OT Lectionary Sept 27th Trinity 17 Numbers 11

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Nostalgia, they say, isn’t what it used to be. When things get tough, everything from the past suddenly looks wonderfully attractive, even cucumbers, melon and garlic. Every church leader knows that, and many agree with it, while others, like Moses, have to contend with it again and again among the people they are called to lead.

Our passage today gives us a picture of church which is all too familiar. The people want to go backwards, and they remember the past selectively, focussing on the garlic but not on the slavery, the beatings, the sheer exhaustion and hopelessness of it all. The Devil you know is obviously preferable to the unknown future, and they feel insecure in spite of God’s promises to them, showing that here as in so many places the root problem is faithlessness. So upset are they that Moses can hear the sound of weeping, which is odd because it is usually the presence of onions, rather than the lack of them, which causes people to cry.

Just as the people turn on Moses in their distress, so Moses turns on God, pouring out to him his utter exhaustion with the task to which he has been called. In fact there are several occasions when Moses reaches the end of his tether, and it is fascinating to note (and I do intend to write a book about this one day) how each time Moses complains to God and asks that he might die rather than carry on with this miserable existence, his cries bring about divine and supernatural action. For those in any doubt this passage proves once and for all that God is male. According to all the Mars vs Venus literature when women are upset they want a hug, not a solution, whereas men simply want to get on and solve the problem, which is why blokes so often get it wrong. God does not say ‘There there’ to Moses: he acts, by anointing with his Spirit a task force who can share the burden with him.

But even this group don’t get it. Even with this spiritual anointing they are jealous for their position, and are peeved that two elders who didn’t turn up for the event had nevertheless been anointed. Moses himself makes a prophetic statement, which looks over the horizon to Pentecost, wishing that all of God’s people could receive his Spirit and become prophets.

Grumbling congregations, burnt-out leaders, jealous church officers; nostalgia for the past golden age, death wishes, despair: all these are sadly around as much as ever in today’s church. Even the other side of the cross and Pentecost we still hanker for the good old days, and often wear our leaders out doing so. This story challenges us to reflect on what we might be doing to those whom God has set over us. How terrible if we were causing them to despair of life itself. It also calls us to believe in the future which is coming, even if it seems aeons away, to look forward with faith and hope, and to walk together confidently under the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit.

Old Testament Lectionary May 24th Pentecost Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

Whichever way you cut it, Pentecost is a weird festival at which to preach. Unless, of course, you’re a charismatic, in which case you know exactly what it’s all about, and all you have to tiptoe quietly past is the flames on people’s heads. Preachers will have to think carefully about what they believe happened then, and what that says about what might happen now.

Good charismatics will know, though, that our emphasis ought not to be on weird phenomena, but on the fruit of those phenomena in the lives of individual disciples and of the church. Here Ezekiel can help us a bit, because this passage is clearly about the renewal of God’s people. In context it dates from the time of Israel’s exile, and the passage contains elements of two Hebrew literary forms. The first, which paradoxically comes towards the end of the passage, is that of corporate lament. ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone’, the people are saying as they languish in exile, despairing of ever seeing home again. These sentiments are echoed regularly elsewhere in Ezekiel. So the prophetic oracle of salvation which forms the remainder of the passage is a response to the misery of the people, and picks up exactly the symbolism of bones, which in Hebrew thought represents the very core of our being, rather as we might say in cold weather that we are ‘frozen to the bone’.


But the key symbol here is that based on the Hebrew word ruach which translates as either wind, breath or spirit. The word is emphasised by its repeated use, and the swapping between the latter two meanings. This is a passage all about God’s Spirit, and his ability to bring new life out of dead and hopeless situations.

The OT is of course full of promises about and comings of the Spirit, but they are usually only temporary as God equips people at odd times for specific tasks. But as we move through the story there are greater hints of permanence, which is of course the key to Pentecost, where the Spirit is given to anoint individuals and grow the church. Peter on the day of Pentecost makes the link with Joel 2, but several other OT passages are seen to be fulfilled at the same time.

As a church leader I am particularly interested in the two-stage process by which the bones come to life. I know that it is relatively easy to get skeletons walking around. Churches need structure and systems, admin, visions and goals, all the stuff of which business management is made. But the next step is for those skeletons to become living organisms, and that can only happen through the Spirit of God, who, of course, as at Pentecost, is given as a result of God’s promise and the people’s prayer. Great leadership and spectacular admin can take a church so far, but only prayer can invite the Spirit of God to bring it fully to life.

OT Lectionary April 6th Lent 5 Ezekiel 37:1-14

As I write I’m busily mugging up on church growth theory for a job interview, and I can remember a time in the past when God spoke to me powerfully through this well-known passage about the Valley of Dry Bones. In particular my attention was drawn to the process by which a pile of dead skeletons became a mighty army. The parallels to the church today are only too obvious, but the passage may speak to us more personally too. Where there is dryness and deadness it is God’s will to bring life and flourishing, whether in the church today with all its dryness or in the lives of Lent-weary Christians.

Stage 1: First of all Ezekiel is invited to take stock. That walking to and fro in the graveyard allowed him to see clearly the true state of affairs. I can remember one staff meeting in one of the churches I served when I made us all go for a walk around the church buildings, really concentrating on what we could see, and trying to see it through the eyes of someone who was visiting for the first time. It was a most depressing morning as we noticed broken windows, peeling paint, piles of junk everywhere, broken bits of equipment which no-one had felt it was their job to throw away – you get the idea. But that miserable perambulation began a process of change and refurbishment of our buildings. So that’s the first question, which God doesn’t actually ask here, although he does in other places: ‘What do you see?’

Stage 2: Then comes the supplementary: ‘Can these bones live?’ After inviting him to face the reality, God brings hope, followed by action: ‘Prophesy to these bones!’ I think there’s a difference between praying about a situation and prophesying over it, but the prophesying can only come at the Lord’s command. It is not something we take upon ourselves to do. But Ezekiel has heard God, and so in obedience he proclaims the purposes of the Lord over the bones, and they begin to stir.


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Stage 3: So far so good. The dead bones are now bodies. But they’re only zombies. They haven’t got the breath (or ‘spirit’) of life in them. So a third stage is needed, as Ezekiel, again, note, at God’s command, prophesies to the breath/spirit/wind – it’s all the same word – and life enters the bodies.

This story always reminds me of that famous verse from Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ We can build structures, but unless God breathes his Spirit into them, we’re wasting our time. We can do all the right stuff to get our churches to grow, but if the Lord doesn’t sovereignly start revealing his truth to people, what’s the point? We can fast and pray and all the rest through Lent, but if Jesus doesn’t meet us it’s all empty. So much of what we do in the Christian life and in the Church seems only to be half the job, with little in terms of life-bringing or life-changing results. We can’t make God act; we can’t prophesy with our own breath, but we can cry out to God with all that is within us for him to act. In my experience he usually acts on the raw material which we have prepared: he breathes his life into the skeletons we have put together, so this is not an excuse for passivity. But this story does remind us, I believe, of our desperate need for God’s Spirit who alone can bring new life.