins, in another purple passage in which God decries the false leaders of the nation and promises instead that he himself will be their shepherd. The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is yet another promise of restoration, and the book closes as God’s glory returns in chapter 43, the Temple and its altar are restored, the priesthood rededicated, and the Temple symbolically becomes a place of healing and refreshment for all. The city itself will be renewed, and the new name of it, with which the book ends, is THE LORD IS THERE.
Like much prophecy there is a sort of telescope effect which means that it is difficult to see when the fulfilment came or will come, but clearly, as we discovered from Trito-Isaiah, the restored Jerusalem was not quite the place of perfection predicted. This inevitably leads us to look further into the distance, and to see in Ezekiel’s words something of the time when God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth will have been fulfilled. A weird book indeed, but one of great encouragement and hope.
The narrative of the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land continues for the first 12 chapters of this book, but after that it gets less interesting, although it does raise some very interesting questions. The book ends with the people, now apparently settled, getting another pep-talk from Joshua, along similar lines to that from Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, and publicly renewing their covenant relationship with God. Joshua dies peacefully, and we reach the end of an era, with a brand new chapter starting in the next book, Judges.
The main problem with the land promised to the people of Israel by God is the fact that it is already populated by several nations who quite understandably are not too happy about this new nation coming in believing that their God has promised it to them. Put that together with the previous instructions to remain separate from the nations around them, and the Israelites seem to have little option but to embark on a bit of serious ethnic cleansing. That is exactly what they do, much to the consternation of today’s readers of the book who find it difficult to cope with a God who commands such inhumanity.
It is a standard principle of biblical interpretation that we use the Bible to interpret itself wherever we can, so on one level the question ‘Why did God command the slaughter of all those people?’ is easily answered, from Deuteronomy 9, where the take is that the nations deserved all they got because of their sin and idolatry, and that God was using Israel to bring upon them the punishment they so richly deserved. We might not like that, but it is clearly what the Bible teaches, and we can begin to realise the depth of God’s patience and mercy that he hasn’t (yet) done the same to Britain. It was Billy Graham’s wife who said that if God didn’t judge America, he would have to go back and apologise to Sodom and Gomorrah. And in fact subsequent history suggests that this policy was the right one: most of the trouble in which Israel later found herself came because of compromise, intermarriage and worship infected with idolatry. Even in this book the instructions to destroy the other nations completely are not fully carried out. The suffering of generations was the result of this kind of compromise: later we’ll see this truth worked out in the book of Amos. As one who has undergone extensive surgery for cancer I fully understand that some things need rooting out completely, lest they reinfect the whole body and lead to its death.
But on the plus side, though, we have here the story of a God of miracles, who acts powerfully for the salvation of his people. Walls collapse, water parts in a scaled-down version of Moses’ earlier miracle, thus validating Joshua’s leadership in the eyes of the people. Victories are won in battle against overwhelming odds, sin is revealed and rooted out, and even the sun stands still. So this book highlights in a very clear and powerful way the choice which is made explicit in the final chapter: ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’. To serve God means the powerful protection and salvation of a loving saviour, but to choose something else means that one makes an enemy of God and must face the consequences. This was the same challenge set before the people by Moses, and the same one which faces us today.
Deuteronomy is one of the most important books of the OT: without it we wouldn’t really be able to make much sense of several later books. It is presented as three sermons from Moses as the people overlook the Promised Land, which through their own faithlessness and grumbling the previous generation were doomed not to enter. So before he dies at the end of the book Moses gives the people a pep talk, reminding them of the journey so far, of some of the laws from Exodus (hence the book’s name, which means ‘second law’) and telling them how they and their children should live when they did cross the border.
Two themes ring out from this book: one has to do with separation, the other with worship. These two areas are to become foundational for what lies ahead. The Israelites are to keep themselves separate and holy by not compromising with the standards of the nations around them, when it comes to morality and idolatry. And they are to worship God as he demands, not as they might fancy, and in particular they are to worship him in the place which he is going to choose, which will turn out to be Jerusalem. These principles are set out clearly in chapters 12 and 13.
The next few books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, are known collectively as the ‘Deuteronomic History’. Like all history they are written up from a particular point of view, and that point of view is set out in Deuteronomy, the ‘preface’. A few centuries later the people find themselves in exile in Babylon, and they can’t help but ask themselves the question ‘What went wrong? How did we get ourselves into this mess?’ The answer they come up with is that we have systematically violated the two principles set out in the book of Deuteronomy: we have not kept ourselves separate and holy to God, and we have tried to worship in places other than Jerusalem. The Deuteronomic history books, and some would say Deuteronomy itself, were almost certainly compiled during the exile, and served both as a review of the past but also a warning for the future. So we shall see in a few weeks that all the kings of Israel and Judah are judged almost exclusively on whether they adhered to the policy of ‘centralisation of worship’, in other words did they allow worship only in Jerusalem or did they tolerate it elsewhere?
A distinctive section of the book is the ‘blessing and cursing’ section in chapters 27 to 30. If the people will do as they are told, they will experience a long list of blessings throughout the land, particularly centred around victory over their enemies and fruitful harvests, whereas if they choose disobedience (which of course they subsequently did most of the time) they would know God’s curse in the shape of defeat in battle, sickness, removal of possessions, unfruitfulness and lack of harvest. Finally the choice is set before them in the starkest of terms: life or death (30:11ff).
Moses then prepares for the future by appointing Joshua, who along with Caleb, the other faith-filled spy are the only ones from that generation to enter the land, as his successor as leader, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. After blessing the people he dies on Mt Nebo, is mourned, and the stage is set for Joshua to lead them over into the land.
How are we to read this book today? Surely the same two principles around which the book is centred apply every bit as much to those the other side of Christ’s cross: we are to be holy and different from those around us, and we are to worship God on his terms and not our own. Blessing and cursing may not be quite so clear cut as they are set out in Deuteronomy: indeed we shall see much agonising as we continue through the OT about why innocent people suffer and the nasty get away with it. But ultimately the choice is ours, on an eternal canvas – death or life?
Those of you who, like me, are more interested in the bits filleted out of our readings by the lectionary creators than in the bits they have left in will be filled with joy this week. Leviticus is in many ways a fascinating book, but it does create some interesting difficulties, so those responsible for the RCL have decided to play it safe. The first two verses tell us what the rest of the chapter (indeed most of the rest of the book) is all about, and then as an example they pick a few motherhood-and-apple-pie examples. We’re to be holy, because that’s what God is like and we’re called to reflect his character. So what does that mean? Basically be nice to people: that’s the thrust of v 15-18, and who could argue about any of that?
But what about the bits in between? I think we can go much more deeply into what it means to reflect God’s holiness if we take the trouble to tackle the more awkward bits of the chapter, indeed of the book. Here we find material about respect for parents, idolatry, sacrifices, horticulture, swearing, mixed economies in clothing, horticulture, who you mustn’t sleep with, kosher food, occultism, hairstyling, dishonesty and selling your daughter into prostitution. Read on a bit further and you get the really good bits about sleeping with another man as one would a woman, bestiality and child sacrifice. Put that together with all the stuff we’ve already had about not eating prawns or herons and you get a pretty bewildering array of definitions of holiness, which would leave most of us somewhere near the third division in the holiness league tables.
I wonder whether we might cut through the problem by stating a key principle: holiness very often means that we live differently from the prevailing culture, choosing to reflect God’s will and resisting the pressure to conform with those among whom we live. I can only assume that the things they were not supposed to do to be holy like God were things which at least some people around were doing. God’s call is a reminder that we dance to a different drum if we’re God’s people. Once we get that, we can begin to make sense of this bewildering variety of laws and prohibitions.
Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for us: we now know that many of the dietary laws do make some kind of sense in a more primitive society where pigs carried tapeworm, seafood carried goodness knows what, and people didn’t have the medicines to protect them.
Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for others. Selling your daughter into prostitution would be a good example, as would the prohibitions against fraud and dishonesty and the commands to respect others.
Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for society. The more 21st century life in Britain goes down the pan, the more evidence there is to suggest that stable marriage and family life are the solid foundations of a healthy society. Anthropologists know that no civilisation in history has survived very long once family life has broken down, yet we seem hell-bent on self-destruction in the West.
And some things are forbidden not because they’re harmful in themselves, but because they provide symbolic reminders and visual aids about our call to be different. Polycotton shirts might not be the world’s greatest sin, but for the Israelites to keep their clothing made of only one kind of material was a visual aid they literally carried with them all the time, as were the distinctive hairstyles.
The other side of the cross we know we’re free from the petty regulations of the Jewish law, but the principles behind it remain. How are we to live in ways which are healthy for us, which bless others, which strengthen society, and which constantly remind us of our call to holiness? That is something we have to work out for ourselves on a daily basis.